Songwriter Habit #6 – Thinking Like An Anthropologist
It’s easy for us as musicians to say that we listen to lots of music. However, what differentiates the way we listen to music from the way popular songwriters listen to music? In this blog post, we’ll discuss what we mean by thinking like an anthropologist when listening to music, and why it matters.
This article is a summarised transcript of the second point in our video “7 Habits of Highly Effective Songwriters’’. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.
What is Thinking Like An Anthropologist?
In 2008, when I was given the chance to learn from John Mayer, he talked about something that stuck with me till this day. He said that on every day of the week, he listens to the Top 10 Hits. However, he doesn’t listen critically – instead he listens with curiosity and with the intent to learn from the song/ artist.
This is essentially what it means when we say to think like an anthropologist, in regards to listening to music. It means to listen to without judgement, and only with the intent to take things apart and learn. You don’t have to enjoy what you’re listening to. Instead, listen with an open mind and understand that it’s possible to learn something from anything.
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Question 1: Why Do Millions Love These Songs?
The first question that John Mayer asks himself when he listens to songs, is “Why do millions love these songs?”.
Music doesn’t just end up in the Top 10 because it’s had millions of dollars pumped into it. Rather, it’s because millions of people actually enjoy it that songs can become famous. While it’s easy to dismiss popularity as a product of mere marketing or trends, that would be a mistake.
Taking the perspective of an anthropologist allows you to think more about why these songs are loved by millions. Then, we can take what we learn and try to apply it in our own songs.
Question 2: How Can I Use These Elements in My Own Songwriting?
The second question he asks himself is “How can I use what I’ve learnt in my own songwriting?”
Learning from a song and using it in our own songwriting doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be imitating what we hear. Instead, we should be trying to understand the mechanics behind what makes these songs great.
For example, if you enjoyed a bass riff in a song, understand why you enjoyed that bass riff. And then, maybe use a bass riff in your own songs as well, but put it through the filters of your own style and aesthetic to truly make it yours.
Remember, the key is not imitation, but emulation.
Question 3: How Would I Improve This Song?
Finally, the last question John asks himself is “If I was the producer/songwriter of this track, what would I have done differently?”
As songwriters, it’s not sufficient for us to be able to say that we just enjoy the vibe or mood of a song. We have to be able to articulate exactly why we like the song. For example, ask yourself, is it the melody, chords or lyrics that you enjoy? Then, try to articulate the mechanics behind what makes that part enjoyable to you. If you can identify and articulate what it is that you enjoy, this will enable you to then emulate it.
The next part of this is understanding that we all have something to contribute to a song, based on our own experiences and knowledge. You should try and develop the mental flexibility to listen to a song and ask how you could make it closer to what you’d imagine it to be. Not be judgmental and simply brushing it off as being a style that you’re not a fan of.
Conclusion: Songwriter Habit #6 – Thinking Like An Anthropologist
In conclusion, it’s important for us to develop a non-judgmental attitude when we listen to music. This way, we’ll be able to learn from songs and provide ourselves with a larger toolkit to draw from when songwriting. If we listen judgmentally, then we deny ourselves that chance to learn and grow as songwriters.
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