22 Jan How to write meaningful repetitive (electronic) music. Or, what to do when the muse breaks.
To teach how to create original art is probably not really possible, I believe and somehow even hope so. However, it is possible to teach the craftsmanship necessary to do so. For example, how to play a guitar, how to create sounds with a synthesizer, how to properly equalize while mixing, how to create a chord progression or how to find the chords to a melody. But, all those things don’t really teach you how to actually write a piece of music that is also art. These techniques help you along the way, but not more than that.
Where is the line between craft and art? How much craftsmanship is there to writing music, to creating art?
I don’t know, but in my time as a self-taught musician I have found, a writing technique, that helps me more than any other technique to cross that line from craft into art.
Before I dive into this let me tell you, that I only tried this for rather repetitive music. Of course, most music is repetitive to some degree, so this technique may be applied to all music to some degree too. I just didn’t try it with music that isn’t clearly based on loops. Furthermore, I designed this technique to create music that I consider meaningful. That is to say something with some degree of personal expression and depth, which I consider traits inherent to true art.
Some words about terminology. I have always opposed the use of the word “track” for a piece of music in electronic music. It’s not precise and in my opinion, it contains no life. Since there is no singing in my music I can’t call it a “song” either. So, I settle for “a piece”. I will call actual “tracks” within that piece “parts”. To avoid confusion, even though it would be the proper use of the word when talking about recorded tracks in a DAW.
In my opinion, this technique gets music out of me, or the universe, which I didn’t know was there. It helps me to give birth to music, while my mind, any prior knowledge and expectations about music intervene less in the creative process.
I present the steps to you in 3 levels of depth. So that you can save your time, if you came up with this yourself or get what I talk about quickly:
- Have an Idea
- Create a loop, with a very open mind
- Use the Alternate Universe Method
- Repeat 2+3 till good
- Arrange with a very open mind
- Think of a theme, a concept, an emotion that you want to express. This is the idea.
- Think of that idea and while doing that, experimentally create a loop, add tracks to that loop, till it feels complete.
- Mute parts of the loop and think what you in an alternate Universe would add to the loop.
- If you feel like there is more to say, create another loop, but use (sort of “import”) some of the previous loop, keep on thinking about the idea. Freely change imported stuff as you feel it’s necessary, keep a bit in mind that in some way the loops have to stay related, either sound-, rhythm- or harmony-wise. Repeat 2 and 3 until you feel like there is no more to express.
- Start arranging those loops into a musical piece. Because of the Alternate Universe Method, you will have plenty of material to work with. Keep an open mind, don’t be in your own way.
I believe there is quite a bit of nuance to this method. Let me explain:
You have to face it, if you don’t have a shred of an idea for a piece of music, it will probably not be happening for you. You think you don’t have an idea? Don’t worry, what is to be considered “an idea” is in my opinion much less, than what most people seem to think. You don’t need to have a melody for example. Personally, I think if you are not able to come up with an idea for a piece of music, then you are probably a block of concrete. Because it is really not that difficult, if you look at “an idea” as I do it.
For example, if you think you don’t have an idea, then simply write a piece with the purpose of being a piece about “experimentation” and just start with that in mind. The difficulty really is not to have an idea, but to have an idea for which you want to spend your time.
So, to find an idea for which you want to spend your time simply look at things that matter to you. An argument with a friend? Political Leaders gone crazy? People believing in conspiracies? Food in the fridge going bad? Roommates leaving a mess all the time? That awesome party last night? Being in love? Your brother? Your cat? Whatever matters to you can be made into meaningful music.
But not only that, also more complex concepts can be made into music, if they interest you enough. My album “Symphonies of Life” deals with concepts a bit more complex. I wrote pieces about humility, beauty, creation, destruction, love etc. All things important and interesting to me, but not simply emotions I want to express.
An idea can be more abstract though. More conceptual. For example, you could write a piece with the concept of “giving the most possible attention to every single sound” or “let the space between the notes be the music” or “trying to have all emotional expression contained in one single bar” or “create the longest possible expressive chord progression”. Concepts like these can act as challenges for you to further develop your craftsmanship, but in my experience will often not yield very meaningful pieces.
If you think about an idea for a musical piece like that, it gets relatively easy to come up with ideas that matter to you. You can write down a single word or sentence any time a day and you can develop a whole musical piece out of it. Also, you can easily “steal” every idea that I wrote down here without actually copying me. It’s enough material for several albums and I would be happy even if you do the same things as I did on my album. I would welcome it and be very interested in how it sounds from YOUR perspective. I’d love if more musicians would unity and create compilations themed like that.
However, if I wrote down a melody here, which is often considered “an idea”, and somebody else uses it, then, well, stolen is stolen, or it’s a remix.
2. Start writing a loop
Now that you have your idea you can start writing. Let’s say you chose “humility” because it intrigued you. It would be very normal if you thought now “how the heck should I write about humility?”.
You might even doubt that you are capable of it at all. But in my opinion, you are always able to create art within the limits of your craftsmanship. Just beware: your expectations need to be within the limits of your craftsmanship too. Otherwise you can’t accomplish anything. Accept your limits and do what you can.
You might think that you need to have “more” than that idea or that you need to have some kind of “plan” on how this piece has to turn out. Understandable, but still, in my opinion there is no need for any of that. It can help, but it can also be in the way of actually having true creativity flow through you.
I believe a big part of the creators’ work is to not be in the way of creation.
So, start creating a loop. You can start with bass and rhythms, or with harmonies, or with soundscapes or a melody, it really doesn’t matter. Just start with whatever comes easy to you at that moment. The important thing here is, that you in some way occupy yourself with your idea. Think about it, feel it, as much as you can. Neither your thoughts nor your feelings need to have any musical character, just occupy yourself with it and at the same time make whatever music comes to you while doing so. Occupying yourself may also mean changing or adjusting your surroundings in any way that might help.
Ok, I admit, this will sound like new-age double talk, but I’ll say it anyway: The idea is, that you, kind of, open up a controlled channel to your unconscious creativity. It’s to have creativity flow freely but controlled by a theme. Like fishing in deep and dark waters, but with very selective bate that only catches a specific type of fish. You occupying yourself in any way with the theme is specifying what you catch. If you don’t do that, it’s like using a net and catch a variety of different things that may not go well together. As an additional note I want to mention, that the meaning of thing and and what it means to you might not be the same. So it might happen that you want to write about “eternity” but come up with “patience”. Be prepared for surprises 🙂 .
It is very important, that you do not let your mind interfere too much. For example, you want to make a song about sadness, you feel sad, think about sad things, have sad lights in your room, light a sad incent, drink a sad tea and have a sad cat on your lap, but your rhythm turns out uplifting. Now your mind tells you “that can’t be right”. Ignore it. It might be correct, but it might also not be correct. Maybe your piece is supposed to have a happy intro, then something happens and turns it sad, because it is supposed to become about how a sad thing happens. You don’t know yet, so let it be and go on.
This one loop might become the main idea of your piece, it might be the intro, it might be the middle. It is ok, if you don’t know it yet. It also might be, that this one loop can become your whole piece. You have to trust your instincts on that while going on. Again, don’t let the mind interfere too much, it should feel right and what you feel might contradict what your mind tells you about it or music in general. Also try not to expect anything. And even more important, don’t let other people’s expectations influence you. Last but not least, trust in yourself as an artist. You can do it! I believe every person is a natural born artist, if you let yourself be. Therefore, I believe in you as an artist and you can do to.
This all might sound logical and easy to you, but I really can’t emphasize enough how important that last paragraph is. I’ve seen it again and again in other talented musicians, that their mind, their expectations, their (imagined) obligation to the expectations of others, or their lack of believe in themselves has stopped them from creating the art they could create. I’ve seen people come up with brilliant musical ideas, melodies, rhythms and then dismissing them because any of the reasons above. As I see it, these reasons are in the way of most creation. Or the other way around: I state, that if you do not let any of the things above interfere with your creation-process you WILL create art for sure.
With all that in “mind” or not… Write your loop. Add layer upon layer to your loop until you feel like “that is something” or it “resonates” with you. Which also means different notes have to resonate more with you, then with each other. Bottom line is: If your loop feels right or complete you have finished your second step.
3. The Alternate Universe Method
I believe many musicians do step 1 and 2 in some way as I do. So I did for a long time. However, I always ran into a problem. The problem being that I had a great loop, or loops, which I couldn’t turn into a piece of music, because as soon as I spread it out to arrange it, it started to become very difficult and I lacked diversity. I couldn’t find a way to “get” to that loop, without having the loop already sound boring once I got there. It was very frustrating.
So, I came up with “TAUM” (I heard acronyms make it more important 😉 ). It’s simple and self-explaining really.
Start by muting a couple of parts from your current loop and think what another YOU, in an an alternate universe would add to that loop. No pressure, just be free, even more free than when creating the loop in the first place. Remember, you already have a great loop, your work is done, now it’s time to play even more. Mute a part, add another one, mute several parts, experiment. You will end up with a lot of material to arrange with, and it all will fit together to some degree. And that is the point of TAUM. Through the evolution of your piece some of the material will not be used, survival of the fittest will be at play.
4. Repeat. Create another loop
If you feel like the loop(s) you already have is not enough, like there is more to say, then create another loop. Use some tracks or sounds from your former loop. This will make it so that the loops will fit together. You can use any tracks from TAUM or the original loop to set a basis for the next loop, but I wouldn’t recommend starting from scratch. I usually copy bass and most of the rhythm section and reuse a couple of sounds. However, that is only to get me started quickly and often I will change them later on too. Sometimes I simplify the bassline from the last loop and complicate it later in the process as it fits to whatever I created.
To be honest, when I get to this point I’m always afraid. Taking those loops apart and shaping them into a musical piece often seems very difficult to me. Especially when they turned out to have very different moods. In that moment I often take a break, let it sit for a while, give the creation some time to breath.
Then I get back to it and start by multiplying the loop which I think will be the first “movement” of my piece about as many time as I think I will use it. Then I minimize the first iteration of the loop as much as possible and start building from there, doing similar steps for the later loops.
It’s really just a puzzle you need to crack now. You have created all the parts of the puzzle, now you need to put it together. Puzzling really is what it is. Keep at it, don’t give up, trust in yourself.
Nevertheless, you will need to let go of some parts, maybe something you have been proud of. Being truly open minded towards the creation means to be able to let things come to existence that didn’t catch your ear immediately, but also to let things go, that you like if they don’t serve the piece.
The most important lesson I learned while arranging is, that it is good not to go into too much detail. I only try to outline the piece first. I rather arrange it roughly very quickly and detail later. I arrange quickly so that thinking can’t interfere too much. Intuition as my main guide. It doesn’t matter at this stage if new parts are not properly introduced.
However, I do think here more than when creating the loop. If I already start to understand what I “discovered”, “caught”, when I created the loops, then I use this knowledge to make a smart arrangement.
For example. I made a piece about love. I came up with 4 loops, one a bit scary, one happy, one sad, one kind of powerful, demanding and driving. At first, I thought: What the heck? Then I started to arrange it in the order I created them. I have to admit, now that I write it down it seems very obvious, but when I was sitting there with those very different moods I really didn’t think this could ever become one piece. After thinking about it for a while I realized that giving in to love can indeed be scary, but then it will make you happy and sad, it gives you energy, but you really need to work for it too. In the end I decided to go back to the happy part, after the demanding part, because I really believe that love is worth it all. And decided to have the themes of the sad and the demanding part again only lightly in the outro, to symbolize that love is not just candy, but all the other things are part of it too again and again.
This should serve as an example of how I did not stand in the way of coming up with, in my perception, contradicting loops, but then by being open to it and with the help of mental effort and understanding the creation could arrange it into a musical piece. If I hadn’t been open and hadn’t trusted my own method, I’d never been able to create this piece. A couple of years back I couldn’t have done it, because I was too much limiting myself with doubt and expectations.
Once I have the outline of the arrangement I start detailing. Recently I started to try to make all transitions clear by only using elements already in the loops, so that it is musically apparent when changes and transitions appear. If I can, I try not to introduce new parts with “artificial” means like wushes, reverse crashes, Cymbals etc. too often. Though, there is a lot to learn for me in that area.
I hope this can help you on your way of making beautiful and original art!
Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments here or on facebook, I’ll answer when I can and incorporate information in this text where I see fit.