Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Influence and the Beatles

There aren't many people who would argue that the Beatles have influence.  Even fewer still would argue that they have never heard of them.  They are the most successful rock band of the 1960s—possibly of the twentieth century.

I would also say the twenty-first, but since there is much of this particular century left, I won't.  Their music inspired a generation- and that is influence— in both writing and music.

Of the hundreds of songs they sang (both covered and preformed and recorded), none have for influenced me, more than "The Long and Winding Road."  It has possibly the best lines in it when it comes to dealing with my writing career- it's long and it's winding and at some point it's going to get me somewhere.  Not to anyone's door, but maybe into their hearts and minds, because the type of influence a writer has is amazing, when they connect with a reader.  It is only possible because a person took a leap of faith and carried on.

If the Beatles have this much influence, the question could be asked was it because of their songs or because of their personalities?  I would argue it was their songs.  Some of them are fun, the ones that you can sing along to, and just enjoy, but the reason this song resonates, is because it's a lonely song, it fits my career as a writer.

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to sing.  Sadly, singing is not a gift I have, and most of my friends will attest to the fact that I can sing okay, but not well.  My dreams of becoming a singer will not happen in the near future, but I still love music.  The other want of becoming a writer has happened, but I'm thinking of the Beatles when it comes to writing.  I can say I am a published author, but I am not as influential as I'd like to be.  I have a lot to learn.

I suppose that like some of the Motown stars, I will keep going until I am older, but in a way, much of my influence will have already taken place.  Then I think back to the Beatles.  They had other more popular record albums, but the release of the 1970 album Let It Be proved their influence.  This is the sort of influence a writer dreams of.  It wasn't known at the time, but this would be the final album released by the band.

The writing in several songs spoke for themselves.

What does this all mean for a writer?

1) Influence takes time.  The popularity of the Beatles wasn't over night, and because of this they weren't a one hit wonder.

2) Influence is blazing your own trail: Yes, they could have stayed together longer, made more records sold more and earned more money.  They couldn't.  It wasn't working for them.  Although they all had later success, nothing came close to the magic that was the Beatles.  Even knowing this, the men chose to run their own lives.

3) Influence is making connections:  I wasn't alive when the Beatles were together as a band.  I heard them being played over again, and their music connected with me.  I loved the story behind the music and it meant something to me.  As a writer this what needs to be planned- how can I make a connection to my reader.

4)  Influence is knowing it isn't about you: That's the catch.  This means not going out of your way to be "the writer" or "the bestselling author."  Being you is much more important to your reader in the long run.  Influence is like the Beatles- we remember them not for them, but for their music.

The long road is a good thing for a writer, it teaches you that influence is not something you can buy, but rather something that is earned over time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Art of Songwriting

What every writer can learn from a songwriter's process

It's interesting that no matter how much our blog tries to be broad in its scope and appeal, we inevitably end up catering much of our commentary and advice to novelists. This is rather hard to avoid considering most people who call themselves "writers" are those who write novels, short stories, or articles. Poets, lyricists, and even journalists often refer to themselves as artists and so aren't often seeking advice or commentary from other people including writers. This is of course a generalization and perhaps an unfair one, but my point in writing this post is to argue that the more artistic types have much to learn from the more traditional writer types and vice versa.

Let me start by saying that I am for all intents and purposes on the proverbial fence when it comes to my writing. Mostly because I write more traditionally but also dabble in lyric and songwriting. I don't ignore the fact that this does in a way bias me and prevent me from seeing both sides through an objective lens... but I'm bringing the more artistic perspective for the purposes of this post anyway, and "objective art" is an oxymoron for the ages (not unlike "jumbo shrimp").

  The first phase I take to writing a song is what I like to affectionately call "Diddling." During this phase I sit down at my piano and fumble around chord progressions until I get about 8-12 bars of something that has a good feel to it. This exploration is what some traditional writers don't do enough. Just sporadic thoughts written on pages that you can circle, expand on, scribble out, or even cut out. I think it is an invaluable process because it is directly linked to the next phase.

The "Word Vomit" phase is probably the most enjoyable phase because it is literally just singing words and phrases that come to mind when listening to my freshly "diddled" chord progression. This is a lot like when I sit down to write a blog post or something that I eventually want to have more of a structure, but I know scares some of my friends who are more traditional in their writing. Just sit down an write. Don't overthink what's coming out, have confidence that it's gonna be great eventually because well... you're awesome.

The final phase is what I like to call the "Penultimate Cadence" Phase. It is this idea that one brilliant seed propels your ideas forward. I have found that once I've diddled and word vomited through the first few bars of my song, the two processes become interconnected and propel me through line and verse and chorus until the song is done. In writing, you can think of the cadence as the end of whatever you're writing and the "penultimate" portions as those that propel you towards it. Those few ideas create an ease to completing that paragraph, article, or chapter that resembles that intrinsic need to resolve a cadence when you hear a penultimate note or chord. Don't believe me? Listen to the clip below and tell me you don't feel like something's missing and you can't help but fill it in with your mind.

That's the power of song writing. Disclaimer: this is my own experience. Some songwriters like to have the entire set of lyrics first, or all the music. I have always been more of a fan of a collaborative approach between the text and the melody, and hopefully this approach helps with you writing, or at the very least getting going with your writing.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music: Food of love, Emotion

A science nerd's perspective on hearing and emotions 

          I asked my friend the other day how she experiences music (the question was purposely ambiguous). She responded very simply, "I hear and feel it". This may not sound all that profound to most people, but for me it was a reminder of the symbiotic relationship music has with our emotions. Moreover, as a physiology and anatomy nerd it got me thinking... why? When it comes to questions about the relationship between structure and function, "It just is" is hardly a satisfying answer for me.

          I am fortunate enough to currently be working with the Canadian Hearing Society, so this seemed as good a place as any to find some sort of answer to this question about the interplay between hearing and emotions. My supervisor right now also happens to be an audiologist whose passion is disorders of the auditory system such as tinnitus (a persistent sound like ringing or buzzing in the ear) and hyperacusis (extreme sound sensitivity sometimes to the point of pain). We were speaking about why emotions often trigger or exacerbate these disorders and how music is hypothesized to be effective at regulating them because of its effects on the auditory pathways. Needless to say, she had some valuable insight.

Here's my take on it:
          When we think of our brain as an onion, the core or the part that forms first is the most primitive of structures (often referred to as the reptilian brain-see picture below). Instinctive and emotional responses are stored here in a group of structures called the limbic system. As we move outwards we get away from this system and have areas for things like logic, hearing, speech, etc. Already you might be thinking: well then hearing and emotions are separated in the brain. A reasonable assumption, but in a way, much of the limbic system acts as a gatekeeper for signals coming in and out of the brain.

          Have I lost anyone yet? I hope not because here's where it starts to all come together. When we hear something, that physical sound is transformed into electrical signals that are in a way the "language of the brain." Neurons or nerve cells carry these electrical signals from the ear up towards the brain like an assembly line. Now remember how I said that the hearing centres for the brain are located towards the outside, but at the core of our brains is that primitive limbic system responsible for emotion? Well guess where that electrical signal has to pass through in order to get to the hearing system? The gatekeeper! That emotional centre. It passes on its way up and it passes on its way down.

          If we return to the assembly line analogy, it is a lot like supervisors who inspect the unpackaged product and then the final packaged product. It is here (in the limbic system) that our brain decides to accept or reject the sound and this directly affects how we "experience it" on an emotional level. Negative responses can range from a reflexive response to cover your ears to a lack of inhibition and overstimulation of the auditory system resulting in persistent sound (tinnitus) to even a pain response (hyperacusis). If it is a pleasant sound we can have emotional responses that signal relaxation, joy, and even arousal.

          Granted this is a simplified explanation, but I think it helps understand why what we hear can impact our emotions and how we feel can influence what we hear.

          So this month as we explore music and writing, think about how music you enjoy might have a positive impact on not only your emotions but the functioning of your brain. While there is little known about the "creative brain" and how we generate novel ideas, from personal experience I know that when I feel good, I write good... uhh... well.

A very special thanks to Deborah O'Sullivan, founder of Auditory Pathways and specialist in tinnitus and sound sensitivities, for the inspiration for this post.

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