Does a Songwriter Need to Know Music History?Sep 04, 2021
If you’re a songwriter, you’ve probably had someone just assume you know a specific song by a specific artist because, well, “you’re a musician!”
For me: #Triggered.
As much as I love faulty gatekeeping, this ticks me off.
Spoiler alert: I would say the answer to whether or not a songwriter needs to know music history is a resounding no.
You are Your Own Artist
The simplest of reasons, but still important.
You are your own artist. If you sound nothing like the Beatles, knowing some random song they wrote 50 years ago doesn’t have anything to do with your writing ability.
There is even a danger here. Which is that the world needs more first-rate new artists, not second-rate copies of past artists.
If you spend time diving so deep into Metallica or Nirvana and end up sounding like Nirvana 2.0, no one will care. Or, perhaps worse, they will care and hate you for being a second-rate copy of an artist they love.
Go be you. The sound you craft from all your different influences combined with your style and value judgments is what makes you special.
Not knowing some random Beatles song.
You Don’t Need to Know Your Entire Influence Tree
Let me explain what I mean by an influence tree.
For coaching in sports, there is something called a “coaching tree”.
If a head coach has 2 assistant coaches, the 2 assistants are likely influenced by how the head coach did things, and likely have very similar strategic values as they were part of the same team.
So when they become head coaches, they are a part of the head coach’s coaching tree. When their assistants eventually become head coaches themselves, they are also part of the original head coach’s coaching tree, as he influenced those who influenced these new head coaches.
So an influence tree, like the coaching tree, is basically like a “family tree” of influences.
Let me share with you a piece of what my “influence tree” looks like.
My favorite band, and one of my biggest influences, is Vertical Horizon. So I am a part of their influence tree. They are influenced by the band Rush, so I also am in their influence tree.
I don’t listen to rush, and am personally not a huge fan. But I’m still a part of their influence tree, because they influenced who influenced me.
I’m also in Breaking Benjamin’s influence tree. They claim Nirvana and Tool as their main influences, so I’m also in their influence tree. Neither influence me directly, as I don’t know much about Tool and, while I enjoy some Nirvana, they aren’t an artist I listen to enough to really be influenced.
Now, I’ve been told multiple times how I need to know bands like Metallica, Nirvana, and the Beatles, because they were important to the history of different styles that I fit into.
Here’s the thing.
Sometimes even a direct influence is hard to hear in a musician. I’m sure you can hear the Vertical Horizon, Five for Fighting, and Goo Goo Dolls influence in most of my stuff. But I was also heavily influenced by John Denver. I know and understand how he influenced me melodically and lyrically, but no one would pick up on that. I don’t sound anything like John Denver.
Going back 2 generations? Some of my rock stuff has clear influences from the likes of Vertical Horizon and Breaking Benjamin, but I don’t think anyone would say my music sounds like Rush or even Nirvana.
Imagine going back the 5+ generations to the Beatles? They are so far from me in the influence tree, that studying them as an influence would be like worrying that you’re great great grandfather allegedly murdered someone. You’re so far away in the gene pool that you probably aren’t a murderer waiting to happen.
I’m not saying you should write in a vacuum. What I am saying is that you don’t need to know all about past popular music to write great songs. You don’t even need that to write popular songs.
I do think influences are important, but I don’t think we all should be forced to be influenced by the same artists. Chances are, you are influenced by other popular artists, so you clearly have successful influences. So why do you need to be influenced by the most popular artists of all time? It’s not like they are necessarily better than any other artist.
Embrace your influences, don’t let anyone force new influences upon you (or force you to spend time studying artists you don’t like or care about), and be unapologetically you with your music.
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