How do you listen to music? Do you focus on the beat? The vocals? The lyrics? Or is it just background noise?
Several years ago my music teacher introduced me to an exercise that changed the way I hear music. The exercise is simple, but it's benefits are vast.
As I've reflected on it I've realized it's a practical and fun way to develop certain non-cognitive skills (aka emotional intelligence). Emotional intelligence is a "hot" topic at the moment (see Unselfie book, VR and Empathy, Emotional Intelligence skills) as we are starting to recognize and quantify it's vital importance in life success. And yet emotional intelligence topics are alarmingly absent from a traditional school curriculum, and if you're an adult, you're on your own to figure it out.
The challenge with non-cognitive skills is there isn't a formula for teaching them. How do you teach someone creativity? Taste? Focus? I've found that certain exercises can be used to hone non-cognitive skills. This music listening exercise is one of them.
I classify non-cognitive skills into two categories: practical and influential. You develop the practical skills by doing the exercise. For example through this music exercise, you'll develop skills like listening and focus. Influential skills are indirectly influenced by this exercise. You don't practice these skills, but doing the exercise influences their development.
Take creativity as an example. Creativity isn't something you train. It's a result of your experiences and influences. Doing an exercise that allows you to recognize and appreciate someone else's creativity influences your own creativity "muscle". By experiencing an influential skill you see what's possible. Your mindset is altered and your collective experience allows you to build on it and apply it in your work.
This listening exercise will impact different influential skills for different people. For me, this exercise influences my appreciation for nuance, taste, and creativity. And the cool thing is I've been able to apply these skills to many other facets of my life.
So what is the magic exercise? The idea is simple. Pick any song, grab some headphones and play the song. While the song is playing focus on one instrument. For example if you're listening to a Beatles song, start by focusing and listening to only the drums for the entire song. Hear nothing else, just the drums. Then replay the song and listen to only the guitar. Then the bass guitar, and then the vocals.
The idea is every time you listen to the song, you focus on a single instrument. Analyze the tone. The part being played. For the repeating section of a song (verse 1 versus verse 2, chorus 1 versus chorus 2) does the musician play the part exactly the same? Or do they embellish it? You may find musicians will add slight embellishments throughout the song to keep things interesting.
As you're doing this you may find it to be meditative. You'll need to focus in on specific parts and block out external noise. Focus on the instrument. If you generally focus on vocals and lyrics when listening to music, this will be a very rewarding exercise.
Here is an example of things I notice when listening to a song in this manner. I've found well-produced pop songs tend to work really well for this exercise as they are engineered to perfection. One of my favorites is Savage Garden's "To The Moon And Back". Here are some things that jumped out to me while focusing in on the different instruments.
On the 3 pre-choruses, notice how the vocal harmony only occurs in the 3rd one (3:27). It was not part of the first (1:08) or second (2:18). Why did the producer decide only to do a harmony on the 3rd one? One idea is that the first and third pre-choruses share the same lyrics. But the harmony in the 3rd one keeps it different from the first. So now each pre-chorus is unique. You'll find the great musicians are all about adding slight variety to keep things interesting.
The lead vocal remains at dead center of the mix throughout the song. This is nicely juxtaposed by the second vocal just before the chorus. Notice how the second vocal is audible in both the Left and Right channels and sounds much wider. It's mixed to give a nice contrast and lead you the listener into the chorus.
Check out the keyboard lead that kicks of at 0:14. Engrain that sci-fi melody in your mind. Now jump to 2:18. Can you hear that same melody being played in the background? It's slightly buried behind the vocals, drums, and guitars, but it's there. It was introduced at the beginning of the song and is layered throughout the pre-choruses to maintain the song's cohesiveness.
The bass guitar is the ideal instrument to focus in on in this song. It's not very prominent, and you have to really focus to hone in on it and block everything else. I bet you may have not even noticed it before, but it does a lot for the song! The bass is most prominent when it's first introduced at 0:31. Notice the cool syncopated rhythm it's playing. The bass goes silent at 0:42. It's back at 1:00 but it doesn't do much, just plays whole notes. But it's there to build the listener to the chorus, and once the chorus hits, the bass starts grooving! Check it out at 1:22.
The guitars have a ton going on. The primary thing to notice is you have the lead guitar in the Left channel, and the rhythm guitar in the Right channel. You can hear this at 2:07 and 2:17. Notice how in the Right channel you have a pulsating "clean" guitar rhythm (very U2-esque), while in the Left channel you hear the electric lead guitar play a few lone notes. It's never too much, just a little a bit to keep things interesting. Why did the producer decide to "sprinkle" those little guitar leads in those sections? Nuance, taste, flavor.
Those are some examples of things that jumped out at me. There is much more to discover in this song, and in your favorite songs. I hope you'll find this exercise interesting and helpful.
Earlier this year a friend introduced me to Groupmuse. It's "an online social network that connects young classical musicians to local audiences through concert house parties".
After you register for a free account, you can RSVP to attend a Groupmuse. If the host accepts your RSVP Groupmuse will charge you $3 (think of it as a reasonable convenience fee). Then once at the event, you will be encouraged to donate $10. 100% of your donation will go to the musician(s). The host does not make any money from hosting a Groupmuse.
The event format is straightforward. Arrive at the hosts home, socialize with the other attendees (typically 15-30), and then enjoy 60-80 minutes of music (broken up by an intermission). I've found the hosts to be hospitable, the musicians superb, and the other attendees friendly and diverse (it's not just a room full of musicians).
I've attended 3 in Brooklyn and each one was a memorable and moving experience. One Groupmuse I attended took place on a rooftop in Fort Greene. On a warm summer night it was quite a stage:
I have a vivid memory from this performance. A few seconds into their first song, the cellist's cello case tips over and falls on her. Only slightly fazed, she doesn't stop playing and the music continues. By the end of the piece it was as if nothing had happened. And by the end of the performance most of the audience had forgotten that it even happened.
Musicians have a high standard for live performances. No matter what the issue (equipment failure, stand with sheet music tips over, string breaks) you keep playing. In the face of adversity, keep playing. Because in the end no one remembers the challenge you faced, they remember the music. And if you don't make it seem like a big deal, then the audience may not even notice.
As a musician it's a standard I've held when I've performed live. And I've been trying to apply it in other facets of my life. For example at work, in those moments when things seem to be falling apart (the cello case is falling on me), I stay the course and keep playing. I don't stop the performance seeking acknowledgement for the predicament I'm in. My colleagues saw the case fall, they know it's hard. They don't need me to tell them that, they are their to hear the music.
Don't make excuses when things get hard. We know your situation is hard, because in some variant so is ours. Instead of reminding us, just keep playing.
I ended part 3 expressing my dread for recording the final guitar takes. Hard to believe I wrote that part 5 months ago. Life got in the way and I indulged every excuse to procrastinate recording.
But I'm happy to report that guitar recordings have wrapped!
Part of the reason for the delay was prioritizing a block of time to setup my recording environment, get my guitar and playing chops in shape, and then do the actual recording. The time to set and warm up would not warrant the 20-30 minutes I would then have available to record. So I finally set aside time during two weekends and was able to finish recording.
I took a different approach recording this song compared to the recording process on Legacy. With that project I recorded by section, until I had takes I was happy with. For this song, I played the full song multiple times and recorded each time as a separate take. I then edited together the best sounding sections from each take to make the final track. In other words I may have used Verse 1 from take 2, Chorus 1 from take 1, etc. This approach allowed me to spend more time focusing on playing, and less time on trying to get a perfect take on a certain section.
One of my biggest challenges while recording is playing the role of engineer. The simple task of starting and stopping the recording on the computer can throw off my momentum. Plus when I hear the same section over and over, it becomes difficult to discern the good takes from the bad. Playing the dual role of musician and engineer is also part of the reason it took me a while to get these recordings done.
The next step in this project is to find other musicians to collaborate with on this song. At a minimum the song needs drums, bass, and vocals. I may add some additional instruments later, but that is still to be determined. Once the missing parts are recorded, the song will need to get mixed, mastered, and then it will be ready for release!
Panda, panda, panda, panda, panda.
Walking the streets of Brooklyn I passed a group of kids playing a song through a portable speaker.
It was catchy and the beat sounded great. I caught some of the lyrics and googled "panda song". That's when I realized that I had come across a hit.
"Panda", by 19 year old Brooklyn native Desiigner was released as an iTunes single on December 15, 2015. As of this writing, the music video on YouTube has 80 million views (published May 17, 2016) and the audio only version has 242 million views (published December 20, 2015).
Let's put these numbers in perspective. Taylor Swift's Bad blood has 919 million views (published May 17, 2015) and Drake's Hotline Bling has 843 million views (published October 26, 2015). Taylor is getting about 65 million views a month and Drake 93 million. These are megastar numbers for two megastar artists. Desiigner getting about 40 million views a month on his video. This almost puts him into the same league of attention (for a single) as two of the biggest stars in the music business.
With such rapid ascension I became curious on the backstory to Panda. How did the song come about?
The story is a modern day example that shows how anyone with talent, drive, persistence, a bit of luck, and a computer with an internet connection can make it in the music business.
Panda's story begins with a 22-year old aspiring record producer from Manchester England. Adnan Khan, aka Menace, was working at a mobile repair center by day and producing beats by night.
Perusing the 3 year history of clips I was impressed by his talent and professional quality of all his beats. But I was even more impressed by his persistence. He consistently put out new beats (just browse his Instagram posts). And he built a business out of it:
About a year ago he posts this beat. Sound familiar? It should, it's the Panda beat.
Shortly after Menace released the beat, a 19 year old from Brooklyn New York purchased it for $200. Sidney Royel Selby III, aka Desiigner, had a vision for the beat, and he turned it into Panda.
In a period of a year, two kids from humble beginnings jumped to the top of the music charts. Panda hit Platinum and number 1 on US Billboard:
And to top it off, the beat was sampled by Kanye West on his latest album, "The Life of Pablo".
Desiigner has since signed a record deal with G.O.O.D music and a publishing deal with SONGS Music Publishing.
You can say these guys got lucky but it's not that simple. Menace set himself up for success by showing up for 3+ years. He consistently put out new beats and promoted his tracks. He worked on his craft and persisted. Desiigner on an interview with Genius talks about his past musical endeavors and being the guy in the neighborhood that people came to for music. He put out original tracks and collaborated with other artists. Both guys built a portfolio of work and Panda became the break out track.
The music industry has changed. Like starting a tech startup anyone with drive, talent, and resilience can achieve great levels of success. The secret is to create something people want. A hit song is elusive. There is no secret formula. But Panda has proven that you don't need to be famous. You don't need a label. And you don't need expensive studio equipment to make something big.
Today's music business is driven by streaming culture. And streaming culture doesn't care about albums. It cares about tracks. Bite size and shareable tracks. As a listener, why listen to a 10 track album when I want to stream a playlist of singles? As an artist, why record 10 tracks if my listeners only want to listen to a few?
The new music business is about collaboration. A kid from Manchester can unite with a kid from Brooklyn to create a Platinum track. If there is a startup opportunity, it's here. What will be the platform to foster more collaborations like the one between Desiigner and Menace? Was their collaboration a byproduct of chance? Or are there elements that can be pulled out, automated, and put into a product that strategically unites people to collaborate and create.
A low barrier to entry has resulted in a proliferation of new music. Anyone can setup a home studio and record a track. But it takes a certain combination (timing, production, hitting a cultural zeitgeist) to make something special like Panda. The success of Panda has provided Desiigner and Menace with something even more coveted than financial success, attention. In today's world attention is the gold standard, it's invaluable.
These guys have an audience now, and we eagerly await to hear what they put out next.
In college I spent two years with my friend and keyboardist Brian co-writing 60+ minutes of Progressive Rock music. The writing process was straightforward. Brian would play a chord progression and I'd come up with a guitar part to accompany it, or vice-versa. In a perfect world each of our first ideas (riffs, chords, arrangements) would fit perfectly together and eventually that would happen enough times to fill a song. I'd call that a frictionless creative experience.
Our creative process was more turbulent. Brian would play something and I may comment that it doesn't sound right. Or I may play something and he'd comment that it doesn't fit. And we'd go back and fourth until we had ideas we were both happy with. But we didn't always reach a place of harmony. Then whoever has the greatest conviction for their idea triumphs. The "surrendering" individual would trust the others conviction and accept their idea. Fight for a different idea another day. If this process sounds painless and structured, it was far from it.
Writing music (and really any creative endeavor) is emotional. You come up with an idea that you're excited about, proud of, and you're instantly invested in it. It's the best you can do at the moment, and to have someone reject your idea can be demoralizing. What's wrong with it? Why won't it work? Why did they use thattone? It's even trickier when the person giving feedback isn't capable of doing the work on the medium they are giving feedback on. Think developer giving feedback to a designer. Or in my case, giving Brian feedback on how he could modify his idea on the piano. I can't play the piano, so I can't play for him what I'm imagining. The best I could do was describe and guide him to play what I was imagining.
So how do you navigate the emotions? Welcome them but not allow them to derail the project and relationship. Reflecting on this experience I've identified several traits that made our writing partnership a success.
The first was respect for each other as musicians. Both of us were classically trained and had music theory knowledge. We were also dedicated to our instruments and put in many hours of practice. This fueled respect for each others opinions because we both knew what we were talking about. Plus dedication to our crafts elevated the level of respect. Contrast this with a "business/idea" person telling a developer how they should build something. The developer will have less respect if the business person has no clue about development process (this example can also be flipped).
As the producer for this record, I would have final say as to the musical direction of a song. It's important to have a person who is responsible for making those decisions. And to trust that they are making decisions for the good of the project, not for their own agenda. I was given this responsibility because I wanted it, I had a particular vision for the music, and I had expertise in the genre of music we were playing (progressive rock). I'd listened to many songs in the style, so I had a lot of knowledge about the genre. This allowed Brian to trust my vision and direction, because he trusted my expertise.
We also established a culture that was about the music, the product we were creating. If you come up with an idea and it get's discarded, it's not personal, it's for the good of the music. We weren't competing on who had more ideas that would be used. We had mutual interest for the best ideas to surface. And so it's critical to not take criticism personally. It saves time, and it allows you to focus on creating, instead of fighting drama.
And finally we were 50/50 partners in this. Establish the "business" breakdown prior to starting and make it a fair split. You want each person happy with their share so that it becomes a non-factor. You want to create an environment that fosters creativity and minimizes the things that generate friction. And when you run into friction, you have a mediator who is trusted with making the hard decision for resolution.
Although a frictionless creative experience does not exist, you can establish a culture that is conducive to an effective and pleasant creative experience.