Make Better Music 55: Back to Basics

make better music. Trebuchet magazine
make better music. Trebuchet magazine

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, who had read some of my articles, asked me to put aside the waffle and give him some rock solid tips on writing music.

I told him that I’d already paid for the waffle so I was going to eat it, but that I’d also do my best to give him my best advice:

Imbue your music with your passion. If you don’t have a passion for making music, then leave it to those who do. Fill your music to the brim with all the emotion, drive, energy, love, enthusiasm you’ve got, and add in any other feelings you want in there. Just make sure to pack every moment of your music with something – or else what is it? Even if you love cold, emotionless music, and want to make your own, you can still pour in your passions and make those feeling jump out at the listener.

Make sure your imagination guides you, not just your tools. Fantasise and let your imagination run with the ball…when you have an idea open your mind to all the possibilities it opens up, all the options. If you have a beat that you want to use, imagine all the fills that you could use, all the variations, the stops and starts. If you’ve found some chords you want to develop – remember you can do anything with them, move them to another key, play them backwards, add in chords to extend the sequence, miss ones out to shorten it. You can play the chords in different ways, on different instruments, leave gaps, turn them upside down, miss out notes, add notes in, change the rhythm of them. And so on…whatever idea you have, let you musical mind open up to what can be done with it. There are infinite possibilities, all you need to do is be open to them and pluck them from your imagination when they arrive.

Keep things interesting – all music needs variation and contrast, even if it’s slight and subtle. Think all the parameters that can be changed and played with. Rhythm, harmony, tone colour, melodic contour on a large scale, individual elements can be toyed with, instruments can be changed, ideas subtly altered, combinations of sounds varied and swapped…and all the combinations of these things. Sometime the music might suit rapid and dramatic change – other times it may not, but you are in charge of it and you need to call the shots. Be aware of what you can do, keep in mind all the options and use what works best for you.

Keep an eye on the structure – the shape of the track. Be aware of the journey it will take the listener on. Is it doing what you want it to do? Do you know yet what you want it to do? If you are not sure, try using different points of emphasis. After all, structure, really just means the start the finish and the shape of what goes in between – the ups and downs and whatever. There are simple ideas (which can be hugely effective when done well) like one long slow build from silence to all-out blasting noise – or indeed the reverse. There are song-like structure where verses and choruses (with or without words) an alternate and repeat. Then there are more complex structures where you might use ideas in your track in different combinations, and use variation on them. For example, if you are making a song and you have the following elements written:

A – a “verse” melody
B –    nice chord sequence/break type thing
C – A catchy “chorus” type melody
D – a guitar solo idea

You might immediately have some sense of wanting to put them together, but it could be hazy and not very organised. But if you grab a pen and paper,  you might be able to quickly plan your song something like this:

Start (piano intro for example)

A (second verse)
A (in a new key)
C (In the new key)
C (in the original key again)

It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’d be worth playing it through and seeing how it sounds…perhaps an extra verse here, or one less chorus there…whatever – you’re the boss! All I’m saying is, if you take control of the structure you can organise it to suit what you want, rather than feel like it’s something out of control.

This ABC method can be used in any kind of music – not just guitar based songs. If the track you are doing only has one idea in it – just an “A” – then there’s a hint here that perhaps, possibly, you might want to consider some contrasting material to set it against. As usual, you are the boss, and many pieces can work with a single idea. I’d just ask you not to rule it out – it might make your track more effective to have another element to it.

Better yourself – nothing too specific here, just a reminder that for the committed creative musician, it’s going to be a lifelong journey. Learn, and seek out knowledge about the things you are interested in, practice and challenge yourself. For some, having a goal and aiming for it works; for others, going with the flow and seeing where you end up is good. Everyone has their own way that works for them.

The important things are, I believe, to keep listening with a fresh ear and to keep challenging yourself in your writing –  as these two activities help keep your musical mind in peak fitness.

About Dave.
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition. He is a founder member of Avant Pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith.

Make Better Music is updated every Tuesday. For previous articles search for ‘Dave Graham’ 
Image: Francesco Marino /

About Dave Graham 70 Articles
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini's Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.

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