In my teens, I managed to procure a four-track tape recorder. This was obviously before computers had become common household items, and I doubt there was even any music software back then that would be recognisable by todays standards.
This four track seemed like such an immense pice of gear, so loaded with possibilities that I endeavoured to make as much use of it as possible. So I challenged myself to write something every day. Over the summer holidays from school, which seemed immensely long (I think one year it was ten weeks!), I would try to write and record a little song every day. Not only was this good practice for my playing and recording skills, but it was also stretching my musical muscles as well.
This is where practice at putting tracks together pays off.
Of course, if you are writing a song every day, it’s unlikely that you are going to be churning out a double album of SOLID GOLD CLASSICS each months, but on the flip side, it will do you a lot of good, and the chances are there will be some good ideas mixed in with the rest.
One skill that certainly developed in that time was a workmanlike sense of how to string together inspired ideas. You might come up with a nice melody, or a cool rhythmic pattern, but those on their own will not make a song. Sometimes inspiration may strike and deliver to you an idea for a large scale piece of music – the concept of the whole song might suddenly become clear, and you have an idea to attempt to realise.
Similarly, you will also get smaller ideas, that may be equally as inspired, but less complete. This is where practice at putting tracks together pays off.
I may have written 60 songs over that summer – pretty much none of which I can even remember now (I have vague memories of a bluesy one, and another which had multi-tracked scales running up and down over some strummed chords) – but what is retained is the experience of writing them, the knowledge of how they were all put together.
When you have learned an instrument, you don’t remember every single time you practiced – but the experience is absorbed and pays off every time you pick up an instrument. I certainly can’t remember learning the basics of the english language, but the results of that learning are freely available to me. It’s the same with the craft of putting a piece of music together. Practice and experience are vital. Add in some inspiration and you’re onto a winner. The bonus is that when it comes to making music, the practice is fun…it can be recreation, but you learn and improve, and develop skills that can pay off massively later in life.
I used to be obsessed with learning how to write for different instruments – I had lists of their ranges of notes, books on how to write for woodwinds or brass, what they can and can’t play, what is easy and what is difficult. I got heavily into writing for string quartet, and spent tens of hours writing hundreds of pages of rubbish music for that ensemble.
you don’t remember every single time you practiced – but the experience is absorbed
None of it ever got played, but it taught me so much. About ten years after doing this I got the chance to arrange some songs for string quartet. I immediately felt at home, wrote the arrangements fast, and then something happened that blew my mind. The quartet played them, and not only did the arrangements work and sound good, but the players complemented me on my string writing. This was all because of an obsession with notation and arrangement from a decade before.
Fast forward another ten years and I happen to bump into someone who needs some music arranged for quartet – and I did the job, found it very enjoyable and they were very happy with the results.
This all came from messing around as a teenager – but it’s all practice, even when it’s for fun.
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.
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