The rituals of listening to music and how they make you feel

On the weekend I attended a mastering and marketing workshop led by a couple upstanding and highly knowledgeable music gurus, Jack the Bear and Kim Lajoie. A lot of amazing information was passed around the room, but one thing that most resonated with me was the question posed that one of the most important things to ask in order to connect, as an artist, is “how does your music make your listeners feel?”.

This got me thinking. The obvious answer you may come up with is well a happy song makes you happy, and a sad song sad, so basically, Mr. Bollinger your songs make people feel totally bat-shit depressed. While that may be true for some, it’s not really the whole story. In fact it’s probably only the title page, because there is much more to music than the mere surface level of the emotions confined to a particular song, though that’s a good beginning. In fact there’s much more to music, than the music itself. The sound we hear as music is just the container for the emotions and feelings it conveys. There’s so much going on when we hear music. It may trigger memories, it may summon up inspiration, it may help define your identity. Basically music is like religion. It gives meaning, often to thoughts and emotions that are confusing, difficult to reconcile or too complex to convey into words alone. This makes a musician a pretty powerful person, especially when they produce something that resonates with a lot of people. So how do you do that in your music? Great question, but first some background thoughts.

I started thinking about ritual and music. About my own obsessive pouring over album covers, lyric sheets, band bios. In short my fanatical obsession with an artist. You hear a lot of people who grew up with vinyl talking about how there was a whole process involved in listening to music. Not just click and go. In short there was a more involved and clearly defined ritual to listening to recorded music – sitting and listening while looking at the cover art, reading the lyrics, having to attend to the disc at the end of each side. This created a bond with the object and with the music, and of course the artist who created it.

That is not to say that there is nothing like this in listening to music today. The rituals are there but they are just more varied and not necessarily as clearly defined. There are things one can do online that replicate the vinyl listening experience. These days you can more easily tap into the story or mystique around an artist. Information about an artist, is now just a simple Google search away. The song that you are obsessing over at the moment has probably been tabulated and the lyrics documented and analyzed on a fan bulletin board. You can respond to the music you love by sending gushy fan messages on Twitter or get news, tour dates, merch and more through an artist’s website or Facebook Page. The ritual, like many things, has gone digital.

The line between music fandom and religious cult is very thin. One of my favorite bands at the moment, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, has tapped into this most effectively. In fact its merch website is called And while my rational side understands the manipulation that is involved, the primal side of me is comforted that in a world of atomization and alienation, I can feel like I am part of a tribe that resonates to the same riffs and beats and can find a guilty pleasure in the demented lyrics that the band’s songs intone. This is a good thing. I am a fanatic in a virtual music cult, and that’s a lot healthier than some of the other alternatives.

So we can see that the ritual of listening to music is important, and that will no doubt vary from fan to fan, style to style and artist to artist. So how you get that into your music, and here comes the complicated answer, depends on what you are writing about. If you are creating happy dance music, you are not necessarily going to easily resonate with lovers of ancient Mesopotamian folk music and their dogged insistence that these songs be played on traditional instruments in natural acoustic settings. The story you tell in your music must resonate with the people who will actually listen to it. If it doesn’t they will most likely ignore you and go back to their pitiful lives without the benediction of your happy house mantra carrying them off into la la land.

In order to resonate you must look for a mystique and a story you can weave into your work. Of course, this should resonate with you as well, otherwise it will soon become bleedingly obvious to listeners that your work lacks any authenticity whatsoever. You might fool the people once or even twice, but you don’t want to be the Stone Temple Pilots of Doom Metal. So, if you don’t know already, ask yourself: what do I love; what makes me ecstatic; what pushes my buttons; how do I want the world to see me. Write those things down and research them. If you love the occult, or Jesus, or your car, humor, darkness, the blues, or sickly sweet orange cordial, that is what you should be losing yourself in when looking for inspiration in your music. If you can find answers to these questions you may just have the material to write a powerful song that will resonate with your tribe and make them want to hear more.

Finding your tribe is the next step, but since you know what you love, no doubt the people who will resonate with your music will probably love those things as well. Go out there and let them know these things about you and how they have impacted you and your art.

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