Music-Making Anxiety – Do You Have a Bad Relationship With Making Music?
Music-making anxiety is a real thing. For many, what once was a joyful hobby can turn into a source of stress and uncertainty. Let’s get to the bottom of why this is and what you can do about it.
Music-making anxiety is a feeling of fear or unease associated with making music. This can come upon you pretty quickly if you’re in a creative rut or if you don’t think that your music “measures up” to others you admire. It can also be for a host of other reasons as I’ll go through below.
Music-making anxiety can negatively affect a musician’s well-being and cause many people to stop making music.
While most people assume that making music is a pleasurable activity, the online reports of countless musicians seem to tell a different story. Musician’s mental health is a serious issue, and so is music-making anxiety.
The Internet is filled with personal tales of “music-making anxiety,” but not many people in the media are talking about it.
Music-Making Anxiety – Where it Comes From And What to Do About It
- Musicians often link self-worth to their work’s quality.
- They face subjective and sometimes unfair criticism.
- They compare their work to established artists, setting unrealistic standards.
- Music-making anxiety can make musicians feel isolated and overthink their work.
- Anxiety isn’t only in creation but also in releasing music; getting recognition can feel random and elusive.
- Addressing the Issue:
- Understand bad days happen in every profession.
- Prioritize personal judgment and filter out unconstructive criticism.
- Avoid unrealistic comparisons; be fair to yourself.
- Engage with peers, avoiding excessive isolation.
- Release your music, even if it’s not perfect. Some of the best music out there has its flaws, and may not even have the best mix.
- Seek support if you need it (either through friends or professional means)
In this article, I will explore this fascinating topic and provide you with a few of the reasons why working as a musician can be so infuriatingly hard. The conclusions below concern both amateur and professional musicians.
What Does Music-Making Anxiety Feel Like?
If you’re not a musician or you’ve never felt anxious while making music, music-making anxiety can be kind of hard to grasp. Many people believe that, because creative work is such an interesting and passionate activity, it can only feel good. However, this notion is both wrong and dangerous—especially to the artists who have to deal with music-making anxiety day in and day out.
As a musician, I have dealt with music-making anxiety. It’s different from person to person and comes in many different ways. Sometimes, making music makes me feel anxious because I’m afraid of what other people will think of my songs once they’re out; other times, it makes me feel anxious because I feel uninspired and unable to be productive.
Either way, my music-making anxiety always derives from one of three things: a lack of self-confidence, excessive perfectionism, and the looming notion that people won’t get or enjoy the things I’m putting out (yes, even when I’m kind of proud of what I did).
On websites such as Reddit, other musicians describe music-making anxiety in similar terms. They also talk of how the initial excitement of making music always seems to give way to doubt and disappointment, of how making music can make one feel isolated, and of how horrible it is to compare one’s work to the work of others (and by others, they generally mean successful or established artists).
If you struggle with music-making anxiety, you’re surely not alone. But where does such a strange feeling come from? And what can we do to get our music-making mojo back?
Where Does Music-Making Anxiety Come From?
As mentioned, music-making anxiety comes in many different ways. This means that the most common causes for the phenomenon may not apply to everyone, even though they all play a part in the process. In considering the nature of music-making anxiety, I have identified the following causes:
Musicians derive their self-worth from the quality of their work
I have many friends who work professionally as artists. One day, I asked one of them (a professional dancer/performer) how it felt like to make a living doing what she loved. She told me that while she felt blessed for being able to make money with her passion, she also felt that she could never stop thinking about her work. She felt so personally connected to her job that she was unable to clock out—as if there was no distinctive separation between work hours and non-work hours.
As someone who’s spent countless hours making music, I understood what she meant immediately. Every time I finish one of my day job tasks, I feel free: I’m released from work because work is over and I don’t even give it a second thought. However, I never reach the same kind of closure when it comes to music; I’m so passionate about it that I can’t avoid thinking stuff like “This track could be much better,” “This track is far from ready,” or “This track is too [insert adjective] to please other people.”
The reason why I feel it’s so hard for me to put a new track out there? Because, unlike most professionals, creatives tend to believe their self-worth is connected to the quality of their work. When someone makes a mess at the office, it’s the pressure from bosses and co-workers that kicks in. But when someone makes a mess with his or her creative work, pressure comes from within, and it’s much harder to cope with.
I cannot remember how many times I felt horrible because my music wasn’t good enough, or because I wasn’t being productive enough, or because I couldn’t finish a track. When music isn’t going well, I often feel as though life isn’t going well, and as though I’m not as creative, talented, or effective as I believed to be. I’m afraid of making mistakes in my day job because I’m afraid of losing my paycheck. But when it comes to music, I’m afraid of making mistakes because mistakes will make me reconsider not only what I do but also who I am.
Musicians are regularly subjected to the unfair judgment of others
Musicians can sometimes be their own harshest critics, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re regularly subjected to unfair, ill-informed, or downright abusive criticism coming from others. Criticism comes in many forms, but people judge creatives such as musicians differently from professionals working in pretty much any other industry.
Consider a scientist. When he or she publishes a new paper, the paper is often reviewed by his or her peers. The scientist will be criticized, but only if the paper features wrong facts, poorly made arguments, or biased conclusions. In creative work, judgment is much harder to deal with for the following reasons:
- Unlike most work, creative work is seen as subjective, meaning people will criticize it based on their personal taste and overall preferences rather than facts. How many times have you seen someone criticize a song just because they don’t like the sound of the cowbell, or because they thought it should be faster, or any other pitiable reason?
- Unlike most industries, the music industry is subsidized by fans who believe to be music experts even when they’re not. Non-medical experts would never doubt their doctor’s opinion, but non-musical experts won’t hesitate to say a musician is bad even if they don’t know a thing about making music.
- Music judgment is often based on contradictory notions. Second albums, for example, are hard because musicians have to simultaneously cope with the pressure to make something new and the pressure to make something cohesive with their past work. If they change a lot, fans will say they liked the previous album better; if they don’t change, they will be accused of rehashing their old work without adding anything new to the mix.
- Music judgment is also hard because criticism is embedded in the way the music industry works. A bad review is sometimes all it takes to ruin a musician’s chances of making it, but all new musicians strive to get reviews to put their work out there. Music fans mimic the behavior of music critics almost instinctively because that’s how things seem to work. “Just relaxing and enjoying the music? No way, I also need to decide if the music is bad or good and tell all my friends about it!”
In sum, musicians are not only left at the whim of uninformed listeners but also deeply affected by their unfair criticism. Every worker needs to make an effort to please his or her clients, but musicians don’t have any way of knowing for sure whether their work will resonate or not with the audience. Trust me: I had people telling me that my worst track was fire right after rejecting some of my best work as utter garbage.
Musicians are bad at comparing their work to the work of others
This one affects amateur or up-and-coming musicians the most. They often compare their work with the work of major artists with million-dollar contracts and a huge team of producers, marketers, engineers, and personal assistants. Naturally, a track made by a bedroom producer on a $900 laptop will seldom be as good as a track a major pop artist made in a million-dollar studio.
Just like an investor working with a $2 million fund will find it harder to make big money than an investor working with a $1 billion fund, amateur musicians will never have the same resources as well-established ones. Musicians often struggle with music-making anxiety because they feel they have to be as good as their idols from the get-go.
Getting better at music takes time, but it also takes resources. More resources don’t necessarily equal better music, but constantly comparing your humble FL Studio productions with the work of major-label artists won’t do much good for your ego, sense of self-worth, and music-making anxiety.
Musicians are often too isolated
Isolation is almost never good for one’s mental health, and it happens to be one of the main causes of music-making anxiety. Away from their peers, fans, and general society, musicians will spend hours on end crafting tunes in their lonely bedroom studios. In this setup, overthinking is not only prevalent—it’s almost impossible to avoid.
When you work at the office, at the store, or the public hospital, you will be subjected to constant feedback, support, and advice: from your co-workers, clients, and patients. This is great because it allows you not only to become better at your job but also because of the constant validation. You know you’re on the right path because your boss just complimented your new report, or because your clients love what you’ve been doing.
Making music in isolation is often necessary, but never easy. Musicians have not only to create but also to interpret and review their own work, and this is a fatal recipe for self-doubt, hesitation, and—unavoidably—anxiety.
Does Releasing Music Feel Pointless?
Up until this point, I have explored how making music (i.e., the actual act of making music) can lead to anxiety. But releasing music can be equally nerve-wracking, especially when musicians feel like there’s no point in doing so. You’d never spend four months working as a security guard if you weren’t sure that you’d get paid for the job. But musicians often spend years making albums that are rejected or downright ignored by most people.
I’ve been there, so I know the feeling. I have a new song ready to come out, and I’m proud of how it sounds like. But when I put it out there, nobody listens to it. It turns out that making music isn’t the worst part: making your music reach a wider audience can be even more challenging, especially if you’re on your own.
For this reason, many amateur musicians have commented online that releasing music feels pointless. And if releasing music feels pointless, then making music is kind of pointless too. This leads to music-making anxiety because it takes away a musician’s drive. If the goal is to get recognition and recognition is obtained through such a random process, then the act of making music is rendered meaningless.
Conclusion: Can We Beat Music-Making Anxiety?
Musicians mistake who they are for what they do all the time. They are subjected to the violent and non-constructive criticism of pretty much everybody. They feel they’re not as good as their idols, and they are constantly isolated. And to make matters worse, they’re often ignored by everybody even when they spend months carefully making a new song, EP, or album.
So, should we all stop making music? Well, that sure is an effective method for snubbing music-making anxiety, but only because there’s no music-making anxiety without music-making… To truly tackle the problem, we must step into the ring with our boxing gloves on and, most importantly, the right attitude.
If you struggle with music-making anxiety, here are a few tips that can help you cope with arising difficulties and deal with anxiety:
- Interiorize that having a bad day at the studio is just like having a bad day at the office. Sometimes you’re more productive, and sometimes you don’t get anything right: this happens in every industry and line of work, music included, and it doesn’t say a thing about your real value as a musician and, most importantly, as a human being.
- Consider your own judgment first and only listen to the judgment of others. Be wary that criticism isn’t all the same: one thing is to pay attention to the constructive criticism of a fellow musician or well-informed fan, and another is to get affected by every random negative comment popping up on your YouTube channel.
- Be fair when comparing your work with the work of others, especially if you don’t have access to the same resources.
- If possible, don’t isolate too much. Talk with other musicians, show your demos to people you trust so they can help you feel motivated, and don’t forget about how important it is to mingle with other people—even when your job involves sitting in a dark studio or tiny bedroom for the majority of the day.
- Release music even if it’s not good enough. Being a perfectionist can be a blessing in disguise, and perfectionists excel at not finishing something because they feel it’s not good enough. However, putting your music out there can be very rewarding, especially if you have the chance to perform live, visit new places, and network with other musicians.
Crucially, never assume that your music-making anxiety is a problem you need to fix yourself. There are many support groups and mental health resources for musicians out there, so please make sure you get the help you need.