Why writing music and writing an academic paper have a lot in common.

On the side of being a trainee academic, I write, produce and generally dabble with music through an alias. While practising my scientific writing, I have definitely seen parallels between this process and crafting a piece of music. Now, while I am no expert in either field, I have definitely picked up a few things in my meager years. Most of which I’m still trying to put into practice…

It’s quite a common occurrence to find myself hitting a brick wall with a paper (or with music). No matter how good my thought process is around a subject, being ‘inside’ a topic too long is definitely bad for a papers’ health. This absorption is also quite often in a dependent relationship with delusions of academic grandeur, and picturing the look on my (insert senior academic/Journal here)’s face when they see the new angle I’m coming from. This of course will slowly fall back to reality, where maybe I need to work on that sentence structure a little more first. The road to writing a piece of music is pretty similar.

Here are some reasons why I think writing a piece of music is a little like writing an academic paper, and why maybe having a sizeable hobby might help your main profession more than you think:

  1. Structuring a song is like writing a good argument: you can feel the difference when it isn’t going anywhere.

On some level, writing an essay takes some intuitive feel, and I think that can definitely be learnt from song writing. For example, you can often tell bad song structure by that loss of energy felt as the track moves along. Even if a piece of music is wavering over a part which is meant to feel less charged, often this has been earned, either with a highly charged preceding section, or some form of difference before and after. Even in unconventional structures, the song still feels like it’s got a point to it and is telling a coherent story.

If my paper feels like it isn’t going anywhere or it’s losing its point, often no matter how much I try to rationalise, I probably need to go back over it until it does feel right.

2. Managing frequencies and the positioning of sounds is all about balance.

Trying to put a big bold bottom end instrument in a mix probably means that there isn’t going to be loads of room for anything else down there. Similarly, if you want a complicated brass section, or strong mid range synth, then areas in the frequency range need space to allow those melodies and harmonies to breathe and come out of the song. Sometimes if a particular sound is going to be most important at a particular point, making sure everything else is lower in the mix means that it won’t cloud it’s importance.

In a paper, making sure that evidence is not too heavily weighted one way or the other means that a well rounded argument is often presented. However, when trying to make a specific point about something, often making sure that the rest of your structure is emphasising that point makes the paragraph stronger, and will form more of an impact upon the reader.

3. Writing music teaches you that less is definitely more…most of the time.

When I initially started to write and produce music (and definitely am still guilty of this sometimes), I would love to throw everything into the mix, with the thought to make it as impressive and complicated as possible. Of course, this meant that everything cancelled each other out into a sort of ‘music soup’. Learning to strip away unnecessary elements and remove ‘fatty’ parts of a song will ensure that the important information is centre stage. The same is true of writing a paper. If a section doesn’t feel like its strong or coherent, it probably isn’t going to make the cut.

It should be noted, too little going on can also be a problem, as was tried in the EDM genre, and we all know how that sounds…

4. Be creative

I almost think this point needs to be number one. When writing melodies or harmonies, that initial spark of creativity is pretty difficult to pin down to a particular source. Neuroscience is still definitely looking for it, but art seems much better at conceptualising it. Implementing this creative idea into a coherent ‘feel’ or message is down to technical ability, as well as some theoretical knowledge, but the latter definitely doesn’t work without the former.

While writing a paper definitely has a technical and methodological skill set to it, being creative with ideas definitely makes the piece come live. After all, isn’t this why we are trying to become (or became) academics in the first place?

Creativity can be enhanced in loads of different ways, and I personally find that the mere fact I have another interest keeps my mind from working in only one modality. So pick up the paint brushes and try something different for a while. The more practise you have like this out of your main interest, the more it will work to keep your thinking alive. Sounds counter intuitive, but it seems to work. This academic seems to agree too.

5. You’re never finished learning

While I would never claim to have achieved a point of comfortable knowledge or skill in either music or academia, I am definitely aware that it is, and will always be, a continual learning process. To be honest, thinking that you have reached the end point probably mean you’re furthest away from new insight than ever. But this should be exciting. Knowing that their are always new ideas to discover and new things to learn will mean that you’ll keep your mind open to different ways of thinking and creating.

6. Know when to stop

While there is always new insight to be discovered, there does come a point when you need to know when to stop. Making music definitely has an end point in each track. While the entire journey is a learning curve, each track should be thought of as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. When you get to the end, sure, refine the whole piece until you’re happy, but don’t toil over it forever. Once you ‘feel’ that it’s finished (and be honest), sit on it for a day or so, and if you’re happy, stop.

Same goes for writing a paper. If you’ve read over it again and again and you still can’t see what else can go into it without ruining its form, then sit on it, get some distance, come back to it again, and then stop. It’s probably finished. Even if you change your mind or find some new information later on, there’s always a new paper to be written which can cover these points. Then you have two publications instead of one. Jackpot.

7. Practise, practise, practise.

All of the above definitely is all about putting it into practise. Practise, then practise some more, and then throw a little more practise in there. While the younger me hated practicing those piano and guitar scales, the older me is happy now that my hands sort of know where they’re going when I have an idea. Basically, knowing that my support framework is in place when I have an idea means that I can rely on my brain to put the rest together over time.

Having the skill to put ideas into words just gives you more of an automatic framework to work with. I’m hoping eventually that this blog will act as a mimic to practising scales, and when I need to put those future ideas into practise (hopefully they’ll be half decent) then I’ll have the technical writing to pull it off….

 

I suppose the message I seem to get from both fields is that writing a good piece of music or a rounded paper comes from intuition and technical skill, however maybe in different doses. While neuroscience is definitely interesting when it comes to understanding what might be happening in the brain during rhythmic or musical writing, I definitely think getting out there and doing it yourself is the best way to understand it if you’re going to use it yourself. The same goes for any sort of hobby outside of academia. Don’t be an armchair hobbyist. Taking a breather from the field of academia is not only working to improve new ways of thinking about a subject, but also gives you a blog post or two to write about when you’re struggling to think of a new topic.

 

 

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