It’s a commonly heard refrain: “[Insert Band Name] isn’t bad, but they sound just like [Insert Old Band Name]“, or the somewhat comical variation “Why listen to [Insert Band Name] when you could just listen to [Insert Old Band Name]?” I’ve heard songwriters tell me that they like a song they just wrote, but don’t plan on performing it as it sounds too much like a such and such famous artist’s song. As music consumers and creators, this expectation that we hold, that music be entirely unique, and free of discernible influence, is absurd and destructive. This mindset limits creativity and expression, could cause artists to avoid creating the music that they desire to make, and disregards the historical creative process.
If you take a course or read a book on music history, you won’t find a list of all historical musical genres alongside the names of the people that created them. Instead, you’ll find a narrative describing how one genre evolved into the next, drawing on influences from neighbouring idioms. Of course a music history text will speak of Mozart at great length, as it will Duke Ellington, but one thing Ellington and Mozart have in common is that neither artist created the genre in which they worked. We speak of these artists not because they created their genre, but because their works epitomizes it. These artists are notable landmarks along the continuum that is music.
Although Mozart didn’t create the classical era and Duke Ellington didn’t create swing, that isn’t to say that these weren’t profoundly creative people. Their music didn’t flourish in a vacuum, nor did any other. Rather, their creativity and brilliance is found in their ability to take the music that they were exposed to, internalize it, and create something new. Had these musicians not been exposed to the music that they were, their creations would have taken on drastically different form.
Taking into account the process of hearing music, synthesizing it and creating something new based on what you’ve been exposed to, it’s no mystery why classical music evolved at a snails pace by comparison to, say, rock music. With the advent of audio recording, a wide range of music became available to anybody, increasing the breadth of music artists were exposed to, and in turn expanding the raw ingredients from which to draw influence. The easier it is to disseminate music, the faster idiomatic evolution takes place, as we now see with online distribution of music.
Mozart sounding like Mozart was almost an inevitability, as he wouldn’t have been exposed to many styles drawing him in many other directions. I’m simplifying the era drastically, but I think the point stands when you compare the variety of music Mozart was exposed to to the variety of music the average person is now. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók famously travelled to villages to collect folk music, and deliberately expand the influence that his own music could draw from. These days, you don’t have to seek out musical influence if you don’t want to. Influence finds you.
During the course of a day, you could, say, be exposed to classical music during a movie, top 40 pop music in a restaurant, indie rock in a coffee shop, and jazz on the radio, to create a cliched example. If you don’t make conscious decisions about what music you want to be influenced by, what’s going to come out when you sit down to write a song? Unless you’re deliberate in your methods, there’s really no telling. If you listen to music, you WILL be influenced by it. Musicians have always composed music drawing from what they’ve heard, and always will. Indeed, this process occurs in all forms of art.
The difference between Mozart’s time and our own is that Mozart didn’t need to decide to sound like Mozart. Of course his greatness in his genre was entirely as a result of his brilliance. But he didn’t need to decide what genre to work in. He simply worked in the genre of his locale. Granted, there were various forms and contexts he could write in and for, but they weren’t as diverse as the disparate influences of today. What is musical idiom of Vancouver, Seattle, or Toronto? Again, I’m over simplifying Mozart’s time, but I feel the concept holds true.
Today, I feel as though we’ve created a creative dead end. By and large we expect artists to be impervious to outside influence, but also create music that is true to their own artistic vision and speaks to the audience. In order to achieve the later, I feel we need to shed our expectation of the former. We need to stop worrying if our music sounds like such and such famous artist’s music. We need to stop worrying if a new artist sounds like an old one. We need to acknowledge that music doesn’t get created in a vacuum, and that musicians will be influenced by what they hear.
But beyond that, we need to be deliberate in our selection of musical influences. If we sit down to write music and try to not be influenced by anything, we are fooling ourselves. We can’t help but to be influenced. Anybody writing music will be influenced by those artists that came before them. You will either be influenced consciously or unconsciously, but you will never be free of all influence.
That being the case, why leave it to chance? Why not be deliberate in your choice of influence? Why not decide what music speaks to you, and try to write like that? Will listeners accuse you of sounding like (or even ripping off) other artists? Yes, they will. Until they learn that this is exactly how music has always been created. But should you feel like a hack that’s ripping off somebody else’s music? Absolutely not. If the difference between writing music that resonates with you and writing music that doesn’t is a decision — the decision to embrace influence — why not make that decision?