“He struggled. He scratched out… If you look at those sketches… you see the agonies that this man went through… And what has finally appeared as the finished product looks as though it was simply phoned in from God. That’s what’s so incredible. He wrecked himself…trying to do this, trying to achieve this very inevitability. That’s the word for it. Every note that comes is inevitable. It could have been no other.”
(Leonard Bernstein, on Beethoven)
There are few things in this world other than death and taxes that are inevitable. Regardless how certain the outcome may seem, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. (Or until the fat lady sings, whichever comes first.) Whether it’s a Staubach-to-Pearson “Hail Mary” pass in the final seconds of the game, or your decision to take the proverbial road-less-travelled, there are always options, good and bad, for how just about anything might turn out. And sometimes the options have options.
This is especially true in songwriting – a craft in which nothing is inevitable. Each note set down in a melody offers choices of what note should follow. Every rhyme in the lyric has multiple possibilities (unless you’re still trying to rhyme orange, in which case you should stop). Every step in the composing journey brings the composer to a new fork in the road. Sometimes several forks in the road. Composing is about making choices: Which note comes next? Which word is the right next word? When will we break for lunch?
But here’s the thing: Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of possible outcomes for any given song, when we do our job really well the finished composition will appear to not only be effortless, but inevitable. Ironic, isn’t it? The harder you work, the more choices you consider, the more you sweat the details, the more inevitable and God-given the result will seem to be.
So I ask you to consider: How hard do we work on our melodies and on our lyrics? How many of the myriad possibilities do we seriously consider before we settle on the notes and words we put down on paper? Because the appearance of inevitability is a deception. It requires a lot of work to make it look easy. Are we willing to toil over our notes and syllables until our song sounds as if it were phoned in from God?
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to hope that one day someone as brilliant as Leonard Bernstein might say one of my songs is so perfect that every note was inevitable – that it could have been no other.
Until then, I’ll just have to keep working at my craft.