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.

“Rational thoughts never drive people's creativity the way emotions do.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Unfortunately, it's not only financial gains or the expectations of others that get in the way of actualizing the music you love. The way debates play out in your head is often the cause of the greatest failures in making music. There's a constant war between the head and the heart being waged inside every musician, the head being the application of organizational ideas and concepts to music while the heart is what guides you to craft a song emotionally.

To understand this war, we should understand what causes strife between the two. The head often tries to steer a song away from its emotional resonance. Many musicians think about playing a cool chord or an overly complex drum pattern instead of the one that feels good in the song. Thinking about what's impressive to a bunch of music nerds or more fun to play instead of what feels good is a fast way to a song no one wants to hear. The crazy riff you're playing or falsetto note you’re hitting needs to work in an emotional context in your song or else your song loses resonance.

The Balance Of What’s Fun To Play And What’s Emotionally Resonant

One of the biggest struggles between the head and the heart is to gain a perspective on what's fun to play isn’t always emotionally resonant. Anyone who’s made a rock record has probably struggled with a guitarist wanting to show how fast they can play a scale, a singer who wants to show off their range or a drummer trying to play a fill that stops the song in its tracks. Just as the ridiculous scales you hear in American Idol auditions or rappers who do twenty voice imitations per song rarely make their way to the masses, recognizing that showing off the coolest part you can play is often the opposite of what’s emotionally resonant.

To me, this is an easily defined choice since the head is what enjoys the challenge of playing a difficult scale, by craving an ego gratification when others see a "difficult part” played in a song. But what stops the part from being worthy of inclusion in the song is when others give you the reaction that it detracts from the emotion of the song. While I don't believe every time someone says that a part is being played for the musician's own enjoyment is always true, numerous collaborators agree that it's important to take that statement as a huge warning. Some of the best music made is what's both fun and challenging as a musician yet still emotionally resonant. Figuring out the alignment between the two is the key to satisfying the head and the heart. Editing out parts that don’t enhance a song’s emotion or that favor egotistical showing off is crucial to making resonant music.

The Emotional Check

I'm not saying that every song that's musically complex or fun to play is detrimental to its emotional resonance. If anything, I feel the opposite, which is reflected in my record collection of nerdy, progressive music. The chord voicings or odd time signature mathletics can still have an emotional impact, but emotional content needs to come first. Prioritizing emotion before complex composition is what separates Dillinger Escape Plan, Aphex Twin, Animal Collective, Kanye West, Yes, Battles, Cashmere Cat, Dalek, Radiohead and countless other successful musicians who push the envelope from every other progressive musician stuck in their hometown with no fans. They've learned how to take their massive understanding of composition to reinforce an emotional sentiment they're trying to convey. With every weird chord or strange treatment they come up with for their music, they make sure it's reinforcing the emotion they're trying to convey within a song.

What we're calling the heart is much more subjective. The heart is where your passions are; it's where you hold what you love the most. The heart is also how you emotionally feel when you hear a song. The single most important skill in actualizing your music is to trust how you react so you can alter your songs to be aligned with the emotion your heart's trying to convey. This is also the most primitive skill you have as a musician that everyone is born with but at some point messes up as their head gets in the way.

When listeners hear highly resonant songs, they don't know how a musician was guided to get there. They’re unaware that a musician has an emotional target in mind, a feeling they're trying to convey that's easy for them to make decisions based on when an element feels either more or less similar to this emotion. This practice is what allows musicians to make decisions that make songs more resonant.

The common confusion for those who understand the head and heart dichotomy is that the head is the enemy. The head has a place in music, so it shouldn't be seen as evil. It can figure out the concepts and the traits we find interesting in music. It gives us some of our best ideas along with organizing them. But we need to use our heart to check the head's contributions. This is a constant balance in creating, so the path you take is a large part of who you are. The head comes up with fantastic ideas, but without the heart there to check that these ideas have an emotional resonance, your songs will suffer from working well on paper but falling flat emotionally.

This is the most evident in those who know music theory and every rule not to break who then make music that's as boring as can be to every listener who encounters it. Odds are you've encountered the musician who can tell you how amazing their music is because "they use all organic instruments" or "compose on sheet paper." Despite their breadth of knowledge, their music is uninspiring of any emotion that yields a song you never want to hear again. It has no feeling and sounds exactly like what it is: someone showing off their musical ideas and not their emotions. They're too obsessed with the methods used instead of the way it feels when hearing it back. When reviewing the sheet music of their work, the chords all work in a genius concept, but even to their ear it doesn't work as well as it should when played aloud. They ignore the heart, so their music falls on ears that wish they were deaf when they hear it.

When a musician learns too much theory, they often turn off their heart’s instincts. They assume what they're doing is correct since it’s abiding by the rules, like a coloring book. This unchecked imitation turns off the emotional reaction within a musician. If a person they admire sings like this, uses that amp or recorded a certain way, they believe they should do the same. Instead of experimenting to find an emotional texture, they use preconceived ideas or rules instead of checking to make sure it reinforces an emotion they wish to convey. Ideas, concepts, treatments and theory are necessary to figure out how to further an emotion but need an emotional check to see that they further the resonance of a song.

It's important to understand that music focused on the head isn't even resonant to the creators themselves. They're proud they made a work that makes sense on paper or is impressive to other musicians or is fun to play to challenge their physical abilities instead of what's right for the song giving it maximum resonance. They don't even consider a song should have an emotion since they think of music in terms of acrobatic ability or an achievement in impressing other musicians.

Every experienced producer has the story of the chord that shouldn’t work “in theory” but sounds amazing in context or a song that breaks all the rules of music theory but is the best one in the artist's catalog. There's also the common scenario of a song that no matter how hard you try to produce, it never has the emotional impact of the demo. Musicians self-sabotage their songs by allowing the head to run wild with ideas they believe add depth but when unchecked by emotion destroy their song's resonance. These decisions must be made by letting the heart choose what's emotionally resonant, not just interesting in theory. Letting your emotions tell you if concepts, ideas, theory and rules are working in your song is the practice of putting the heart first.

Early on in my life, I didn't understand this emotional resonance concept at all. I was constantly confused why some songs sounded so powerful while others didn't. When I heard my favorite artists talk about "their heart" or "music that speaks to their soul" I rolled my eyes and thought they should stop talking artsy gibberish garbage. It took me years of rebelling against any saying that sounded new age or hippie to get that there was a real, tangible concept here that has nothing to do with souls or crystals, but instead the practice of finding what you're passionate about by turning that into a song. Once I understood this concept, it became obvious which songs are made from emotional inspiration versus those made to impress others.

The Difference Between The Head And The Heart

To further understand this separation, these are the common roles for the head and the heart:

The Heart

·       Tells you a part feels melancholic, happy, exciting, heavy, dirty, etc.

·       Inspires emotions to draw from to turn into songs.

·       Warns you when a part doesn’t feel right in a song.

·       Checks your ideas to see if they inspire an emotional reaction such as goosebumps, dancing, head banging or whatever other reaction you'd like to elicit.

The Head:

·       Thinks about rules, theory, concepts and other constructs.

·       Figures out ways to elaborate on your ideas.

·       Checks your emotional response to see if it can be optimized by using some logic, such as speeding up a song for intensity or simplifying a melody so it breathes 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.