the philosophy of sound

here is part 1 of a Q & A session on recording arts (click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3). i used my social-media sites as a platform from which to ask songwriters — or those interested in songwriting — to exchange concepts with me. the results of which are posted below.

[the names have been changed to protect the innocent.]

for songwriters (and those who want to talk songwriting)

melody is just a sketch of your anxieties.

you can further articulate these emotions with lyrics (although, it isn’t necessary). for more detail on how to excavate the most useful material/art out of your anxieties (and, therefore, your melodies) — or, on the importance of gauging narrative in your lyric — feel free to comment here, or send me a message.

*some of you have reached out to me, already, regarding the craft of recorded arts and songwriting. as these disciplines are integrated with other aspects of your lives, the options for application of the information we exchange can quickly become confusing. so, i hope you will continue to check in with me re: your progress. sharing the information i have, and learning about the concepts of others, is a joy for me.

V

(the innocent #1)

I like the idea that every anxiety or maybe, emotion, that needs to be conveyed is in the melody itself. But Lyric is just the amp? Hmmmm….yeah, I feel that. But the performance of that (melody)…the delivery…is key.

VH

hey. the “delivery”, imo, is in the performance of the melody. i wasn’t directly addressing performance. i’m highlighting the extraction of concepts from our environment — our every day lives — that can be outlined -or sketched- with melody; as a way of seeding the songwriting process; which will definitely guide us to performance of melody. i think every step is key. and the lyric is not “just” an amplifier, much like adding lyrics to a Duke Ellington melody is intended to enrich the expression, as much as articulate or amplify it.

(the innocent #2)

I (was) literally just thinking about you (like 5 minutes ago) and songwriting, specifically on the first song I ever heard of yours “Dust”. What you’ve said here totally makes sense. We sing melodies all the time inadvertently, especially through the tone and rhythm of our speech.

Looking forward to seeing how this conversation develops. Thanks for sharing!

VH

exactly! you got me.

(the innocent #3)

Thanks 4sharing Van. In Atlanta, where does a songwriter go2 record? Preferably somewhere the person (s) actually know how2 bring the song alive ( other than cut & paste sounds). Real music to express the emotional release of real lyrics☻….

VH

hi. as was said by another commenter, you may EVENTUALLY need a producer/engineer/studio; but this post may be helpful in ensuring that, by the time you find them, you have rich, robust material to produce/record. the process of harvesting — or pulling in environmental elements and using them to strengthen your songwriting is absolutely essential to facilitating song production and recording.

(the innocent #4)

OMG! Thank you for this, Van. Such an honor. “Professor V”. I love the sound of that.Any who, I always enjoy writing lyrics, it’s the melody that catches me off guard. As I write (and I used to write a lot), by the time it came to someone asking me what the melody is (or was) I’d go blank. Lyrics are easy for me once (an) idea is planted. The melody scares me…if that makes sense?Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

VH

hi. producers and singers love lyricists. there is nothing more fantastic, as a producer, than to hear the song come alive as the melody is brought in to focus from the background sounds — via — a voice articulating a thought. i would say, if you have continued interest in songwriting, team up with a producer/musician / and singer / from your area. and open up your notebook. just mouth whatever/if any melody you have…to get them started on coercing your thoughts out of your head.

(the innocent #5)

Soooo, master class coming soon ey?!? 😏😏😏

I kid, I kid (BUT NOT REALLY)!!!

I’ve always consumed your songs so wholly I never considered who wrote them; too busy ingesting the medicine. But duhhhhhh. Of course you’re a prolific writer annnnnd musician.

Actually needed to hear this today. Been assessing and reassessing my writing process, especially since a few key dynamics have changed. It was honestly deterring my confidence just a tad. UNTIL THIS!!!

Thanks my G!

Keep rocking.

Super bug thanks for this wisdom. Salute!!!

VH

i look fwd to hearing what u write, now that ur feeling better. might i suggest u write about what u went thru when ur confidence was deterred, just a tad…😉 “write whatcha got.” — Joan Didion

(the innocent #6)

“Melody is just a sketch of your anxieties.” I like that and it’s relatable in a garden variety of ways. To me, songwriting and creating art is like putting samples of your soul on a platter and distributing for taste. Every flavor isn’t for everyone, you may be acquired or potential waste.

My anxiety lies within the potential scrutiny or dismay of my melody. Which in turn, leaves me speechless and afraid of saying what I have to say.

I’m currently on pause, waiting for someone to press play. Push my buttons baby, turn me on. Well look at that, you just inspired a new song.

VH

i recently suggested to another writer that they not write anything until their thoughts scare them. i was so afraid of ‘down here n hell (w/u)’ that i knew i COULDN’T leave it n my head. i had to record it just to share the burden of it.

(innocent #6, cont.)

Note taken and appreciated. Your response alone is inspiring. To be a prolific writer (such as yourself), being vulnerable by sharing your fears, weaknesses, love and life experiences are vital to the art. Saying the things that others can relate to, or like to say but are afraid to or couldn’t conjure the words (to) explain.

VH

“Saying the things that others can relate to, or like to say but are afraid to or couldn’t conjure the words explain.” — right!

(the innocent #7)

do you ever use oblique strategies to help you problem-solve?

VH

hi. i’m a non-reductionist. as such, i use a nonlinear form of thinking. not just oblique (or angular, slanted). i use parallel, serial, nonlinear- any and all processes to break out of the rules we make for ourselves in order to establish new ones. and remember, it is not just the thought pattern that is creative…the rules are artificial, imaginary (rules are not laws of nature). but, they are important because they FORCE the thought into patterns that we can recognize and begin to work with.

(the innocent #8)

do you ever feel like you’re just not good enough? i’ve got a lot of anxieties to excavate from but i hate nearly everything i make. how do you know when you’ve got it right?

VH

hi. at one time (for about 20 years), i felt i wasn’t good enough. i slowly began to understand that it was incumbent upon other people to withhold any positive criticism of my work BECAUSE THEY KNEW THEIR PRAISE WAS IMPORTANT TO ME. so, then they had leverage. they had currency. and they would use it to make themselves feel good. so, i realized that their evaluation of my work was unimportant to them. i was unimportant to them. my work was unimportant to them. if my work was important to me, then i had to separate my work from my need to feel self-confident. and then it was easier to see my self-confidence AND my work in their proper perspectives. one of them was a social construct. it wasn’t real. the criticism from others, from myself, wasn’t based on anything except social hierarchy. but, the work — the art that came from me was my way out of that house of mirrors. it was what people call spirituality- which to me is seeing shit for what it is — and it was trying to help me cope with my environment. and i realized i HAD to express it. after that, my confidence turned into self-fulfillment/satisfaction. i no longer needed to love or hate anyone, anything — including my own expression. i no longer needed to be right or wrong. i just needed to put in work. step back from it. take a walk, binge on netflix…come back and work. it wasn’t easy. but, before you can really separate yourself from your opinions of yourself (opinions that have been shaped by your environment), you really have to just work; and let the chips fall where they may. hope this helps.

(the innocent #8, cont.)

Van Hunt I’ll have to mull over it for a while before I can give any kind of meaningful response but it really means a lot to get an answer. getting out of the house of mirrors is definitely something that resonates all too familiarly with me. thanks a lot for the reply. 🙏🏽

(the innocent #9)

What do you do when you have so many thoughts, lyrics and Melodies coming at you, at once? I need help formulating and sorting out my ideas, to make musical sense. Someone suggested that I shouldn’t concentrate more so on the structure of a song but, the intent. What say you?

VH

i like the suggestion to focus on intent. it’s rather brilliant, actually. but, that said, i would document every scrap of thought — word, melody, concept — that strikes you as a potentially powerful idea. using your notebook app (or a real notebook), and voice recorder. making “musical sense”, imo, is the least important part at the beginning. you want to make sure to capture those really powerful ideas and concepts. once you have those, the making sense — musical arrangement and production — is relatively ez.

(the innocent #10)

I always feel that music should be expressive and not just technically indulgent for the sake of indulgence… but with understanding and maturity it seems to be less indulgent but rather an expression of the artist's musical language and vocabulary. At end of day i love the soulful bluesy vocabulary. But im learning that there are endless ways to reharmonize even that foundation and still keep what you love underneath without sounding too muddy or busy. Sometimes there is a time for complexity and sometimes clarity and simplicity…

VH

hey(…)working to find something useful to your purposes in any opportunity is pure resourcefulness — and, despite what our modern culture tells us, for most of history, it’s the reason the human being has been such a successful species. i would say “…there are endless ways to re-harmonize…and keep what you love underneath” AND ON TOP. i love a muddy sound. i often use it to replace empty space; and if mixed sensitively, it becomes the new foundation i build upon. and remember, “space” isn’t actually empty…it, too, is just a very finely mixed background.

(the innocent #11)

Van, your music is the bomb! I’m a singer-songwriter and will be working with some music that my (associate) wrote. I usually receive an easy flow of melody and vision for lyrics but (of) late can get side tracked by other ideas. And so I find it awesome to have read your status describing a melody as a sketch of one’s anxieties! It is just so true! I would be grateful for any tips or suggestions! Much respect.

VH

hi. thank you.

may i ask, when you are distracted by other ideas, do you write down or record these other ideas?

(the innocent #11, cont.)

Thanks, Van!

Most of the time yes. And I’ve been developing these ideas, various creative projects these are. I’ve scheduled in jamming for Monday nights for three months to get on track. The last musical idea I had {…} was the other day but I didn’t record it. I have been experiencing a lot of self doubt, which is something I used to shut out more easily. Have you ever had a stumbling block like this(?), it’s actually relatively new to me. This coming Monday is going to be interesting!

VH

the self-doubt is the opportunity. it is impossible for doubt to exist without an expectation. so, you must have some sort of expectation; whether it is an expectation you are putting on your self OR an expectation you are assuming someone else (has) OF you. that sense of expectation is a responsibility. it is stressful. and nothing stalls creativity like stress. so, the doubt is connected to an expectation — and if you can put your finger on that expectation you will find that fire. this will spark all kinds of uncomfortable shit (pardon my profanity). this discomfort is the artist’s toolkit. dive right for it, almost like a masseuse when they find tension, and wrangle it. get it out. share it with everyone else. make them deal with it, too. art ain’t pretty. art is a coping mechanism. a defense system. any real martial artist will tell you — self defense ain’t pretty, it’s saving your self from danger that feels so good.

(the innocent #11, cont.)

Monday has arrived and I’m happy to report that my songwriting session went well, could do with a nudge and a few other bits but “funky 2" doesn’t sound like “funky 1". I could still feel as though I’m suppressing myself, so I’m going to re-record the draft in the next day or two to kick that in the butt! Woohoo 🙌

VH

hi. that’s terrific. it’s not fun to write from a place of uncertainty. but that’s why we practice and visualize and conceptualize on our own…so that when we are in the midst of frightening creativity and performance we can focus, mentally, on pure expression — while our muscle memories take over the rest.

(the innocent #11, cont.)

Hello! Yes!! Precisely!! I kept visualising an action movie with this one as it sounds like it should be a soundtrack. So I mixed that with anxiety as a concept, as honestly I’ve had it for a while, and pretty much as you said, let the muscle memory do the rest. I might use that on a concept I created some years ago. Only it will need to be a character because I’m not emotionally in the same spot I was in when I wrote and recorded it. So perhaps I could be an emotional narrator for that one. It’s interesting how ones approach can be different for each song. One thing that remains constant for me is the story. Even with the barriers I’ve experienced lately, a tune begs to tell a certain tale that plays out visually in the mind! I love that element. Because once the fear goes it’s so exciting!

VH

exactly. and the only thing i will remind you is to record, write down, capture as much of your output as possible. don’t judge it too critically as you capture the output. remember, the criticism (or the editing process) is necessary in order to articulate these layered thoughts to an audience; however, that part can come later, AFTER we have assembled all of that raw data.

(the innocent #12)

Hey Van, I’m intrigued by your recent post about melody being a sketch of anxieties. Could you elaborate on this? I’m always indecisive when it comes to establishing a set melody and change it every time, and I end up not getting anywhere. Also, I’m interested from philosophical and teacher viewpoint as i am always trying to find a way to teach students how to listen to music and as a vehicle for understanding themselves. Thanks!

VH

hey. thx for reaching out.

more often than not, songwriting is taught as a compartmentalized set of skills. just a component of music production — added up linearly to other music-making and recording processes. even when discussing melody, music education centers around the possibilities of variations on a (“musical”) theme. music education generally stays away from where melodies come from. there’s good reason for that: they (music theories) are ill-equipped to help musicians deal with the philosophy of sound. people moan when they feel troubled. they literally begin rocking and rolling themselves to a calmer emotional state. music is a coping mechanism. so, in order to establish melody from that, you have to put people in the space of capturing their own troubles. almost like taking a selfie when you’re at your worst; which no one ever does. but, if you did it would be an outline of your anxiety. you just have to train yourself to catch when you or others are doing it and simply write it down or record it. the moaning, the pitched-up voice of frustration, the cadence of an exasperated parent. it’s all rhythm and pitch…melodies.

my guess for why you can’t settle on a melody is because you’ve captured an ugly selfie, and you don’t like it — so you don’t think anyone else would. but, take a listen to ‘Lady In Satin’. and then we’ll talk more about it.

whenever i’m working with kids, i start where they are. whatever it is they are most interested in, i dive into the conversation with them…whether its ps4 or schoolmates or snap. what i know, that they don’t, is that there is nuance in everything. so, once they allow me to point out the complexity just beneath the bright lights of the things they love then its MUCH easier to do the same with music and everything else.

forgive me if i sound like i’m trying to teach you how to teach. not my intention, at all.

(the innocent #12, cont.)

Hey Van,…I have been marinating on what you said and listening to Lady in Satin repeatedly. I listen to Billie often but I usually avoid Satin and makes total sense why now…”ugly selfie” is the perfect way to describe it. Knowing the background and where she was at in her life during these recordings makes it even harder to listen to. Her strength had always been her unique way of delivering melodies…she had this way of emphasizing just right before the end of the line. On Satin, she is not interested in how the line ends and you can’t tell where the beginning is half the time. It’s almost as if she use to own her faults, her weaknesses, sorrows, and utilized them, yet on Satin they overpowered and a lack of confidence prevailed.

No worries on teaching me how to teach…no ego here (or at least i try)no new melodies yet, but playing back old ones and listening with different ears

VH

fantastic assessment! i’m really excited to hear more. sounds like you’ve been thinking ;-)

(the innocent #12, cont.)

Ok…so, this very much makes sense. Melody being born from the need to give contour to what shapes our relation to the external world. During my undergrad, I gravitated toward studying Kashmir Saivism, a vedic tradition in eastern northern India. These guys were talking about atoms, particles, and the makeup of the universe way before the west. A simplification of their cosmology goes like this:

the absolute (in this case Siva) was a perfect being, but he got bored being perfect. Wanting to know himself, he separated himself from himself into this and that, thus creating the universe. The universe, therefore, is imbued with consciousness. Everything from what we understand as consciousness outward to rocks, tables, planets, etc…

This always stuck with me and formed my understanding of a lot of things since; the idea that our consciousness is a two-way street. Everything becomes relative and not a separate entity, but a relationship, a reflective mirror.

And here is where your original post really brought back my studies: It was my music teacher at the time who actually made this cosmology make even more sense. He said, “When you stand in front of a painting at (a) museum and you say to yourself that you do not like that painting, the painting is actually acting as a reflection on something you do not like about yourself.”

Then, after remembering this, it brought me back to my senior thesis, where I argued that the bluesman of the post-emancipation America acted as a trickster figure to renegotiate the boundaries for a people to reestablish a healthy relationship between cultural solidarity and divine purpose. Using the strength of the “moan” from West African griot traditions (through newly acquired gospel traditions as well), the bluesman travelled the south giving hope and strength, while challenging the dominant white culture. Yet, it wasn’t until now that I realized how powerful it is to own and utilize the anxieties and fears, to shape a melody and to draw confidence from it.

VH

there were a few things i wanted to highlight from the text, because i think they are the essence of both our ambitions to understand what drives us and to teach.

“Melody being born from the need to give contour to what shapes our relation to the external world.” — very well stated. a simplicity nested so deep within our social structures that few have glimpsed the beauty of it. but, you have.

“When you stand in front of a painting at a museum and you say to yourself that you do not like that painting, the painting is actually acting as a reflection on something you do not like about yourself.”

— exactly. and it is a disservice we do to ourselves when we do not allow the multidisciplinary teachings of nature to act as a model for how we operate our schools. people lose sight of the strings attached between thought/action, themselves and another, humanity and other ecosystems. there is no relationship between objects without *the interaction* between objects. but, of course, there IS a relationship there. that weakly interacts; and the relationship is a dysfunctional one — if neither entity takes responsibility for the strength of the coalition.

“Yet, it wasn’t until now that i realized how powerful it is to own and utilize the anxieties and fears, to shape a melody and to draw confidence from it.” — again, elegantly stated. that’s exactly my point.

*[thank you to all those who allowed me to post our exchanges.]

*I will post part 2 of this conversatiom next week.