Writing Your Masterpiece: The Guide to Crafting Songs That Defy Mediocrity

Writing Your Masterpiece

Can you imagine being in the studio or in the stadium – hearing Freddie Mercury sing just one of his masterpieces i.e. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “One Vision,” “Under Pressure,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” etc.? This would be unbelievable right?

I don’t think anyone can doubt that these songs are MASTERPIECES!

Yet, sadly today – how many truly special songs do we hear that inspire us to say “Wow – what a song.” Or – “Damn – this is why I got into the music business.” Sadly these days – the chance of hearing something like that (at least in my opinion) has been has been slim to none.

And that’s why I’m writing this article.

Which is to forget about writing lame ass TikTok “transactional” B.S. and fluff songs.

Instead – move into your masterpiece lane. Yes, in case you missed it – this article is all about writing your MASTERPIECE!

Let me be real and honest. Having been fortunate enough to spend some time around a good handful of icons and Songwriting Hall of Fame members, let me tell you something. Your carer (and life) will likely not be defined by all the “really good songs” you’ve written, and certainly may not even by a Top 40 hit.

Instead – you’ll be known for the masterpieces you’ve created, if any. Think of this as your legacy. What will people remember you for?

Let’s get real. In every writing session, we actually have the opportunity to write that masterpiece. However, what often happens is that we’re often allured by the shiny “transactional” artist or a “fluff” song to write (i.e., i.e. something intentionally written to make money).

You know, the song that feels really good to write at the moment. This is the type of song that (again, being real here) even if the song does get recorded and released, it’s possible that not many people won’t even care about the song in a few years, much less next month (especially with 1 million songs being released per week).

And look – I know we need to pay the rent as well. But check out the below on why creating your masterpiece is even more important and valuable today than say 20, 30 or 40 + years ago. Does this help put things in perspective?

Songs uploaded to DSPs weekly

That’s right. Your song could be 1 of the million songs being released this week.

On the other hand, you could be what? You guessed it – You could be the MASTERPIECE. There’s only 1, 2 maybe 10 (?) out of a million songs released this week that’s got that. And you know what else?

Everyone talks about having hits. But rarely ever do we talk about creating a masterpiece.

I know what you’re saying. Of course, I want to write my masterpiece, Benjamin! (Or let’s think big here – masterpieces, plural). So…where is it?

If not now, when?

You see, unfortunately, we’re in an era where the musical bar has been seriously lowered. Our current environment is now what I call “the best of mediocrity that social media has to offer.” So, when you’re surrounded by this type of lame-ass environment, of course, the natural inclination is to write at the level of your environment. Which today – literally is shit.

Let me elaborate.

If you were to speed up the time frame of all the releases in the last 10 years – it would be clear and no doubt that most of the music business has been in a race to the bottom. I mean it. And yes, I have actually written “the” article holding the #1 search result in Google for “Why Music Sucks.”

On the other hand…Enter the MASTERPIECE.

C’mon everybody. Let’s get on board with this!

The “masterpiece mindset” is something completely different. For instance, let me ask you a few questions.

Did Freddie Mercury and Brian May of Queen intentionally write a song to get on the radio when he and Brian May and the other band mates labored over “Bohemian Rhapsody?” No, of course not. That being said – would it surprise you to learn that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not just a top-charting song when it was released in 1976? This masterpiece also charted (at least in the United States) a total of six separate times over the last 50 years, including reaching #2 on the Billboard US Hot 100 in 1992?

That’s 16 years after “Bohemian Rhapsody” was originally released! WTF!?!!!?!!

Billboard Hot 100 from May 6, 1992 showing Bohemian Rhapsody at #2 (just behind KrisKross "Jump")

 

I don’t have to tell you that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a masterpiece. And I also don’t mean to imply that you need a nearly six-minute-long epic (including some timpanis) to create one!

Not at all. Some other masterpieces come to mind, I’ve listed below. They’re all masterpieces for a different reason. Here are a few for me that come to mind. What YOU consider a masterpiece will be completely different.

And I could go on… in fact, here’s a YouTube playlist I put together if you want to check them out.

What’s your masterpiece playlist? Can you create a playlist and embody those songs on a daily / weekly basis to create your masterpiece environment?

Let’s dissect these. What do the above songs have in common?

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I would say all these songs go above and beyond in every singular aspect of songcraft, delivery and production.

These songs are like the essence of life itself!

Everything is maxed out. There really is no room for any type of improvement.

These songs are perfect.

They are F*CKING BRILLIANT.

There’s also an overflowing amount of emotion and energy, and while I don’t talk about it often – this is how I personally interpret songs. Let me explain. Some people have synesthesia, where they see colors when they hear music. How I interpret and listen to music is based on the amount of energy in a song. I experience songs as energy. When that amount of energy (in any genre or tempo) is a nine or above – that’s what gets me going.

To put it in another way – all of those aforementioned songs have a level “10” energy. To put it another way… “These go to 11.”

these go to 11

Let’s talk about this more. What do masterpieces have in common?

I put some thought into this and noticed key commonalities that are true (at least in my book) for most masterpieces.

Check out the below and please, as a very important exercise for yourself – write out your own observations, based on your own “Masterpiece Playlist.” This can also be something you may want to print out and put in your “masterpiece” notebook – or a workspace strictly reserved for writing your masterpiece.

MASTERPIECE OBSERVATIONS

  1. A masterpiece is probably NOT written “for the radio.”
  2. A masterpiece goes the extra mile in Every. Single. Aspect.
  3. A masterpiece is very, very, very likely not written in one day or even one week.
  4. The production is perfect and supports the song, whether it’s a fairly simple production like “Your Song” by Elton John or the months it took to record “Bohemian Rhapsody” – the production serves the song’s purpose excellently.
  5. A masterpiece evokes a strong emotion. They’re also “anchors” for events in your life. And I don’t just mean “heartache” yada yada. For example Def Leppard’s Pyromania was the first album I bought. I’ve probably heard “Rock of Ages” over 300 times, and I never get tired of it. This song to me is as much of a masterpiece as a Gershwin song.
  6. Masterpieces may not have been immediate hits or immediately recognized as masterpieces when they were first released. However, the brilliance of these songs carries on and stands the test of time.

Lastly, I want to mention one more thing. When you hear a masterpiece, it’s almost as if you find yourself saying, “Holy Shit! How could someone ever be that brilliant?” or “How could anyone or a group of people create such a powerful expression of energy?”

And that’s your mission. And you’re going to create that.

On that note – let’s really define what a song is. A song is simply a vessel for energy. In fact, it doesn’t exist in a physical sense. You can’t pick it up or touch it. I’ve actually had this conversation separately (upon their own prompting) with both Moby and Evan Spiegel (CEO of Snapchat). Music is essentially the movement of different particles through the air, reaching your eardrums.

The amount of energy you infuse into a song will directly correspond to the impact it has as those particles move through the air.

song energy song impact

So, assuming we all have a good understanding of what a masterpiece is, I have a mission for you:

Stop fucking around.

Write your masterpiece this year.

Just one. I’ll be happy with just one.

Yes, one is perfectly fine. That’s all you need.

You want one of these right? So, I’ll ask you again.

If not now, when?

Here are some parameters and suggestions on how you can approach it.

1. You may (probably) already know what your masterpiece is!!! This is a song you might have had in mind for a while – and might actually scare you. It’s likely a song or concept you’ve already contemplated but haven’t pursued yet. It could be an audacious multi-tiered endeavor or a simple confessional piece that lays your soul bare.

2. Eliminate any notion of writing something “for the radio” or with the sole intention of making money.

3. Building upon point #2, let’s get a little selfish. This should be a song that your colleagues will envy in a positive way. Not because of the money you make from it, but because you had the courage, determination, and honed skills to create something extraordinary. In other words – when you walk in the room people will whisper “that’s the person that wrote “x!”

4. This song needs to transcend your lifetime. Yes, we’re talking about your legacy here. Will it go down in the history books from generation to generation? This is the time to think big and dream up.

5. Be prepared and grant yourself the freedom and liberty to spend up to 12 months crafting and perfecting this song.

6. I encourage you to create your own “Masterpiece Playlist” and immerse yourself FULLY in this new environment consistently. Don’t let the crap music of today pull you down. You need to PULL YOURSELF UP! Having the “masterpiece environment” will revolutionize your approach to writing. These will be the legends rolling with you shoulder to shoulder and who will also be lifting and holding you up – literally.

7. Just do it! Schedule the day you’ll embark on this journey. Set a date and initiate the first step to gain momentum. Keep in mind that your brain may chatter away with excuses and reservations. This is what Steven Pressfield refers to as “the resistance” in his outstanding book The War of Art. Be mindful of “the resistance.” In fact – YOU NEED TO RUN TOWARDS THE RESISTANCE to create your MASTERPIECE!

Let me explain.

When it comes to this exercise, if you encounter internal dialogue and resistance, take it as a sign that you’re on the right track. You should embrace and run towards that challenge. NOTE: Our brains have been wired (over 100,000 + years) to keep us safe. While that might help us from being eaten by a tiger, these mechanisms often hinder our attempts to “stand out.”

Alongside writing your masterpiece, I strongly recommend reading The War of Art (link above).

8. Lastly, I’m going to take a guess that as per point #1, you’ve likely been contemplating and subconsciously working on this song or idea for years. Your brain, your supercomputer, has been processing it beneath the surface for quite some time now.

Take a breath. Writing it may be easier than you anticipate.

You just need to begin.

I’ll conclude this article by providing some supplementary links that will likely complement your masterpiece creation.

But first, let me again reiterate that you will be remembered for your masterpieces, not for your “transactional” songs that helped pay the bills. While financial stability is incredibly important, creating your masterpiece means you never have to worry about paying your rent ever again. Why?

Because you’ll own the building.

Such a concept becomes even more apparent if you’ve ever attended a “songwriters in the round” event like the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville or Jesse & Friends in Los Angeles. I personally attend Jesse & Friends every month, hosted by Grammy-nominated songwriter Jesse Thomas, who is also a part of our publishing roster at Brill Building.

 

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A post shared by Jesse & Friends (@jesse.and.friends)

What I consistently observe, especially from the classic songwriters Jesse invites on stage to perform their songs, is a recurring theme. These writer’s true breakthroughs and signature songs came when they just wrote the most urgent song they needed to express – right then and there and in that moment. They had no intention about targeting radio or God forbid writing something that would work on TikTok. F*ck. That. Please.

Those songs that became masterpieces (and/or the biggest songs of that year) were often written for themselves, often with audacious ambition. Often, when those creative people let go of the pressure to write “for the charts” or from a purely transactional perspective, and instead embraced the challenge of creating a masterpiece, that’s when everything else fell into place.

Or when they let go of the premise of “following trends” – they actually ended up creating the trends.

Below, you will find additional references and resources that may be helpful.

  • Ryan Holiday’s book Perennial Seller. This book is all about creating works that stand the test of time. Classics and Masterpieces. One of my favorites!

Additionally, the below are three articles I’ve written as supplementary material, unpacking three elements, which I find most consistently present in almost every masterpiece mentioned above (as well as most hits in every genre and every decade)

Lastly, for those of you who are my publishing clients or anyone reading this article, I have a straightforward mission and request for you this year:

Write your masterpiece (let’s talk).

Now would be a good time to start.

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