Long Forgotten Melodies – Listening to Ghosts

I like to work (i.e. paint, write, do my day job) with music playing (except when I am writing songs, when I need to listen to my own music).  I find that music helps me organize and clarify my thoughts before I commit them to the page.  I’m much more productive, especially as a writer, when music is playing.  It inspires and uplifts me.

As a song writer, musician and music producer, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a mode of producing music that sounds like the most popular music of the day.  After all, this is what the media exposes us to.  It’s almost unavoidable.  However, if we wind up being little reproducers of the sound du jour, that’s anathema to originality.

Originality needs an element of surprise, not a perfect reproduction of the latest “happening sound”.  No matter how good and original the music was when it first appeared, making more of it is almost always a mistake and a recipe for boring your audience, however sincere and well crafted your homage is.  Boring your audience is a sin, but so many artists and record companies make this very mistake.  I know I have done that too.  We probably all have, at one time or another.

For that reason, I don’t draw much inspiration from dance music.  Sure, I like the rhythms, the production tricks and the way that sounds and synths are handled, but if I wind up producing music like this, I’ll be just another bedroom producer, cranking out undifferentiated music that isn’t quite as good, to the ears of any audience, as the music the already established artists make (it’s their territory and they have staked it out).

Surprisingly, I’ve found another source of inspiration.  My car has lots of different CDs in it.  I have stuff from the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and the noughties.  Lately, though I’ve been adding even older music.  There is some Nat King Cole, some Les Paul and Mary Ford, some Frank Sinatra and also artists that drew from the past to make their music (e.g. Manhattan Transfer).  What’s that stuff doing in my listening schedule?  I wasn’t even alive when these artists were popular.

Every now and then, I will be listening to an artist and will pause for thought to realise that the artist I am listening to, communing with their emotional output, separated by space and time, is actually dead.  I am listening to their mortal sonic remains.  The person whose music I am enjoying and being affected by is a ghost; dead and gone.  That’s a magical, yet sombre moment.  Evidence of their style, musical intelligence, wit, humour, love, passion, artistry, mastery and taste is still pouring out of my speakers.  It’s just as fresh as the day it was made.  Perpetual, immortal youth.

This is where the originality your own music needs can be sourced, I think.  As a song writer and music producer, or even as a vocalist and instrumentalist, going back and listening to these musical ghosts can be very instructive and inspirational.  You can weave unique elements of their music into your own work, updated with new production techniques and sound treatments, if you like, but borrowing from the content, the expression, the melodic phrasing, the vibrato or the inflections.

I think injecting a surprise or two like this into your own work has two functions.  One is that it takes you out of the current musical fashion’s constraints, providing a novel twist to your music that doesn’t appear in works by other contemporary artists.  The other is that this extinct music is written into our musical subconscious.  It has been passed down from artist to artist, in the DNA of popular music production.  Adding a nostalgic element or two like this into your own work can lead an audience to believe they have heard your song before, even if they haven’t in fact.  Because this music is part of our cultural inheritance, it means that any new work that quotes it or takes elements from it immediately sounds familiar and likeable, to an audience that shares the same cultural references.

You don’t have to lift entire melodies, though it has to be said that there are some long forgotten musical motifs out there that are well worth borrowing.  You just have to play the fugue game with them and mess around with them, until they morph into something new.  However, the intervallic movements can be absolutely golden, no doubt about it.

Instead, you can lift nostalgic elements like slap-back echo on voice or drums, soaking wet reverb, bone dry drums or swooshing, swirling phase shifting.  Each of these production treatments is evocative of a distinct period of time when they showed up a lot in popular music.  Alternatively, the way you arrange a vocal harmony can be equally evocative of earlier styles.  So can particular rhythms, grooves or phrasings.  The choice of instruments can also take you right back to an earlier era.

As long as you take inspiration from past artists, maybe long dead, in a respectful and loving way, I don’t see any problem with enlivening your own work with these elements of nostalgia.  You also bring the long forgotten melody and hence artist briefly back to life, albeit in memoriam.  It can also infuse your own work with fondness and a little gentle humour and wit.  We’re so fortunate to have a rich history of recorded music available to us, in archives.  Part of your musical education should always include a look back at what worked, way back when.

So next time you are stuck in a musical rut, lacking inspiration or feeling like everything you play or write sounds the same, go back a few decades into the recorded music catalogue and start mining for gems.  There are riches to be discovered.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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5 Responses to Long Forgotten Melodies – Listening to Ghosts

  1. susangeckle says:

    Inspiring article. Shania Twain once said to be original she has to pull away from the crowd for awhile and stop listening to whats popular, dip into other areas. This is true for non-musicians as well.

    • I think you’re right. This applies to so many of the different fields of the arts. Interestingly, I like Shania Twain because her music is precisely that fusion of country and rock influences. They called her a crossover artist, but I just think she was using her influences incredibly wisely. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Nikki says:

    Well said! I love hearing modern artists using classic styles. I think right now especially, fusion of older techniques and newer sounds is The Big Thing. Bands that sound like voices form the 70s, but play like a group from 80s London. Artists that sing like jazz but perform like pop metal. I don’t know that it’s always happening totally gracefully, but it’s fun to hear the results.

    Just curious: What are your thoughts on sampling? I go back and forth between thinking it’s a clever trick to use or just a cop-out for a lot of rap artists.

    • Glad you’ve noticed the trend. I think people are finally beginning to paint with all the colours available, so to speak. That’s not to say something of its genre is not good, but I think it is exciting to see the different fusions happening. Thanks for commenting.

    • On the subject of sampling, I have to declare an interest. I worked for one of the first sampling machine makers in Australia in the 1980s. I was their Innovations Engineer, for a while (what a great job title). I like sampling, but I think it can be used very lazily. For me, just throwing some loops together and rapping over it doesn’t add very much artistic value. However, somebody that is using sampling to get previously unheard sounds, to use found sounds to make music, to get a good groove in a track and build on it or who plays the sampling machine like a virtuous musician might play an acoustic instrument – that kind of sampling is the stuff I love.

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