While an error in either recording or performance is bane of many musicians' existence, such errors aren't necessarily the worst thing that can happen. In fact, some mistakes can ultimately play out in an artist's favor in some surprising ways.
Musicians fear the mistake. It’s our worst nightmare to be up on stage or in the recording studio laying down tracks, and notice that our guitar is out of tune, or we’re playing the wrong chord changes, or simply missing the cues. We’re trained to think that perfection is the key to fame. Yet every now and then, we hear a song by one of our favorite artists where somebody audibly coughs in the background (Pink Floyd), or starts laughing (R.E.M.), or improvises a lyric on the spot (Ella Fitzgerald), and it’s totally okay!
Just as randomization is used in electronic tracks to take the music “out of the grid” and humanize the performance of each note to sound almost accidental, some mistakes definitely have the power to humanize that perfect studio sound you’re shooting for in your recording. Hearing the human on the other side of the recording is just as golden as hearing a great song performed perfectly.
“The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.” – Thelonious Monk
The problem with perfect
Recording software innovations give musicians the power to quantize synthesizers, drum beats, and live instrument parts, so that everything sits perfectly on top of each other. Plugins like Auto-Tune make it incredibly easy to correct out-of-tune pitches, or clean up live drum tracks with mistakes. It’s now possible for musicians to create perfect music without virtuosic talent or years of practice.
But do we really want that?
In an Instagram-fueled culture where anyone has the ability to present pristinely manufactured reflections of themselves to the world, realness and vulnerability are now in short supply. Technology has given some incredible tools to songwriters, but it can also suck the life and energy out of your music if you let it run wild. We need mistakes in music, now more than ever.
The best music in the world has character — it has your character. Take Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground, for example. Lou Reed couldn’t sing on pitch to save his life, yet he fronted one of the most influential bands of all time. The character and truth he brought to his singing was compelling enough that listeners didn’t care that he was off-pitch. Can you imagine the music of The Velvet Underground run through Auto-Tune? Practice might make perfect, but perfect rarely makes for interesting music.
During the recording session of the instrumental track of “Love Shack,” the B-52s were jamming along, and all of a sudden the playback tape stopped. Unfortunately, this was just as singer Cindy Wilson was revving up for her big “Tin roof rusted!” exclamation. Naturally, this wasn’t supposed to be an a cappella moment, but they left it in. According to keyboardist and vocalist Kate Pierson:
“The tape had stopped, but she kept going. And that’s actually how we got that part. It wasn’t planned. It just happened.”
Reframing musical mistakes
Not all mistakes will be musical gems. Obviously we need to acknowledge that, and it’s important to realize where your threshold for rough edges lies. But most musicians out there could probably benefit from a slight reframing of their musical mission if they’re stressing out all the time about messing up.
In addition to adding personality to a song, mistakes open musicians up to opportunities to be innovative and take paths they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Whether it happens while tracking an instrument or later in the editing and mixing phases, tons of sonic mistakes can turn into unique musical directions if you can keep an open mind and follow your gut.
In R.E.M.’s hit song, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” when singer Michael Stipe finishes the third verse and enters the chorus, he starts laughing. According to interviews, the band thought he was stressing “Dr. Seuss” too much in the lyric, turning it into something that sounded like “Zeus,” which eventually broke him. They kept it in, and now it’s a classic.
Musical technique vs. creativity
This isn’t always easy, of course. The angry voices of our strict childhood music teachers emanate from the dark depths of our self-doubt, and tend to crop up every time we feel the pressure to execute something as well as our peers.
And it makes sense, considering how most people learn to play musical instruments. When it comes to mastering technique on an instrument, and playing alongside a hundred other musicians in a concert orchestra, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to do things. Developmentally, it helps to strive for high technical abilities. But there should always exist the grain of salt of “choice” — the understanding that we have the choice to play something perfectly or let it remain flexible and rough. Because being crippled by the rigidity of whether something sounds correct or incorrect will only lead to harming your work as a songwriter and artist.
You could also be the most technically proficient player in the world, and you’re still going to make mistakes. Sometimes, there’s just the uncontrollable magic of the studio that makes its own rules.
During his sprawling blaze of a guitar solo in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” guitarist Dirk Hammett supposedly pulled the high string off of his guitar’s fretboard by accident, which resulted in a high-pitched squeal that he has never been able to replicate since!
What to do with a mistake
The direction a musician is able to take a musical mistake when it happens depends on their background, their outlook, and their writing process. For example, jazz musicians can take a wrong chord and run with it, but that might not work for a power-pop outfit.
There’s no single formula in getting the most out of a mistake when recording music, but every musician could benefit from bringing an open mind and adventurous philosophy to their work, and a willingness to follow the path of uncertainty, if only for the sheer excitement of seeing where it may lead. Openness and acceptance when it comes to making music and prioritizing creativity over perfection can often lead to incredible breakthroughs for you and your songwriting practice.
We’ll leave you with one of our favorites out there. Perhaps no example better captures the spirit of leaving a studio mistake in a song to help create an iconic document of a session than “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home.