Why Do We Make Music?

Mike Lawson • String Section • November 4, 2018

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Why do we make music? What motivates a person to invest so much time and energy in music (as musical activity/performance, or its creation/project?

What motivates people of all ages, already so scheduled with their busy lives, to take up (or return their attentions to) the daunting task of learning a musical instrument? Why does the serious musician often engage in time-intensive additional work outside of a demanding profession? When music is a self-motivated undertaking; what are the realistic rewards one can expect in return for excellence in personal musical endeavors?

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by a delightful young engineering student at the local university, Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to studying at the college, he studies piano and voice with a colleague at one of the studios where I teach. He requested an interview for an English project, in which an alumnus of the institution is profiled. I found the encounter quite stimulating with organized and refreshingly basic questions. I found it difficult to be concise and to answer with precision. I examined. I wondered what role music has in his life as a non-music major; how does music fit into his life now and how did it influence him in his past… and where is it going? (See his response below.)

On the heels of this interview discussion, my husband shared with and sent me the following link to a fascinating musical feat which I share with you: YouTube.com/watch?v=lvUU8joBb1Q.

I think we can agree that this is amazing, creative, interesting, and most of all, required huge investments of time, energy and articulated thought (planning) to build, execute, record, and share. I immediately wondered: what is the return for these musicians? In what way does their creative work ethic find validation independent of public response?

Additionally, the rapid-fire of topic ideas sent to me by a fellow musician covered a wide range of subject matter. The concluding statement she wrote was too good not to use… “it is called ‘playing an instrument,’ not ‘working an instrument.’” From there, off I went. I contacted a few students with curiosity regarding some of the specific foci I have chosen to investigate under this dangerously general topic. As most response was verbal, I have no quotes, but those discussions were inspiring. After being interviewed for the mentioned academic paper, I in turn asked him to write a little about himself for this article. I thank all who contributed to the success in jumpstarting my brain.

It is with joy that I am constantly given such stimulation from those both within my professional sphere and from unexpected sources quite outside of it. Without diversity in my encounters, I am less of a person. I am glad to be reminded now and then that it is not healthy to dwell too much in the company of those experiencing life the same way that I do.

Isolation and the Social Threshold

Ability in music requires one to manage both personal and social situations well, though in differing faces of the process. I would like to make note of the many ways in which the learning, expressing, creating, and experiencing music can both isolate and socialize; many socially awkward people have less trouble practicing than playing with or for other people. Social beings often are not naturally inclined to spend so much time isolated from other people but thrive in the performance or ensemble roles. The degree of variation or inclination for solitary vs social comfort plays a very large part in determining both the motivations as well as the strength of success one has in music. Most people have some of both tendencies to work with. It is useful to be attuned to how one is navigating their social threshold as they grow and develop musical skill. Those who are very far to one side or the other might benefit from help from others (benefiting both in the needing and the giving).

I have found, personally, that music involvement has allowed for some very strong relationships and ties to community as well as a much-appreciated sense of belonging just as I am. I am quite lucky to have the friends I do and would not be honest if I didn’t admit that without the musical activity somewhat forced into the structure of my life; I would not know how to interact and would be socially crippled. It has been (and will always be) much more difficult to maneuver the social landmines within my career and life than to execute the demands on my musicianship and skill. I am grateful for the environment in which I teach and work and for those who take the effort to understand and therefore allow my strengths to shine past weakness to enjoy interacting with others. This is no small thing and is important to recognize in one’s self and in others…regardless of age or ability. It may not be why we make music, but it is central to the success of the ventures.

Learning a Musical Instrument

Learning to master an instrument is a personal and isolating endeavor. I often wonder if a slight neurosis or dysfunction is necessary (or makes it easier) to achieve high levels of proficiency on a stringed instrument. Some degree of isolation and obsession is acceptable (if not necessary) in one’s behavior for an individual to access mental focus, discipline, and organization for extended and extensive amount of time alone in a useful practicing capacity. When one gets to a level of skill and control over the instrument, the nature and needs for practice morph and adapt to fit the ongoing needs of the musician’s chosen use of the instrument. I try to emphasize to my students that playing the violin (or viola/cello, etc.) is NOT like “riding a bike.” The abilities fade if not maintained.

It can’t be a passing desire: one must decide to be committed to the work if goals are to be reached. Personally, I am not apt to forget how difficult it was to attain the first (or second) time around and have zero desire to repeat the process.

There are individual nuances of execution which will sometimes require “brushing up,” but I aim to use what I can do enough to prevent any loss of what was so hard-earned.


• Enjoyment

• Desire to better ones-self

• Success: Success feels good (success begets success). The better one can control their instrument, the more fun it is to play

• Guilt: (most serious instrumentalists go through this at some point)

• Performance preparation

• Pressure to practice based on time invested

• Social norms of acceptable ways in which one can spend time in an expressive activity/capacity

• School band and orchestra

• Acceptance into an institution or ensemble or another musical environment

Music is a Healthy Supplement

“As a kid every time I would see a piano my eyes would just light up and I would always sit by it for as long as I could just trying to make music. One woman even called me the ‘piano man,” says Kwabena Owusu. “My parents couldn’t afford lessons and after we moved to Ghana (when I was in the 3rd grade), it was even difficult to find a fairly decent piano teacher. My parents eventually bought me a small five-octave keyboard which I sat by every day using every resource I could find to learn how to play.”

“When I moved back to the United States, a digital grand piano was the first thing that I bought; I didn’t have a car at the time, so I used online lessons for the time being to improve my sight reading and technique,” she adds. “I am currently at the intermediate level, and I practice every day. I hope to one day be like my role models: Alicia Keys, John Legend, Brian McKnight and other similar musicians.”

For Kwabena, role models provide succinct direction and inspiration. The instrument (piano) provides identity and tangible means of reaching desired musicianship.

Financial and circumstantial obstacles provide a challenge-something to push against. When I was younger and at my most desperate, I was also at my most passionate (and blissfully unaware of the need for additional motivation). It was whilst achieving some degree of professional security that I became aware of a new thing for me: apathy. Some call it “burnout.”

In a way, things become easier and in another way, they become more difficult in these changes. When the parameters for success change, the means of filling them also change. What is needed to improve can lose the clarity found in a practicing regime.

Developing musical skills can be appealing with traceable and visible cause/effect correlations. Being a successful musician is much less clear. I suspect many feel a deep fatigue with the effort of making life “work” within the field. Often this can most acutely be felt as what I call “the ‘lack of’ syndrome”…One feels a lack of motivation, of inspiration, of passion, leaving us with a dry sense of obligation borne of so many years (sometimes a life) of dedication. There is intense lure for a way to feel those things again. I feel that this is a strong initiator for many people. We are searching for what we feel is lacking, so we throw our time and energy towards musical endeavors that exist independent from all those difficult and exhausting aspects in our professional (or serious) musical lives. We create personal environments that feel and sustain our existential needs. It is important to have some control over those parameters with which we define a thing as “good.”

Conclusion: So Why Do We Make Music?

It isn’t for fame, and it certainly isn’t for fortune. It isn’t done to showcase skills for the purpose of acceptance to institution, ensemble, or for prestige. All those things can result or be true, but it isn’t why we are drawn to music.

The easy answer is that we make music because it feels good. Because we feel out our world and communicate and identify ourselves and who we are a little bit better each time we try. Because there is nothing quite like the pride of sharing something, we care about with those willing to take the time to listen to us. Free from judgements not of use-and upholding the highest standards for what is of use: self-made music and art tends to bring out the best we can do in a way that is impressive.

To the artist, it seems a given, but it is often that I observe dialogue in which one party struggles to understand the reward expected or sought from the significant investment of both time and resources and/or the scale of what is being presented, and the other party struggles to explain that there isn’t. In my observation and experience, regardless of cost and absent from any expected recognition or return: the desire for the highest possible quality and artistry remains intact is paramount. If asked, many musicians don’t have a ready answer to what feels like a need to defend or justify the urge and enjoyment found in the creation and expression of musical identity.

We do it just because. Just because it is important and is music without restriction or requirement. Because it feels good and is good.

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