Is art really about self-expression?


by Tom Hess

I believe that "self-expression" is the pinnacle of all art. Anything less “is less”, in my opinion. I do not intend to discuss this point of view or to induce any of you to share it. Instead, I assume that you already have this point of view and I want to discuss ways in which I can offer you both philosophical and practical advice.

How do you view yourself

If self-expression is the culmination of all art (or if you at least agree that it is very important), and if you strive (and strive) to express yourself in art (music), then you are an artist. In the past, I would not have used the term “artist” to describe someone who is not yet great at creating real art. I have typically reserved the words art, artist, and musician only for the highest levels of excellence. However, as a composition, songwriting, and self-expression teacher, I have changed my use of these terms for the benefit of all of my students. So....

The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as just a guitarist. I'm going to take this a step further and recommend not to see yourself as a musician either! You are, or at least you are on your way to becoming an artist through learning. Music happens to be your medium and the guitar just happens to be your instrument, but YOU are the artist. From that day on, when someone asks you what you do and what you are, don't answer that you are a guitarist or a musician. Tell them (in a non-arrogant way) that you are an artist. If they want to know more details about it, go ahead and tell them that music is your medium and guitar is your instrument. I guarantee you that this will leave a completely different impression on other people's minds than when you say “Yeah, I play guitar”. But beyond the impressions of others, you will begin to leave stronger impressions on your own mind that you are actually an artist (even if you are still learning to really become one). The way you see yourself (as an artist and not just as someone who owns a guitar and sometimes plays it) is very important in relation to what you think about what you are doing musically. The way you look at yourself will also affect the results you get when you express yourself.

What are others doing

So now you're an artist. Think the way artists traditionally do. If we could watch a sculptor work on a new sculpture in marble, stone or wood, what do you think we would see? (Think about the last sentence before reading any further - it is important.) The sculptor imagines what he / she wants to create. The act of chiseling (or hewing or carving) the raw material is a form of “destructive creation”. At the beginning there is just a block of marble, stone or wood. The sculptor has to take away all the material that is not needed so that only the finished sculpture remains!

Now let's think about how most guitarists write songs. Here's what usually happens to most: a guitarist takes his / her guitar and starts improvising aimlessly with chords, melodies, or riffs. This sometimes goes on for hours, all in the hope of stumbling upon something (by accident) that sounds good. If you've tried this, you know that it can take a long time to find something you like, and often you don't like anything at all about what you tried that day.

The real problem comes after a part (say a verse or a chorus for a song) is created and he / she is now trying to connect other ideas (usually disjointed) and adapt them. Did painters (like Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Delacroix) paint this way when they wanted to express themselves (or something else)? Did you paint something on one side of the canvas, or some arbitrary lines or outline, and then some other disjointed lines? Modern art does this, but we're not using this as an example here because you can probably roughly write music. It is the small details and the specific descriptions that most musicians need help with.

Of course, I believe that just about any method of creating music is legitimate. However, the typical way guitarists try to create music is very limiting and, worse, tends to not work well for purposes of descriptive expressive self-expression.

Explanation of the obvious:

This section shouldn't really be here as it is purely common sense. Because this idea is so simple, a lot of people just completely overlook it. - In order to be really self-expressing, you really have to know what you are trying to express! (Sorry for the repetition that follows). It's not enough to pick up the guitar, improvise some riffs, melodies or chord progressions, then stumble across some ideas that sound good and put those pieces together into one kind of song and say, “I express myself with this music. “Yes, of course it was you who wrote this music, but what did you really express? Nothing very specific. Even if you write lyrics for your song; when the music came first, the meaning of the words was not added to the writing, so the music is not really expressing what the text is expressing. There is nothing wrong with writing the music before the lyrics, as long as you ask yourself at all stages of the writing process, “What am I trying to express? What feelings, thoughts, events, etc.? "

A comparison of classic popular vocal songs

Those of you who play vocal music should pay special attention to the next point. Many vocal songs that have good lyrics often only have mediocre music behind the words. In my opinion, Bob Dylan is a classic example of this (I'm not trying to badmouth Bob Dylan, I'm just using a well-known example based on my own observations and opinions about his music). Listen to the song "Knocking on Heaven's Door". It's a nice song with pretty decent lyrics. What would happen if you took away the vocals / lyrics and just listened to the music? It's sometimes pretty boring because the chord progression goes on and on and on, and because the chords are the same simple voicings, with a simple rhythm that musically never really goes anywhere.

Next, listen to “Stairway to Heaven”. The lyrics are just as good as the Dylan song (maybe better for you Led Zep fans). What happens if you take the vocals / lyrics off this song? We can still listen and hear some really good songwriting. It doesn't get boring because it doesn't repeat itself like the Dylan melody, there are more chords with a lot more color in the voicings (watch out for the cool, descending, chromatic bass line in the verse (A, G sharp, G, F sharp, F ), the structure is different, the articulation (plucking and striking patterns) of the chords is more interesting. There is a great guitar solo. Lots of dynamic contrast and proportion. And most importantly: the music alone is much more expressive than the music of Dylan Songs when we take the vocals away from both of them.

An exercise: 

The next time you start writing a song, try these steps:

  1. Choose a subject to write the song about.
  2. Write lyrics for the new song (even if you don't like lyrics, try anyway).
  3. Before you really start writing music, plan how you will break the text into sections (verses, choruses, etc.).
  4. Determine what types of keys, scales, chords, etc., would best fit the feel of your lyrics.
  5. Start writing (using a method of your choice) keeping all of the above in mind (in fact, it is best to write everything down and have it in front of you as you write).
  6. After you've come up with some possible ideas for your song, ask yourself whether these musical pieces tend to express what the music is about without the lyrics. In other words, does an instrumental version of your song still express the feel and mood of your subject / lyrics? If so, great! If not, consider what ways you can tweak your music to make it more descriptive. Try out your ideas with a different rhythm, in a different key, change some chords, use different dynamic levels, with a dense or finer structure and intensity, with different tempos, etc. etc. etc.

What else?

What else can you do to improve your self-expression songwriting skills? Many things are possible, at the top of my list of recommendations are the following:

  1. Take lessons from someone who teaches songwriting / composition. Of course, it is usually best if the teacher is familiar with your musical style. (Read my previous article "Choosing a Teacher"). There is no substitute for learning from someone who has years of experience and is trained to do so!
  2. Team up with fellow songwriters and write some music together using the ideas I discussed above. Working with another writer can be very valuable because you can see that he / she approaches the same musical problems very differently than you do. Other writers often have different ways of finding solutions to compositional problems. By observing and studying these differences, you can both grow.
  3. Write music every day! When I was a composition student at Roosevelt University, my professors forced us composition students to write something every day. Mastering writing is the same as mastering anything; it takes regular practice to gain experience. It strikes me as strange that some players practice their instrument every day but not the art and science of creating (writing) their own music.
  4. Don't wait until your guitar technical skills, theoretical knowledge, ear training, etc. are better before you start writing music. As I mentioned above, in order to improve, you need to practice writing as much as anything else. You may know some really good musicians who play extremely challenging things on their instruments but can't write a song.

For more approaches and ideas on writing, read my articles Creativity and Expression - Part 1 & Creativity and Expression - Part 2.

Whatever styles of music you like, don't understand and forget that your guitar and all the musical knowledge you have now (and always will) are merely a means to an end. YOU are the composer. YOU are the artist. Learn to apply YOUR skills, knowledge and talent, as it is not enough to simply acquire them.

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