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Are people asking themselves questions about you?

Questions need answers.

Don’t underestimate the power of curiosity. Once you get people to start asking questions, they need to know the answers.

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert did an experiment:

  1. he handed out a short quiz on common-life topics
  2. before taking the quiz, everyone was asked whether they would prefer a candy bar at the end, or to know the answers
  3. everyone chose to receive the candy bar
  4. then they took the quiz
  5. after the quiz was done, they were given the choice again: candy bar, or know the answers?
  6. everyone chose to know the answers, instead (giving up the free candy bar)

Conclusion of the experiment : once people have asked themselves a question, they can’t stand not-knowing the answer.

Two brilliant Brian Eno quotes:

The most important thing in a piece of music is to seduce people to the point where they start searching.

Produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard.

What was the first music you heard? Do you remember the mystery?

My first album, when I was 10 years old, was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”. The crazy psychedelic sounds of “Only a Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much”. The weird lyrics of “Hey Bulldog”. So freaky. I listened to it over and over before getting The White Album, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s.

Late-period Beatles were quite a lot of mystery for a 10-year old. (Imagine at 10, trying to understand the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus”.) After that I got into Led Zeppelin, a bunch of Birmingham heavy metal, (Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden), and plenty of others that were such a big dark mystery to a kid from Hinsdale, Illinois.

I still remember that as one of the most fascinating times in my life. I was completely obsessed with this mysterious music, spending hours a day, for years, wanting more, trying to figure it all out.

Didn’t you?

Keith Richards’ technique for being less obvious

When I worked at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, Keith Richards, talking about songwriting, said:

“Lyrics are best when they’re mysterious - like listening in to someone else’s phone conversation when the telephone wires have crossed. You don’t know the history or context. You don’t understand the references. So it draws you in even deeper, trying to understand.

If you’re too obvious and explain everything in your lyrics, you don’t get that mystery. So what I do is this:

Write out everything I’m thinking, everything I want to say, but then cross out every other line, and write the song using only what’s left, even though it doesn’t make total sense.”

Digg shows how to make intriguing titles is a site where people share links to things they find interesting. Everyone votes-up the submissions they find most interesting, and the top-voted ones rise to the top of the chart each day.

So, since Digg is proof of what thousands of people find intriguing, you can use it to find inspiration for song titles or subjects. Usually the title of the link is most of what makes it irresistably clickable. Lists like “The 7 Most Terrifying Disney Movie Deaths” - or oddities like “Bit by shark and hit by car, athlete perseveres”.

Of course this is taken to extremes by TV news channels, when they give the early-evening teaser ad that says, “Could something in your house right now be killing you as we speak? Find out later tonight on Channel 9 News!”

Are you making mystery?

  • Can you create music that’s even strange and mysterious to yourself?
  • Can you make a song title (or band name, or album title) that’s irresistably clickable?
  • Does the first line of one of your songs ask a question that the listener needs to know the answer to?
  • Does your music seduce people to the point where they start searching?
  • Not just the music itself, but your images/artwork/communication around it?
  • Can you make your listeners actually ask themselves a question about you, trying to figure you out?
IMAGE: Within the realm of a dying sun from

Reader Comments (5)

Hey Derek, Nice post. Reminds me of the early days of R.E.M. No one knew what Stipe was singing, so all of us HAD to know. Writing to the label for lyrics brought back a short letter basically saying the band wanted you to think for yourself. Brilliant! I'm still trying to figure out the lyrics for Radio Free Europe.
Didn't realize until now we had the Hinsdale connection, my current home town and the place my kids are now having their early musical awakenings.
Kevin Parks

November 21 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Parks

I've got it - a song entitled/about "what Keith Richards was doing up in that Palm Tree in Fiji" - (have you got his email?)

November 21 | Unregistered CommenterChris

This was a very refreshing change of pace -- great think piece. Complex, playful, anchored to a theme...this was a pretty perfect "blog" post. Thanks.

November 22 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Spot on Derek. This is why so many people feel alive by music. It helps them connect to their own feelings (even if that wasn't the intention of the song).

It can apply to all kinds of things, music just being one. I've started two businesses, and before I decide on a name, I tell myself that I want it to "ambiguously allude" to what is being offered. I want to 1) get their attention and 2) make people ask themselves "hmm, that sounds interesting. what's that all about?"

November 23 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Wexler

re: interesting titles

Do a search in Google and take a look at the paid ads (Adwords) to see what gets your attention. And if you really want to get good at it, run a few ads yourself, split-testing things like new album or song titles.

I think the bottom line on the "mystery" post is to leave people wanting more. Some artists never play encores just for this reason.

The food you long for tastes better than eating several plates at a buffet...

December 6 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hooper

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