I’ve always loved music, writing as much as listening. It wasn’t great, but I enjoyed it. Little turns of phrase that fit the beat so well I just couldn’t help but smile when I thought of it.
I hammered on a guitar I never took lessons to play, and I improvised melodies that sometimes wandered from this key to that key. My tempo was pretty fuzzy too, but it was hard to fix. The slow part was supposed to be slow like that, and the faster part just didn’t sound right if you slowed it down. The same was true of the key problem. I had trouble loving the song the same way when I patched things up.
It was a stupid bias, the same kind that prevented me from revising the hard work I put into writing a 120,000 word story. I loved it unconditionally.
The rest of this is going to be laden with an analogy to the noveling process that one should go through while weaving a story, but I won’t stop to point it out every few sentences.
This continued for a couple of years. A baby came along and we moved into an apartment where I couldn’t slam away on a guitar and sing with misplaced confidence. I got into composing a few songs with digital tools instead. I had tried that a couple of times, but found that I preferred the strings on the fingers, even if I was bad at them both equally.
This time, I had a rhythm in my head. It wasn’t even a melody, but I knew it was good. I kinda sorta got it into the software, but then I had that moment we all have when we stand back and think, “It’s kind of lonely.”
It’s just a single piano note sliding around making a rhythm, not really a song. It’s missing some kind of bass sound, and I’ve done enough songs without a drum track that I know how empty that can turn out. (Lucky for me, Apple’s Logic software has a pretty nice drum machine for someone like me to use. I ain’t no drummer.)
I’ve messed this kind of thing up enough times with the voice and guitar that I know I need some harmony, so, with utmost respect for the key I’m doing all of this in, I get another instrument set up and put in a decent companion line. Just as quickly as that, this sounds pretty convincing as demo tracks go. That drum thing I set up isn’t accenting the right notes, so I play with that a little.
Now the trap I fell into on my first go at this electronic music stuff is that you can’t just take a piano, a violin, a bass, a drum, and half a dozen big fuzzy electronic sounds and make them all play the same notes all the way through the “song”.
I don’t mean to knock on North American religious hymns, but let me knock on religious hymns for a minute. I really don’t like the four-part harmony with zero accompaniment. It’s soulless and begging for variation. Compositional complexity isn’t really the point with hymns, so I’m not trying to criticize it out of existence, but it should be plain as a diaper rash that those hymns are built for just voices to sing together in an easy time signature and not much else. Their only texture comes from what harmonies they can create, and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes you get those hymns everybody likes but nobody can do justice, with the soprano and alto parts going solo while the tenor and bass wait a few bars to come back in, or that one with the bass clef going on in something like a round.
That’s all just to say that I knew for sure that I wasn’t about to just do an 8-part harmony with every instrument striking its note exactly in time with the others. It had to be more interesting than that to get an emotional reaction out of me.
So one by one, I add instruments. I can’t disrespect the way that the instrument is supposed to be played. You can play an instrument a lot of ways, and sometimes that’s intriguing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowed_guitar) but it’s not what I’m good at. The violin should sound like a violin if I expect people to see what I see in my mind when its melody plays. If I’m bending the role a little too much, maybe I should switch to mallets or something, a second piano, who knows.
Every instrument with its melody needs enough personality to stand on its own. It’s not a song all by itself—it might only be a few bars long before it’s really time for another instrument to come in and take the focus—but if you build the song up to this instrument’s time to shine, and then it’s awkward and perhaps boring… it may as well not be there. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be there, because that would be better for the listener’s experience. Maybe it just needs to be moved to a more appropriate part of the song, one where it’s not interrupting the swell of interesting buildup.
These instrument melodies need to let each other breathe, too. If I make a killer melody for each one individually, then play them all at the same time for three minutes, it’s not really a song. I’m not guiding the listener, I’m just dumping a lot of stuff I made into their lap and promising them that I worked hard on it.
When I start overlapping these things, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m looking for transitions. I’m personally not trying for three minutes of song dominated by just two major sections. If this song wants to transition every few bars in order to stay interesting, then that’s what I’m going to let it do.
These instruments need to carry themselves when they are the focus, and when a previous instrument comes back to reprise its role in a new way, I better listen to that and get the chills every single time (until the 400th time, at which point I give myself permission to grow complacent about what I’ve done—iTunes is helping me keep count).
Finally, there’s the question of discovering variations of the melody. Some instruments play support for the main characters—oops, I mean instruments. It’s fine if they repeat and provide a rock solid backing to the changing foreground. For those that do change, however, I have to consider how and when. Just kicking it up an octave for the last repeat might not be the right way to cultivate the climax I want.
Despite locking myself into a key, this might be the right time to start straying from it, to become minor or otherwise dissonant, to create a sense in the listener of not knowing just how far this is going to stray before I slam them back into the major key for the finale.
I take a composition like this out into the field. There’s no beta reader group for it exactly, but I make myself eat, drink, and breathe this thing until I’m all but singing out new parts that aren’t even there. It’s stirring my imagination into action while I let it carry me into the epicness that I know it deserves. I couldn’t even tell that this last part was missing the same forceful bass sound that the beginning promised would feature throughout, but now that I’m locked in there with the song on repeat, I can tell that’s what’s missing.
I take it back to the workshop and add to what I’ve done, hopefully in a way that doesn’t undermine what I’ve already built. I’m not changing the song because I didn’t like what was there, it’s just so that I can make it better.
Another thing that comes up sometimes is that I listen to what I’ve made and then I hear someone else’s music. The contrast helps me realize that I’m cranking the volume of that piano way louder than it needs to be for the effectiveness I want. Other times, it’s those pesky drums. I’m timid with them because I’m not a drum machine, I just use one, but that timidity is making me “hide” them under the rest of the song when really they should really be more assertive.
If I’m embarrassed by elements of my song when I bring them out to the volume they deserve, I have to put a few questions to myself. Do I dislike this part because it’s bad and I was hoping to cheat a little? Is it maybe that it doesn’t belong, that I’m trying to force it where it doesn’t belong?
The analogy to the growing of a song can be adapted to the use of an outline, but I might not be the right one to talk on that. The presence of an outline doesn’t mean that the dominant elements you recognize are boring and formulaic. Sometimes it seems like every “pop” song (hugely broad here) in existence is just Intro-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus, but some are stunning and others are not. (Perhaps that more of a story structure analogy than an outlining one, but that’s not for this discussion, so I’ll leave it.)
I’ll drug the analogy here and put it to sleep, but it was during a repeat binge of Writing Excuses that it struck me what I was doing in my music and how I coaxed the songs to life with many of the same techniques that are applied to writing.
Once I saw things this plainly, my confidence in my storytelling went up a notch. As a discovery writer, I suddenly had a vocabulary I could repurpose that spoke to me a little more intimately than ever before. Harmonies, evolving melody, support instruments, time signature, key, movements… I don’t know what I want to do with them when I sit down, but I know what I like when I start hearing it play in my head.