Painters have a wealth of art instruction materials available to them. There are books, there are paint manufacturers’ catalogues, there are art galleries to go and see what other artists do, there are DVDs and television shows and even live demos to watch how another painter paints. Bob Ross might not have been a painter of masterpieces, but I am a better painter because I watched his shows and learned from them, there is no doubt about it. If you want to learn to paint, you can draw on these sources and learn about colour mixing, brush technique, perspective and a host of other useful techniques to fill your own personal artistic arsenal. The point of all of these is that, as an artist, you don’t draw on these resources just to slavishly imitate another artists’ way, it’s to find your own process, technique, inspiration, approach and originality. You become a better painter by learning through all of these art instruction books, videos and so on.
If you are a musician, recording engineer, producer or song writer, what do you do in order to learn your craft? It turns out that besides books, which are really only for visual people, aural people can learn best from things they can hear first (and see, second).
One of the best things you can do, if you are trying to learn (or improve your) songwriting and producing (and your aim is to make music that reaches a diverse audience) is to buy those cheap “Best of” CDs that you can get in supermarkets for a few quid. On these CDs, you get sometimes something like 1oo of the most popular tracks of the genre in question. Many of the songs were written and recorded by geniuses and went on to sell in the millions. Pay attention to these works. These are the Monets and Van Goghs of the music world, believe it or not. The techniques embodied in these songs can teach you many ways to make your music sound just as appealing, to many more people. You don’t have to copy, but you sure can pick up nuggets of good technique, production, arrangement and musical ideas, choose better sound balances and instruments.
The other great resource is YouTube, where most music is posted. The best videos, for me, are where the artist dissects the track they made. There are also lots of demos of music making software and software synthesiser plug ins that can inspire you as well. Many of the recording equipment manufacturers post good videos to try to sell their kit, but they contain useful tutorial information anyway (almost by accident). Soft synth and plug in vendors and sample and loop library vendors also post demos of their latest and greatest releases and this stuff is a surprisingly good source of inspiration for sound design.
Computer Music magazine has a cover DVD that has demo software, new music, free samples, beginner’s guides, tutorials, as well as videos by famous producers (the Producer Masterclass series) showing how they produce their tracks (it’s usually a talking head in front of a computer, but the aural excitement can be worth the visual boredom). I usually devour the DVD before I even open the magazine.
Freesound.org is a favourite destination of mine, because my music draws on sound design (almost like the atmosphere and effects that film sound editors like to use). I like to combine music and effects to create the mood of my songs. Freesound has lots of field recordings and all sorts of aurally interesting clips that you can use in your own work (so long as you credit them).
My other favourite resource is Spotify, where you can search for and listen to obscure tracks. I used to love Pandora, but that’s no longer available in the UK for greed reasons. I fear Spotify will soon be inaccessible to me for the same greed reasons.
Finally, there are a few good books dissecting various song writer’s techniques and production techniques, but these concentrate on music theory and technology, mostly. It’s useful information, but only as tools for your art, not the art itself.
Like all good anatomists, learning about the anatomy of a good song requires that you dissect it. Fortunately, many of these art instruction materials do the dissection for you.
So, the best thing about art instruction for ears is that there is so much of it, so widely available and it is so relatively inexpensive, that you cannot help but be saturated in great aural ideas, techniques, approaches and wonderment. The only down side is that it can be so incredibly diverting, that you displace your music making activity with art instruction consumption!
Putting the ideas and techniques into practice remains the challenge. If I can do it for painting, I can do it for music. 🙂 So can you.