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.

If all you want to do is sound like someone else, playing in local cover bands is often more lucrative than performing original music. Most of us grow up trying to sound like our favorite musicians but with age, we gain emotions we want to express in our songs, just like those we admire. If you're interested in expressing your emotions, you need to figure out who you are to express yourself. Knowing this enables you to make an authentic expression of yourself. To do that, some exploration of who you are can help you gain an understanding of your character and can make what you should express easy to decipher.

Finding Your Unique Voice

For some, finding their voice isn't a hard process, but for others, it takes some digging inside for what’s compelling to you. New age gurus call this "finding yourself" or talk about "self-exploration." Instead, I think of finding your voice as a process where you try to find what’s emotionally resonant to you and how it gets expressed so others understand it. When you speak, you use a certain vocabulary along with speed, accent and dynamic that make up the sound of your voice. Your voice contains parts that are naturally a part of who you are as well as part of others who you've picked up details from. When you express yourself musically you do the same thing, forming a collage of who you naturally are that also picks up small qualities from others that you use to convey what you think about each day.

Voice Is A Larger Metaphor

An overlooked aspect of singing is we’re all commonly doing an imitation of someone else’s singing style. The sounds we make when we sing usually come in the form of an affected accent or pronunciation of words that's far from the way we actually talk. A singer's voice isn't one absolute sound; in fact, many singers are capable of doing various inflections with their voice. These inflections can make them sound English when they're from the Bay Area (Green Day); loud, confident and audacious when they sing, yet their speaking voice sounds nothing like that (Michael Jackson); an alien with an odd accent (Kendrick Lamar) and the list goes on. It's a rare occurrence when a singer sings or raps the same way they talk.

Each singer is picking up accents, turns of phrase, inflections, melodies and vocabulary from those they admire and blending it into a performance that hopefully sounds unique to themselves as well as furthering an emotion they're exuding. By forming a collage of what they've enjoyed that furthers their expression, they build a signature of their own. While there are some parts of your voice that are naturally embedded in who you are physically and genetically, we have countless ways to change that timbre.

This isn't to say that their most authentic voice is singing exactly how their talking voice sounds – in fact, it can be highly creative to affect a voice that gives your performance even more emotional resonance. All these affections, when employed to give more resonance, can be the best way to enhance an emotion in a vocal performance. Tom Waits’ application of treating his voice with so many different affectations the same way he treats the manipulation of the instrumentation in his music is part of what makes it so unique and resonant. The Clash’s masterful use of different voices traded off between the three singers of the group furthers the storytelling quality of their songs.

Most vocalists are singing with an inflection that they've found naturally from singing along to their favorite music. When we talk about finding your creative voice, this concept isn't ironically named. Finding your voice is how you incorporate your influences into your vocals and bring them into the sound of your voice. This voice is both figuratively and metaphorically one of the biggest factors that defines your sound. This same voice goes for nearly every choice you make in the instrumentation of your music or the production. Choosing to figure out how to find a palette that accentuates your emotional resonance instead of imitating gives you a unique voice instead of an imitation.

Finding What’s In Your Heart 

“Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.’" ― Jim Jarmusch

Writing that above title is hard for me, since talking about the heart doesn't come easily as I'm the classic stereotype of a man who has difficulty expressing his emotions in words. We call our emotional expression "the heart," since the phrase has become synonymous with saying passion. Passion is what tells us what we're supposed to write about as well as what emotions to evoke in music. Figuring out the emotions you're feeling and how to express them is the most determinative way to figure out what you should be writing, since what you’re experiencing is inherently one of your passions.

Expressing what's emotionally resonant in you is not only one of the best ways to help heal emotional faults, but it’s also a tool to help understand why you are feeling this way. Feeling an emotion that's overwhelming is commonly cured with the catharsis of writing music that shifts the mood into a better place. Sigmund Freud theorized that we're all emotionally repressed, so the only way to get us to a better place mentally is to express these emotions. This expression is what's at the heart of most of the emotionally powerful songs you've enjoyed. This expression is also what's missing when you hear songs that have no emotional resonance despite doing similar things to other songs you love. The players made a sound that was probably an imitation of other music they heard that sounds like a song that was emotionally resonant to them, but they miss the detail that an imitation has so emotional power.

Who You Are Individually Will Shape Your Perspiration

Making music that's emotionally resonant to you by using your feelings as a compass alleviates the job of trying to be original by allowing it to be a natural occurrence. When you’re fluent in expressing yourself by combining your inspiration with who you are, you're bound to do work that's unique to yourself. Every bit of inspiration you've ever taken in is unique to you and is impossible to replicate. Following these emotions leads to new and individual pictures as they get developed instead of impotent imitations. Many musicians make the mistake of imitating others, expecting their results to be as good as those they imitate, instead of tinkering around until they find music that embodies the emotion they want to express. This isn't to say every piece of music you produce will come to you in an emotional epiphany. It can take hearing a song that's similar to the emotion you want to make and tweaking it until you get the emotional resonance you're looking for.

Your expression of your emotions as they've been shaped by those you’ve learned from is what sets you apart from everyone imitating obvious influences. Frank Turner told me, "Everyone starts out as an imitation of someone else, and it’s by getting it wrong that you come up with your own voice." This quote was paraphrased from Elvis Costello, whose quote had a slightly different message, which illustrates this point even further.

You'll also have a different creative output than others from what is encoded in you genetically. Oscar Peterson can reach 18 keys with one hand on the piano, so what he's physically able to do on the piano is more adventurous than others with a smaller keyspan. A person who's constantly feeling anger is going to have a far harder time playing gentle music. When your individual emotional makeup is expressed, it will sound like you as long as you genuinely express it instead of imitating.

It’s More Than Jamming Two Ideas Together

Talk of creativity usually says it’s all about blending two ideas together by having “idea sex” to make a new creation. While this may work for making Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, what's needed to make emotionally resonant music is to let an emotional expression come first by figuring out how to elaborate upon this emotion using musical instruments. Unlike many other forms of creativity, music that's emotionally resonant needs to be more than smashing two ideas together.

 Let’s go back to this Reese’s example. Someone like myself who hates sugary foods (I know, I know) would never know that this combination tastes good since chocolate doesn't taste good to them. To make Reese's taste good, you need to enjoy these flavors and experiment on how to make this combination taste its best. You can combine the two elements, but you'll never be able to figure it out if it tastes good without releasing it to the public to get feedback. Since we don't get feedback on our music until we present it to others, we must use what we're passionate about to understand how to make the best decisions for it. If you're not passionate about continually tasting chocolate and peanut butter, the experimenting won’t come easy since you’re guessing at it. Good music is made by musicians trusting their tastes and emotional makeup.

What You Enjoy In Others Can Guide You

One of the head's greatest assets is to advise you on interesting treatments to apply into to your music. Figuring out approaches to filter your ideas through is part of the mastery of songcraft. By writing down what you love about your favorite creators, you can start to understand how to achieve the greatness you admire in them instead of playing songs that sound like theirs. Take notes on what you love about each one, then think of how you can apply the aspects you love about these musicians to what you do musically. The cover of this book was an exercise in figuring out those who had the greatest impact on my creativity and making a visual representation of it.

As an example, here’s what my list looks like as I write this book:

The Clash

·       Their vocals sound like different characters in a movie singing a part but coming from one singer.

·       Their grooves are either consistently rushing or dragging making for intense musical emotion.

Sophie

·       Vocals are sung as if they were written to a different groove yet still have strong hooks.

·       The vocals are pitched to sound like an unidentifiable singer yet still have a character of their own.

Health

·       The vocals are always breathy and keep a calm and peppiness. that make the intense and abrasive instruments listenable.

·       Interesting envelopes on familiar sounding instruments.  

The 1975

·       The ability to use unique sounds that don't distract from the vocals.

·       Masterfully calls back classic 80’s melody themes and tones while making them sound fresh.

White Lung

·       Uses lots of notes that still work well together.

·       Drums are very stiff yet still feel intense.

·       Huge dynamics from part to part.

You can also use this to get you out of decisions where you feel stuck. I'll think about what my heroes would do in a situation that's confusing me. Remembering who I love while finding correlations in their decisions leads me the way I want to go. You can apply this exercise to songs, albums, images, etc.

One of the best modern tools for figuring out who you are is to make a playlist of your favorite songs. This allows you to return to what continually moves you to find correlations of what you enjoy from musician to musician and song to song. I keep a playlist called Great Songs that I add to whenever I find a song I never get tired of. Whenever I have a problem with a production, such as having to reconsider the bass lines for a record, I can sit down for an hour or two and get inspired by all of my favorite works to find an inspired solution unique to my tastes.

What You Don’t Want To Do

Your not-to-do list is just as important as your to-do list. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl) has said it's much more important to know what he doesn't want to do as opposed to what he does want to do. Knowing what you never want to do can be less restricting, allowing you to be open to finding new inspirations and what you want to do. This allows the heart to do what it wants emotionally. I've done this for my productions and keep it in a Google Doc to revisit from time to time. Here're some of my "don't do" rules for record production:

·       Don’t make decisions out of expediency; trace the route of the problem and give consideration.

·       Too much bass or treble is unacceptable; a balance needs to occur.

·       Words should be pronounced so a listener without a lyric sheet can understand them, even in the fastest punk song sung with the worst Boston accent.

·       No vocal should stick out as being more tuned than others. There should be a consistency to the pitch intonation through a song.

·       Bass should not be an afterthought. It should always be what expands or retracts the emotion of a song while working off the vocal as much as possible. Bass that’s not optimized or gets buried in a mix is a lost opportunity.

·       Every song should have one tone that's distinct to that song so when listeners hear it, they feel like that's the only time they've heard that tone.

Having both a to-do and a not-to-do list is a common practice for many musicians, even if they keep them private. Coldplay exposed their list on an episode of 60 Minutes, where they showed off a list they had on their practice room wall. David Byrne said The Talking Heads made restrictions on what they would do, like not to imitating black singers (not out of racism, he found it inauthentic), no light shows and no saying "Oh baby"' or other rock clichés. One of The Ramones’ rules was no guitar solos, which was ironically broken on their biggest hit "I Wanna Be Sedated." This also teaches a great lesson that you can always reconsider these rules later if you evolve, but they’re important to have in the moment as you feel passionate about what you never want to do.

What Makes You Unique?

If you're still curious how to develop your voice after you’ve gained a working knowledge of what you want to do, a healthy exercise can be to figure out how you draw inspiration from what makes you unique:

·       What's something you love no one else loves? How can you incorporate that into your music?

·       What's something everyone loves that you hate? How do you develop a character from it?

·       What’s missing in music and can you take it to a new level?

Try not to barf as I quote Ayn Rand's shortsighted worldview in The Fountainhead: "We create because we're dissatisfied with what already exists." One of the greatest indicators that you should pursue an artistic impulse is when you want to hear a sound you've yet to hear someone else make. This means you’re craving an emotion that’s not being expressed. Finding concepts that you haven't seen before that you blend with emotional intent has made some of the best art throughout time. Pick a fight with an ethic; voice your disdain for a trend you have an authentic bad reaction to by letting your own work show why this trend is wrong. Taking the time to explore your likes and dislikes to find what you think should exist is one of the most effective ways of finding who you are creatively to develop a unique voice.

One of the traits of a great artist is to notice when you don't like a trend and develop a rebellion against it. If I had my way, I'd never put a ballad on a punk record, and if there were ballads I wanted to release, I'd do a record of only ballads. I love records that have a single mood across the whole record. The inclusion of ballads amongst more happy sounding songs takes me out of the mood of a record, which bothers me. On my own records, I rebel against this by keeping a consistent emotion throughout the record. As long as it’s authentic and not done out of opportunism, it often leads to some of the best art in the world.

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.