Why music exists
When I contemplate topics that would make good blog posts, I look for topics that first and foremost inspire me. It’s hard for me to take the time to write a well written, thoughtful and concise piece, if the subject matter isn’t something I’m interested in. It’s similar to writing a song. I ultimately want other people to like and appreciate the music I write, but it’s hard for me to even finish a song if it doesn’t first move me. I do my best to create work that I’m inspired by and ultimately I hope others feel the same.
When I started investigating and exploring the idea of why music exists at all, I got really excited. You see, long before musicians were trying to sell their music to TV shows or aiming to get record deals that would advance their careers, long before there even was a “music industry”, people were making and listening to music. In 800 BC the first recovered piece of recorded music was found. It was written in cuneiform and was a religious hymn. Music has been with us as humans a long, long time. I’m excited about this topic because it’s so easy to get caught up in the whole business of making and selling music that it’s easy to forget about why music even exists in the first place.
Surprisingly, for as long as music has been around, there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus on why music actually exists in the first place. Music has been with us as long as we can collectively remember. Musical instruments have been found dating back tens of thousands of years. Yet, no one really understands why we love music in the first place, or what practical function, if any, it serves. Researchers have yet to find a "music center" in the brain. Like many other higher-order processes, the mental tasks involved in listening to and enjoying music are distributed across several brain areas.
Sociologists have suggested and put forth different ideas, about why music exists. Here’s a quote from BBC.com about a 2001 study done by McGill College that focused on our emotional responses to music:
“We like music because it makes us feel good. Why does it make us feel good? In 2001, neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Montreal provided an answer. Using magnetic resonance imaging they showed that people listening to pleasurable music had activated brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from sex, good food and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As DJ Lee Haslam told us, music is the drug.”
For me, I don’t need a study to explain why I enjoy music so much. I enjoy listening to and performing music because it makes me feel good and it seems to make other people feel good. That’s enough for me. However, it's fascinating to contemplate and think about what the point of music actually is in the first place. Perhaps better understanding the role music plays in our lives, will allow us to become more effective and more successful musicians.
So, for the sake of this article, let's agree that the point of music, fundamentally, is that it makes people feel good. Or perhaps, more accurately, it makes people feel strong emotions. Some pieces of music may evoke more of a sense of melancholy, whereas other pieces of music may evoke more of a sense of joy and happiness, depending on the key and the subject matter. But either way, music elicits an emotional response in the listener, which makes the listener, ultimately, feel more alive.
One of the traps we fall into, as both musicians, and in general, is focusing more on the pursuit of money and success, than on the point of why we're doing something in the first place. Are we making music in order to create people to feel something, first and foremost? Or are we making music in order to "make money"? Think about it. It's a subtle, but profound difference.
We live in a society that makes it incredibly hard to not be motivated by money. It’s required for our very survival. For many of us, it also ties into our sense of self worth and our perceived status within the social hierarchy we exist. It’s pretty hard to take money out of the equation when it comes to our art because, for better or worse, it plays such a big role in our lives.
However, the problem with being motivated primarily by money, is that ironically, it's not really a very powerful motivator. Once we have enough of it to survive, we tend to stop working as hard. Numerous studies have pointed to the fact that once we’re earning around $75,000 per year, making more money does little to increase our happiness. However, when we're fueled by passion and a deep sense of meaning, we're more likely to keep going, beyond the point of earning just enough to survive.
This is especially important when it comes to something like music, which is arguably one of the hardest professions to succeed in. If you're only focused on how much money you're earning from music, it's easy to get discouraged and just give up, or to experience a little bit of success and then start slacking off. Perhaps instead, focus on how people are responding to your music. Are you evoking a strong emotional response in people? Are listeners resonating with your music? Is your music creating the response you desire in people that listen to it? Does the music you make light you up? Or are you just trying to figure out a way to make an extra buck?
It's much easier to figure out ways to monetize the music you make if you know there's a demand for it. People want to feel good. Is your music helping them achieve that? Is your music creating powerful emotions in listeners that inspire them to move beyond the mundane monotony of their day to day lives? The ability to move others with your music is the point of music. How much money you're earning from your music is one barometer to gauge how well you’re doing your job. But if it's the only barometer you're focusing on, it's a bit like putting the cart before the horse. It would be like building a car and focusing on how fast it goes, before you build the engine.
I look at my job, in terms of my website and blog, as showing people how to make money with their music, because I realize how incredibly important that is for most artists. I also believe that there are many silver linings in the music business right now. THERE ARE ways to make money with your music, and my courses and website exist to show you how.
But don’t lose sight of what motivated you to make music in the first place. It probably wasn’t just to make a lot of money. Focus on your art, first and foremost. Write songs that people truly connect with. The one thing I know for sure, is that if you can find an audience, you can figure out a way to monetize your music. Whether it’s through licensing, or monetizing your tracks on Youtube, performing live, or perhaps a combination of these things. But don’t focus so much on trying to make money that you lose you sight of what drew you to making music in the first place.
5/22/2016 05:23:01 pm
Well Written Blog.
5/22/2016 07:17:05 pm
Aaron! Dude! You knocked it out of the park again. I've been a sideman keyboardist in corporate/wedding bands for money, to put it bluntly, for too damn long. I'm now in the process of making my "escape" from that rut, switching to acoustic guitar (which I've always played; I also sing), launching a money making venture in another field so I can reconnect with my desires and love for playing my own music. The plan is to develop "my thing" for a change. My dream is that my music will become a primary and successful venture. Your article, as well as other info I receive from you, is confirmation that I'm on the correct path. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
5/22/2016 08:29:38 pm
Right on Aaron. - you nailed it. Thank you again. My son wrote about this stuff too- " They're not buying me , they're not selling you." And more, but when it's all said and done, you'll " always have your suitcase full of songs." Music is the international language. It brings us to a place we couldn't go alone. The greatest music takes us from the " ordinary to the sublime." Travis Dow.
4/26/2022 07:38:32 am
What an exquisite article! Your post is very helpful right now. Thank you for sharing this informative one.
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