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.

One of the most overlooked aspects of creating is standards. Standards are the line you draw on whether you find an element acceptable to pass your evaluation. A common place you'll hear about standards is in a cheesy rom-com where a character says, "I can't date him, I have standards," meaning that they won't accept some unattractive feature in a mate. This applies all throughout your life in that standards are what you won't accept below during any critical choice, whether it's not eating at fast food restaurants, how many days you go without a shower or how far you'll walk to a destination.

Standards are the most crucial barometer you use to make judgments. Standards can be the degree you've memorized a song before you're confident enough to play it live or how regularly you mess up a rap before you think you're capable of recording it. It can be whether you'll allow yourself to have a song with only two instruments in it or if you need it to be a large arrangement or even how much work you've put into your vocal melody before you can call it done. It can be the quality of sound that you need to hear to be worthy of releasing. Standards can be found in countless aspects of music, so where you draw the line on each of them makes up much of who you are.

Nearly every choice we make while creating music is affected by standards. If you have low standards for how tight your music should sound, you'll never sound as good as someone with a high standard of precision in their performances. If you hold low standards for song form, you'll be excited that you wrote two verses, three choruses and a bridge and call it a day. Sadly, this means your songs will get repetitive over the course of an album. You may think you can perform a song on a guitar when you bend strings and rub up against other strings in a chord while picking at inconsistent volumes, but a pro guitarist never stops rehearsing until all of these flaws are absent from their performances.

Standards aren't a metric as much as a judgment of your reaction to listening to a part of a song. There's no line in the sand as strong as a decision in your mind. Over time you develop a median of what you feel is up to your standards or not. While you can begin to hear how out of pocket a part is and measure it in milliseconds or the decibel reading of how loud an instrument is, these aspects need to be judged, like anything else, by your emotional reaction. They're a judgment of what's appropriate in the context you're presently working in. Each judgment is contextual, since how loose a dirty hip-hop groove is compared to the pulse of a 909 in a techno song can be wildly different when measured in metrics.

Developing Standards

Developing standards comes from analyzing both your own music as well as others. By taking in inspiration to decide what's acceptable in each of these recordings, you form standards over time as you draw correlations in what sounds right to your ear. In time, you begin to have a barometer of how songs should sound so when it comes time to craft your music you can make decisions on how close your own work will get to the sounds you love.

No one starts out with high standards. You aren't born knowing when a note is off key, just that they sound less pleasant than other note choices. In time, you hear how in key most singers you enjoy are and decide whether to hold yourself to the standards you've observed in others. If you take the time to analyze music, you'll notice that you're playing out of tempo, you're flamming chords, etc. Soon after, you start to know when you can play a song based on how sloppy it sounds to you or how regularly you make mistakes.

When I started working as a producer, my ability to get good performances was stifled by growing up listening to the loose, incompetent performances of punk records from the 80s and 90s. I'd accept horrible performances in my productions since most of what I grew up hearing was sloppy, out of tune but highly emotional. My peers who grew up on perfected hair metal and Steely Dan were getting way better performances than me since I was playing catch-up on hearing the intricacies of performance. I had to raise my standards of what a good performance is by intentionally listening to music with tighter musicianship to gain this heightened awareness. I now listen to the perfected performances on dance and pop records to remind me of the precision that can exist so I can judge how far I should go in perfecting parts in a recording.

Now I've come up with many innovative techniques to get even the worst performer to sound good without editing. This can be punching in every single word of a vocal to coaching a drummer about their flams by punching in two bars at a time while recording. There’s a certain level of performance I won’t accept below by not calling a song done unless it’s up to my standards. Achieving high standards for musicians while not exceeding their budget is what keeps me getting hired as a record producer.

Trusting Your Gut

One of the ways following your heart shows itself is a naturally occurring lack of comfort during the process that tells us a part can be better. We've all heard the saying "trust your gut" being thrown around in all sorts of real-life scenarios where an instinct tells someone to pause to give more consideration before moving forward. Those same rom-coms we discussed before are riddled with instances where someone had a "bad gut feeling" and then regrets ignoring it when that bad feeling turns out to have been a warning of bad things to come. They may convince themselves not to listen to their gut after they find out their love interest was really an escaped convict or whatever cliché these movies are playing out currently, only to regret not trusting their intuition.

Within the anatomy of the human body, right next to the heart is the gut and they have a close relationship. Just like our gut feels bad when we eat bad food, it can tell us with a similar feeling when an element is in bad taste musically. When you eat food that’s flawed, your gut warns you before you experience heartburn. It sounds this same alarm when your heart isn't feeling right about an element of your music. For example, your gut may tell you that the melody going into the verse can be better or that a melody can be repeated another time. Learning how to trust this instinct is one of most essential parts of actualizing great music. Sadly, many artists second-guess it or allow environments where the gut's instincts are shut down by trying to avoid conflict.

Listening to your gut and not lowering your standards is how great music gets made. When your gut feels uncomfortable about a part of a song, this is an immediate tip that your standards aren't being met, so you must experiment with other options. When you choose to use the head to convince yourself it knows better than the warning the heart is sending instead of reacting to what you hear, you defeat your strongest instinct you have for crafting a song. Knowledge of music, whether it's theory, an emotional feeling or a standard for how good music should feel, allows your gut to know your song isn’t quite right yet. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show was known for always telling his staff to “trust your lack of comfort.” If you feel uncomfortable about something, your lack of comfort is an alert that it needs more evaluation. If it doesn’t feel up to your standards, you need to keep working until it does.

My Heart Is A Compass

One of the other ways “trusting your gut” is described is “your heart is a compass,” meaning that you can let it guide you through the decisions you need to make. These internal warning signs aren’t always about standards. They can also indicate when you're applying an idea from the head that's diminishing what makes the song emotionally resonant. Whether you're choosing a synth patch or which chord to play, your heart tells you which one feels closer to the emotion you're trying to convey. Using your heart as a compass for the choices you make throughout the process is far more effective than “searching for ear candy” or a “cool part.” Your heart keeps a standard of the emotion it feels from your intent, using it to judge every choice you make when composing or sonically treating your song.

A Russian proverb I'm particularly fond of is “trust but verify,” meaning trust in the artists to make the right decision, but it’s OK to question to make sure you're coming up with the best ideas. While superfluous questioning can slow down momentum, when your bassist’s affinity for prog rock creeps into your Americana songs, questioning can help you rethink things and find out you could have thought about a part a bit more.

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.