Music Focus 1: How a Song Is Born

05/01/2012 22:16

When people ask me about my hobbies, without thinking I answer, “Music composition.” The reactions differ. Some people are amazed; some are puzzled. But they all have one thing in common: they always ask a lot of questions. They ask how it’s done, when I took it up or where I learnt the technique. And when I think about it, it’s not so surprising that they are so interested. Provided that there are only a few composers among young people, chances are they know little or very close to nothing about music composition. And indeed, this is a fact that’s true for most people. In this article I’d like to answer some of these questions for you. I’d like to give you an insight into how a musical idea emerges from nothing, takes shape, turns into sound, and eventually gets refined and polished. I’d like to point out some peculiarities, hardships, and also pleasures frequently encountered along the way to completion of a song. Finally, I’d also like to compare music composition with fiction writing and present some interesting similarities and differences between how emotions are transformed into a song and into text.


First of all, let me stress that nothing in this article should be taken as a universal truth. These are my subjective observations and different people, of course, have different approaches and techniques. This has to be kept in mind for both music and text composition are highly subjective, personal activities.


To begin with, I’d like to make clear what one needs to get started with music production. In people’s minds, composers sit in a studio, surrounded by tons of musical gear, but the technical side of music production is probably the least familiar to most people. Surprisingly, one doesn’t need anything sophisticated. Theoretically, all you need is a computer. If you already own one, you don’t need to spend a cent since a lot of the software is free. I don’t want to go into technical details, so let’s just say that generally you don’t need any musical hardware. Everything can be done with computer programs. One shouldn’t be prejudiced against these though as they are often more powerful than one would think.


This minimalistic setup, however, isn’t very practical, and quality music can hardly be produced this way. If you want your music to be of reasonable quality, two things are a must-have: good studio speakers (which come quite expensive) or professional headphones (the very good ones start at around 150 EUR) and a master keyboard. This type of keyboard is the so-called control surface: it is not capable of creating sound; it only triggers notes in your software. Think of it as a comfortable way of entering notes in your songs. In that case it comes rather cheap, starting at around 100 EUR. With good headphones, you’ll be able to hear exactly what you produce, and with a keyboard, you can enter notes much more comfortably than using a QWERTY keyboard. So you don’t really need to spend more than about 300 EUR to have a decent home studio. And what’s more, such a studio doesn’t even need to be fixed to a particular spot. Take your laptop with you and make music anytime and anywhere.


Speaking of keyboards, you may think that playing a musical instrument is a necessary prerequisite to music composition. Believe me, it’s not. You don’t need to play the piano to be able to use a piano keyboard to compose. Without the knowledge, of course, one can be very limited, having to use only the computer keyboard as a control surface, in which case one cannot concentrate fully on the creative side of composition.


What’s more important, however, is the knowledge of the basics of music theory. You won’t get far without it. There’s also no way around learning to work with your software program. You’ll also need to know something about the music technicalities, e.g. learn about sound as a physical phenomenon, sound synthesis and so on. In order to do all the final editing properly, one also needs at least a basic idea of how sound can be processed.


Aside from the technical knowledge, composition as a mental process is a whole different story. As in all kinds of art which have to do with creating something from scratch, people who are good at it are usually natural talents or achieve perfection through study and practice. Most people are a combination of both. Speaking of my personal experience, I’ve been composing for two years now and I don’t consider myself a talented person. Nevertheless, progress is rapid and visible, if one is patient enough. The beginnings are difficult, but with determination, results are indeed rewarding.


A song may be born in many different ways. Sometimes I sit down and just play around with various sounds and melodies and eventually an idea worth writing down emerges. Sometimes I get inspired by a particular sound or instrument. And sometimes an idea comes out of the blue and I find myself running from the shower naked, humming a few tones over and over only to get to my notebook before I forget them again (a true story!). I don’t have a favorite way of composing and neither could I pick the most effective one. As I said, it’s different every time, and that’s what makes the whole process so diverse and even more interesting.


A musical idea alone is still far from a finished song. Depending on what you do next, you can ruin a good idea by inappropriate development or, quite the opposite, create a great song from quite a mediocre start. That’s what makes it so much fun. But there’s also the other side of the coin. One often encounters terrible, almost unsolvable dilemmas. Compromises need to be made and sometimes even good passages need to be left out. A simple decision whether a particular melody should be played by a flute or by a violin, can haunt you for days (and nights).


Another annoying thing about composition is that sometimes you just get stuck. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you end up listening to the same three chords over and over, unable to add a single tone. It happens. In such moments I always leave it be and cheer myself up with the thought that the next day it’s gonna get better. Because the opposite happens as well. There are days when life seems to have stopped, hours fly by like minutes and what’s been sitting untouched for weeks gets finished all of a sudden. There are months when nothing gets finished and there are weeks when a couple of songs get done straightaway.


After three days of lingering in a trance-like state of mind, there are only a few things that can be as rewarding as when I finally hear a song completed. In very few areas is progress as visible (or rather audible) as in music production. Each song teaches you lots of new things, each song is better than the last one and this progress keeps you going. And then one day you realize that your songs are no more mere experiments with sound, but rather fully-fledged music pleasurable to listen to. And if you ask me, nothing beats this truly rewarding feeling.


What’s perhaps not so obvious is that fussing with all the finishing touches and edits often takes more time than the composition itself. The most difficult part is usually not the creation of melodies and accords, but rather their arrangement so they follow each other naturally. The song must have a flow and lots of changes need to be introduced in order to avoid repetition, which, for beginners, is one of the hardest things to learn. Changing the order of individual passages and adding or deleting whole chunks of a song can take days. And I, as with everything I touch, take my time here because I don’t like letting anything out of my hands, unless I’m completely satisfied with it.


Even if you are done with the arrangement, the song is not finished yet. The last step, which is a very technical one, is mastering. Without proper mastering, even a good song can sound really awful, particularly when it comes to electronic music. Subtle edits, such as pushing the volume of a particular sound up or down just a tiny little bit, may seem inaudible, but if you add up all the changes, it’s what makes the difference between a poorly sounding song and a pleasurably sounding one.


I would like to introduce you to one common term, which you may come across when reading about mastering: ‘earbleed’. Earbleed is what you get after a period of intensive listening to your song, trying to do these subtle edits. You needn’t be afraid; it doesn’t have anything to do with blood. It’s a state when you can’t hear the edits you’re making anymore because you’ve been listening to the same thing for too long. Concentration doesn’t last forever. Imagine looking at sheep on a hill through binoculars for three hours. You would hardly be as successful in the end as you were when you began. Ears get tired the same way. The time differs from person to person and the earbleed also depends on the kind of edits you’re doing. In that case it’s important to put the work aside for a while and come back to it later. When you’re finally satisfied with all the finishing touches you gave to your musical ‘child’, the song is ready. Seeing the song evolve in your own hands (and ears) is a long and hard, but nevertheless, a very enjoyable journey.


Let’s look at the differences between music and text composition now. Although very different in nature, these are both great media for expressing emotions. Naturally, they convey feelings in different ways and what works in music doesn’t work in text, and vice versa.


The biggest difference, I think, lies in the fact that the reader’s perception of a work of fiction, may it be a poem or a short story, relies to a large extent on their personal experience. Thus, whether the writer succeeds in expressing a particular emotion or not, depends greatly on the reader. With music it’s different. Personal experience doesn’t play an important role. Of course, we should take into account the genre preferences of the audience. But if you read a poem to two people who both liked the same kind of music, the chances are they would like a particular song of that genre more easily than a random poem.


The process of creating a song is, of course, different from writing, let’s say, a poem. For me, a short story means a few days of thinking and jotting down ideas and then a few hours of writing itself. When writing a song, there’s no preparation involved. On the other hand, self-editing of music takes much longer than its textual counterpart.


What’s perhaps interesting is that I always have a few songs lying unfinished. The reason is quite simple: when my ears bleed from one of them, I can work on a different one. If I’m stuck with a classical piece, I can switch on to some dance music instead. But I can’t do this with texts. While poems are usually written in one or two sittings, short stories take longer and I really need to stay focused on a single one, elaborating on the motives and thinking about the development of the story. To do this, I need to avoid getting distracted by another story.


When talking about switching between particular songs, I also like to switch between genres. Almost every time I make a song, the next one I produce is in a different genre. Here again I have a simple reason for doing it. When composing electronic music, a lot of time is consumed by work with synthesizers, looking for THE particular sound. This is often boring and exhausting and after I finish a song, I take on a classical piece. I don’t need to worry about sounds as the selection of acoustic instruments is everything I have at hand and also everything I need.


I do this with texts as well. I switch between short stories and poems AND between languages. So, in the end, I keep switching between music and fiction and with these two I change genres and languages. If I don’t have any ideas on how to move on with a song, I write a poem instead. This way it never gets boring. It is, however, quite time-consuming.


With this last idea I’d like to conclude my introduction into music production and the differences between music composition and writing. I hope I answered most of your questions and brought some light into matters not so widely known. Hopefully, you’re now a little more familiar with what music composition is actually about. Who knows, you may be the next in line to become a young composer.


Should you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them here, or on the Perspectives Facebook page.

Oliver Méres



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