An Orchestra Of One
Learning how to compose music is hard.
OK, not as hard as, say, rocket science, or brain surgery, or folding a soft taco so that half the contents don’t spill on your plate. But still, it’s a hard art to learn.
Traditionally, the only way you could learn was through apprenticeship. You’d find a master composer, you’d become his apprentice. You’d learn how a composer thinks and learn how music can be arranged to tell a story. You’d learn his ways, working side by side as his apprentice for years until you finally became a master and defeated Darth Vader… or something like that.
I am not a master composer, nor am I a composer’s apprentice… but I am a good listener. I’ve learned by listening to the masters at work; in concerts, in movies, in recordings, and in video games. I have used the knowledge I’ve learned to make a lot of songs, enough that people have come to me sometimes for advice of how to compose music.
So, I've created this document entitled “An Orchestra of One”. It will comprise of tips, tricks, insights, or whatever comes to mind. Those of you who want to compose music yourselves will hopefully get a lot out of it, and those of you who have no desire to compose music will hopefully still find it interesting to learn how a composer thinks.
Chapter 1 - What is Music?
I have a challenge for you… define “music”.
No, you may not go to any dictionary and have them define it for you. This is just between you and me, and I’m giving you two minutes to come up with a definition for music.
It’s deceptively hard to do; to come up with a definition of music that applies to all music being made throughout the world in all of history. And yet, if I’m going to be giving out tips for how to compose music, I have no choice but to begin by answering this question.
WHAT IS MUSIC?
To start with, let’s get a few prejudices out of the way. Mariah Carey is a musician. Justin Bieber is a musician. So is Yanni. So is Ravi Shankar. Metallica is a small group of musicians, as is The Arrogant Worms, The Dixie Chicks, and Banooba. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a much larger group of musicians, and so is the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
They all create music. Do I enjoy all of their music? No, but that’s irrelevant. We’re not asking what the definition of “good music” is, because everyone will have a different answer for that. It’s been said that there is nothing so wrong about another person as their choice of radio station.
Now, to define music. The classic definition of music is “the universal language”. I like this definition, but it’s not nearly specific enough. Hugging is a pretty universal language, but no one calls it music, so let’s move on.
The simplest definition of music I’ve ever heard is “sound in time”. This was the definition given by a music professor named Robert Greenberg, and I was going to use that one, until I realized that it still wasn’t specific enough for me. Is the noise of a fire alarm music? What about the sound of a hand grenade exploding, or a rushing waterfall, or my fingers as I tap out this sentence onto a keyboard? Sure, those sounds could all be used in music, but are they music by themselves? Even if we take into account noises like wind chimes or a bird tweeting, which certainly are melodious and musical, I have a hard time calling them “music”.
How about “a deliberate sequence of sounds”? That works pretty well. If I randomly tap on a keyboard, without any thought behind the tapping, it isn’t music, but if I tap on a keyboard in a deliberate rhythm, then I’m making music. (I suppose it sounds like I’m making some kind of value judgment by saying that random sounds can’t be music. However, in my mind, if no thought has been put toward the creation of the sound itself, it’s not music. When a two-year-old hits random keys on a piano, their parents may pretend to call it music, but they know that it really isn’t.)
It is a good definition, but it has a flaw. You see, that definition describes music well… but it also describes speech. When I talk, I’m making a deliberate sequence of sounds, but it’s not music until some kind of specific rhythm or melody is added to it.
This has led me to my final definition:
Music - “a sequence of sounds, arranged so that a listener may appreciate the sounds themselves”
When you compose music, you’re not just communicating the literal content of those sounds, i.e. “A drum was hit pretty hard” or “a clarinet just made a strange squeaky noise”. Composing music always involves arranging sounds, whatever those sounds may be, into something beyond the literal meaning, so that the listener might appreciate the sounds themselves.
If you are a music composer, this is your goal. My goal is to help you get better at it. Whether or not you compose music that I happen to like is beside the point.
Chapter 1.5 - What is NOT Music?
When I originally posted Chapter 1 in blog form, I had a lot of good feedback.
The main thing that people commented on was my statement that for something to be music, it has to be arranged with some intelligence behind it. In my definition of music –a sequence of sounds, arranged so that a listener may appreciate the sounds themselves – a random series of sounds like those made by a rushing waterfall or wind chimes are not music. However, many people argued that, yes, they are music.
Now, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s not a big deal which way you believe on this… and considering that people have been debating the definition of “art” for centuries, I don’t think this question will get solved any time soon.
But, let’s say for a moment that all of these random sounds that have not been arranged are, in fact, music. It creates a bit of a problem for me, because I’m trying to write blog articles about how to compose music, and if music can be composed by throwing a trash can off of a second-story window, then composing music becomes too easy. Literally any sound you hear becomes music, and while that sounds like a fun, all-inclusive definition, it’s not a very useful one for composers. I’ll admit that any sound might be able to be used in a piece of music, but not every sound is music by itself.
Here’s an example: try searching online for “Dot Matrix Printer Symphony”. You will find a few examples of people who’ve taken the clicks and hums of an old printer and turned them into music. In my mind, if those people had just printed a document, the printer’s noises would not have been music, but because there was thought behind what the end result of the printer’s sounds would be, those sounds become music.
I’m probably going a bit too far into this. In any case, my definition for music is the one that I’m going to be using. So sue me. (Please don't actually sue me.)
Chapter 2 - The Types of Instruments
Now that we know what music is, the next step is to find out what artistic tools we have at our disposal. Just as a painter has a variety of paints and canvases, composers have a variety of instruments available. Anything that makes a sound is an instrument, and most all of them can fit into a few broad categories.
Percussion instruments are simply objects that can make a sound when they’re hit, shaken, scraped, or otherwise set into vibration. Due to their simplicity, most of the oldest known instruments are percussion.
Now, of course, you have your classic drums and cymbals, along with slightly less common instruments – xylophones, marimbas, steel drums, for instance – but it goes much further than that. Anything that makes a sound when you hit it has the potential to be a percussion instrument. A pot, a plate, a door, a chain link fence, a rock, a suspension bridge – they all can be percussion, a fact that bands like Stomp use to their advantage.
Wind instruments are any instruments that make sound due to the flow of air. Most wind instruments are either brass instruments or woodwinds.
Brass instruments are, generally, made of brass. They start with a mouthpiece, have a length of tubing, and end with a wide horn. The mouthpiece is blown into, and depending on the way it is blown, can make different noises. The tubing frequently contains valves that, when pressed, can also change the note the instrument makes (known as the pitch). Examples include the trumpet, trombone, euphonium, French horn, and tuba.
Woodwinds make sound when a player blows air either across a sharp edge or a reed, creating vibration, which travels along a length of tubing. The tubing contains many holes, and depending on which hole is covered, the instrument can make different pitches. Examples include the flute, clarinet, oboe, bagpipes, recorder, and saxophone.
There are other wind instruments, of course. Water bottles are particularly good wind instruments when you blow across the top in the right way, but the world’s oldest and best known wind instrument is the human voice.
(Note: Most textbooks about instruments will actually put brass instruments and woodwinds into two separate groups, instead of grouping them together, like I have. This is not wrong, and if I was limiting my list of instruments to orchestral instruments, I would have done this. However, because there are other wind instruments that are neither brass nor woodwinds, I thought it would be best to simplify my list and group all the winds together.)
Stringed instruments are any instruments where strings are plucked or bowed in some way. Strings are stretched along the instrument, and the string’s material and length, combined with how much it’s stretched, determine the note it makes. “Plucking” a string is performed by taking the already stretched string, stretching it farther, and then snapping it back. “Bowing” a string is performed by rubbing the stretched string in some way.
The simplest string instrument is likely the elastic band, stretched and plucked to make a noise. More traditional examples of string instruments include the guitar, violin, harp, cello, banjo, and ukulele.
By far, the newest form of instrument is the synthesized instrument. With most instruments, a sound is produced by creating a physical reaction in the real world. Synthesized instruments, though, create sounds either by manipulating real sounds that have been recorded previously or by creating waves using mathematical formulas and outputting them as sound (the so-called "8-bit" music of the video games from the 1980's are good examples of this).
This is the most technologically advanced way to make sounds. Examples include the synthesizer, the drum machine, the theremin, and the Commodore 64 SID chip.
Keyboards are instruments that have a series of keys in a row, with each key controlling its own unique sound when pressed. I’ve saved keyboards until last because, in reality, they’re not a unique category of instrument.
I’m not saying this to insult keyboards or keyboard players. I’ve been playing the piano since I was five years old, and I love it. The problem is that, when you look at how keyboard instruments make sounds, they actually fall into one of the four categories I’ve mentioned previously.
Take the immense and impressive pipe organ, for instance. When a key on a pipe organ is pressed, air flow is allowed to pass through a specific tube, creating a long, sustained pitch. This means that the pipe organ is actually a wind instrument.
The piano makes sound when a string inside it is struck, so it’s a percussion instrument. The harpsichord’s strings are plucked, making it a string instrument, and we’ve already talked about synthesizers.
Keyboards are merely controllers for one of the other types of instrument. This may mean that they get laughed at by the other instruments, but it also means that they are ideal for composing. If you want to be a composer, you probably need to learn to play a keyboard instrument.
Chapter 3 - The Equipment You Need
Finally! Enough talking about music, it’s time to compose a song! Let’s get out our equipment and compose!
Wait… what equipment do you need to compose, you ask? Good question… I suppose it would help to go through that first. Here’s what I’d suggest as the necessary equipment to be a composer:
There are many modern composers who don’t use a computer for composing. In fact, the soundtrack for Disney’s The Incredibles was recorded entirely without computer assistance. However, if you are trying to compose on your own as “an orchestra of one”, a computer is essential.
As of this writing, most composers seem to favor the Mac for composing. However, I’m a PC guy, so I do my composing on a PC. No matter what your preference is, it is important that you a choose a computer that can handle the musical requirements that you throw at it. Music composing, for various reasons, can be very taxing on a computer’s resources. Your computer should have a dualcore or quadcore processor (or better), and a great sound card. My sound card is a M-Audio MobilePRE USB external card, which allows me to connect my keyboard directly to it, along with a few microphones if I need to.
It’s difficult for me to recommend a specific computer setup. For basic needs, the computer you’re using right now to read this blog would probably work, no matter what it is (even smartphones will sometimes have basic recording equipment). The best advice I can give is to find out what software you plan to use, and then get a computer that’s up to the task.
Composing software, at a basic level, allows you to record multiple tracks of music, each with a different instrument, which can then be played back at the same time to form a full song.
There are a lot of different software packages out there, and I haven’t tried them all, so you’re going to have to do some searching here. Personally, I’ve been quite happy with the Cakewalk line of software products. I currently use SONAR X1 Studio, but I started out with SONAR Music Creator 4, which is a wonderful product for composing at a basic level (and fairly inexpensive, too). Other music composing software includes, but is not limited to:
- Ableton Live (has free trials to download)
- Cubase (has free trials to download)
- GarageBand (no link that I could find, Mac only)
- Pro Tools
- Sibelius (has free trials to download)
Now, if you’re looking for demo version of SONAR, the closest I can find for you is this link to a trial version of SONAR X1 Producer. It’s quite advanced for a beginning composer, though.
No, not the one you use for typing. You need a musical keyboard that can connect to your computer in some way.
By the way, your keyboard does not need to have built-in instruments and sounds. Having instruments in the keyboard unit itself is not a bad thing (especially if you also want to use the keyboard by itself for performing), but you will be using the keyboard primarily as a controller for other instruments (more on that later). Keyboards come in 88-key, 61-key, 49-key, and 25-key varieties, although if you come from a piano background you probably won’t want anything smaller than a 61-key keyboard (or 49-key as a bare minimum). The more expensive keyboards are weighted to feel like an actual piano, but I prefer semi-weighted keys for composing, since they’re less tiring to play for hours at a time.
Do you absolutely need a keyboard? Technically, no. If you really wanted to, you could just use your mouse and place notes to create your song. Certain kinds of music, like dubstep, actually benefit from this approach.
The instruments you use can make or break your composition. The more realistic your instruments are, the better your song will sound.
Now, your instruments might be real, physical instruments that you play and record, like an electric guitar. However, you’re likely going to need some virtual instruments as well. Virtual instruments allow you to use your keyboard to control sounds that have been previously recorded by another musician.
Some virtual instruments are free, and can be downloaded online. Other virtual instruments will come included in your computer’s sound card, or in the composing program that you’ve purchased. However, the best virtual instruments usually need to be bought from sites that specialize in them, and they can get pretty pricey.
The virtual instruments I use are almost exclusively from SoundsOnline.com, and they’re amazing. The Symphonic Orchestra by itself is beautiful. Another good source is the Vienna Symphonic Library. My favorite free virtual instrument is the “NES VST Pack” by David Farler; I’ve made several songs sound exactly like they came from an original Nintendo console. Whatever virtual instrument you choose, they will have some strengths and some weaknesses… you’ll need to try and compose towards the instrument’s strengths. Oh, and make sure that your composing program can actually use the virtual instrument package you want to use… not all programs can.
Lastly, but most importantly, you need your brain. 200 years ago, people composed without computers or fancy software, and yet they made beautiful music because of practice and talent. The tools you have at your disposal can only take you so far… practicing, listening, and experimentation takes you the rest of the way.
Are there other tools that you might need? Absolutely. If you want to record any vocal work, you’ll need a microphone, along with a microphone stand and pop filter. If you don’t want to annoy the people beside you when you compose, you should get a good pair of headphones (and NOT earbuds… those things can destroy your hearing if you use them too much).
However, if you’re a beginning composer, don’t buy all of these tools all at once. Only get what you think you need… you (and your bank account) will be happier if you do.
Chapter 4 - Starting a song for a client
So, let’s say you have a client, who’s going to pay you to make a song. Hurray! But then you run into a problem. When you ask them “What kind of song do you want?”, they answer “I don’t know… you’re the musician.” Uh oh.
This is one of the classic problems that any artist has when they’re working for clients. Clients frequently don’t know what they want, and if they do, they don’t know how to communicate to artists. But, if you don’t get some information about this song, you can’t possibly hope to make something they’d like, and you won’t get paid!
Time to make this situation less painful… here’s my list of questions that are guaranteed to give you more information about the song you need to compose:
- Is it like a song that already exists? This is, in my experience, the most important question you can ask. Even the most tone-deaf people seem to have at least a few songs they like, even if they’ve never attempted to describe why they like them, and if a client is wanting a new song, comparing it to a song that already exists is likely the easiest way to get the conversation started. From here, you can ask things like “What is it about this song that you like?”, which is a perfect way to launch into the following questions. (IMPORTANT: If a client points to a specific song and says “Make it exactly like that”, make sure the client is aware that the song won’t be 100% the same, if only for legal reasons. Making a song exactly like another song, when you don’t have rights to do it, is dangerous for both you and a client. There are potential exceptions to this (like remixes, in certain cases), but for the most part, stay away.)
- What mood should the song have? Music is the “universal language”, not because you can easily translate words into other languages with it, but because you can describe a mood or a feeling to any culture with it. A sorrowful violin solo or a cheerful flute will convey an emotion to almost any listener.
- What message should the song convey? This is very similar to the last question, but it’s a bit different because it goes beyond mood. If you listened to “Flight of the Bumblebee”, without even being told what the title was, you could probably guess that the song had the story of “a very busy creature is frantically doing something”. Sometimes, if the client’s message is simple enough, it can help with the creation of a song.
- Are there graphical elements that go along with the music? If there is a picture that the music will be played along with, try as hard as possible to get your hands on that picture. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words, and something about that picture might just jumpstart your song. In Disney’s Mary Poppins, the song “Chim Chiminee” was directly inspired by an early sketch of a chimney sweep character before that character’s actor had even been cast. I was once given the task of creating a song for a scientist’s lab, and when I saw the concept art for the lab, a hydraulic pump in one corner was enough to give me a good rhythm to start with. If you’re making the music for something interactive, like a video game, you can learn a lot about the tempo and feel of the required song by the game, even if the art isn’t finalized yet. (If you’re making music as a soundtrack to some kind of video content, that brings up a whole new group of questions that I won’t be getting into in this chapter.)
- What instruments make sense? Occasionally, a client will have one or more instruments in mind for a song. This is helpful, but sometimes not as helpful as you might think. Non-musicians don’t always have the right instrument in mind when they mention an instrument… for instance, they might be thinking of a trombone when they say a trumpet. Use this info wisely.
- What is the song’s tempo? Is it fast-paced or slow? How do you move to it? This helps mostly in determining the speed of the song and the role of the percussion section. If the song is to be a march, for instance, you immediately know that the time signature will be 2/4, because that’s what all marches are. You also know that the speed will be something you can march to (120-140 bpm, most likely). If the song is to be a waltz, it will be 3/4, and if the song is dance music, it will probably be 2/4 or 4/4.
These six questions, and any other comments the client gives about the song, should be enough to get you started on the piece. If the client isn’t able to answer any of these questions, then chances are he doesn’t even know what he wants. You have no hope of helping him. Just walk away slowly.
One question to avoid, in my experience: “What style of music is it?” This question has rarely done me any good, because song styles are so hard to define. If you ask that question, and the client answers “rock music”, what does that really tell you? Is it acid rock? Soft rock? Heavy metal? Elvis? Song styles are getting so merged with one another these days that naming them has become useless, a fact which I’m sure drives music stores nuts when they’re trying to organize their CDs into neat little aisles.
One last thing: these questions are useful for helping any client… including you! Sometimes I’ve been in situations where I’ve really felt like making a song for fun, but haven’t had a clue what to make. In that case, you just modify the questions a bit and ask them to yourself:
- Do I want to make a song similar to one that already exists?
- What mood or message do I want to keep in mind as I try to compose this song?
- Is there a piece of artwork that I’ve seen that inspires me to make a song?
- What instrument(s) have I always wanted to compose with?
- What tempo would be fun to compose with? Should I try to make a song with an unusual time signature like 7/4, just to see if I can?
If you yourself can’t answer any of those questions, then maybe you should jam for awhile with the Record button turned on and see what happens. Or, just step away from the instruments and do something outside. There’s nothing like mowing the lawn to make you really wish that you were inside composing music instead.
Chapter 5 - Truth to Materials
I was watching a behind-the-scenes feature on one of the Pixar movies, and John Lasseter (the head of Pixar), spoke of a concept called “Truth To Materials”, which is one of the defining techniques in every Pixar movie. Let’s say they’re making a movie, and they need to create a park bench. Well, it’s not enough for them to just make a park bench, they ask themselves detailed questions like how old the bench is, what style it should be, should it have scratches, should there be parts where the paint has been worn off from people sitting there… that kind of stuff. These are questions that the audience would never ask, but because the people creating the movie go to that extra level of detail, you feel more immersed in the movie.
I decided to apply the same technique to music as well. As a composer with hundreds of virtual instruments at my disposal, it would be very easy to just make an instrument play whatever I want it to, but that would not be true to the real instruments that the virtual instruments are based on. Every time I add an instrument to a song, I don’t just add it and make it play my every whim; I ask myself if the instrument could physically be played that way. Here are some examples:
- If I’m using an acoustic guitar, I make sure that there are never more than 6 notes playing at any one time, because the vast majority of acoustic guitars only have 6 strings.
- If I’m using a timpani, I make sure that I have it playing a maximum of 4 tones through the whole song. Why? Because a timpani is a huge, expensive drum that can only play one tone, and in a real orchestra, 4 is about the largest number of drums a timpani player can be surrounded with before it gets too hard to reach them. (There are exceptions to this. Sometimes, the key of a song will change… in those cases, a timpani player will have to be given time to retune the timpanis in the middle of a song. An expert timpanist can do this in less than 20 seconds. However, the timpanis will now be stuck with those four new notes unless they need to be retuned again.)
- With any instrument I’m using, I try to find out what the actual range is for that instrument. For instance, a trumpet has a range of about 3 octaves that it can physically play. However, the highest notes are so difficult to play that I avoid using them unless it’s absolutely necessary (in a real orchestra, I wouldn’t want some poor trumpet player to injure himself trying to play a piece I’d written)
I could give about a dozen more examples, but the point is this: every instrument has little quirks about it that makes it easier to play some notes than others. To find out what they are, you’re going to have to do some research while you’re composing. (Homework while composing? Yep, afraid so.)
However, “Truth to Materials” should extend itself to all aspects of music. If you’re composing a piece of music that is related to a partiular culture, you should also choose instruments true to that culture. In some styles, using a specific scale will make the music more authentic to that style. The classic blues C-scale is C Eb F Gb G Bb C, so a melody played using those notes in a blues song will probably sound more authentic (if the song is played in the key of C, anyways). Playing a song with only the black notes of a keyboard can make a song sound more Oriental or African, depending on the way it’s played and the instruments used. This is because, in many cultures, this limited five-note scale was quite common.
“Truth to Materials” is a rule I try to follow in nearly everything I make… but that doesn’t mean that all good music follows this rule. For instance, watch almost any episode of the kids TV show “Pocoyo”, and you’ll see this rule being broken. In episodes like this one entitled “What’s in the Box”, instruments are treated more like sound effects, reacting to the scene in ways that real instruments normally couldn’t do. Yet, the music still works very well, largely because it stays true to its own unique style.
In the end, my advice is to be true to whatever musical instruments and styles that you’re using. As you get more experienced and as you experiment, you will learn when it works fine to break the rules too.
Chapter 6 - Sharing the Load
When composing, it can be easy to ask a single instrument to do a bit too much work, when it would be better off spread between multiple instruments.
Let’s say you’re composing something, and you have a trombone line that goes like this:
This is okay, but the trombone is doing a lot of short, staccato notes. Trombones are stronger when notes they perform are not so close . Let’s try giving the load to another instrument… in this case, how about a low string section?
See? Same exact notes, but now the trombone is only playing half of them. The original melody played by the trombone is now played by the cellos.
Let’s try something else. The trombone will keep the same melody as in the last clip, but the rhythm of the trombone will be played by a snare drum.
That works well too… you get the same staccato rhythm, but the trombone line becomes stronger. How about changing the snare drum part a bit? And let’s add a timpani for a bit of accent as well.
While we’re here, let’s bring back those cellos from before. Let’s also add in some lower strings called double-basses, which will do the exact same thing the trombones were doing, but one octave lower.
Now, let’s compare this latest clip to the one we started with. Is it better? Well, that depends on your musical tastes and the needs of your song. I certainly find it more powerful, although the snare drum might be too military. Notice, though, that the notes themselves did not change. I literally copy-and-pasted the MIDI notes from the trombone section down to the strings. Other than the fact that the octave was changed for the double-basses, and a few new timpani notes were added, it’s the exact same tune. Here are all five clips put together, in case you’re curious:
Bottom line: making more than one instrument do the same thing is not bad! Many songs get their power by having multiple instruments compliment one another, and yours can too.
Chapter 7 - Composer's Block
Choosing music composing as a job instead of a hobby suddenly means that you’re going to have compose music even when you don’t want to. If you were a writer, it’d be called “writer’s block”, so “composer’s block” seems an appropriate enough term for us. There are many obstacles that can cause composer’s block.
Obstacle #1: I don’t know where to start!
Sometimes, just starting the song can be the hardest thing. First, try asking yourself the questions in Chapter 4 so that you know what kind of song you’re making. Second, set your metronome (called a “click track” in some composing programs) to an appropriate tempo and time signature.
Now that you’ve prepared yourself a bit, you have to actually record your first notes. What’s the best place to start? Well, there’s no one right answer, but there are multiple ways you can begin:
- Melody. It may be that a really clear melody line is what starts this song, with the other instruments coming in after to support it. This isn’t as common as you might expect, though… I frequently have to start with a non-melody instrument so that I have something on which to build the melody.
- Lyrics. Even if you’re making completely instrumental piece, sometimes a few lines of lyrics will just pop into your head, and making an instrument play that rhythm will start the song for you. This can work for melody or harmony.
- Bass line. This is my usual weapon of choice. I choose an appropriate instrument with a lower range, and record a bass line. It may only be a few bars long, but it’s always how I prefer to start. A house needs to start with a good foundation, and for me, even if I don’t know what the rest of my “house” is going to look like, the bass line is the best foundation. Plus, if you come up with a really fun bass line, the melody is more free to improvise to it.
- Percussion. While I’m big on the bass line, the true foundation of most songs is found in its percussion section. Thus, many musicians will prefer to start with a percussion line and build up from there. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and many times I will start this way. However, if the clicking of my metronome is enough of a percussion track to begin with, I still prefer to start with a non-percussion instrument.
Obstacle #2: I’ve started my song, but I just feel creatively drained! What now?
Believe me, I’ve been there. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat at my keyboard for an hour with absolutely nothing useful to show for it. This is a true composer’s block, but if you’re on a tight deadline, that song’s gotta be made no matter what. The solution? Get away from that computer for awhile and do something.
Go for a walk! A twenty-minute walk in your neighborhood can be a great way to compose… if you can time your footsteps roughly to the tempo of your song, your brain can be actively composing music even when you’re nowhere near an instrument.
There’s another benefit to stepping away for awhile, too. When you come back to the song, you can listen to it with “fresh ears”; in other words, you can listen to it as other people will hear it. Too often, after a few hours of composing, you can get to a state of not really hearing the song because you’re paying too much attention to individual instruments. Listening to it after an hour of being away from it will let you listen to it in a way you hadn’t before.
Obstacle #3: I’ve tried those things, and I’m still blocked. Any other suggestions?
Well, for starters, are you being distracted by anything? Say, a game that happens to also be on your computer? Or one of those Internet sites that you just HAVE to check every five minutes? Yeah, those can kill your creativity.
Last but not least, maybe you really just need to scrap the song and start over. My song “Monkey King” was scrapped and restarted from scratch four times. Take the advice of Thomas Edison… “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Chapter 8: Song – Hunt for the Orb
It's about time to see how some of this musical advice applies to an actual song. Here's one I composed called "Hunt for the Orb".
I composed this song for a game called "Mech Mice Tactics".
The first step was to find out what type of song to make. Let’s look at the Chapter 4 questions, and see how some of those questions were answered:
What message should the song convey? The most important part of this particular song was the message. It needed to tell the following story (I’ve included the approximate times for each part of the story):
- night falls on the Mech Mice world (0:00-0:27)
- the Mech Mice team assembles, with a stealthy mouse named Nightshade doing recon (0:27-1:21)
- suddenly, the team is attacked by insects (1:22-2:10)
- team defeats insects, but is then attacked by a larger predator (2:11-2:43)
- battle ends, but war is not over (2:44-3:15)
Is it like a song that already exists? Well, I was given pretty free reign to explore musical styles. However, one thing that was mentioned was the TRON: Legacy soundtrack, with its mix of strings and electronic instruments. I’ll talk more about this later.
Are there graphical elements that go along with the music? Yes, it was heavily inspired by the many pieces of concept art that already existed (though the game did not at the time I composed this).
What instruments make sense? TRON: Legacy used mostly electronic instruments, but had a large string section for the more dramatic moments. I decided that the best way to use this would be to have the regular orchestral instruments by themselves when the Mech Mice are only surrounded by nature, but when they are threatened or attacked, electronic instruments would come in as well. I didn’t really pursue this idea very far in this song, but I’ll try to add a larger electronic influence in future Mech Mice songs.
In Chapter 6, I spoke of how instruments could share the load between one another. This song is full of that. It’s a little difficult to provide examples, but notice that there are very few times when the melody is played by a single instrument. Usually, there’s at least one more instrument from another section backing it up.
In Chapter 7, I mention Composer’s Block, and I had it a few times with this song. For instance, I couldn’t think of the right melody to end the song with. It wasn’t until driving home from work one day that the ending hit me. I took out my cell phone, recorded the melody into a dictation app, and used that as a basis to compose it the next day (never do this while actually driving):
Chapter 9 - MIDI Trickery
For this chapter, I’m assuming that you know the difference between MIDI and wave audio. If you don’t, search online for a refresher of how it works.
MIDI, while quite misunderstood by many, is an extremely powerful tool for recording. Because it only records the data of how an instrument should be played, it’s easy to edit and finetune a recording to your liking. However, you might not realize that certain MIDI tricks can make you a better performer than you actually are.
Here’s one of my big secrets… I rely pretty heavily on the quantize function. Quantize is when MIDI notes are repositioned to more accurately line up with a specific interval. For instance, if you use a quarter note quantize on a melody, all notes will be moved to the nearest quarter note.
Now, overusing quantize can make a song sound very robotic, and while that’s sometimes a good thing, usually it will sound very unnatural, as no human performer can play that way. So, in most composing programs, you can choose how much quantize you’re going to use. I usually use a 60%-70% quantize… this will move notes close to being exactly right, while still sounding natural.
Another hazard of quantize is that the composing program has no idea what a song is supposed to sound like. After quantizing, always listen to your song… you’ll probably have a few notes you need to move to the correct place. Lastly, due to an issue called “recording latency”, you might need to shift a MIDI recording into the right position before quantizing.
Recording at a slower tempo
Take a listen to this song for a moment. It’s an amazing performance of Flight of the Bumblebee, and its speed makes it very difficult to play… at least, if you’re playing it live on stage. In the comfort of your home recording studio, it’s much easier to record instrument parts that are extremely fast. Just follow these steps:
- Remember the original tempo of your song
- Lower it to a slower tempo
- Record your song at the slower speed
- Increase the tempo back to where it should be
That’s all! The beauty of MIDI is that you don’t have to record your song at the proper speed. It takes some practice, of course, because a fast melody just sounds… wrong when you’re playing slower, but when you put the tempo back to its original speed, you can get great results from it. Oh, and this isn’t just an orchestra thing. This technique also works for really fast drum kit parts that are too difficult to simulate on a keyboard, such as rapidly hitting a hi-hat.
Chapter 10 - Occupational Hazards
Composing music is a pretty safe job. We’re not working hundreds of feet above or below the ground, we’re not handling dangerous machinery, and no one will die if we do our job wrong. It is a job with very few hazards… but there are still hazards. Here’s a list of some of them, with some solutions of how to combat them.
Hazard #1: You’ve come up with a great song, but you have no place to record it.
Contrary to what some might think, composers do not just stop composing when they’re away from an instrument. In fact, I come up with some of my best songs when I’m doing pretty random things. Showering, washing dishes, driving, having a picnic… you never know when a great song will strike you, but what do you do when there’s no place to record it?
The solution is to always have some way to record it. Most cell phones have some kind of ability to download applications. I have one myself called “Tape-a-Talk”, which was designed for recording audio like a dictaphone. If I come up with a song, wherever I am, I can take a moment to hum it into my cell phone, recording it for later.
However, a cell phone isn’t the only thing that I’ve used for this purpose. For instance, one day I was walking to a church picnic, when I came up with a great song idea. I didn’t have a cell phone with me, but I did have digital camera that could take short video clips. So, I recorded myself humming into the camera. That melody later became my song Cumulonimbus (which can be heard in the Music Player).
Hazard #2: You’ve been composing for a few hours today, and your wrists are starting to hurt.
This is the most serious actual injury that you are likely to face when composing, and it’s known by many possible names, including “repetitive stretch injury” and “carpal tunnel syndrome”. Now, I’m not a doctor in any way, but here’s a few pieces of advice:
- Keep a good posture.
- Every 30-60 minutes, get up, walk around, and move your arms and hands a bit.
- Certain instrumental parts, like drums, can be very repetitive and will strain your wrists quickly when composed on a keyboard. If it’s a very repetitive part, try recording only a small section and duplicating it.
Hazard #3: I’m using headphones for recording, and my ears are ringing a bit.
OK, forget what I said in the last section. THIS is the most serious injury you could face when composing. Your hearing, to put it mildly, is pretty important, and while many composers have coped quite well with hearing loss, you don’t want to go that route.
- Avoid too much headphone time in one sitting.
- Use good-quality headphones. Do NOT compose with earbuds.
- Don’t crank up the volume as high as possible when composing, especially if you’re using a lot of high-pitched instruments. Low-pitched noises are easier on the ears when at a higher volume.
You may also want to watch your activities in your daily life. If you’re part of, say, a rock band, you may need ear protection while performing. If your day job is working with loud machinery, use earplugs.
Hazard #4: Aah! I have my own song stuck in my head!
Yep, this is going to happen. The more songs you compose, the more likely it will happen, it seems. Try listening to something else for awhile. If you find a good solution to this, contact me. I’d love to know what do about this.
Chapter 11 - Lessons from a Shark
Jaws was a film made in 1975. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it was the story of a shark that terrorized the ocean, and was arguably the first movie to introduce the world to one of the best composers in the film industry, John Williams.
The soundtrack for Jaws is filled with sweeping orchestral arrangements, original themes for the main characters, and a high level of musical craftsmanship. However, when you think of the music in Jaws, what is the only thing you remember about it?
You don’t have to know a thing about playing a musical instrument to play the theme to Jaws. Just find a piano, pick a note on the far left-hand side, find the note directly above it, and play those notes alternately, increasing in speed and volume. And yet, it’s one of the most famous movie themes in history. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
But what can we learn from this?
Lesson 1: Simplicity
Do you want to make a memorable song? Then make it a simple song.
Simplicity is harder than it looks. As creators, all artists seem to have a belief at some point in their careers that the more complex something is, the more memorable it will be. Usually, this is not true. For example, the Death Star and the Starship Enterprise can be sketched to a recognizable level in about 15 seconds. Simplicity is powerful.
In music, it’s the simple songs you remember. The Beatles had simple themes, and guess what, they’re played on the radio a lot more often than Beethoven. On that note, what’s the most memorable thing Beethoven ever wrote? Ba ba ba bum. Four notes. Noticing a pattern, here?
Lesson 2: Dynamics and speed
The same two notes played over and over in sequence should be boring. In Jaws, it’s not. Why? Dynamics and tempo. By playing the notes gradually louder and gradually faster, the message is communicated: “Uh oh, that shark is getting closer. We are in more danger than we were before.” A song that never changes its dynamics sounds robotic or mechanical. In some musical genres, that’s what you may want (dance club music, for instance). Changes in tempo are less frequent, especially if you’re going for memorable songs that you can sing along with, but they have their place, and should be kept in mind.
Lesson 3: Intervals
An interval is the distance between two notes. Some intervals are pleasant, such as the perfect fifth (C and G, for instance). Other intervals are unpleasant, like the minor second, which is what Jaws is, or the tritone (C and F#). If you want to ruin a light, heroic, or joyful melody, a bad interval will probably do it.
Knowing what intervals to use where is one of the best places for scales to come in handy. If you’ve learned your scales, you can more easily identify when you’ve put a “wrong” note in a composition. (Side note: Learn your scales! Scales are to a musician what doing push-ups are to an athlete. No one likes them, but they strengthen your ears and your fingers. Major and minor scales are the basic ones to learn, but there are others, like the blues scales.)
Chapter 12 - Echo, Echo
Audio effects are things which are added to sound with the purpose of warping the sound in some way, and up until this point, I haven’t talked about them very much. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t generally use a lot of audio effects in my recordings, but it’s also because I’m just not very good at using most audio effects properly. However, there’s one category of effects that is vital for a composer to try and understand; the echo.
There are two types of echoes; reverb and delay. Reverb is sort of a muddy echo… it’s most noticed when a loud sound trails off in places like cathedrals, gymnasiums or bathroom stalls. (I'm not the only person who's yelled in a bathroom just to hear the echo, right? Right?)
If you’re sitting anywhere besides an insulated sound booth, you can probably experience some level of reverb right now, although it might be too quiet to be very noticeable. Delay, on the other hand, is when a sound is exactly repeated multiple times at a lesser volume each time. Making a short yell into a canyon would let you experience delay.
In real life, reverb and delay are the same thing – sound waves bouncing at various distances before reaching your ears – but when composing music, they’re simulated differently. Here are some audio examples of reverb and delay:
Reverb and delay generally have different purposes for a musician. When using reverb, it’s all about presence. It establishes space and location in a way that no other audio effect can match. Are you in a cave? Are you underwater? Are you in the second floor of a house where thumping bass music is being played on the first floor? Reverb captures that.
Delay can also establish space when used properly on a whole song, but when used on individual instruments, it becomes a space-filling effect. The electric guitar is probably the most common instrument to use delay… it can be found in everything from U2 to Hillsong United.
That’s reverb and delay… but this post about echoes wouldn’t quite be complete if I didn’t mention a frequently forgotten and otherworldly audio effect; the reverse echo. Here’s a harp melody with reverse echo:
Hear how the sound fades in before the harp strings are plucked? That’s the reverse echo. Creepy? A little bit. It's completely unnatural when compared to how sound actually works, and that's why it's great. Here’s how it’s done:
- Take the audio file and reverse it in your audio editing program. Go ahead and listen to it, because audio always sounds weird when reversed.
- Add reverb to your reversed audio file, and bounce (export) it to a new piece of audio.
- Reverse that new piece of audio. There will now be a reversed echo effect on your original audio clip.
This is a great technique for giving an alien feel to any kind of audio, including people’s voices. Try it!
Chapter 13 - How to Get Noticed
Since starting this series, I’ve been asked many questions about composing from readers just like you, and the most frequent questions I’ve been asked have been things like “How do I get my music to be noticed by more people?” or “How can I get people to hire me to make music for them?” It’s natural… you’re an artist, which means that a.) you want more people to see the awesome work you do, and b.) you’d probably like to make some money doing it.
Now, honestly, I don’t know how to answer this question for you, specifically. The answer for every artist is different. But I do have some advice, and while it might be a bit boring to read, if you understand it, it should help you. (By the way, unlike my other chapters in this series, this advice can easily apply to all artists.)
There are two keys to long-term success in an art form: what you know and who knows you.
What you know is all of your skills, your talents, your work ethic, your creativity, and your commitment. You should already be trying to get better in these areas. If you’re not, and you just assume that becoming a successful artist requires no work whatsoever, stop reading now. You will never be a successful artist (and if you don’t at least improve your work ethic, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful at anything… sorry to be blunt, but it’s true).
Who knows you is the part that I’ll be mostly talking about here. These are your contacts, the people out there who remember how awesome you are as an artist. This group includes your friends, your classmates and your coworkers, but due to the Internet, it could potentially include any of the seven billion people on this planet. It is due to the people who know you that you will find fame.
You need both of these. Simply being talented is not enough. Emily Dickinson was a poet from the 19th century who wrote her poems in privacy, hardly ever sharing them with anyone. It was only after she died that her poems were revealed to the world by her relatives as the masterpieces they were… she was a woman of much talent, but had an extreme case of making sure no one knew about her.
Being known by millions of people isn’t enough, either. William Hung was a man who auditioned for the reality TV show American Idol in late 2003. When his audition aired on TV, he became known around the world by millions of people… for how bad he was at singing. He got signed to record deals, he appeared in TV commercials… he achieved a higher level of fame than most artists ever will, and is now living in obscurity. He was well-known, but had an extreme lack of talent.
I’m fairly certain that you do not want either of these things to happen to you. Chances are, you know you have talent, and want to work to have even more, but you’re just having trouble finding the audience.
How do you make sure people know about you? Well, there’s no one solution that will grant you this. You’re going to need to be creative. Here’s some ideas (in a very random order):
- Is there a band you like? Make a remix of one of their songs, and upload it to YouTube (giving the band credit for the original song, of course). If you do that, and you do a good job, people who are already looking for their song may find you.
- Make music that other people want to listen to. If the music you make isn’t liked by anyone else, you’re not going to get more famous.
- Become the best at one particular thing. There’s a man named Sam Tsui who sings many parts of the same song on a stage and is hugely talented at it. For example, check out his Michael Jackson tribute. That style is his thing… find your thing, and perfect it. People are constantly on the lookout for the artists that are better than the rest at something.
- Join a musical group. A garage band, a local symphony orchestra, your church or school choir… if you’re around other musicians, you all become each other’s audience. Surrounding yourself with like-minded artists is usually a very good thing.
- YouLicense, and other sites like it, post up job opportunities. In the case of YouLicense, you can submit to one one project per month for absolutely free. If you aren’t doing this, why not?
- Find local contacts. People who know you and actually live near you are, in my experience, far more valuable contacts to have.
- Does the composing program you use have a forum? If so, is there a place on that forum to showcase your work? Put your songs online, and post them! I guarantee that you’ll get honest and constructive feedback, and perhaps even some contacts from it as well.
Will all of these things work for you? Probably not. But you have to try. In the words of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. The more people who know you, the better your chance will be to score.
(I feel like I’ve cheated a bit with this chapter. For some of you, I’ve only told you what you already know, and I’m sorry about that. Really, if composing music is your dream, you’re just going to have to persevere. It’s one of the hardest things about being an artist for a living. You probably will have to get a day job at the same time to make it work.)
Chapter 14 - Humbled By Beethoven
Last year, I attended a concert in which an orchestra was about to perform Beethoven’s Symphony #5. Now, I’d already been composing music commercially for a few years, and I was feeling pretty confident about my own skills as a composer, thinking that I was a pretty awesome composer, if I said so myself.
However, any pride in my own abilities was pretty much crushed as soon as the orchestra started, though. The entire symphony was absolutely beautiful, and I sat in my seat amazed by the skill in what I’d heard. “Beethoven was able to come up with something this beautiful? 200 years ago? Without computers? WHILE DEAF?!?”
Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.
You do too. Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach… we will likely never get the point where we’re considered a master like they were. In some ways, that’s kinda depressing.
But on the other hand, we also have advantages that they could never have dreamed about. We have access to instruments that weren’t even invented when they were alive. Every major song created in the last 200 years can be instantly available to us to learn from. Musicians are paid more than they ever have been in history. And, most importantly, we have tools at our disposal capable of almost perfectly recreating the sound of an entire orchestra… by ourselves! That's an amazing opportunity. I hope these chapters so far have been inspiring you toward whatever artistic goal you have.