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.

“Authenticity is invaluable, originality is non-existent” Jim Jarmusch

Those in hipster music critics’ circles usually celebrate music that appears to be "original" or "creative." Only the most brazen music listeners judge music on a scale of how derivative it is. If you're one of them, I challenge you to look through your record collection to find if what you actually enjoy is the music that contains as little derivative material as possible. Instead, I bet you'll find a lot of records that feel emotionally resonant that contain a common emotion you crave.

If you enjoy Elliott Smith, Public Enemy, Deadmau5, The Menzingers or Black Sabbath, I bet you also enjoy other artists that are derivative of them. You've also probably heard a few artists with that same influence, but you don’t enjoy their records. This is a reaction to the artist being unable to do the sound with as much emotional resonance as you’re used to. We don't react emotionally to the most original music we've ever heard; we react to songs that use new tools to bring us a new level of resonance in an emotion we desire. What's often perceived as originality is actually creating a more resonant version of an emotion we enjoy in music than what we've heard in the past. The musicians we perceive as original find new ways of communicating an emotion that bring these songs a greater resonance than we’ve heard from those before them.

Cynics frequently degrade certain genres as derivative, generic or "all sounding the same." This derision often comes from an outsider's perspective that lacks an understanding of the intricacies of a genre that the audience finds great depths to explore emotionally. When a classical music fan hears Converge or The Replacements, they think it all sounds the same and vice versa for a rock fan who's uneducated in classical music. The perception of whether music is derivative, generic or whatever we want to call it is based on the familiarity a listener has within a genre. Pop punk is widely derided for being one of the most generic genres, yet you can meet pop punk fans who will be fully ignorant of other sub-genres within the genre they enjoy since there's so much variety within it to listen to. Most music can be divided into niches of niches, and those who consume it are often boroughing down a well of an emotion they constantly crave a fix of.

 What usually makes someone think a song is “original” is they haven’t yet heard the influences the artist is drawing from. An ignorance of Pink Floyd would lead you to believe Radiohead’s OK Computer redefined rock, and an ignorance of Autechre would lead you to think Clark invented a new genre, although none of these thoughts help music to be more emotionally resonant. However, if you're ignorant of the past influences, these sounds can be far more resonant since you've never experienced the emotion found within the songs they're deriving inspiration from.

Anyone who's ever watched one of those YouTube videos that show nearly every pop song is the same four-chord progression or enjoyed a three-chord techno or punk song should be able to pick up that originality isn’t what brings about emotional resonance. It may win some points in our analysis by interesting us for a moment, but the music that ends up being what we revisit past initial listens are the songs that give us a feeling we want to experience again. If we judged songs on originality, then Can, Afrika Bambaata and This Heat would be far more revered than Led Zeppelin, Slipknot or Nas. Even when songs sound somewhat similar, if they're emotionally resonant, you still enjoy them.

Excluding the music that music theory majors make, which only other music theory majors appreciate, the rest of the world is looking for music that moves them emotionally. While there are a few nerds who have ingested so much music that they believe they need originality to cure their jaded musical tastes, what they're really looking for is someone who brings a new resonance to an emotion they've come to crave that they mistake for originality.

Familiarity Is Necessary For Resonance

Our brains are wired to respond to repetition and familiarity, which actually gives originality a disadvantage. When songs employ samples, this is usually a hack to give familiarity to a listener, since an audience is more likely to enjoy what’s already familiar with a small, new twist. When teen heartthrobs 5 Seconds Of Summer took Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” vocal melody and put new words to it, most music nerds’ first reaction is to yell "rip-off." But in the demanding world of major label record sales, they see this as a hack to getting a hit that's worth paying a royalty for (especially since it comes at the expense of the songwriter's royalties instead of the record label’s bottom line). Since most of 5SOS fans have probably heard their parents playing the Duran Duran classic in the car, this allows the hook to seep into their brains faster. Originality doesn't pay when it comes to hooks as long they're done with authenticity.

We actually deride music that's too original. If a song sounds too unfamiliar, containing little cues for emotions we've grown to understand, it's hard for us to have an emotional reaction to it. Listeners are often unable to feel the emotions attached to the sounds we hear in the genres of world or experimental music. They give listeners little to no familiar emotional guides, so the music doesn't resonate within us. Music is often only resonant to us when we understand the emotional cues that are communicated, so if the only emotion expressed is sound manipulation or from a culture that we don't have commonality with, it will sound foreign and unrelatable to us. For evidence of this, look to the countless artists who were too ahead of their time or who make music we perceive as original, yet we have no urge to hear their work again.

In psychology, there's a concept called schema, which are mental structures of preconceived ideas or a framework representing some aspect of the world or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. It’s difficult to find resonance unless a work has familiar schemas but has small deviations that exceed our expectations. Record producer turned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin did a study that showed our brains respond to a sweet spot of musical familiarity and complexity. To make music resonant within ourselves as well as others, we have to follow what's expected and deviate in small ways that increase the resonance. Musically, to feel resonance with a song, we must hear emotional cues we're familiar with, along with a few new cues that up the emotional ante to give us more resonance. Note that for these new cues to be effective, they must augment the resonance of the song since new for new’s sake doesn’t hold emotional value.

The End Justifies The Means

One of the most interesting aspects about music is no one cares how it happened (outside of those who want to imitate it), they just care that it feels good. While the first Rage Against The Machine record had a disclaimer that read "no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record," it didn't take knowing that to have an emotional impact, but for those who cared it developed a great admiration for the players. Many musicians will want to give every listener a caveat before someone listens to their music, like "it was all done live," " we only had one week to make the record," "this is just the demo," "we didn't use any pitch correction" or countless other qualifications that don’t ever make a listener enjoy a song.

Listeners cannot be bribed by context into liking a song, but it can make them respect the artist more and get more deeply involved in their appreciation of their music. Making music that takes context to appreciate it ignores that we want to hear music that inspires an emotional reaction. If you have to make caveats and qualifications to anyone who hears your music for them to appreciate it, odds are nobody will appreciate it since it lacks emotional resonance. It needs to be good enough that they enjoy it from emotionally reacting to it.

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.