Worldbuilding Through Music: Lessons from Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys

Hugh Schulze
5 min read

When we think of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, we often think of catchy tunes and intricate harmonies, but what sets their music apart is their ability to create a world through their songs. From "Good Vibrations" to "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Wilson's compositions transport the listener to the idyllic and sun-soaked California of the 1960s. In this post, we'll explore the idea of worldbuilding through music and how it applies to the work we do. We'll examine the elements that make Brian Wilson's music timeless and relevant to this day and how we can learn from his example to create authentic and resonant content for our clients. So, join us as we dive into the world of B2B video marketing and the power of music to transport and elevate our work.

"There was no greater world created in rock and roll than The Beach Boys. The level of musicianship—I don't think anybody's touched it yet."

Bruce Springsteen
from Brian Wilson: Long Promise Road

From a guy who has sold 140 million albums worldwide—and introduced listeners to his own world of “Thunder Road” and the “Back Streets” of New Jersey—this is high praise.

Whether one enjoys The Beach Boys or the Boss, for us the idea of worldbuilding sonically and lyrically is exemplified beautifully in the work of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. Take just one song: “Good Vibrations.” Released in 1966, the song went to the top of the charts in both the United States and United Kingdom. Composed by a 23-year-old Brian Wilson, with lyrics by Mike Love, the song is said to have been recorded over an eight-month period in a dozen sessions at four different studios and pieced together by Wilson. Ultimately, it was created from over 90 hours of recorded music.

As Jim James of My Morning Jacket puts it: "The idea that the chorus is at one studio and the verse is in another studio? That's why that song is so freaky and wonderful."

Well, that and the four-part harmony, the cellos and one of the most prominent uses of a Theremin in pop music (technically, according to Wikipedia, an Electro-Theremin).

While those are all technical details of the song creation, what is it about the music that inspired both a young musician from England and another from New Jersey and helped transport them in the music?

"The voices, the tone of the voices was so beautiful," Elton John relates in the documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road. "A bit like a classic choir in a way. It made California such an incredible place to go."

"And then they invite you into that world," Springsteen adds. "And that world has its own rules and its own code and its own story to tell ... I mean, they defined Southern California for everybody around the world."

"It just took you out of where you were and to another place," Elton John adds.

And looking at the collection of songs written by Brian Wilson, you get a deeper and fuller version of his world. We would argue that even before you ever learned a single detail of his personal life, you heard elements of that world that are also melancholic and lonely, a world that many teenagers connected with. (When speaking of Wilson’s song “In My Room,” Springsteen laughs as he recalls his teenage self listening to the song “thousands of times.”)

Talent, Truth and Technology

"I think his imagination is what made [Brian Wilson] a great producer. We can all sit here and say we have all the technology and we know how to use it and we know how to do it, but the bottom line is it doesn't matter what you know, it's what you're gonna do."

-Bob Gaudio, The Four Seasons

Don Was, Linda Perry, and other legendary music producers have commented on how Brian Wilson used the recording studio itself as an instrument—and that technology allowed him to capture the music he was hearing in his head. But being able to transport the listener to Southern California for three minutes and thirty-five seconds as “Good Vibrations” does, or immerse the listener in a twelve-minute story about a father and son, as Jeff Tweedy does in “One Sunday Morning” requires worldbuilding that relates elements on all levels, not just the technological.

“This is how I tell it,” storyteller Tweedy begins. “Ooh, but it’s long./One Sunday morning,/one son is gone.” His lyrics are carried along by an eight-note guitar riff, that circles back on itself and provides a deceptively light thread for a sad (and ultimately uplifting) story.

Both talent and truth provide an authenticity that help bring any piece of art to life.

That truth and talent lift many Beyoncé songs to the level of anthem, and the power to move the listener in body and spirit.

Sure, one might write off Brian Wilson’s music as a Boomer relic, irrelevant, a bit of Golden Oldies nostalgia from more than a half century ago. But listen to a song from 2021, “Another Life” by Surf Mesa, and you'll hear the DNA of The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" in its refrain.

The modern classical composer John Adams speaks to the persistent genius of the songwriting as well. “More than any songwriter of that era, Brian Wilson understood the value of harmonic surprise.”

Songs as Soundtracks

"The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie."

-George Lucas

While we’re all familiar with the importance of soundtracks to movies, we might not always elevate them to the level that George Lucas does beside their visual counterparts.

But our reason for putting such an emphasis on worldbuilding, in discussing the musical works above, is that we believe short-changing any element of what we’re trying to communicate disrupts the work you’re doing (and not in a good way). A clichéd stock image, a hackneyed piece of library music can stop us cold and take us out of the experience.

Each experience is a world unto itself. Our job is to make it resonate and speak authentically.

What songs take you to another world? What soundtracks return you to the movie in which you first heard it? We’d love to hear your suggestions and have included a Spotify list of those mentioned in this piece.