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Composer’s Forum: Reality Check, Please

Gerry Bassermann

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You think you’re writing music…but what are you really doing?

You switch on your synth, boot your laptop, and then search for some fresh sounds or opt for old favorites. Almost immediately, you’re rewarded with rich, musical textures, and you do that thing you do so you can “come up with something.” You’re in super familiar territory—capturing MIDI notes, doing some copy and paste, adding some beats and some ’verb… You might take another minute and add a seductive BPM-synced delay. In almost no time, you have a brand new musical texture that didn’t exist just moments ago. You turn it up, and you’re pretty blown away. A friend calls, and you’re like, “Yeah, just working on a new piece. Check it out!”

The technology that makes such facility possible and almost effortless gets more fantastic all the time. You think of instruments and computers as your tools, but the smarter they get, the more they become your virtual partners. If those writing partners can generate sonic material so quickly and easily, then it’s up to you to be critical and ask hard questions about what you’re hearing and what you’d like to hear, before rushing to think of a title and wrap it. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because you may have already fallen for your new piece. You may already be moving to it, singing with it, and before you know it, you’re completely sold on it—just as it stands.

At this stage, you may try to improve it by working on the dynamics, the fades and crossfades, or by muting some clips, tweaking EQ, and wrestling with the bass. You may think you’re still writing, but mix engineering moves are designed to make what’s already there sound better. The fact that you attend to them so early in the process indicates that you may be moving too quickly. It’s easy to get caught in a captivating rush to generate and propagate the musical space without properly challenging the form of the music that emerges. I’m sure you’ve heard the maxim that you can’t fix a weak song with good production. It’s true, because the majority of listeners want to feel emotional musical energy and be inspired. That starts with the bones of the work: the composition.

Think Like a Composer

No matter what kind of music you want to create, you need to compose it. You may think that music composition techniques are reserved for longer, more serious pieces of music, but many apply equally to pop song styles. Consider how much time producers take to dial in the perfect tempo and feel.

The word “composition” just means, “putting together” (from the Latin, componere), and that means fitting sounds, notes, chords, rhythms, sections, and sometimes lyrics together—just done in a way that gives it a sense of direction, movement, and inevitable progress. Whatever name you use—composer, songwriter, sound designer—you want to scale and shape emotional energy to inspire listeners, and that takes reconsideration and revision. Most of all, you must be your own best critical listener.

Question Yourself

Studying with composer Warren Benson years ago, I heard him say over and over to assess what was happening in each section and phrase of the music and ask, “What am I doing? And am I really doing it?”

The first question is crucial because it’s very possible you have no idea what you’re doing. Maybe you just loaded a sound that started playing and moved on. But you could also ask, what should happen here? What do I hear? Where does this want to go? Of course, there’s no correct answer to any of these questions, except what you prefer and decide. Asking such questions is the composer’s reality check.

Maybe you simply found a beat that came with a new plug-in. It sounded cool, so you used it right at the start, let it run for four measures, and then brought in a chord. It sounded good even though you’d arrived at it casually. But instead of simply accepting that, once you’ve asked yourself what you’re trying to do, you may decide you want that rhythmic opening to create a sense that something is about to happen and only then deliver that first chord. You decide to build tension. Once you realize that’s the goal, then maybe the section should be a bit longer to create anticipation, which you develop over time by adding each drum one at a time. Or maybe you just isolate one part of the beat, the shakers, and have that part develop over time using some delay effects and manually editing the MIDI notes for variety. Do this, or try that, but now you at least understand your mission: to build tension.

After asking yourself what you’re trying to do, are you “really doing it?” This is important. What you’re trying to do in the music is often so clear to you that you fail to appreciate the difficulty of making it understood to others. Your audience may be people you don’t know, each with wildly individual expectations. During a live performance, they may be hundreds of feet from the stage talking to their friends. Or if they’re at home streaming your music, they may be listening on computer speakers while doing something else. More often than not, they can’t read your mind. If you are not reallybuilding tension, then the effect will most likely be lost somewhere on the way from your mind to theirs.

Reexamine Your Process

Faced with the challenge of connecting with your listeners, you can now go back and ask if you really made it long enough to evolve. Is it mysterious enough? Is it suspenseful enough? Does it have a good balance of repetition and irregularity? Are the dynamics scaled properly so that the music will explode as the first chord enters, if that’s your goal? And does that explosion deserve that description? If so, then the intended feeling will reach out and connect with the listener—just as you imagined. 

Writing electronic music can be fun and compelling, but the ease if generating so much sound so quickly can take your mind off some of the basics of music composition. It’s fine to revel in the technology that provides you with an endless supply of spectacular sounds and gives you so many ways to manipulate them. With their power to help generate and organize musical ideas, DAWs are like sonic star ships. But as a writer, as a composer, only you can tend to the bones of your composition and make your musical feelings clear to yourself and to anyone who will listen. Just ask, “What am I doing? And am I really doing it?”

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