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.

Developing standards can go too far when they’re judged by technical achievement instead of emotional resonance. When you let the head develop a standard without letting the heart check that the head isn’t sucking the emotion from it, a lot can go wrong. Musicians will let metrics or exact specifications dictate their decisions instead of what's most emotionally resonant. A ballad that tears at you emotionally but is sung with too much perfection feels soulless. However, with a few expressive breaks in the voice and a gritty push to the vocal's tone, it can feel as though a singer's heart is being ripped out. Perfection shouldn't be judged like the answers on a test or a gymnastics performance, since the goal of a musical performance is to enhance the emotion of a song, not to be judged by form.

Bikini Kill's "R.I.P." isn't improved by punching in the vocal until it's perfectly in key. Nirvana's "Something In The Way" isn't improved by enunciating the lyrics more clearly. The Beatles’ "Twist and Shout" isn't improved when John Lennon's voice is less raspy when it hasn’t been singing for 17 hours that day. Public Enemy’s “Welcome To The Terrordome” groove isn’t improved by the samples being more on time. Skrillex's Bangarang EP isn't improved by taking out the distortion. Ghost B.C. don't become a sicker metal band by making every drum hit exactly on the click track and Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt" isn't better without the breaths between words.

 If you read interviews with musicians where they discuss perfection, you'll see two extreme sides. On one side, they'll talk about crafting a song until it's perfect; on the other, they talk about leaving in flaws because that's what makes music great. The flaws left in songs by many amateur musicians are left since they don't want to play a part again, instead of for qualities that reinforce the song's resonance. In the studio, if an amateur musician doesn't want to redo a take they'll call upon a quote about how "the flaws make the take," but if they want to keep doing more takes they "must not stop when striving for greatness." Musicians constantly use philosophies to convince the head a musical decision works, but the only way to judge it is if the decision reinforces resonance is checking with the heart.

Perfection isn't a metric – it's a balance of having a standard high enough that flaws don't ruin the emotion you're trying to convey while maximizing the elements that make this emotion most potent. If you're Kraftwerk, your music needs to sound as robotic as possible, and if you're The White Stripes, you're trying to sound as raw and loose as you can while not being so sloppy it's intolerable. Perfection is measured in finding what works best with your intent by achieving the perfect balance of where each part of your sound should fall so it's most emotionally resonant. It's making music that feels great and embodies as much of the emotion you're trying to convey as possible without sucking the energy out of it by being concerned about imperfections. Perfection is a careful consideration of the emotion you're trying to convey while executing decisions that embody this emotion to its most resonant possible result. It isn't laboring over every detail so it's metrically correct or perfectly enunciated.

In practice, this is judging with the heart about whether a "flaw" emotionally diminishes or enhances a song. On Manchester Orchestra's "Shake It Out," there's a kick drum and bass hit that flams and it takes me out of the emotion of the song for me every single time I hear it. On Elvis Costello's "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," the misfrets on the guitars drive me mad. The creators of these songs choose to leave these details in the song since they enhance the emotion of the song through a lack of sterilizing the emotion of the music.

While I may be driven crazy by these flaws, I also love the looseness in the vocal performance on each song. The way both songs have vocal doubles that don't always align when the voice adds certain inflections that a more polished singer wouldn't allow is resonant to me since the performances make the song highly resonant. Every one of these judgments is easily judged by the heart by hearing a more polished version and deciding whether "perfecting" them is most resonant. Both of these songs are some of my favorite songs, yet I appreciate some "flaws" and don't appreciate others. Your standards make up much of who you are and how your music sounds, and when you trust your gut on them, you make music unique to you, even if others may not interpret those flaws to increase a song’s resonance.

Twenty Pounds Of Crap In A Ten-Pound Bag

Just as you can perfect a performance too much, you can also jam it full of too many great parts to the point where it distracts the listener from being able to focus. Music is a balance of how to work within a constraint, whether that constraint is how many melodies can be played at a time or how long a song is before it's exhausting. Figuring out how to maximize your resonance within these constraints is essential to crafting a great song.

One of the most under-discussed parts of music is there can be too many great parts in a song. If you study your favorite songs, you'll find a balance where one or two of the instruments play parts that are playing a supporting role that doesn't call for the listener's attention. A mistake musicians make when trying to "perfect" a song is to try to make every part catch your ear at the same time. There's only so much a listener can pay attention to and there's only so much space in a mix before emotion is diluted by a lack of focus. This thought can also go for arrangements. There's a reason that the past few centuries of music still only have rhythm (drums), bass, accompaniment (commonly guitar or keyboard) and melody (usually a vocal or a monophonic lead instrument). There's not room for much more without it being distracting.

I point to the Smashing Pumpkins record Siamese Dream, which is praised for its huge sound. When you inspect this record, you find a buried bass track along with tiny cymbals that contrast to bombastic drums and extremely loud guitars with a vocal as tucked in the mix as possible. Whether you take that to the hip EDM song of the day or the latest prog rock song, there's a tightrope act where one or two of the parts keep it simple while someone else has attention drawn to them. You can find this balance of give and take in nearly every classic record. 

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.