Well really that should be a “Piece” as without words it ain’t a Song, but that is the parlance and when in Rome, do Romans.
This article is gong to be huge (over 3,100 words). This subject is so huge that people have written bibles on each part of this. I am glossing to try to give you the basics which will get you started (or finishing). Take each part bit by bit. Come back and do it all again. If you are open then you can learn something extra every time.
Stormtroops On Loops
How often do I hear the complaint; I have made millions of 8 bar loops but no complete songs? Well if I got a dollar for every time then I wouldn’t need to work. Trouble is we all know that a loop is not a real piece of music. It may be an idea. It may even be a very cool, killer idea. But if it isn’t expanded into a full song/piece/composition then it is useless. As useless as a car without an engine, or wheels.
I have attacked this subject a few times but don’t feel like I have made any difference. Now I know that maybe it is a waste as those who do, do. And those who don’t, don’t (and whine about it). I have attacked this from the angle of the psychology and even from pictures of notes. I guess I will do that again and maybe this time I will feel like I got it covered. This is the video for those who don’t like to read. Readers will get more below.
Now if you are thinking that my video can’t help you because it isn’t the style you write (or want to write) then please don’t fall into that trap. Country, Extreme Metal, or whatever form of EDM is en vogue this month are different, unrelated. WRONG! Music is like a box of chocolates. It is all yummy and melts in the sun. Choc goop is choc goop no matter what seashell shape it was in.
Time & Tide
All music starts with an idea. In DAW-speak we call that a loop. Commonly we work that idea up vertically (more layers of sounds) but forget to work the idea horizontally (progression over time). Layers of sounds are part of music for sure but time is a more important part. Think on this: a piano piece, if it doesn’t develop over time it has no existence past the first phrase (few bars). You have no extra layers to add so you have to develop the idea over time. See that arrangement image on the right there, that is my idea over time.
Start with your loop or idea. I would prefer to think of it as an idea. A loop is nothing but random Lego pieces. An idea is what those Lego pieces can become. So stick your first pieces of Lego together, then work out what the big idea is, what you need to tell the world with this construction. In that image the yellow box is the initial idea. The rest is working the idea through time.
A Walk In The Black Forest
Here’s the initial idea.It is pretty simple as ideas go but with the right effects, makes an engaging Ostinato to hang my piece on.
Now it would be tempting to add layers of sounds till I feel like there is a huge slab of block rockin’ beats. This is the short term ego trap. remember that time is a vital part of your piece. I like this two bars but it is only a first phrase. Like Hans Zimmer is saying in the ad for his Masterclass, music is a conversation. This is the first question. There needs to be more to this, an answer and an expansion of the idea for it to be able to live through time.
I hear this idea over and over as I make it and I start to get a feel for what it wants to do next. I take a copy and make some changes. This is called a Variation and is a cornerstone of making music. Work on the art of variations. Literally what I did here was to copy that initial 2 bars out till I had 8 bars (3 copies). I then made a variation on the 4th time.
Do The Variation
I’m going to take a bit to talk about variations as they are the cornerstone of making music. Yes I know I just said that but I am hoping that you really get this thing.
If you look at the image above you see the first phrase (in yellow) is copied out so it plays 3 times. Then it does something different. Repetition creates the groove or theme. Variations create the conversation or development of that idea over time.
Creating variations is really not that hard, even if you don’t yet understand much about Key or Scale – trust me that knowing these does help you heaps. Variation means same but different. It does not mean random new thing. See how my variation follows the same rhythm but alters the notes. This keeps familiarity of the groove but creates movement. If we change the rhythm and melody too much it becomes random. Experimental Jazz is broader in the application of this than Trance. Here I simply work down the octave.
Now I have 8 bars with a variation. This is not enough as I can tell my idea is only half-developed right now. Easy solution is to take that 8 bars, copy it off and make another variation. I could vary lots of things but that would not be so good here as this is the Riff of the piece so it needs to be predictable, but with an edge of movement.
See how I have made this work? I took the notes and dropped them by an Octave. The first phrase leads me there. This is classic same but different. I then took the final statement of the idea and altered the notes again to make them climb back to the initial phrase so that as this loops, there is a full question and answer cycle. One that people will want to hear again. I assume that last part because I want to hear it again. That is a good enough pace to start. Maybe it is the only decision to take if it is real art. Anyway…
Whip Me Beat Me Till I Cry
no pretty pic as I assume you can program drums
I don’t normally do drums till I have the piece reasonably well fleshed out as to me drums are a supporting part and I don’t want them filling the space I could be using for more important elements. That is a thing worth noting if you find it hard to get past a certain point as maybe, just maybe, you are filling all the space with drums so there is no space to hear possible variations (questions & answers).
If this is where you think you may be at, either mute the drums or drop them back in the mix till they do no more than lightly pulse the groove (as opposed to nailing it to the tree in the next county). You may note that this is how I have my drums mixed in the piece.
I made these drums in exactly the same way I made the ostinato. Two bars, repeat with a little variation, repeat again with a few more variations. Boom tsk.
Now remember we want those variations to be subtle lest every few bars sounds like a completely new duck washing monkeyface. However, we also don’t want to use the same pattern ad nauseam so I done maded a second pattern which also fits with the initial idea. We can do that as there is always more than one way to flense a feline. The interchange of drummular ideas gives a subtle sense of variation without even writing a new note.
Back To The Basics Of Love
With drums in place, I feel the need for a stronger core to this piece and there is little better than a nice firm, round, mound of fundamental to both anchor your ideas and move the groove.
Back to my first two bar idea and the notes wrote themselves because by now I could feel the shape I wanted the bassline to have. It is simple but with a nice flat electro-funk feel from a little off-beat action -otherwise known as syncopation. I will admit to being weak on notes but the more I know the better I get at it. They call that practice. So for now if you don’t rightly know your C Sharp from your D Flat it isn’t the end of the road. BUT you do need to know the Root of your piece and the Root of the current Chord. They are the place to start and/or end.
My first two bars start on the fundamental which is C. They skip down to E which is the middle of the major Triad. Nice safe note. Finally, there is a wee note blipped in on the D. Odd as it is not a real strong note in C Maj, but it is a Leading Note to toss us into the next phrase.
As you should now be able to see that second phrase is a copy & paste with a Variation: i) goes down, ii) goes up; i) happens again to keep the familiarity then iv) is a new variation that starts on G which just so happens to be the magical 5th in the Triad. That climbs up through the Leading Tone (B) to the Fundamental on C. Then there’s that playful little D again to toss us ’round the loop.
What I hope you get from this is not so much to copy my groove but to see that all you need are a few musical pointers to a) hold the groove and melodic structure, b) advance both those things at once by creating a recognizable pattern.
This has really fleshed my initial idea out to become a workable little piece – well half-piece. I am hoping that you can see how I have been building in both the vertical (layers of sound) and horizontal (idea progressing over time) dimensions.
Repeat When Necessary
String pads can add such wonderful reassurance or tension to any piece. That is why you hear them used soooooo much. And yet they sound great every time. I pretty well dialed these notes in. It is a really simple 1st, 3rd, 5th, 4th thing. All with basic triad chords. That is my start and I like it plenty. For a simple piece, I think simple is good.
If working on a deep space piece with a Prog edge I might use all manner of odd voicings so it sounds fascinating. That and Phasers just love to chew through the interesting harmonics. Horses for courses is my point. But still, don’t go past simple till you know why.
I let everything I have play out with these strings as altogether it sounds great and so bears repeating. Of course, to be purely mercenary I am adding time too. Sometimes if you don’t know what comes next, you repeat till you just know what that new part needs to sound like.
Walk Through The Bottomland
“Sing me a melody, sing me a blues” sang Lyle Lovett (and Emmylou). I am a firm believe that music should have some melody somewhere. If you feel otherwise then more power to you but my advice is to make sure you got something special or fashion may well pass your piece by before you even finish it. The whole two notes of the Millenial Whoop don’t constitute melody or even a proper idea. Anyway…
There are whole articles on Orchestration and String Arranging. I like this one a great lot so I won’t attempt to rewrite it here as Pete is far better at it than I.
I use these basic techniques to build from the notes in my chords and extract a melody. Here are the first 8 bars. I based these notes more on the root notes.
For the second 8 bars I get a bit more esoteric and grab far more broadly from the available notes. Same chords, different rhythm and notes. Power of variation.
If you are really paying attention you see that my phrases don’t strictly conform to the 8 bar boxes. I have 16 bars and I intend to sprawl all over them. In this I did create a slight problem as my second phrase sounded like it started again whilst using the same instrument. A failing or an opportunity. I decided to make it the latter as I could hear that cool thing where the players swap in the middle of an instrumental – guitar to sax, Ritchie Blackmore to Jon Lord, Eddie Van Halen to Eddie Van Halen (on keys).
I duplicated the lead sound and made a few tweaks so it was similar but different. There is a natural change-over note where I let the two sounds overlap; then there is that lovely bit of surprise as the new sound takes over. What a lift to push the high-point of the piece. “While you see a chance, take it” – Steve Winwood.
While this is going on I get the strings out of the way by stripping them back to the root notes. Not vital at all but working fast I didn’t want to wade through possible clashes. The space lets the leads take um, the lead. Orchestrate as you need, but only ever as much as you need and not a pizzicato more.
Take Me To The Top
Good enough for Motley Crue, good enough for me. There is a rule in art called Rule Of Thirds. Basically, it means you pop the most exciting bit of the picture two-thirds of the way across the image. In a Rock song that just so happens to be where the screaming solo is. As luck (or great management) would have it, that swap in the solo is right in the pocket of the 75% point of the tune. It makes it work better than if the very same thing happened elsewhere. Do what you can to make sure the culmination or final answer to the idea of your piece happens at this point.
Do what you can to make sure the culmination or final answer to the idea of your piece happens at this point. To find where that point is if you already have all the sections laid out; take the total number of bars, divide by 3 and multiply that by 2. Just about there is where you want to lay out the culmination of your idea. This is the insight to the question posed by your initial idea.
I hear you saying that you have no idea, no story, it is just a beat. I am a firm believer that this is part of where you are going wrong as with no sense of a story, occasion or scene there is nothing to guide you how to build your initial idea into a greater arrangement. I don’t have a name for this piece. I couldn’t even tell you what it is about but I could clearly hear a sense of story as I was writing it. That is what I mean.
Waiting On A Friend
The conclusion of the piece is where the original idea, the variations, and the answers all come together. This is the point where the arguing couple find they agree on things after all. The Choruses hit harder and everything sounds grander that you thought possible.
In my case, I have all the elements in action. Drums, Bass, Ostinato, doing what we know. Then I shake it up a bit. I give the basic chords to the second lead sound, and to filll the brief of same but new I take the first 8 bars of the lead and stretch them out to play across the whole 16 bars. That makes the notes something we know but the delivery different. It may be a formula but it works and my 2 bar idea is now out to 85 bars.
Everything has to finish and how you do that is important. Let the piece speak to you. Some pieces will want a big finish, some will want a repeat till fade and some will want to do something odd to make em hang. I decided to take a bit from columns A & C.
You see the chords leading into a final chord. I use the term loosely as this isn’t a full chord. Remember I wanted a big finish but also a sense of suspension. I got the Fundamental to tell us we are home, but then two of the 5ths to have an up sort of a feeling. The bass holds the Fundamental. The string takes the same basic shape but adds another note to hoist the hang just a bit more. I’m sure there are Latin terms but who cares as the way it plays is what matters.
With the ostinato sound I don’t want the pattern to continue but I don’t want the sound to stop either. I need a Fill. A great way to get a fill is to use an Arpeggio. I draw one in that covers the octave and that fits the brief. The arpeggio can now be used to create some other fills in our arrangement. Re-using is a great thing as it creates familiarity so you can show an idea in one place and expand it later. That is the essence of Arranging.
You can see the little fills here in yellow. There are a couple of bars to ease us into the piece, a couple between the solo and the Recapitulation (final Choruses to you) and of course the ending. I could have done more but it could just as easily swamped the piece. Use your judgment.
The last thing I do is a bit of Automation (here in yellow).
In DAW-land we tend to separate notes and performance. Automation is a way we can put some of that back in. I could make a whole article on clever ways to make MIDI notes seem more real but you can see them on YouTube. What I did here were a few adjustments to Filter & Volume to let the parts say what I wanted them to. Never forget that automation can have a wonderful impact on how your arrangement works.
Out of two bars, or a few seconds, of music I now have a full piece. I could make it longer if I added another idea but 2:30 of usable music is not too bad for a few hours work.