What Can a 6000 Year-Old Chinese Guy Teach You About Music Production?

Tao of Music Production Let me tell you a story, slightly amended for length. This story is taken from the writings of the great Chuang-Tzu, an important figure in the history of Zen.

Three in the Morning

Once upon a time, there lived a Chinese dude who, for whatever reason, kept monkeys. I have no idea what he did with these monkeys…it’s not really part of the story.

Also, these monkeys could talk. Apparently Chinese monkeys can talk.

So, one day, he goes out to the little hut where he keeps the monkeys and he says, Hey, Steve, Carol, Ted and Lisa. Just thought I’d give yall the feeding schedule.

The monkeys listened attentively

I’ll give you 4 chestnuts (that’s what talking monkeys eat) in the morning and I’ll give you 3 chestnuts at night.

Sounds reasonable, right?

The monkeys went bonkers, throwing things, squawking, generally being obnoxious. Lisa the monkey fainted.

What? asked the old Chinese guy.

We want 3 chestnuts in the morning! cried Ted. Yeah, yeah, and 4 at night, cried Carol the monkey.

The old man thinks for a second and nods his head. The monkeys have a monkey party, thinking that they’ve pulled one over on the old man.

The point of this story is not that monkeys are dumb and don’t know how to add (although that’s probably true).

The moral of the story is that, when trying to get something done, you should never lose sight of the goal. It is very easy to get frustrated if you insist not only that something get done, but that it be done in a certain way.

The Tao of Music Production

I experienced this quite frequently when I first started producing music. I didn’t just want to get a certain synth sound, I wanted to know WHAT synth a certain artist used and WHAT preset it was. Instead of focusing on what sound I wanted, I focused on trying to follow someone else’s path to that sound.

This was a mistake. It blinded me to my own creativity and probably cost me sleep, time and money.

If I’ve learned anything from my experience on this Earth, it’s that there is very very rarely only one way to get something done. This is doubly true of music. You want a certain “groove” on your hi-hats? I can tell you at least 4 ways to do it. So, don’t fall on your sword about getting it done the way that you heard Armand van Helden does it.

You don’t need the same synth as Brian Eno. I guarantee you that all of you can make a pretty good, Eno-ey synth with about 60 different plugins and assorted effects, some or all of them come with Ableton (which I’m assuming you have, given that you’re reading a website devoted to the software) or free.

So, whenever I find myself getting frustrated that a goal or a project is not proceeding like I’d like it to, I have to stop myself: Is this going badly? Or is it just going differently?

I usually remind myself of this by saying “Three in the Morning” to myself. I don’t say it out loud, though. It freaks people out.

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2 Responses to “What Can a 6000 Year-Old Chinese Guy Teach You About Music Production?”

  1. Delgado (@ReggaeDelgado) December 5, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Ha ha! I LOOOOVE that story and the entire Chuang-Tzu is definitely my favorite book. This story & the rest of the allegories in the book are a great way to keep yourself relaxed and avoid the artificial boundaries we create for ourselves as humans. If you’ve never been exposed to it, check it out! Definitely an antidote for music production frustration!
    (by the way, he is revered more as one of the founders of Taoism than Zen, although the two are more related than most know). Keep up the great work!

    • Anthony December 6, 2011 at 1:59 am #

      Glad you know it! I actually came across this story by way of Thomas Merton, who is a Catholic monk who wrote a lot about Taoism and Zen. He’s actually the dude who pointed out the connection between the Tao of Chuang-Tzu and Zen. Didn’t realize that that wasn’t the majority opinion! Thanks for pointing that out. Always great to learn more about these guys.

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