This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

 Intent is the practice of using your heart's feelings to make sure an emotional idea or the way a piece of music makes you feel is continuously reinforced, not contradicted. Since a song's objective is to evoke an emotional reaction, intent is the guide we follow to shape it to be as resonant as possible. While this is often called vision, I think of vision as the ability to see intent, but intent is what we see within that vision. It's identifying the emotion you're trying to convey and letting it guide you. While some musicians intend to mimic the excitement they've felt in other songs on a dance floor, others feel a certain emotion they want to translate to music that evokes that intent as strongly as possible. Often it's a feeling inside the writer that's difficult to describe that's expressed by the pursuing sounds that get closer and closer to the sound of that emotion.

When you understand your intent, it can guide the entire creative process whenever there's a decision to be made. If your intent is to evoke a sad song with a happy ending, it's easy to elaborate upon this concept by trying to develop the saddest lyrics and chords that match what you feel. You may then figure out how to segue into a key change that eventually brings a happy ending. Intent ensures your options are focused, giving you a clear way of deciding if a part helps a song get closer to its maximum resonance.

Intent allows an emotion, idea, color or feeling to guide you by letting it make the decisions for you. Musicians commonly make the mistake of writing a set of lyrics to then match it to their most recent beat instead of using a process of emotional elaboration where they write either a beat or vocal and then react to the emotion it makes them feel to make both work together. This elaboration is figuring out the emotion of what you're trying to convey by working until the music matches the emotion you're trying to communicate. When fans hear a song where the music seems to match the lyrics in perfect symbiosis, they may assume this was the luck of mashing two ideas together. But far more often it's figuring out how to make each part of the music sound like the emotion the songwriter is feeling.

One of the first questions most songwriters get asked is "Music or lyrics first?" While this is a great question, it isn't the least bit determinative of whether they'll make music that's resonant. Instead, it's what they do next. If you choose to mash whatever riff you like the best with the lyrics you last wrote, odds are your song will be less resonant since the lyrics and music won't be working together to elicit maximum resonance. Make sure that each decision you make works with the original intent by continuing to react to the music, lyrics or song title you wrote first and then through each step of the process. This will result in a song that's as potent as possible.

A common practice for songwriters is to start with a riff or a certain turn of phrase in the lyrics. From there, pursuing more parts that further the emotion this starting place conveys is how a song gets shaped for maximum emotional resonance. While the song may take more shape and alter its feel along the way, having this emotional anchor there to guide you to make sure you’re adding constructively, not superfluously, allows a song to reach its potential. It’s often said the song tells you what it wants to become and in practice, this is from following the emotion you feel from a riff or lyric by continuing to build off that emotion.

 When you're not guided by intent, the creative process is chaotic, lacking a purpose to aim towards. I regularly see musicians trying to craft a song by playing riffs until two seem to go together well enough to move on instead of thinking how the second riff will further the emotion they're trying to craft. Far too many poorly written songs are made by throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks until a song is completed or putting your latest set of lyrics with the song your bandmate brought to practice by happenstance, never considering an emotion that's trying to be reinforced.

Many artists don't even realize they're following intent since it's not a conscious practice. They think the ideas they accept and deny are random, but they possess strong intuition that judges the ideas they hear by whether or not they further help reinforce the emotion they're trying to convey. Even if a song flows out of you in an instant without much resistance, taking the time to consider if it can be improved by aligning it more with an intent allows emotional elaboration to guide you instead of poking around in the dark.

Intent In Your Music

Intent can also be an overarching theme of what you want to create as a band or under a musical alias. Many gaze upon good-looking, poorly spoken musicians and assume their greatness is an accident. Growing up, my first musical impressions were hair metal and Sid Vicious, so I felt the same. But after spending time with many great musicians in my adult life, I began to realize this assumption was wrong. Mötley Crüe and The Sex Pistols might appear as shallow at first glance, although what truly lies beneath is two artists with strong intent. They may have celebrated the shallow side of their endeavors outwardly in music videos and behind the scenes documentaries, but there was consideration of the intent they would evoke in each song as well as their image that can be found in any biography on both groups.

When intent is highly considered, it can drive great artistic heights. Producer Pharrell Williams said this of working with Daft Punk: "Everything is so concise, there's a reason behind everything, nothing is done by coincidence, accident or mistake. There's always a real intention meant to serve a purpose." That quote is the best summation of what it's like to work with a creator with well-developed intent. Every decision is guided by judgments on how they get to their goal. They let their head consider ways of furthering their intent while their heart checks if it's in line with their emotions. They don't record parts for the hell of it; they consider each part as to how it'll assist or deter their intent. Daft Punk themselves say: "We thought about our music before we ever made it." They had intent that they needed to express.

Intent Gives You The Backbone To Create

One of the saddest behaviors of musicians is allowing their artistic esteem to be controlled by whoever criticized them last. Intent allows you to take criticism and learn from it instead of having it be a detraction from what you create. When artists with no intent receive negative criticism, they don’t know how to react, no matter what the criticism is. They then become reactive and guess at solutions to please an audience before themselves. With a positive comment they're elated, but anytime someone doesn't like their music, they sink into self-doubt. They're like a boat thrown around the waters in every direction since without intent, there's no anchor. With the anchor of knowing who you are and the traits you want to embody, you're able to see many criticisms are actually compliments.

A lack of a compass means when someone criticizes an artist for the qualities in their music, they lose their backbone by trying to please their critics. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen a band get offended when someone says their music is "too spacey," yet they deliberately decided to write the spaciest songs possible. This is actually an affirmation. While it's not meant as a compliment from the person leveling the criticism, no good art is universal. There will always be those who find certain traits undesirable, but if they describe a trait you want to embody as problematic, I'd chalk that up to a score for your team. It's commonly said that the best art inspires strong reactions of both love and hate since it's emotionally resonant instead of being unremarkable.

I'm not saying to ignore all feedback on your music, since feedback is essential to actualizing your vision. If your intent was to write dance jams but you're hearing that the abrasive parts of your sound are distracting from your hooks, it can be worth considering if you're optimizing your mixes as best as possible. Intent allows you to consider this criticism since without it, you can never tell if both criticisms and compliments are good or bad. One of the toughest balances is to figure out what gives you character and what can be improved on. Intent allows you to have a compass to judge whether each piece of criticism is worth considering towards how you get there.

It’s crucial to develop intent to avoid being what I call a "ping pong ball" that’s swayed by whoever's opinion they heard last. If the criticism is positive, everything is great, but if someone puts them down ― even about an intentional choice ― they react by pleasing the critic. This ping-pong ball bounces around from side to side because since without intent, it’s beholden to the last criticism they received.

With intent, you're able to take criticism by judging whether it's complimenting your intent, even when it's meant to be derogatory, and grow from it. When you consider your intent for a song, album or as a musician, you have a value system to judge if you should consider a criticism or dismiss it. If you know who you are along with what you're trying to say, it gets far easier to maintain your mental health in a world where everyone can give their opinion about your art in an instant. Pleasing others when you’re making the music you want to hear leads to a guessing game that creates music no one else wants to hear, including your critics.

When It Helps To Have No Intent

Having an intent that guides you through a career can give you purpose. While I emphasize intent throughout this book, there are times where you want to see how a project will develop. While I think emotional intent is imperative to shape a song, having intent in a project can sometimes ground it too early. There are times it can be helpful to explore with no intent in order to discover intent that will guide you later. When starting a new project, it can help to be free of this grounding to see where things go. You can freely explore where a song or a project can go, but when it comes time to draft, edit and elaborate on your ideas, intent not only makes the work easier, but it allows your song to be guided to its maximum resonance. The key is to consider your intent when it becomes time to make a decision where you need a guidance.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.