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.

Before we get any further, I think it's important to examine what we enjoy about music. If we understand what makes us react positively to it, it becomes far easier to make ourselves happy with the music we make.

Music Is Like A Mood-Altering Drug

Music is an emotional drug that listeners use to change their mood to one they would rather feel. To clarify, at a neurological level, certain songs give us a change in the chemicals in our brain that can help get us to an emotion we would rather feel than the one we are currently feeling. Emotionally, some people medicate up and others medicate down while some even do both. Some listeners put on a sad song when they're sad to feel better, finding comfort in it, whereas others put on a happy song to forget their pain. While it’s argued that humans use music as filler to hold their attention or keep their thoughts quiet, every song also carries emotional stimulation that goes beyond the view of music as background noise for life. The most common use of music in our lives is to alter the way we’re feeling, bringing us an emotion we’d rather feel than the one we presently feel.

The moods music alters within us are much more complicated than simply “happy” or “sad” while being highly subjective from person to person. The Dead Kennedys’ "California Uber Alles" is a fun song to bounce around the room to for one person but, to another, is the soundtrack for smashing windows. The Magnetic Fields’ lyrics in "100,000 Fireflies" can make someone feel less alone in the world or depress the living hell out of someone else. Bassnectar’s “You & Me” is a beautiful love song to one person that provides comfort or another person’s anthem to go crazy on the dancefloor. The song "All Right Now" by Free is constantly played at conservative political rallies as a motivational song, yet its subject is about having sex with a meter maid you met an hour before, which runs quite contrary to conservative values. The intent of a song doesn't need to correspond to a listener's reaction since as long as an emotional resonance exists, listeners will feel that resonance and interpret their reaction according to their own emotional makeup.

It's not always easy to understand why we’re drawn to certain songs’ emotional content. The world has a hard time understanding how a rich suburban brat craves hearing a gangster rap song about the lifestyle of extreme poverty when the biggest crime this privileged dweeb has committed is taking a under-aged pull off a cigarette. One of the reasons we find a song outside of our normal tastes or lifestyle to be resonant is the artist found a way to make it exceptionally emotionally potent. We can't help but get drawn into the extremely vivid picture they paint by showing us their authentic emotions; the power of it inspires a reaction in us. Just as we can enjoy the fun of pretending to be someone else by acting or performing, these songs elicit a change in us that helps enhance an act we want to embody that fills an emotional void we would rather feel for a moment.

When creators make highly resonant music, listeners make exceptions to what they normally enjoy; they feel so much emotional power that normal reservations get put aside. These cravings are primal, just as dancing to music has existed for as long as human history has been recorded. These reactions are subconscious, which is why we see addictive behavior in music consumption.

When we wonder why we enjoy music that seems to have little commonality with the emotions we regularly have each day, we ignore that we all have a wide span of feelings, so a song from outside our normal listening confines can be a highly resonant expression that we want to explore. When we hear music, we're usually meditating upon what the musicians are emotionally expressing. Just as you can read a book about someone’s life that exists in a far different way than you do, exploring the emotions in a song is often the same. We explore these emotions as we latch on to the meaningful passages of wisdom, accompanied by a resonance-strengthening sound that helps make it more aligned to our current emotional state. As we focus on these emotions, we devote the time we need to get clarity on how we’re feeling.

Just Because It Gets In Your Head Doesn't Mean It's Emotionally Resonant

It’s commonly assumed that a song is successful at its job as long as it gets stuck in your head. This is a half-truth, since songs need to posses both emotional potency and a repetitive hook that keeps revisiting your thoughts so that you are reminded to listen to the song and continue to bond with it. Any song that employs repetition in a simple way can get in your head if you hear it enough. What’s much more important than hooks that stick with you are the songs that emotionally impact you, which you return to time and time again when you're looking to feel a different emotion than the one you're presently feeling. The difference between the two is stark in that many songs can get in your head after minimal exposure, but this doesn't mean you’ll form a decades-long relationship with them when you seek an emotional accompaniment to moments in your life. That takes an emotional resonance coupled with a memorable melody.

The cute hooks of annoying melodies we get in our head are short flings instead of the deep, meaningful relationships we form with the songs we love. Music without the added depth of emotional resonance doesn't have the potency to make a lasting impact on your life. You can get any song in your head if you hear it enough, but it doesn't mean you feel anything from it. These are two entirely different traits since songs that make you feel a strong emotion are repeatedly reached for, whereas hooks that get in your head are played just to rid you of an annoying earworm that won't go away.

The lack of potency that can be found in music is most apparent when you hear the soulless music that comes from ad agency jingle houses. The sole goal of jingles is to stick in your head to remind you of a product that you may need at some point. Their bland lack of emotion is a feature, not a bug. When music is dictated towards what a boardroom wants compared to what an artist wants to express, it's always missing the authenticity that makes resonance for a listener to connect with. There's a reason musicians turn to jingles in their career as a last resort, not out of passion. They lack emotion in favor of infecting you with an annoying hook you'll constantly be reminded about.

This is why you'll hear a melody that's catchy but devoid of emotion referred to as sounding "too-Disney!" The children Disney target with their music aren't emotionally sentient enough to find emotional resonance in music the way adults do, so they only respond to the catchiest melodies possible. This hollow lack of passion is optimized for humans who don't yet have the problems that breed emotional complexity that you develop as you experience life. The goal of a classic Disney tune (as opposed to the modern optimized songs like the ones in Frozen, which are written to appeal to both adults and children) is to infect the listener with a hook, so they repeatedly come back to the product for repeated viewings. Ask any adult with young children how successful they are at this and you're bound to get an exhausted eye roll.

You can get the 1877 K A R S 4 K I D S jingle in your head from the repeated bludgeoning the ad campaign brings, but would you ever put it on to accompany an emotion you're feeling in life? There’s a reason no one turns to the terrible theme songs for TV shows or jingles when they need an emotional void filled since there’s none to be found.

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.