Life

May Update

Friends, readers, anyone who stumbles on my blog, here’s a brief update:

  • I have new music that I’d love to share with you. My upcoming album Meteorite is a cornucopia of musical ideas that have captivated me for the past five years. I’ve packed with riches in the hope that I might find inspiration in it for the rest of my life. Perhaps these ideas could excite, challenge, or please your ear as well? You can hear the first track and preorder the album here. It will release this summer and I will post again here when the date is finalized.
  • I’ve started publishing guitar improvisation videos. In March and April I posted improvisations to YouTube on a daily basis. The breakthrough was finding a way to transform the material from the experimentation that I’ve been doing on guitar for as long as I can remember into “short stories” that I can conceive and record in under a day, sharing them as little pieces with a beginning, middle, and end. You can follow my channel here. I hope you will, and I hope you find something there that inspires you as a listener, a creator, or both.
  • In March and April I participated in an online writing challenge/course called Ship30, where I wrote a 300-word essay each day for 30 days. All my essays were published on Twitter. I’ll be getting that material up here on my blog in due time, but for now the best way to check it out is follow me on Twitter and look at my history there. Here’s a summary of the writing theme I’ve been pursuing:
    • Many of us are drawn to music and other arts because they bring us joy. We seek fulfillment through creative expression. But the more serious we get as creators, the more pitfalls we encounter. Greater aspirations bring stress, confusion, blockage, and disillusionment. How can we pursue creativity in a way that actually delivers the fulfillment we seek? If art can help us learn about ourselves, connect with others, and experience the infinite or the divine, how can we realize those possibilities, growing as individuals by making art, building community by making art, connecting with “God” by making art? What ideas, practices, and tools can help us stay on track to growing more whole through our creative endeavors?
Guitar, Improvisation

How To Improvise With A Detuned String

There are many ways to incorporate a detuned string into an improvisation. You might want to try this if you’re interested in making sounds that you’ve never heard before. Here’s one improvisation template or schema that worked for me this morning. If you play guitar or another string instrument, you can apply this template too. It goes like this:

  1. Use palm muting to play a punchy rhythmic phrase that’s comfortably anchored to a tonic.
  2. As you keep playing, make a transition from palm muting to a clear, sustained tone, using nail. Let some of the open strings ring after you strike them, to create a background resonance. Slow down.
  3. End the gesture by striking a detuned string and letting it ring, stealing focus. You’ll need to have detuned one of your strings to do this part! You should generally avoid the detuned string in the previous steps so that it comes as a surprise here and captures all of the listener’s attention.
  4. Now use your right hand fingers to gently and slowly mute the open strings at the bridge (possibly skipping the detuned string) to create a gradual fade out. Practice doing this as slowly and gently as you possibly can.
  5. Keep repeating Steps 1 through 4 until you feel ready to stop.

Here’s how you can make your improvisation different from mine while still using the same template:

  1. Use a different instrument.
  2. Use a different tuning and detuning. I’m E A D G C E-half-sharp.
  3. Choose a different string to detune. I chose the highest string.
  4. Use a different muting technique.
  5. Use different rhythms and melodic motifs.
  6. Be a different person 🙂
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Criticism

Beauty is an experience, not a thing

The composer and podcaster Samuel Andreyev recently posted a video asking whether avant-garde music can be beautiful. In answering yes, he claims that “The category of the beautiful is incredibly elastic and unstable.”

I agree that beauty is elastic. And there’s a reason why it’s elastic. That’s because beauty is an experience, not a thing, and our experiences are partially created by our expectations.

We find beauty where we expect it to be. Some people who expect to find beauty in avant-garde music might not expect to find it in a pop song; and some who expect to find it in a pop song might not expect to find it in avant-garde music. These expectations are self-fulfilling. They set us on different pathways of perception.

I don’t meant to say that expectation alone creates beauty — there’s more to it than that. But expectation plays a bigger role than we often assume.

Every person should ask: Am I sometimes finding beauty in places where I didn’t expect to find it before? If the answer is yes, your fortune is good. If the answer is no, that’s an indication that you might be missing out on… unknown beauty.

There’s a second point that’s important though, particularly when it comes to avant-garde music, however one defines “avant-garde.” Just because something is complex, confusing, and unfamiliar doesn’t mean that it is necessarily profound beyond your comprehension and that you are merely failing to appreciate its greatness. It’s pretty easy for an artist to generate things that are complex, confusing, and unfamiliar. Not all such products reward our attention and faith — some are just bad.

I used the word “bad,” but how can I do that if I’m arguing that beauty is elastic? How can I do that if I believe that beauty is an experience shaped by expectation?

For me, being an active listener involves a tension between keeping an open mind and ear, and being honest about how something actually makes me feel. Let me emphasize the word tension. You can only grow by opening yourself to new possibilities. But at some point, after you’ve worked to learn more about a piece, to understand its particular aims and techniques, you have to return to your own experience: are you moved? Or not?

If we never allow ourselves to draw the conclusion that a piece is bad, always trusting that there must be something in a bewildering piece that we just haven’t understood yet, we’re not being authentic. As much as we try to keep an open mind, conclusions are inevitable: there are some albums we reach for, and some that stay on the shelf. There are some paintings we hang on our wall, and some we skip over when when we see them in a museum.

If conclusions are inevitable, the important question is what do we do with our conclusions? I’ll argue that positive and negative conclusions should be treated differently.

If we draw a negative conclusion — if we decide we don’t like something — we should question the conclusion every once in a while. Give the piece another chance. There’s no value in broadcasting a negative conclusion to the world, because all that might happen is that we discourage someone else from exploring a work of art that they might have the potential to appreciate, even though we don’t.

But if we draw a positive conclusion, we should trust it. If we decide we really like something, we should tell everyone.

See also: Art And Weed.

Audience Building, Music, Personal Development

What can I learn about myself from a video?

Can video be a tool for self-discovery? If you make short videos with your phone, capturing little slices of your life, what can you learn?

I decided to put my camera in selfie mode while I was doing one of the things that’s most important to me in my life: listening to music. What does it look like when I do that, and what can I learn from seeing it?

Here is me listening to my piece, Garnet:

And here is me listening to my piece Birdsong:

What are my takeaways?

  1. Music makes me really happy. I already knew that. But these videos make me think about how I typically project (or don’t project) my experience of music to the outside world. When I write about music, I’m often concerned with communicating technical details, and all the theory can seem pretty dry and serious, I bet. And when a friend asks me what I’ve been up to and I say I’ve been struggling to finish a composition, perhaps it’s not evident to them how much I actually delight in that struggle. These videos give a direct look at how music actually makes me feel, and I’m not sure most people in my life have had a glimpse of that before. This get me thinking that as I move forward in life, I’d like to do more to convey my pleasure in music rather than keeping that pleasure inside.
  2. The ultimate way to experience a piece of music, for me, is to gesture as I listen. I’ve been doing this for my whole life, but only when I’m alone. This kind of gesturing is not conducting, where you’re guiding a performance using specific motions to convey your intentions. It’s also not dancing as we might typically think of dancing. You can do it sitting down, with your upper body alone. You just move spontaneously in response to what you hear, to imitate or interpret it, to express your excitement in it, to release the energy that it gives you. You don’t have to get anything “right” or keep accurate time — you can do whatever you want! Spontaneous gesturing is such an important part of experiencing music for me that I’m amazed by how little attention it gets when we talk about music appreciation, especially when it comes to classical music. If you want to get to know a piece of music, especially classical music, move to it, any way you want!
  3. When I think about sharing these videos, I realize I’m grappling with some perfectionism. I find myself asking: are these videos the best they can be, or should I make some more and see if I can do better (gesture more fluently, coordinate better with the music, improve the lighting and overall presentation)? As the composer of the music, I feel some reluctance to show myself getting “fooled” by one of the pieces — Garnet — thinking that it’s going to end a few moments before it actually does, even though that trickery is an explicit intention in the composition. The piece is working on me exactly as it should. But do I need to justify that? Sharing videos that aren’t perfect is a good exercise in personal growth, if one is looking to become less guarded and more accepting.
Audience Building, Social Media

Social Media and Me: An Update

Me: I’m an introvert who wants to reach out more. I’d like to make it a higher priority in my life to connect with fellow creators, to share my own music and art more publicly, to be part of a community, to build an audience.

Me: How do I that? Social media, maybe? I left Facebook in 2019 but I’m still on Twitter. Let me go to Twitter and see what’s happening.

Twitter: Here are some amazing people you should get to know, Rudi.

Me: Wow, great…

Twitter: And here’s an endless stream of devastating news about the worst things happening in the world, the depths of human cruelty and ignorance: senseless and brutal wars, ongoing genocide, the abuse of refugees, the destruction of ecosystems, the rise of authoritarianism, the threat of climate catastrophe, the specter of nuclear annihilation. You might want to follow this, Rudi, it’s IMPORTANT and it’s URGENT.

Me:

Twitter: And here are some cat videos and advertisements for you, Rudi.

Me: ….

Twitter: And here are some alerts and notifications for you, Rudi.

Me:

Twitter: And by the way we’re tracking absolutely everything you do and say here, Rudi.

Me:

Twitter: And here’s your next dose in the endless stream of devastating news about the worst things happening in the world, the depths of human cruelty and ignorance: senseless wars, ongoing genocide, the abuse of refugees, the destruction of ecosystems, the rise of authoritarianism, the threat of climate catastrophe, the specter of nuclear annihilation. You might want to follow this, Rudi, it’s IMPORTANT and it’s URGENT.

Me:

Question: Is it possible to use social media with intention and personal agency, without becoming overwhelmed, paralyzed, and addicted? Or is it best to log off?

Music

Help me spend $1000 on independent musicians

Resolution: I’m going to spend $1000 buying albums made by independent musicians.

There’s been a lot of talk about the injustices of the streaming economy, and a lot of hand-wringing about Spotify recently, but if every listener committed to investing a non-trivial amount of money on independent artists and albums each year, the whole world of music-making would be better off. Back in the CD era, I used to spend all my spare cash on albums, why not now?

The twist in this project is that I’d like to build my new record collection from your suggestions. Instead of collecting music the way I did in the past, carefully selecting what I thought would please my very particular taste, I’d like to listen to whatever my network suggests I listen to. That means friends, acquaintances, readers, you.

I’ll do my best to promote each album I buy by favorably reviewing it in person, on Twitter, through this blog, and possibly elsewhere. And while this project lasts, I’ll be listening to my new purchases exclusively, staying away from any “free” content online and any music I had collected in the past.

To anyone who knows of an interesting new album created by an independent musician, tell me about it in a comment here on this blog post, or contact me on Twitter, and I will strongly consider it for purchase. Artists, please don’t be shy about suggesting your own work — I do want to hear from you directly. Wondering what kind of music I like? Read below…

FAQ:

What’s the timeframe?

I’m planning on a six-month timeframe, officially starting March 2022 and ending Aug 2022, though I’ve already bought three albums earlier in 2022 that I’ll be including in the project. I want to have time to get to know each album I buy, so I’d like to cap my purchasing at five albums per week and have it be lower than that most weeks.

How are you tracking your purchases?

I’ll be recording them in this spreadsheet.

What styles of music are you looking for?

I’m hoping for a mix of classical, folk, singer/songwriter, jazz, and world music. I’m also hoping to broaden my horizons and get to know new styles that I wouldn’t typically seek out.

How picky are you?

I’m interested in hearing any albums that were labors of love for their creators, whether the album was made in a bathroom or a professional studio, by a novice singer/songwriter who only plays three chords or by a virtuoso classical musician. In any case where I don’t immediately connect with the music itself, I will try to learn more about the performer and their story of creating the album, and as long as there’s passion and commitment in the story, I will feel happy to have made the investment and included them in this project.

Why are you doing this?

I’m planning to release an album myself (90 minutes of intricate counterpoint performed on clavichord) but I don’t currently have a sizeable audience to release it to. In thinking about how to build an audience for my own work, I began thinking about what I’d love other people to do for me: I’d love them to “tune in” to what I’m trying to achieve, buy my music, take the time to listen to it closely, and tell others about it. This raises the question: am I doing that same thing for other musicians? The answer is: so far no, not really. I’ve been consuming a lot of “free” music online but not buying or promoting many albums or artists. But that “no” leads to a further question: would I like to do it for other musicians? Would I feel excited and proud to support other creators who are taking the bold step of bringing new music into this world? And here the answer is most definitely yes! So I’ve set myself a goal: spend $1000 on independent music and try my best to promote it. Why not do this?

What do you mean by only giving favorable reviews?

I’m of the opinion that if I don’t enjoy a piece of music, this might mean that I’m not the best person to appreciate and comment on it. I might not understand the work, or the work might not be crafted for ears that function like mine. In such a case, describing my lack of pleasure in the work provides no value to anyone. But if I do enjoy a piece of music, this definitely means that I’m a good person to comment on it. And it puts me in a position to provide value to another listener who doesn’t yet know about the work but stands to enjoy it. I want to provide value where I can and stay out of the picture where I can’t. Generally, I will try to buy albums that I think I have a good chance of coming to love; if there are few that I don’t learn to love, I might not say much about them, but I’ll try to keep listening.

What formats will you be purchasing?

I’m generally looking to purchase digital downloads of albums. If a particular album is available only on CD, I’ll still consider it. I’m not currently set up to play vinyl. I’m not looking for streaming offerings. And while I love Patreon, I’m not currently looking to become a Patreon supporter of each artist I listen to. I’m really just hoping to be able to buy an album and download it as WAV, FLAC, MP3, whatever. Best-case scenario is the artist/album is on Bandcamp.

Will you be tipping?

I’m going to keep my purchasing decisions as simple and frictionless as possible by paying the base price that artists request for their album, hoping that artists have set a reasonable base price that does justice to their work.

If I’m a musician and you haven’t bought my album yet, does that mean you don’t want to?

I’m connected to a number of wonderful musicians I haven’t purchased from yet. That’s not because I don’t want to — I do! I’m just getting started with this project and might need a reminder or nudge.

If I’m a musician and you’ve bought my album, how can I help you promote it?

Funny you should ask. What you can do is make sure I know or can find your story of creating the album and your larger story of coming to make music. What obstacles did you overcome to bring this album into the world? What does the album mean to you? When I’m recommending a piece of music, it’s very hard for me to speak engagingly about the technical details of the music. But it’s easy for me to speak engagingly about the artist’s story… if I know it. Tell me.

March 10 Update: I was interviewed by Kevin Alexander for his substack “On Repeat,” just published this morning. I have just received a slew of great recommendations today! I’ve spent $93.44 of the budget so far. Taking stock of the project overall: I’m doing very well in discovering great music. Word is starting to spread. Am sensing that folks who hear about this are curious and want to support it. My challenges so far: creating enough uninterrupted time for listening; also, breaking my old habit of just privately enjoying something — being sure to tell someone else about it!

Creativity, Music

How to organize the tracks in your album

Are you a musician planning to release an album but struggling to put your tracks into a coherent sequence? Are you planning a live concert but feeling unsure how to organize the program? Here are some tips that might help.

These tips come from my own experience as I put together an album of new music I’ve composed over the past five years. I’ve got 35 tracks with a playing time of 93 minutes. My mastering engineer requires a track order before he’ll begin work on the project. Each track needs to have a number — 1, 2, 3, 4… — and the engineer needs the tracks ASAP. Here’s why the problem is impossible:

  • There are too many options. If you have 35 items like I do, the number of ways you can organize them is 10,333,147,966,386,144,929,666,651,337,523,200,000,000.
  • Each option is time-consuming to evaluate. Listening to the material in any particular order takes a 93-minute investment which is emotionally exhausting.
  • My reactions change each time I listen. I might like a certain transition between two tracks the first time I hear it and not like it the second time.
  • If I listen to a certain order too many times, I start to memorize it. Then it’s hard to tell whether I like it because it’s effective or just because it’s familiar. Familiarity is confounding.
  • I’ve dedicated years of my life to creating this material, so the stakes are high. A bad order means that my tracks will compete with each other rather than elevating each other. Some pieces will not have a context in which they can shine.
  • Each piece was conceived on its own, without thought to how it might fit in a sequence. The pieces all have different styles and moods. I had no plan for how they were supposed to fit together.

But as I write this post, I’m in good shape. My track order is mostly finalized and I’m ready to send it to my mastering engineer next week. An impossible problem became possible for me, thanks to these ideas:

  1. Think of a story that you want to convey with the tracks. I’m grateful to @alexgardner for offering this suggestion when I reached out for help on Twitter. At first, I thought that my tracks were so heterogeneous that they couldn’t fit into any unified narrative. What I realized is that the narrative doesn’t have to be evident to the listener. It can be a “secret” story — one that’s known only to me — one whose only purpose is to help me wrap my mind around the problem.
  2. Make a list of track attributes. I’m grateful to @gahlord for this suggestion, also via Twitter. I created a spreadsheet listing the starting and ending note of each track and a brief description indicating bright/dark, fast/slow, and long/short.
  3. Decide on a goal for the ordering. In my case, the goal is to sustain a sense of variety throughout the album so that each track can be experienced fresh. I decided that variety and contrast are more important to me than grouping tracks by theme or emphasizing similarities between them. My desired shape is “fractal” rather than “linear.”
  4. Pick a middle piece — one to go right in the center of the album. Then go through each of the remaining pieces and ask if it should come before your middle piece, or after your middle piece. This lets you break the problem in half.
  5. Next, choose your first and last pieces. Now you’ve got: Opening -> Middle -> Ending.
  6. Next, distribute your biggest pieces. What are the longest, densest, or most important pieces remaining? Pick the top two and put one in each half of the album. Now you’ve got Opening -> Big Piece #1 -> Middle -> Big Piece #2 -> Ending.
  7. Try to make contrasting pairs — two tracks that are very different, but that also sound good together and flow well, one into the next.
  8. Now try to identify twins — two tracks that are very similar. Experiment with placing twins before and after a contrasting pair, as if to form a ring around it. So if A and B are a contrasting pair, while X and Y are twins, you’d have something like X -> A -> B -> Y.
  9. Make a provisional commitment. Choose an order as quickly as you can, and then rename all your tracks according to that order, using filenames like 01_MySong, 02_MyOtherSong, 03_MyOtherOtherSong. This gives you a reference point to measure future changes against.
  10. Now see if you can improve your provisional order by swapping pieces, so for example, the piece in slot 5 and the piece in slot 11 might trade places.
  11. Make short clips out of all your pieces. Each clip should consist of the opening 3 seconds plus the closing 3 seconds of the piece. Once you’ve made these clips, you can put them in any order you’re considering and listen to the whole playlist in a minute or two. This is a way to quickly preview an order without having to listen to all the material over again.
  12. Once you’ve arrived at an order you feel good about, review each track and use your intuition to determine whether the track is “happy” in its current position. Does the track get along with its neighbors? Does it sound better in their company than it would sound all by itself? If you find any tracks that aren’t “happy” move those ones, but leave everything else where it is.

These ideas worked for me — maybe they’ll work for you too?

Creativity, Personal Development

Why would you seek an audience?

If you’re an artist who makes things to please your own eye or your own ear, why would you seek an audience? If you create a piece of art for the satisfaction it brings you, and if that satisfaction is experienced by you, hasn’t the art’s purpose then been fulfilled? Assuming it’s hard work to cultivate a following for your art, why would you invest in that?

My need to answer this question is pressing. I’m a musician gearing up to release new work this year. I’ve sworn that I won’t let my music go into a void, not this time. But my energy fades whenever I think of self-promotion. I’m an introvert. Marketing has never been my thing. I hope that knowing my reasons for wanting more listeners will help me stay motivated to connect with them. If you’re an artist facing a similar question, I hope you might gain something from the thinking I’ll share.

But if you’re aiming to earn income from your art, I have nothing to add to what you already know. A larger audience means more income, so it’s obvious why you’d want more viewers or listeners. And if your art carries a social or political message, a larger audience means more impact, a better chance to advance your cause. If your art is meant to communicate something specific to someone specific, it can’t function in an empty room. And if your creative process relies on feedback beyond what your own eyes and ears can provide, a larger audience might help you do better work. And if you’re seeking validation and prestige, a larger audience means more of that. These situations are clear: you need an audience.

But what if you’re making art for art’s sake, what’s your reason then for seeking an audience? What if you’ve been laboring on your own for years – as a “nobody” as Emily Dickinson would put it – to do something that’s really hard but really rewarding? And what if you’re doing this for the joy of it – not to please anyone else, but just yourself? Not to profit from it, not to further a social cause through it, but just to experience the pleasure and fascination that it brings you? What if achieving an aesthetic ideal is more important to you than any practical outcome? What if you do your best work in solitude? And what if you vow to keep pursuing this ideal no matter what – no matter whether there’s a market for it, no matter whether anyone ever praises your product or asks you for more of it? If this is you, why would you care whether your audience consists of one or one million people? 

In my case, I compose music in a particular format called canon. I’ve been doing this since 2014. A two-minute canon can take me two months to write. Each piece brings me immeasurable joy to create and behold. I feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to study music year after year, starting pretty young, and ultimately to create the kind of music I want to create. I’m further blessed to have a collaborator who has performed and recorded my works. My music has been enjoyed by a handful of people who know me personally, and a tiny few who have somehow discovered me online. Why isn’t that enough for me?

Why do I feel – as I prepare to release ninety minutes of new work this year – that more people must hear it? Why have I vowed that this time, I won’t let it be ignored? I won’t simply put it online and hope that people find it. I won’t just email a dozen reviewers and shrug when no one replies. This time, I’ll do the work necessary to bring my music to those who are poised to enjoy it, and I’ll do the work necessary to expand that circle. But if I wrote the music for myself and experienced the pleasure I was seeking from that act of creation, why does any of this matter?

I used to think of this question in terms of the intrinsic value of the work itself. I believe the work is unique, and exciting, and that it makes a contribution within its particular niche, so the world needs it. If I keep the material to myself by not sufficiently promoting it, then it will go to waste. This would be a disservice to the music and to the world. 

I’ve never been happy with this reasoning because it focuses on a negative outcome – the music going to waste – which leads to a burden – I must save the music from oblivion. Furthermore, the world is already full of music. Beautiful music is hard to make, but humanity has been making it for centuries, and it’s not a scarce resource. No one person will ever get to know more than a tiny fraction of the great music that’s available; ditto for visual art and literature. This will be controversial but I’ll say that while humanity needs art, it doesn’t need any particular piece of art – there are no “essential” works –  including anything I make or anything you make. The world could benefit from what we make, surely, but the possibility of benefiting from something is different from needing it.

So I’ve tried to identify other motivations for pursuing an audience, motivations that don’t rely on the assumption of need. Let’s suppose that I’m doing something optional and unnecessary. Why might I still want more people to hear and appreciate it, and why would I be willing to put in the hard work to achieve that goal?

My first answer is simply that I want others to experience the same joy that the music has given me. As for why this is so, I believe that joy is expansive: when we find joy in a certain thing, we want others to feel that same joy, from that same thing. And when others feel that joy, our own is magnified. This is just how joy, the emotion, works – it makes us yearn for connection, kinship.

Second, I want to share my knowledge. For me, knowledge is similar to joy in that when I’ve learned something useful I want to convey it to someone else. I’ve had to learn many things to be able to write the music I write. I’ve had to find ways to surmount countless musical challenges, creative challenges, and personal challenges. If someone’s totally new to canons and counterpoint, I want to welcome them into this part of the musical universe. But if someone knows about these things already, I want to see if I can offer them some bit of new insight that may help or inspire them in their own journey.

Third, I want to grow through interaction and collaboration. I know I can write more of the music I’ve been writing, and within that domain there are endless possibilities I want to explore. But I’m ready to branch out. Someone could recommend an album that might change my life. Someone could ask a question that opens a new musical direction for me. Someone could teach me a new technique for composing or a new way of listening. Someone could become a new collaborator and together we could make something great.  I want to grow not only in the ways I’ve planned for myself already, but in the ways I can’t predict, haven’t even conceived. But none of this can happen if my music stays with me in a bubble.

So I want a larger audience because I want to share my joy, I want to share my knowledge, and I want to grow. To be clear, this is not my argument for why anyone should listen to my music; this is not where I say what’s in it for them. This article is about me; it’s my explanation of why having an audience is important to me. It’s a “note to self” that I’ll return to when I must choose how to spend my time: composing new work or reaching out to new listeners.

If you’re an artist facing a similar choice, maybe some of these reasons apply to you too?

Music

Music and Pleasure

Music is something we do for pleasure, right?

I don’t mean to diminish music by posing this question.

To call music a tool of pleasure does not lessen music’s importance, because pleasure itself is important and good.

It’s true that the pursuit of pleasure can take a greedy, destructive form, but just as much, it can be a path to connection, even enlightenment. The experience of pleasure can put us in tune with ourselves and with one another. Among the varieties of pleasure, there is physical pleasure, there is spiritual pleasure, and music offers both.

If music can make us sad, it does this in a way that brings us pleasure. We are happy to be moved to cry, when it’s music that’s doing the moving. If music can make us disoriented or confused, it does this in a way that brings refreshment, expands our field of view, and so delivers the pleasure of growth.

Of course, music is a business. Music is pursued for money, fame, and influence. Music is an academic discipline. Music is a way to glorify God. Music can have a mission: it can tell a story, advertise a product, raise awareness for a cause, spark a revolution. 

Sheer pleasure is not the only reason to sing, or play an instrument, or write a note on staff paper. But if you look at the essence of music, if you consider why we’re addicted to music – it’s about pleasure. 

Take away people’s willingness to pay for music, and we’d still make it. Take away music’s academic prestige and we’d still want to learn about it. Take away the large concert venues, the rock stars, the virtuosos — take away music’s connection with fame, and we’d still sing in the shower. But if music didn’t bring us pleasure, then the other reasons for making it would lose their support. If it didn’t make us feel good, then music would no longer be a way for anyone to make money or get famous or achieve any other goal.

Why is it necessary to remind oneself that music is about pleasure?

Musicians might need such a reminder because our work is difficult, and that difficulty can be so intense as to consume us and makes us forget what we’re really after.

I am a musician. That means, in some sense, that I’ve dedicated my life to pleasure… to seeking out a certain form of pleasure, and sharing that pleasure with others.

But what did I learn in my first music lessons as a kid? That I’d have to practice before I could play what I wanted to play. 

The study of music is all about delayed gratification. In my own path as a musician:

  • I’ve wanted to sing a note but couldn’t reach it or hold it in tune, so I needed to practice more and/or give up on reaching that note for the time.
  • I’ve wanted to play a passage on guitar that I had spent dozens of hours preparing but I couldn’t pull it off, so I needed to practice more and/or try an easier piece.
  • I’ve wanted to sight-read a piece but constantly got stuck, so I needed to go slower and try an easier piece.
  • I’ve wanted to compose a piece of my own but didn’t know how to start so I had to muddle around for years looking for an entry point.
  • I’ve wanted to improvise a solo but couldn’t get my bearings or synchronize with a group so I had to go back to the woodshed.
  • I’ve wanted to make a recording to share but couldn’t press “record” without promptly making a dozen errors.
  • I’ve wanted to receive a response to music that I had labored for months to create but I heard only silence in response and didn’t know how to connect with those who might appreciate what I’d done.
  • I’ve wanted to delight someone with my music but found that it didn’t speak to them.

This is just a way of saying that the effort to experience pleasure and offer it to others through music can come upon obstacles that cause stress, distraction, insecurity, and doubt.

When music frustrates me, I’ve taken to reminding myself that music is about pleasure, and my capacity for pleasure is intact, no matter what pitfalls arise. I can laugh. I can love. I can delight in things. I already have everything that music can give me, or that I might seek to achieve through it.

In those moments when I am skeptical of my own abilities or path forward in music, I remind myself that we – all musicians – are seeking the same result, the spreading of pleasure. I can work towards that end no matter what, through efforts musical and non-musical alike.

I sometimes do a little experiment. I take the densest, driest music theory textbook I can find on my shelf, I flip through the pages and look at the squiggles – dense squiggles I have poured over many a time before – and I remind myself that all of this is just a recipe to give someone a good time. That’s why we’re arranging notes in various combinations and laboring to follow precise instructions about how those notes should be performed… it’s all to give someone a good time. Really, that’s all it’s about – pleasure – but that is important.