Five Lessons About Music-Making You Can Learn From Superheroes


The last quarter of the year, October through December, is always my favorite. Here in the United States, the last day of October is Halloween and many children (and adults) will choose to dress as their favorite superhero as part of the holiday costume tradition. While we have plenty of musical heroes we look up to, there isn't any superhero who fights crime with their guitar or drum kit, is there? Maybe there should be, but until we think of one I'll present these lessons learned from some of our favorite Marvel and DC superheroes and apply them to the music-making process:

#1 — Know how to use the tools you have (Batman)

One of my favorite superheroes has always been (The) Batman, particularly because he doesn't possess any "super" or unnatural powers such as being able to fly or talk to fish. Instead, Bruce Wayne is able to use his keen intellect to solve crimes and capitalize on his years of training to take action and get the job done. He also drives a badass car.

I met the one and only    Adam West    (TV’s Batman), circa 1975.

I met the one and only Adam West (TV’s Batman), circa 1975.

While he's a billionaire and has access to whatever gadgets he wants, Batman can only carry a few tools with him and often has to rely on just the very basic tools (his hands and feet) to overcome the bad guys. While others may have more tools and weapons they lack the skill, experience, and discipline to use them effectively when they need them most. 

Instead of spending a fortune on gear, determine which items will let you do the most and learn to use them to their fullest extent. Master the tools in front of you first. Learn to wield them so well that the actions almost seem like a natural reflex more than a learned skill. Wait until you recognize a very specific need before spending time and money on another toy.

#2 — When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail (Thor)

If you only have a single tool, you can still use it in different ways at different times. Thor is known for his iconic hammer. While every bass player may claim to be the God of Thunder, Thor is the real deal and uses Mjolnir to level mountains, crush enemies, and save worlds. While that may sound awesome (because it kinda is) it can also lead to the common pitfall of approaching every situation or challenge as one that must be solved in the same way.

Over the years, Thor has had time (and several creative writers) to develop many ways to come out on top and overcome new challenges using the same tools and skills but in new and different ways. The same magic hammer has been used to do just about everything aside from actually driving a nail. It can absorb radioactivity, create forcefields, hurricane-force winds and even propel Thor through the air. Is there an effects pedal for that yet?

Staying focused on learning just one or two specific tools or instruments can be a good thing but limiting your creativity by using them, in the same way, to create the same music over and over again is not. You need to be open to new techniques, different chord voicings, song structures, guitar tones, beats, etc. if you want to remain engaged and passionate about making your music. Writing the same song over and over again will bore your audience to tears and rob you of new opportunities to grow as a musician and as an artist.

#3 — Put yourself in the right place at the right time (Superman & Spiderman) 

Knowing when not to put a note somewhere in the song is just as important as knowing when you should put a note somewhere in the song, but here I'm writing more about positioning yourself in the world of music rather than offering any musical arranging tips.

Almost every superhero has had to maintain a secret identity, much like many talented musicians have had to disguise themselves during the day as responsible adults with a "real job" that still lets them make music on evenings and weekends. There's nothing wrong with this arrangement as long as you can maintain an acceptable balance between the two. In fact, many have been able to integrate skills learned from one gig to the other, making them even better at both.

Find ways to position yourself for success by being prepared to take advantage of more opportunities.

Clark Kent and Peter Parker have both positioned themselves in ways that allow them to balance both worlds as a superhero and as a reporter and news photographer, respectively.  As a direct result, Superman and Spiderman have an uncanny habit of always showing up around the biggest breaking news stories in town. Is that luck, or have they figured out how to be ready for the right moments when they come along? By staying in tune with what's happening around them, they can put themselves in the right places at the right times and create more opportunities to be a rock star superhero and rock star journalist/photographer too.

#4 — Your emotions can make you stronger, not weaker (The Hulk)

Bruce Banner has some well-documented anger management issues. Our emotions can create more stress and that stress can easily get the best of us if we let it. Thankfully, most people don't turn into a big green dude capable of smashing tanks and buildings. When properly channeled, however, our emotions—even our fear and anger—can be used for something much more productive and therapeutic. The key is recognizing the emotion and knowing when to let go of it along with any stress we may have created for ourselves. It's healthy to express the emotion but it's also healthy to know when and how to talk yourself down afterward, just like she tells the Hulk after every big battle, "Hey, big guy. Sun's getting real low..."

In our music, we can create tension and stress through our choice of chords and lyrics and, to some extent, guide the emotions of the listener. That tension can build as much or as little as the song needs it to before providing a much-needed release as the chord progression resolves itself and/or the lyrics provide closure.

Music is all about capturing emotions and conveying them to the listener, whether you're writing, performing, recording, mixing, mastering, or all of the above. Don't be afraid to express genuine emotions that your audience can relate to—this is a huge part of connecting with people and making them want to hear your music again and share it with others. The key is to maintain some intent and control so that your emotions don't control you.

#5 — Submit to the truth (Wonder Woman)  

Wonder Woman uses her golden Lasso of Truth to tie up the bad guys and force them to tell her the truth, no matter how hard they fight to resist. I've always been fond of the saying, "the truth only hurts when it ought to." As mere mortals, we can work really hard to hide the simple truth from ourselves out of ego, fear, laziness, or plain ignorance, but your audience may not be so easily fooled.

Harlan Howard once described country music as simply being "three chords and the truth." Regardless of the genre in which you work, that's a great idea to keep in mind when making your music. Honesty certainly is the best policy and this is especially true when we need to be honest with ourselves as a musician while staying true to ourselves as a person. How many times have you convinced yourself that you really can play that many notes in a single bar—or that you even needed to? How many times have you tried to write lyrics that just don't sound right? Have you ever been told to be someone you're not? It never quite feels right because it's not true and some part of you knows that.

When we try to write songs about an experience we've never had or tell a story from a perspective that we know little about it will rarely come across as being authentic to the listener. Playing notes that fit neither the chords nor the emotion of the song will rarely sound good to anyone listening. Few listeners will be able to really connect with words and music that they don't perceive as being genuine. They may not be able to put their finger on it exactly, but they'll almost always call "bullshit" on both you and your music if you give them a good reason to. Just submit to the truth.

Don't get me wrong—you can certainly be creative by making up stories to tell with your music and you can certainly create new characters to tell them. You can try writing in different genres and incorporating new styles but you should just as certainly do all of it while keeping your music real and staying true to yourself as an artist. We can grow as a musician by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone but we ought to always know our current limits so that we don't end up pushing ourselves off the cliff. To be bold you must have confidence, and that typically comes from being true to oneself. 

What other lessons might we learn from our favorite superheroes? I'd love to hear about your own heroic music-making adventures and help to answer any questions you have about my services.

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