When I was 17, I ordered a copy of Beethoven’s Complete String Quartets from Amazon. Amazon was pretty new back then, and I remember opening the packaging and pulling out this thick blue book and thinking how cool it was to own a big chunk of history. It was the first time I’d owned any sheet music to study it, and not because I wanted to play it myself.
I picked the first movement of one of the quartets, Opus 135, from right at the end of Beethoven’s life, as the subject of my university application essay. So I just started taking it apart, using everything I knew about harmony, melody and structure to try and understand how Beethoven’s mind worked and what made this particular string quartet tick. Every time something came to me, I wrote it on the score until the entire thing was covered in lines, circles and scribbled observations. (I was an intense seventeen-year-old, I know.)
I knew probably 10% of what I know about music back then, but it did the trick: it helped me get accepted to study music somewhere really cool. And honestly, I learned a lot of the other 90% I have now by doing this over and over again throughout the past decade. My observations these days are usually more mental than written, and since then I’ve studied everything from Brahms to Bernstein to the Beatles to Clean Bandit. But early on, I realized that that’s a big part of learning to write: studying what already exists and figuring out what it can teach you.
As I say in my book, The Art of Songwriting, one of the great things about learning to be a songwriter is that you have access to all the amazing teachers you could ever want. Their lessons are in their sleeve notes, in their interviews on YouTube, in their conversations with Rolling Stone – but most of all in what they wrote. And all you’ve got to do to learn those lessons is go hunting for them.
But I get it. Not everyone is into Beethoven these days.
In fact, there’s this view right now that if it’s not fresh and bang up-to-date, it’s not worth your attention. I’m not just talking about songwriting – this goes for virtually everything in this clickbaity world we’ve found ourselves in. Struggling bloggers and self-doubting entrepreneurs try have learned they can get your attention – at least temporarily – with headlines like ‘__________ is Dead!’, ‘BREAKING: Exclusive Report Reveals How You Can ___________ Better Than Ever’ or even just ‘Everything You Know About __________ Is Wrong’.
But 99% of this neophilia is just hot air. The internet might make it seem like we’re at some inevitable historical crossroads, but it’s not as simple as that. In fact, most of the inventions that make the biggest difference to your life day in, day out, have been around for decades – plastic, the jet engine – or centuries – electricity, indoor plumbing – or even millennia – metal working, farming, the wheel.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve improved and developed these ideas over the years. But it’s tempting – especially right at this moment in history – to forget how much we’re just using old ideas to do new things.
And this is true in songwriting too. Sure, we have Logic Pro X, iPhones to record samples wherever we go, and YouTube to put what we make in front of millions of people. But C major is still C, E and G. A good structure still balances unity and variety. And two words that rhymed in Shakespeare’s time still rhyme in our time.
And as a songwriter, you should understand how all of these things work.
That is, yes, you should know what Clean Bandit and Ed Sheeran and Adele and Mark Ronson are up to at the moment. But you should also know what the Beatles were up to, what the Gershwins were up to, what Queen were up to, and what Oasis were up to. And if you’re inclined to go back to Beethoven, Brahms or Bartók, then by all means do that as well.
The simple truth about being an artist is that the more art you know, the more ideas you have to choose from, and the better art you’ll be able to make.
There are lessons Beethoven can teach you that Justin Bieber can’t. Just as there are lessons that Justin Bieber can teach you that Beethoven can’t. And you should try and learn all of them. Whether that means finding sheet music and lyric sheets to study or just listening to their music over and over to see what that can teach you.
Sure, you can listen only to what’s hot right now. But then you’ll only be able to copy what’s hot right now – which means by the time you’ve created it and got it out into the world, it probably won’t be hot any more.
Or you can try the harder path – understanding your art form inside out, back to front, in depth as well as breadth. Then you’ll know what’s been as well as what’s happening right now, and chances are, you’ll be able to use that create what’s hot in the future. You’ll have the edge on writers who never venture beyond the Billboard Top 100. You’ll understand the classics enough to make classics of your own.
Our world right now might seem shiny and new. But it’s worth finding out how we got here too. You might be surprised what you discover.