Divine download or craft?

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IMPORTANT NOTE: When I use the terms “normal people” and “average people” in this post, that is not in a derogatory way. I am just referring to people who are not musicians or high art lovers.

I had an interesting week last week. I started at a Christian music industry conference and toward the end of the week, found myself at a university conductors clinic.

I learned a ton. I always do when I go to events like that. My tendency is to hide behind my piano and computer and I am ultimately always glad when I force myself to get out more. So yes, I learned a lot but the thing that has me thinking the most this weekend is the contrast between those two events in terms of philosophy and methodology.

The industry conference was about writing and performing Christian popular music–CCM, Southern Gospel, Gospel, etc. I would say that the attendance was probably split 50-50 between writers and performers. There was a writers track of presentations and a performance track. At the moment I am very interested in writing melodies, so I went to a lot of presentations on the writers track.

You guys know me. I am a nerd in the way I learn. I like the technical stuff. I like formulas and specifics. And as I went from one presentation to another in the writers track, I started to get a bit dissatisfied because I just was not getting anything concrete. It was not that the presenters were not good writers; the truth is that they were very good and successful writers. You might not know them by name but you definitely know the songs they have written and the artists they have written for.

One writer gave me a hint of something specific. He said that in the chorus, a melody should have bigger intervals for greater emotional impact. I sat up at that because that is actionable advice and I think he makes a good point. So I asked a question; I asked if he knew of any studies about the emotional impact of various intervals in melodies. And as soon as I did, I felt the energy in the room change; to be honest, I sort of felt like a lot of people in the room resented the question. I will explain why I think they resented it in a second. His gracious response was that he knew of no such study but he was rather going on the emotional impact of those intervals on himself.

Another writer got so specific as to say that a good melody should be “hummable and durable.” I can guess what he means by hummable–within a reasonable range and not overly difficult intervals.  I have no idea what he means by durable though and he didn’t explain himself.  I have a feeling that not one of the people in the room could have explained what a durable melody is in a way that even remotely would be considered concrete. That is not a knock on them–I can’t explain it either.

He did however give a perspective on writing that is sort of key to this. His theory was that all good songs are already written in heaven and if we are fortunate as writers, we have the ability to download one of them from time to time. He mentioned that he started his writing sessions with a prayer that he would “be able to download a good song today.”

Now don’t misunderstand me. In some respects, I agree with that writer though I might not put it the way he does. I accept the fact that writing a good song is sort of a nebulous idea in some ways and I accept the fact that God can give someone a song. But there is something that bugs me about the mindset that anyone can just pray to download a song. What is our responsibility in all that?

On the other hand, as mentioned, I went to a conductors clinic later in the week and listened to a master conductor work with other conductors. I have to say that my eyes were opened considerably. I had no idea of the thought that goes into professional conducting–where every single motion means something. It had never occurred to me why a conductor might raise his hand pattern six inches at one point of a song. Literally every single motion is designed to support the song and the interpretation of the song. I had no idea of the enormous palette of hand motions available to conductors and I was mesmerized.

That being said, the music was classical–beautiful in many respects but not very accessible to normal people. In fact, much of it was sung in foreign languages. That made me pause: there is something a bit disquieting to me about performing music that does not connect with average people.

So here are my thoughts coming out of those events. The music industry is focused on producing music that connects with average people–you hear that over and over. However, I hope I am not being unfair in saying that many people in the industry are a bit surprising in their approach to craft. In fact, remember how I said I felt a negative energy in the room when I asked a technical question? I got the impression that the majority of the room just didn’t want to be bothered with craft. They don’t think they need to–they rely on God to give them songs. And let’s be honest, it works for them sometimes. They do indeed produce some songs that resonate with average people.

The educational side of music is focused on craft–the nitty gritty specific details that make music great. There is much there that I would say is admirable. Frankly, in many ways, I am more at home there myself. In fact, while I was at that event, I was aching to go home and fill out an application to get started on another degree. But on the other hand, I felt myself missing something there too–the focus on reaching average people with music. It is all too easy to live in an ivory tower, focused on details that only a few privileged and enlightened can even understand.

So there is the contrast–one side writes accessible music but is light on craft and the other has excellent craft but is not all that accessible. And that leads me to a few closing thoughts. I admire both sides, but I found myself more than ever wanting to find some middle ground between the two sides. I want to write and produce popular music (music for normal people) that is excellent in tangible ways. While not discounting the role of God in giving music that will speak to normal people, I don’t want to depend on God to dump songs from heaven into my lap without any sweat equity on my part.

For those of you who are musicians, never underestimate the value of a song that comes to you effortlessly one night during a 15-minute shower. God does that. But also stay a student. Never stop learning. Never stop practicing.

Because it all comes down to this. We need divine downloads AND craft.