The Hidden Link Between Songwriting And Safety Engineering
The best teachers don’t teach what to think, but how to think, and if you like music, there’s no better teacher than Christian James Hand. His whiteboard is the music of the past, and his gift is the ability to appreciate new music in a different and better way.
This way of thinking is key to understanding what I call “the system of the world,” which starts with seeing that seemingly simple things hide deep complexity.
Everything, from the movement of the sun and stars, to a marble that won’t quite roll straight down what looks like a flat surface, is part of a system. Knowing how to step forward, to see and grasp and understand the individual parts, is what unlocks our ability to step back and truly understand what systems do, and how they work.
Hand’s method isn’t quite a class, although it’s better than any music class I’ve ever taken, and I studied classical piano for 10 years. Hand’s thing is a show called The Session, which was in-person before COVID-19, and now runs multiple nights a week on Instagram Live. The format goes like this: Hand picks a popular song, from Zeppelin to Marvin Gaye or Carly Rae Jepsen, sits down with a laptop and a projection screen, and starts talking.
“I try to get people to re-engage with music that has become musical wallpaper,” he says, “by utilizing the original master recordings, meaning the bass and drums and guitars and vocals and keyboards… to tell the story of the song. Your engagement with it is increased because you’re no longer just hearing three and a half minutes; you’re hearing an entire movie happening where the iceberg of the song is the tip of it…. Everything under the surface is the real meaning, which is the story behind it.”
Hand will literally spend 15 minutes just talking about the bassline in “Call Me, Maybe.” He’ll spend 20 minutes talking about the guitar riff in The Outfield’s “Your Love” or Bob Seger’s vocals in “Hollywood Nights.”
We’re not just talking about the melody or the individual notes, but the story of the musician who played them. Their technique, their mistakes, and where and how they grew up. He gets into their love lives, their fights with bandmates, their drug problems, and their depressions. He then reconstructs the pieces of every human being who entered the studio that day 30 years ago, even if it’s just to play something as simple as a single note that lasted 3 seconds in a 4-minute song. Hand then places that note in the context of every other decision that brought us a song like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” building monuments to pieces of pop culture that most of us don’t think about beyond saying I love that song.
Hand takes it even further, inserting his own experiences and opinions — blunt, incisive, rude, offensive, and magical — into the story of each song, then music in general, then history itself. Because Hand was often there, as a roadie, sound engineer, occasional witness, and frequent participant, in many of the seminal moments in modern music.
Then, in the final minutes of the show, once he’s done threading all these stories and insights together, the audience finally gets to hear the song in its entirety.
For those hearing a song they thought they knew, Hand’s gift is absolute revelation. But writing about what Hand does with music is like dancing about architecture. Hand’s superpower is easily understood if you watched the recent viral video of an airliner whose engine exploded in mid-air.
Most people saw an engine on fire, and assumed the worst. Danger. This plane is going to crash. Flying is dangerous. I’m not flying on that plane again. Or maybe even that airline. Or maybe any plane.
But the more you know about airplane engines, aircraft design, and the history of aviation, the more you realize that this video depicted a system working as intended, because the plane landed safely and no one was hurt. The goal of the system is safety. The system was designed with enough redundancy to survive a seemingly catastrophic event.
Just like Hand, we can zoom in and talk about the individual steps that prevented the fire from spreading to the wing, or zoom out and see how prior failures may have taught this plane’s engineers what to design for.
These are the systems of the world, large and small, glued together by time, experience and wisdom. Every time your favorite song is performed live, a team wins a game, a rocket escapes the atmosphere, a skyscraper goes up, or a self-driving car drives by without incident, it’s a culmination of thousands of small moments and incremental improvements, all leading up to that moment when things just worked. It isn’t magic. It’s engineering. And once you’ve been exposed to the engineering of anything complex — from sound to safety — you begin to discern it everywhere.
Creativity, art, invention, innovation — all of it depends on people like Christian James Hand. These are the people who teach us how to think. Who help us understand more of the world. Who help us see the people and the parts, and inspire us to build a better world with them.
Find those people. Learn from them, and anything is possible.
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