May 20

The Localist: How to Write an Album, Part 3 – Building a Toolkit for Self-Expression

In Part 2, we looked at the idea of trying to give strangers a reason to listen to your album, as opposed to the tens of thousands of albums released every year, and in particular the idea of writing something that is both new and substantial. But how do you do that? I discussed the idea of generally becoming familiar with what music is out there. The idea is that a lot of musicians fall into the trap of writing music that is not substantially different from what has already been put out, or from what is being put out by their contemporaries. Of course, if your goal is that you want to simply express yourself, that’s fine! But we’re looking at techniques to help you write something that gives a perfect stranger a reason to listen.

Beyond even becoming generally familiar with what music is out there, it’s important to also learn as much of the music as you can – whether developing an appreciation for it or learning to play it. When I talk about developing an appreciation, I mean more than merely tolerating the existence of other music, or even enjoying listening to it. I mean understanding and being able to hear what it is about the music that the musicians in that field like about the music, or being able to understand the music from the perspective of those musicians.

Cross-cultural appreciation is a good analogy. If you want to even begin understanding, say, Korean culture, you need to do more than enjoy eating Kimchi, or be able to say a few basic phrases in Korean. You need to be able to look at things from the perspective of Korean people. Similarly, developing an appreciation for different kinds of music involves looking at things from the perspective of those musicians and hearing what they hear as good.

Why is this important? Because if you’re trying to write things that are new and substantial, you need to be humble enough to learn as much as you can, because doing so helps to build a toolkit for self-expression. And you aren’t going to learn these other forms of music until you gain a genuine appreciation for them. And if you can go beyond appreciating and even learn to play more and more different kinds of music, that is even better. Because the way that you write is heavily affected by what you feel comfortable playing.

Building a Toolkit for Self-Expression:

I’ve brought up this idea of building a tool-kit for self expression. Why do you want to do that in the first place? When you craft your music, you want your music to be the product of your freely expressing yourself, as opposed to the product of limitations that kept you from learning different forms of expression. Music is a language, and you better express yourself by learning more and more of the language.

Of course, you of course can’t learn *everything*. The idea is just that you keep an open mind about music. There will be people that will tell you that certain kinds of music and certain approaches to music are bad. People will tell you that pop music is bad because its simplistic. People will tell you that classical music is pretentious. People will tell you that music theory turns musicians into robots. People will tell you that rap is just words. People will tell you that Broadway is hokey. So much of this talk is based on people’s insecurities and fears that certain preconceived conceptions of genre and hierarchy will look unfavorably on them.

But writing music isn’t about having a competition about what genres of music and approaches to music are better or worse. You are writing because you have something to say to the public that you want to express through music. You should take that hierarchy talk and throw it in the garbage and understand that learning new kinds of music is never beneath you. Better to learn as much of the language as you can, and discover the variety of ways in which you can express yourself with music.

Part 4 – A Manifold of Hooks


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”