Why is it so hard to create music?
I’m not talking about writing a song. If you’ve never written music before, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: writing songs isn’t actually that difficult. In fact, once you’re familiar with the basics, it’s laughably easy. There are certain rules and structures that have been refined over thousands of years of popular, classical, art and folk music that allow us to produce a functional song within an hour. All you have to do is follow the formula, add a dash of creativity and you’re done.
Writing a song isn’t difficult, yet songwriters will sit with their instrument of choice and try countless variations, rejecting them all before throwing their hands up in despair and deciding they are completely worthless.
My friend Craig has a talent for making a song sound ‘natural’ that borders on the paranormal. Where my compositions often resemble a series of sections that fit together, his move organically. It sounds confident, never forced. His worst work would be an album track or a b-side rather than an outright failure, but it lacks a central theme, a passion to draw on. Joe of Washington Irving has, in my opinion, a knack for writing melodies that has me tearing my hair out in jealousy, but often seems unsure of where to go next – how to transform a wondrous tune and an emotion into a complete experience. For myself, I feel my talent lies in arrangement, probably as a result of the years I spent as a bassist and backing vocalist. It behooved me to improve others’ work with small contributions and details. I work myopically, to the extent that individual parts sound good, but when I listen to the whole, I am profoundly unsatisfied.
So what’s the deal? The above is merely my opinion, but I do know for certain that all three of us (and pretty much every other songwriter I have ever known) have the exact same problem: that we possess the skill to write a complete piece of music, but constantly find ourselves at a loss. There are many possibilities but none of them seem appropriate. We know where the fish rise, but they do not bite.
I’m not a religious person, but I wonder if there are parallels between knowing God (in a modern, monotheistic sense) and creating music. You’re trying to capture something that doesn’t exist in what we would call ‘reality’. You can’t prove to another that you have a song or a sound or a feeling inside you that is beautiful any more than you can ‘prove’ God exists. You feel it to be the absolute truth, but mere reasoning will not convince. All you can do is attempt to communicate that beauty using what tools we have, whether it be the word, the note or the paintstroke. Occasionally, these tools (or your ability to use them) fail you. You are no longer certain that the music exists within you, or that you are able to create it. All you are left with is the faith that what you once felt is always true.
Certainly, religion and music are so intertwined that it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that neither of them would be what they are today without the influence of the other (though the Calvinists, true to form, banned “popish polyphony”). From Gregorian chant in the cathedrals of Europe in the Middle Ages to the whirling dervish of Sufi, Renaissance art, the songs we sang in Sunday School, the trance-like repetition of African rhythms that express themselves today in hip-hop which follow on from the funk and R&B of the 50s to the 70s (which themselves followed directly from folk, blues and gospel of the black community in the religious South)… the list is endless, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence, though the two are not always in perfect harmony. Consider the poem by Michelangelo:
The course of my life has come,
by fragile ship through stormy seas,
to the common port, where one calls
to give account of all our evil and pious deeds.
Whence the fond fantasy,
which made Art my idol and monarch,
I now know to have been a cargo of error,
and see what every man desires to his own harm.
Those thoughts of love, once light and gay,
what of them if now two deaths beset me?
I know the certainty of one, whilst the other oppresses.
Nor painting nor sculpture brings real repose;
my soul turns to that love divine
which, to enfold us, opens its arms on the cross.
It’s a lifelong thing, an ideal rather than a goal. We cannot express ourselves truly, we are always limited, but we can aim for it. We cannot be Christ, but we can emulate him.
What, then, is the solution? The short answer is that there is none. We are trying to make rational that which is irrational, to create a reality out of that which does not exist outside of our own emotions, and to communicate that which is incommunicable. I think, however, that it’s helpful to be aware of these problems, to remind ourselves that the fault lies not necessarily with ourselves, but with the act of creating music that we hold dear.
The struggle to create meaningful music is the entire point. The songs are merely the audible result of that struggle.