finding value in music you hate
3 ways to use music you dislike to improve your songwriting
We live in a culture steeped in musical elitism. When exposed to music that isn’t to our liking, we’re quick to complain about the musicians being bad, their fans being simpletons, kids these days not knowing what “real music” is, et cetera, et cetera… We call musicians we don’t like hacks, or sellouts, or posers -- but let’s view all of that for what it is; a way to dismiss someone’s art and justify ourselves in ignoring it.
I’m writing this article to convince you that those casual dismissals of music are robbing you of a chance for valuable introspection, that could be a tool to refine your own music, or to find new listeners in different audiences that you normally wouldn’t relate with. You will have times that you have to listen to music you don’t like - and when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s playlist, go through these points in your head and turn that experience into something productive.
1. understanding what you don't like can help define your musical tastes
The impetus for this article came from a high school guitar assignment: simply to listen to a few albums by my least favorite artist, and try to articulate exactly why they were my least favorite artist. As a 16 year old metal-head, I was excited to create a laundry list of reasons to bag on pop stars, so I got to work. The lists I came up with had things like;
- all of these songs are in 4/4
- all of the songs on this album are at a very similar BPM
- featured artists seemed to be dropped in randomly and their lyrics would be on completely different themes than the rest of the songs
- song themes focused on things like club culture and relationships, which weren’t particularly interesting to us
The exercise then just asks you to turn that list on its head.. The inverted list could be:
Explore different time signatures
Have variance of tempos throughout an album
Focus on lyrical consistency through a song
Write on themes we want our listeners to relate to
I would go into writing sessions and use my inverted lists as goals to explore when writing, things to keep myself or my band on track, or to mix things up if we hit writer’s block.
A side-effect of this exercise was that I started discovering things that I did like about some of my least favorite music. When looking at these songs with the goal of musical analysis, some things seemed to have more musical merit than I previously thought. The pop music that I as a metal-head thought was so far beneath me actually had loads to teach about hook writing, clean production, synth design and arrangement, and so much more.
Looking at any music through an analytical lense can be a source of inspiration, and sometimes finding music contrary to our tastes can be a better way to expose our preferences than just bathing ourselves in our favorite (comfortable) music.
Ask yourself, "what specifically about this don't i like?"
2. music we don't like can be turned into an exercise to inspire your creativity
While the previous point is great for creating a list of larger guidelines to write within, you can also take songs that you dislike and turn them into specific writing tasks. Songwriters will frequently use these exercises just to break out of writer’s block. When you can write about anything, sometimes the fear of the blank canvas can set in and you just end up writing nothing - which is the worst possible outcome for an aspiring songwriter. This is a great way to get practicing your revision skills. Take a song that you dislike and see what you need to change to turn it into something you do like. Typically I think of this exercise with lyrics, however you can do it with chord reharmonization, rewriting the melody, rearranging it into different instruments, changing the speed - anything you want. Hack it to bits and glue it back together, think of it as a musical collage.
I encourage people to do this with songs they don’t like because songwriters frequently are their own worst critics - they don’t like their own songs, then because they don’t like them, they never revise them and they stay “bad” forever. Being good at revision is one of the single most important skills that separates average songwriters from great songwriters and it is most certainly something that can be practiced.
For the ultimate challenge, see how few changes you can make to a song to make it enjoyable. If you can add one line to a lyrically weak song, and change the implication of the rest of the lyrics into something entirely different, then you’re mastering this exercise.
ask yourself, "How would I have written this song differently?"
3. understanding other target audiences can help you reach those audiences
Not all music is made for you. I’m gonna repeat that - not all music is made for you. When writing, artists are considering who their listener will be and what will they enjoy. Some music is made for kids, some music is made for preteens, some music caters to people in certain regions, of certain backgrounds, of certain political leanings or social classes. If you do not fall into an artist’s target audience, and subsequently you don’t like their music, that is not their failing as an artist. We don’t see people stomping around proclaiming, “Raffi is a hack, wow I can’t believe anyone listens to this garbage” because that would be absurd (also Raffi is The Man) - that music is specifically for young kids. Similarly, if you don’t speak Spanish or know about Latin musical culture, you likely aren’t the target audience for mariachi or reggaeton - or if you’re a suburban parent you likely aren’t the target audience for rap or metal music. The amount of adults I see criticizing artists that are clearly writing for different demographics is frankly silly.
If you’re a songwriter looking to expand your fan base, thinking about what specific demographics enjoy in music may help you reach into different musical cultures and find listeners. Say you’re writing rock music in an area that has a large rap scene. Even if you’re not a fan of rap, you can definitely find some elements of the genre to adapt. Go deep: what does rap offer to its fans that rock music might not? Make a list of traits of rap that excite the audience:
Lyrics with emphasis on wordplay
Lyrics that reference to other prominent musicians and songs
808 drums, trap hats, layered claps, etc..
Obviously you can make this list as long as you want, but once you have a few options, see which may be viable to try in your own songwriting. Maybe you’re not going to delve into rapped lyrics, but experiment with more wordplay. Maybe try to integrate a drum machine with a hip-hop inspired pattern. Keep retooling it until you find the balance between artistic integrity, maintaining inspiration, and reaching that new audience.
Hopefully in making this list of elements that define these genres, you can also parce out which specific traits turn you off from that type of music. Even if I’m not a fan of screamed vocals, by totally disregarding metal I’m missing out on all of the other elements of that genre that could be potentially inspiring.
ask yourself, "Who is this music for, and why do they enjoy it?"
Above all - stay open minded. Musicians should be looking for inspiration everywhere possible, and that can absolutely be from unexpected genres and artists. Fight our natural impulse for musical elitism. People have a multitude of preferences that are different than yours - and that’s a good thing, embrace it.