The big question that always demands an answer, when you are writing music, is what happens next?
It seems straightforward until you try it. Then suddenly you get confronted with either too many possibilities, or your mind seizes up and you can’t think of how to continue at all. Either way there are doubts, uncertainties and all the options can seem meaningless or overwhelming.
What should come next? In music you have the option of repeating things, which you can’t get away with so easily in prose. Sometimes all you get in a piece of music is one idea repeated, and the repetition either comes to mean something, or the effect of it becomes intriguing enough to be a worthwhile listening experience in itself.
In music you have the option of repeating things, which you can’t get away with so easily in prose
The context of how the music will be experienced has a huge bearing on what can be done. A house track that doesn’t repeat at all would probably be disastrous, whilst a pop song that doesn’t progress at all and just repeats the same idea over and over would also probably fail dramatically. Intriguingly, there’s a chance that doing what is not expected (like in the previous examples) could also be made to work – and therefore stand out from the crowd. Context and history count for so much.
A house track that doesn’t repeat at all would probably be disastrous, whilst a pop song that doesn’t progress at all and just repeats the same idea over and over would also probably fail dramatically
There’s a fine line between learning how to write in a certain style, fulfilling those expectations in the listening and ending up with a paint-by-numbers piece. There needs to be surprise, but not too much unexpected craziness!
You can rely on your instincts to organise your ideas. This is great when inspiration has well and truly struck – in fact if you’ve been struck hard you might know already how the thing is going to be put together. To use an extremely current and relevant example ;-), George Gershwin claimed that the form of Rhapsody in Blue came to him suddenly, after spending some time struggling to organise some melodic ideas into something cohesive:
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole.
Although this sounds quite organised, it’s really just a form of “going for it” and seeing what happens.
I like writing this way, it feels free and when things are flowing, it’s a highly addictive state. Unless of course you succumb to the dreaded next-morning ‘oh-dear-all that-music-I-did -last-night-was-actually-rubbish’ problem.
In a future article I’m going to take a broad look at the use of processes to organise and even generate musical material, but for now I’m going to conclude with a few questions you might want to think about if you make music:
How do you normally decide what will happen next when you write?
How much thought do you put into organising the ideas in your music?
Do you think that changing this process might be a worthwhile experiment?
After all, it’s easy to get locked into a habitual way of working, and even if this works for you, you never know what might be unlocked by experimenting further with how you assemble a track.
Please bear in mind I’m not advocating the use of strict organisation in your music – just to be aware of how you arrange your ideas, and how much thought you give to that process.
Sometimes I’ll write a description of a track I’ve got an idea for. It may be to clarify my idea, but it can also be interesting to write a “fantasy description” – where you just choose words that sound good, and then try to make the music fit those ideas. This idea came from a novel I read many years ago where a piece of music was described as “a horn melody rising in fourths over clustered string chords” and I thought that sounded so great, that first up I wrote that precise sort of music, and then wrote texts describing fantasy sounds.
If I came up with something particularly evocative I’d have a go at recreating it in actual sound. Things like “a deep rumble rising into mysterious chords, over which a arabic style melody unfolds…” I find converts word-based ideas into something my musical imagination can really go to work on. For me they seem to be two different areas of my brain, and so using the inspiration from one, to inspire the other seems to me to be a smart move!
So, to give a few answers to the hypothetical question at the start: “What comes next?” there are worse ones than “something exciting, or interesting, expected or unexpected – or even just what sounds right.”
It doesn’t hurt to write down the question – it changes it from something undefined in the mind, to a concrete idea that can be pondered. Just being aware of that side of the music making process means that it’s no longer left to chance…unless you want it to be.
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenberg’s 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’