What Does it Actually Take to Make Music?
Playing a song on your guitar does NOT encompass the entire ecosystem of processes involved in music making. Yes, you’ve just performed a piece of music, but where did that piece of music come from, and where is it going?
You’ve only performed the music - the music first had to be composed, and then it has to be consumed. Innately understanding this three-step process will greatly level up your understanding of what it takes to be a great musician.
What’s this three step process? We can simply lay it out in sequential order as composing, performing, and listening. Sounds obvious? Well yes, it is. Yet many musicians take for the granted the significance and difference of each step - let’s delve deeper.
Is There A Heirarchy?
Composing might be regarded as the most respectable and valued step in the music making process. A quick look into a history book on classical musical cultures will list who the great composers are - from Bach and Beethoven in Western Classical music to Thyagaraja and Dhiksithar in Carnatic music.
Performers in these genres are much less significant, and if they are, it is for their innovations and creative interpretations - arguably a form of composition in itself. Little is mentioned of performers who performed (even with technical brilliance) solely within the conventions of music in their time without attemping to develop new techniques or styles.
Now then, is the act of composing more important than that of performing?
Well, we can’t so quickly jump to that conclusion. The value placed on composition varies from genre to genre. In pop music, it is commonplace for artists to perform music written by dedicated songwriters, and these ‘performers’ are much more celebrated than the name credited for writing the song. In rock music, on the other hand, it is expected that artists write their own music, as that is what embodies the genre in itself. Rock musicians are celebrated for pouring out their personal lived experiences and emotions into poetry and song.
Then we have genres like jazz, where artists are celebrated for their technical mastery and creative interpretation of an established repertory of jazz standards. We don’t hear much of dedicated jazz composers, and that’s because spontaneous creation, or improvisation, is at the heart of the genre. It is a performance-based tradition!
So we can see that the value placed upon composing and performing differs based on the style of music you play - and you need to be aware of these differences to be a great musician!
How About Listening?
I didn’t forget about the third step in the music-making process - listening! This is an essential component, and one often overlooked - no one ever talks about the listeners of music in a music textbook. Why would you want to study about the audiences of a rock or western classical concert?
But… music is created for people to listen to! With that in mind, perhaps music cannot exist if there is no one to listen to it!
Doesn’t that make listening arguably the most crucial element in music making?
As a musician, you need to embrace the listening process - and I mean active listening! It’s one thing to play music in the background while you shop, and another to carefully tune in to every nuanced emotion articulated in a performace, to every technical and musical device used to execute specifc musical phrases, and to internalise the poetic lyricism of each melodic verse.
Listeners range from casual consumers to professional music critics. As musicians, we need to critique both our own music and those created by fellow artists - and in turn use this critique to inform and develop our own music practice.
Putting It All Into Practice
Are you ready to be a complete musician? Consider the three core steps of composing, performing, and listening, each and every time you create music.
In what ways are you embodying each of those roles, and how can you hone your skills in each of them separately and collectively?
How does the genre of music you play inform the value placed on each of these steps?
These are the questions I need YOU as a musician to think about and answer for yourself. I cannot answer them for you! The more you consider these questions for yourself, the better poised you are to take on your exciting journey of becoming a great musician.
By Neil Chan