A decade ago I sat in a collegiate music composition class and listened to a professor explain how, in order to write a truly great song, it was necessary to hone an idea over and over, fully exploring it and discovering the best way to implement it. Young people, he posited, struggled with this because they have too many ideas and want to work each of them into every project. They lack the ability or willingness to be patient, to refine, to focus, to reduce. Besides the fact that this is a pretty condescending stance to take in front of a classroom of young people who want to write music, it also – irony alert – feels like a rather unrefined position. Presumably he was trying to convince us that writing music was work, except that it felt an awful lot like he was saying writing music was for other – better, more dedicated – people.
To be clear, there is some truth in what he said. There is absolutely benefit to honing one particular idea and refining it into its purist form. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of ideas in one song, or that the desire to combine a number of ideas is somehow detrimental to any one of them. It just means that, if you want to include a lot of ideas in one song, you had better be able to give each of them the attention that they need. It’s also worth pointing out that young people are just as capable of this as their seniors – if not more capable, considering that the vast majority of “great” songs and albums were written by young artists.
In fairness, the overarching concern that this professor had is a good one: to really make a song work, you can’t simply string a couple of ideas together. You need to truly understand those ideas and how they fit with one another. How a song’s elements relate and what makes each one successful in achieving its goals have a huge impact on how the song will turn out. What our dear professor failed to understand is that there’s no age barrier to focus and drive and deep thought. You don’t have to have had a certain number of birthdays to write a good song, you just need to have the ideas and the commitment to putting in the necessary work. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different from what you would need to teach a collegiate music composition course. In retrospect, maybe Mr. Professor wasn’t being a dick in an effort to discourage us from writing music; maybe he was afraid that we were coming for his job.