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  • Sarah Donkin

What makes music valuable?

Do you want the songs to be commercially viable or have value?


I got a lot of questions about my plans for my senior writing project last year. This was one of the ones that tripped me up the most. I was talking through my project idea, 15 songs inspired by or about nature, with someone and working on getting it to be as concrete and specific as possible. She asked a lot of good questions. She had a lot of good feedback and ideas. But this particular question immediately rubbed me the wrong way.


Maybe it was the tone of voice on “commercially viable” - that same polite disdain that “literary” students and professors who have never been published in anything more competitive than an undergrad lit magazine carry when they talk about Stephen King and his impressive catalog of novels. That same tone an “old soul” uses when they talk about pop music, music on the radio, or anything composed after 1995.


Don’t get me wrong, there are different types of value. But they are not mutually exclusive. Also, to imply that one is somehow better than the other seems a little pretentious, and, if you’ll pardon the phrasing, tone-deaf.


In order to talk about the value of music, we have to think about why we listen to it. News flash: there are a lot of reasons someone might listen to music (other than to be "enlightened"). Each reason suggests a different type of music and a different type of value.


For example, some students like instrumental music, often classical, while they study. They aren’t interested in hearing or trying to interpret lyrics. They’re not going to be particularly concerned about the artistry of the music. So while they may choose music that has a lot of artistic value and creativity, the important thing is for the music to be easy to listen to and push into the background while they focus on their notes. The same students might listen to Weird Al at another time for his clever parodies and comedic work - essentially, the entertainment value.


Some people (a lot of people) listen to music as a cultural thing. While country music fans aren’t all cowboys (yeehaw), many of them grow up in rural areas. Whether they stay in the country their whole lives or move to the city, the sweet sounds of Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw (or Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, if you like older country) are always a little piece of home.


I don’t consider myself a huge country music fan, but I did grow up with country music as a summer soundtrack - it always plays on the county fair speakers, and the country music station is one of the few that comes in on the radio on the drive down to the fairgrounds. So if I have country music playing, it’s probably because it reminds me of some of the best days of my life so far.


That cultural reasoning can apply to a lot of genres of music - hip hop for some people, Latin pop for others, blues, gospel, bluegrass, the list goes on.


Some people have a strong distaste for certain genres (most often hip hop, country, and heavy metal). No one is obligated to like every genre. But it is important to recognize that your dislike of an entire genre most likely has nothing to do with the value of that genre. Country music can be creative. Hip hop can be thoughtful. Pop can be meaningful. Rock can be sensitive. If you’ve never recognized anything of value in a genre you don’t like, you either have a very narrow definition of value, or you haven’t listened to enough or with enough intention in the genre yet.


But what about the top 40 music that plays on the radio? Stuff that is almost universally recognized as being mindless and shallow?


Well, have you ever been to a party? This is one of the situations where people are less interested in listening to something with deep meaning and artistry, and more interested in fun songs with a beat you can dance to. Sure, it can be mindless. But its value isn’t in the depth of the lyrics or the creativity of the instrumentation and melody. It’s in the functionality of the music, the elements that allow people to dance or sway or stand in the corner alone and abandoned by the friends they came with while the music plays.


Also, commercial viable does not always equal mindless or shallow. While some top 40 music is popular because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, some of it is popular because it’s just decent music that is accessible to a lot of people.


A 15-minute prog rock song isn’t likely to make top 40 anytime soon because it is too long to be accessible to enough people. A French pop song is less likely to make top 40 in the U.S. because less people will be able to understand the lyrics. An experimental jazz piece probably won’t have much commercial viability since not everyone wants to be experimented on. A three-minute, four-chord pop song, on the other hand, is usually accessible to almost anyone. And it may have greater value depending on the quality of the exact melody, instrumentation and vocals, lyrics, and other factors.


So what do I listen to? What has value to me? How does that relate to what I write?


Well, I listen to a lot of genres. I enjoy alternative and indie rock, classic rock, pop, and more. I like choral music every now and then. Sometimes on the way to and from work, I’ll turn the radio to a top 40 station and just roll with whatever happens. A key thing for me as a writer has been to push myself to listen to things I wouldn’t naturally include towards. I haven’t listened to a lot of hip hop at this point, but I have heard a few Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator albums. I’m not really into prog rock, but I’ve gotten through some Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Yes playlists.


What I write is mainly singer/songwriter-y, folk/pop indie music - so, your typical acoustic guitar-jeans-and-a-button-up-probably-didn’t-have-many-friends-growing-up musician. Still, I listen to a wide variety of music. And that wide variety of music (yes, even the pop) gives me a lot of information and ideas to consider when I write.


I don’t consider any of the music I listen to (again, yes, even the pop) to be a guilty pleasure. It’s just music. It’s just fun. From Fall Out Boy lyrics to Ariana Grande melodies and vocal flourishes, it all carries a different type of value for me. So while I don’t focus specifically on writing commercial music, if someone is trying to decide whether to make music that is “commercially viable” or “valuable” - why not both?

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