Q: How Does Digestibility Factor Into Making Great Music?

This question comes from @runthejoseph on Twitter:

Q: Recently I've been listening to a hip hop group named Doomtree which employs a 7-member (5 rappers, 2 producers) team. While each person in the crew is unique they release music together with everyone involved that's easy to listen to. After seeing an interview with them, they brought up a word that I don't see that often when talking about bands/music collaborators. That word was "digestibility". That word stuck out to me because of course, being in a band, i am only 1/4 of a greater whole. My question is how important is digestibility in terms of success? Is it something that every successful person luckily pulls off or is there a "science" to taking several inputs and turning it into one output? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

A: Any time I’ve heard someone talk about digestibility it’s a misnomer. I think this passage from the book sums up how most people discuss digestibility:

Just as you can perfect a performance too much, you can also jam it full of too many great parts to the point where it distracts the listener from being able to focus. Music is a balance of how to work within a constraint, whether that constraint is how many melodies can be played at a time or how long a song is before it's exhausting. Figuring out how to maximize your resonance within these constraints is essential to crafting a great song.

One of the most under-discussed parts of music is there can be too many great parts in a song. If you study your favorite songs, you'll find a balance where one or two of the instruments play parts that are playing a supporting role that doesn't call for the listener's attention. A mistake musicians make when trying to "perfect" a song is to try to make every part catch your ear at the same time. There's only so much a listener can pay attention to and there's only so much space in a mix before emotion is diluted by a lack of focus. This thought can also go for arrangements. There's a reason that the past few centuries of music still only have rhythm (drums), bass, accompaniment (commonly guitar or keyboard) and melody (usually a vocal or a monophonic lead instrument). There's not room for much more without it being distracting.

I point to the Smashing Pumpkins record Siamese Dream, which is praised for its huge sound. When you inspect this record, you find a buried bass track along with tiny cymbals that contrast to bombastic drums and extremely loud guitars with a vocal as tucked in the mix as possible. Whether you take that to the hip EDM song of the day or the latest prog rock song, there's a tightrope act where one or two of the parts keep it simple while someone else has attention drawn to them. You can find this balance of give and take in nearly every classic record.

With that said, I think the reason this is a misnomer is this goes back to what I discuss throughout the book, what many people perceive as digestibility is actually emotional resonance in a song. What we find easy to listen to is music that is emotionally powerful, and what is often easier to digest is just listening to what you find pleasing and continuin to shape that to your own voice and emotional makeup. 

Q: What Ways Can A Manager Nurture A Band While Not Being Too Imposing On A Band's Direction?

I have been asked some version of this question a few times via those who obviously would want to stay anonymous. 

A: First off the good news: 

1. Many bad musical ideas come from the head forcing an unresonant idea on songs. Try to get the artist to express and not force a concept on their music. Most competent musicians understand when ideas don't work and that they can be forcing things. 

2. Many ideas sound terrible when described but feel great when you hear them. I can't tell you how many times as a producer a band has described to me their new direction and I have had to keep a straight face as I hear about how Jethro Tull meets Thursday is going to sound great, only to find out they want to bury a flute part in the mix in a bridge for a few seconds. Many ideas musicians go on about are actually subtleties they are just fixated on. Don't get too scared until you hear a direction in practice. 

3. You can show them music that may have an affect on them, but it can't be with the threat of your lack of support if they don't take it. But being a friend and sending music to those you work with should always be welcome. 

The bad news: If the artist really feels this direction and is making this because its what they feel, that's what they have to do. Sadly this sometimes means the relationship needs to be severed since you are no longer passionate about working with them. This is one of the hardest parts about the suit/artist relationship. It's also why I have feared ever getting any band's music tattooed on me in fear that they could start making white power ska at the drop of an emotional whim. 

Q: Are there genres of music where emotional resonance isn't important?

The most frequently asked question I have gotten so far is if there are genres where emotional resonance doesn't affect listeners enjoyment of music? 

A: The most common example given for music that isn't emotional is experimental and avant garde music. Obviously John Cage's work of "4'33" is hard to find emotion in, but even that emotion is a sort of an engagement. There is obviously some music made to just provoke thought and where that is what's most important. Same with noise music or drone where you are using the music to designate a time to meditate on a thought inspired by the tone you hear. 

With that said there is no genre where I see anyone who makes unemotional music that is enjoyed by a great deal of people. If you happen to find one, please alert me to it.