Derek Sivers

Make mystery : make people wonder


Remember that feeling when you first started listening to music, and it was all so strange and mysterious, as you wondered how they made those sounds or what those lyrics meant?

Try to create that feeling for your audience.

Don’t be so plain or obvious that there’s nothing left to wonder. But don’t be so cryptic that they give up.

Give just enough to make them curious. Let them search for explanations, details, clues, or context.

Use obscure references in your lyrics. Produce unusual sounds in your recording. Make strange images in your photos and videos.

Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, said he tried to write lyrics that were like listening in to someone else’s phone conversation — where you don’t know the context and don’t understand the references, so it draws you in deeper, trying to understand. His technique for this was to write down everything he wanted to say, then cross out every other line, and write the song using only what’s left.

Maybe due to social media, artists are less mysterious than ever. It’s kind of sad to have everything so transparent. Once something is explained, it stops captivating your curiosity.

There was an interesting psychology experiment. Many people were given a trivial quiz. Before they began, they could choose what reward to receive when finished: either the answers to the quiz, or a chocolate bar. Almost everyone chose the chocolate bar. But after taking the quiz, they were given one last chance to choose their reward: either the answers to the quiz, or a chocolate bar. Almost everyone changed their mind, and now preferred to know the answers.

Once people start wondering, they can’t stand not knowing.

Make mystery in and around your music.