Whether you’re a singer, an instrumentalist, a producer, or an engineer, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time trying to “find your sound.” The problem is that sometimes finding your sound can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Having your own signature sound can help you define yourself as an artist, but it can also make you feel trapped.
Do you really want to spend the rest of your career being known as “that alt-country band” or “that singer/songwriter with the ukulele?” If you want to keep pushing the boundaries as an artist, and don’t want to be defined by simple genre descriptions for the rest of your career, then sometimes knowing how to lose your sound is just as important as knowing how to find it.
So if you don’t want to become a musical one-trick pony, here are some methods you can use to “lose your sound.”
Collaborate with as many people as possible
In the world of contemporary classical music, there is no composer with a more easily recognizable style than Philip Glass. Perhaps that’s why he’s spent so much time trying to redefine himself. “Getting [your] voice isn’t hard,” Glass told NPR, “it’s getting rid of the darn thing [that’s hard], because once you’ve got the voice then you’re stuck with it.”
Not wanting to be defined by a single style, Glass has found a simple formula that helps him whenever he needs to push his boundaries: collaborate with as many people as possible. “The only hope of shaking free of your own description of music [is] to place yourself in such an untenable position that you [have] to figure out something new,” he said. “That means constantly finding new people to work with.”
These frequent collaborations have helped move him away from the trademark brand of minimalism he developed in the 1960s and '70s to the more eclectic style he’s known for today.
Create limitations for yourself
It’s the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, but that’s exactly what songwriters do all the time. If you start every song by strumming some chords on your guitar, then a lot of your songs will end up sounding pretty similar. Sometimes, simply switching up your songwriting routine can be enough to set you off in a new musical direction.
Instead of humming a melody first, start by writing down lyrics; instead of starting with a guitar riff, start with a drum beat instead. If that’s not enough to help you stir up new ideas, then you may have to limit yourself even further. Maybe there are certain chord progressions that you always turn to that you need to ban from your tool kit, or maybe there are certain lyrical themes you need to swear off of for a while.
As the great composer Igor Stravinsky said: “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
Listen better than you play
While guitarist Bill Frisell may have a recognizable sound to those who know his work, he’s also known for the extreme diversity and flexibility of his playing style. Frisell seems just as comfortable playing jazz standards as he does playing American roots music, Malian folk tunes, or Brazilian bossa novas. This relentless eclecticism is perhaps due to the fact that Frisell has never actually found his own sound, at least not according to his own description.
When asked about his musical voice for his “Solos” project in 2010, he said, “I’m not even sure if I know if I have [my own voice] or not.” That’s because his ears are always ahead of his fingers. “Every time I pick up the instrument it’s a struggle to try to get the sound [I want]…. I’m always hearing something just a little bit beyond my grasp. So there’s always this struggle going on.”
This struggle is what keeps Frisell learning, and by constantly learning, he has managed to keep his sound fresh after more than 40 years of playing music. Likewise, if you can learn to be a better listener than performer, your playing style will naturally continue to change as you consistently strive to close the gap between what you hear and what you play.
The artists mentioned above aren’t the only ones who have sought to constantly redefine their sound. From Miles Davis to Bob Dylan to Radiohead to Kanye West, many great artists have gone through a constant cycle of finding their sound and then losing it again, and this cycle has contributed to long and successful careers in the music industry. So if you feel like you’ve finally found your own unique sound, perhaps the best thing you can do for your music career is to lose it and find a new one.
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.