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Craft 2: Material and Technique

Writing music is like digging clay out of a riverbank so that you can make a pot.  The first draft is a lump of clay. As you begin to shape it, the material suggests things to you. The way it develops takes you down paths you wouldn’t have thought about. The music teaches you. You develop skill with the materials.


A precise understanding of the materials we use to make stuff, and of the techniques we use to make it is necessary for good work to emerge. In music, the materials are pitches, rhythms, timbre, etc. Technique is the ways that you manipulate the material. Having no technique means you wind up doing the same thing over and over again. Actually, that describes having one technique. Having no technique means you can’t do anything.

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I use songwriting to approach the next few posts on craft, but they relate to whatever you’re making.


Craft is that thing you do when you want to make things better; it exists for the sake of clear communication. The clearer the expression, the more effective the piece.


Honesty or clarity

Some artists are more interested in what they think of as the honesty of the first draft. But when you look at your work and consider how and why you make it, it tends to get better. Being self-critical is an act of courage. You usually find out that you’re not as good as you thought you were. When you see that, you either quit, or you get better.


You have to decide if the honesty of the first draft is more important than clarity. Often this honesty is about you, not about producing your best work. These two things don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.


Getting better

Anything that we do can be made better. Craft means looking at what you’ve made and asking how and why it’s been made that way.


For songwriting the question sound like this: Why is that chord on the third beat and not the fourth? Why am I playing this part loud and that part soft? Are there places where I should stop playing? Would a different rhythm work better here? How does the verse relate to the chorus? Should it be different? The same? It’s not that much different for concert music.


As you write, questions arise. Don’t ignore them. Write them down if you don’t have an immediate answer. This is part of the artistic process. This process can be difficult because it makes you feel stupid if you don’t have an answer right away. The answer will come. It just might not come when you expect.


And remember. The process only makes you feel stupid if you believe the lie that before you can be a good musician you have to be talented (as if being a good musician doesn’t take work). This is backwards. Becoming talented takes hard work. And this involves craft, which involves the development of skill.

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 Imagine what you really want to do. Are you doing it? If not, then you’ve experienced resistance. Resistance is that force that tells you that the thing you want to do is:


  • Unrealistic
  • Financially dangerous
  • Not who you are
  • Too hard
  • Something that takes too long
  • Too competitive
  • Stupid


There are more.  Pretty much anything coming from you that keeps you from doing what you want is resistance.


Universal resistance

Everyone experiences resistance. The good news is that it will unfailingly show you the direction to take. The thing that scares you the most is the thing that will allow you to grow the fastest.


Can I do this?

Self-doubt is an indicator of aspiration. If you find yourself questioning whether or not you’re a musician or a writer or whatever, chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.


Just do it

You can’t wait until you want to do it.  If you want to get good at something you need to build a schedule around it (see my post on ritual – When asked about his writing schedule, Somerset Maughm said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at 9 o’clock sharp.” He sat down every morning and got to work, because he knew if he did, things would get done.


So many of us don’t schedule the things that are most important to us. We do them when we feel like it, we don’t improve – or we don’t improve as quickly as we’d like – and we quit.


Check out Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art for more.

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What’s meaningful?

By meaningful, I mean making and sharing. I mean learning – but ideally making – a song and playing it for people.

If the thought of that scares you, it should. It should scare anyone. But it shouldn’t seem impossible, like something that couldn’t possibly happen. If you can do it with a teacher, you can do it with anyone.

You should be able to close your eyes and imagine yourself with a guitar, in front  of a group of people. There you are, playing the guitar and singing. Or maybe someone else is doing the singing.

Maybe it’s a whole band.

And of course thinking this will make you feel nervous. Everybody feels this way. Professional musicians feel this way. Right up until they’re out there doing it. Doing it’s not hard. Thinking about doing it is.

The good news is that there are certain well-defined steps to getting there. It’s not easy, but people do it all the time, and they start from zero. They do it – we all do it -one step at a time.

Not just songwriting

How about making an instrumental piece? Or learning an audio programming language? Or using free software to make electronic compositions? Or using you tablet or phone make and record songs?

You can do all those things, too.


If you just want to play guitar, that’s great. If you want to explore other areas, also great. Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself because of some preconceived idea of who you are or what you’re able to do. Music can be the entryway to a lot of stuff you wouldn’t have thought about.


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Music books make me feel stupid

I’m not sure that I started the right way. I don’t know if there is a right way.

Starting with books isn’t a bad idea. But a lot of books assume a level of knowledge that most people don’t have. And by people, I mean non-musicians. No wonder people don’t think they’re talented enough. Most books tell them implicitly that they’re supposed to know stuff they couldn’t possibly know. Which makes them feel vaguely stupid.

An example:

“Melody, rhythm and harmony are so intertwined in songwriting that it is difficult to discuss one without the other.”

An understandable response from someone who has never had a music lesson might be: “What?! I have to learn all of that together? What’s harmony?” You’re already overwhelmed and you haven’t even got to the end of the paragraph. And the rest of the paragraph just piles on more of the same. You won’t get to the end of the chapter because, as relevant as the material might be, you won’t use it. You won’t know how.

Let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with this book. There are many good things about this book. But someone who know zero about music will go somewhere else. Worse, they’ll quit without ever trying. And chances are the next book (if they do try) will be much the same. And then you just might think that you have no talent because you don’t understand this stuff. As if anyone else in your position does.

That’s when you’ll say, “I could never do that. I’m not musically talented.” And I’ll get angry.

 I don’t want to get angry anymore. So I decided to write this blog. I want people to have an alternative to books that don’t consider the non-musician. I want people to feel like they can do this.


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Music isn’t strange

The talent excuse

Here’s what I’ve learned about music.

It’s easy.

Meaning it’s not mysterious. Meaning it’s not something that only “talented people” can do. Meaning anyone can learn how to do it. Like any other skill. Here’s what jazz trumpeter Art Farmer said about getting good at music: “It has so little to do with talent.”

“Talent” is a word people use to not do something. “I could never do that. I’m not musically talented.” This is another way of saying, “I want to do that, but I don’t want to put the time into learning how.” Fine. It’s ok to say that.  But don’t use the lack-of-talent excuse.

I know artists who get angry when someone says they’re talented. They feel that it ignores all the hours and hours (and hours) of hard work they’ve put in. Worse, it assumes that no work has been done. It assumes that they can just sort of do whatever it is they do.

But the truth? They’ve worked really hard. They weren’t simply in the right place at the right time. They prepared themselves by learning about music, about how to play whatever instrument it is they play. They lived their lives consciously observing the world around them, reading books, talking to people.

Doing these things makes you a better musician. Do them for that reason. Do them because it’s more fun than not doing them.

Anybody can be a musician

Anybody (anybody) can be a musician. Anybody can play an instrument, write songs.  It’s not some strange world inhabited by people channeling a muse of some sort. It’s a craft, and it’s learned through lots of doing. Sometimes, through all this craftiness, art happens. It usually doesn’t. So what do you do? You try again.

And please understand that when I say “lots of doing” I don’t mean you have to practice 8 hours a day or make a career out of this. I mean that you have to pick up your instrument every day. For 15 minutes. That’s it.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. You have to ritualize it, make it sacrosanct, create a special time every day that can’t be disturbed. And you have to overcome resistance.

I’ll have things to say about both of these things.

I want you to be able to play the guitar, to write songs, or to just make stuff with sound if that’s what you want to do. It’s not all about playing an instrument. Maybe you’re acloset  sound installation artist.

If you’ve never picked up a guitar before, if you don’t know what a guitar is, if you don’t know the first thing about music, if you sing out of tune, I don’t care. You can be a musician. You can learn to write songs. You can do whatever you want.

And if you want to do it, all you have to do is start.

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