Song Creation Part 1 – Conception

Everyone has a different approach for transforming their music from an initial idea, a riff, a melody or a lyrical line into a completed and mixed song. Some people are very disciplined enough to bring their song form start to finish with one continuous stretch of work, others collect a million fragments of music over the years and slowly stich them together as inspiration strikes.

I definitely belong more into the latter category but have recently been trying to adopt a more disciplined approach in order to end up with a few good results rather than with many unfinished beginnings. In general there are as many different approaches to music creation are there are people in this world and neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. However, I do believe that by looking at other people’s methods, we can learn, be inspired, adopt a few techniques and thus improve our own process.

The intention in presenting my personal process here is to potentially give you a few ideas that you can incorporate into the way you create your own music. Or – if you think I’m doing something horribly wrong – feel free to email me and let me know. Look at it as a friendly knowledge exchange :)

The other reason for this post is simply that I want to write down how I am doing things at the moment so I can look back at it in a few years time and (besides getting a few laughs out of it) see if I have improved.

My current process can be broken down into 4 broad phases that each song is going through:

song creation process

Each phase is feeding back into the previous one and I think it’s important to be able to say ‘wait, this is not good enough’ and take a step backwards to re-record, re-arrange or even re-invent parts of your song. Of course this will introduce alot of extra work and I find myself generally being quite careful from the moment I start arranging and composing to only move to the next phase once I am happy with the outcome of the current phase.

Today, we will be looking more closely at the first phase: Conception.

Phase 1 – Conception

I am not very good at sitting down with a “let’s be creative” attitude and invent something. It works sometimes, but most of the time I find that whatever music I come up with is very mediocre and not worth persuing any further. To me, inspiration comes when I let my mind drift, for example towards the end of an instrument practice session when I lose focus and start to play whatever I feel like or when I get tired in the evening and just pick up the guitar or sit at the piano to impovise a little, either with or without background music.

My ideas are usually single riffs, rhythms or melody lines though sometimes I just sing along randomly as I improvise (which for me works especially well on the piano where I mainly play chord sequences and small arpeggios) and it ends up sounding good. Once i have the feeling that I might be on to something, I play the same fragment over and over, try different variations to see if it can be improved or play the first half and then let my hands play randomly to see if I can automatically (and very naturally) connect it to something else.

Once I have a short fragment that I like, I usually write it down just so I won’t forget it. To me, this is a crucial part of my process! With everything else going on in my life, it’s easy for me to forget a great piece of music I invented just a few days ago and thus I tend to transcribe everything – this in my opinion is an essential skill everyone should have!
Once transcribed, I do a quick recording of the fragment, adding a few additional instruments just to get an idea how the piece would work within the context of a song.

The first example started out with a single guitar riff and I added bass and drums to it, trying to see how much power the riff could generate. Be careful – this fragment is pretty loud, so turn down your volume first!

In this second example, I was actually trying to get a more Guns’n’Roses style sound out of my guitar by playing more melodic intervals higher up the neck rather low power chords. I liked the staccato nature of the riff and tried adding drums and bass to contrast the guitar.

When i play guitar, drums or bass, my mind seems to be more in ‘rock mode’ and thus any music fragments I invent tend to have a heavier feeling to them. However, I do love the piano and all the pieces I invent while letting my fingers play over the keys tend to be alot more melodic and chord based. I am not a big fan of ‘standard chords’, I prefer to add a little suspension and mystery to my music by using suspended, extended or added tone chords (Em add9 is one of my favourites :)).

Here is a simple piano idea I came up with. It has a very ‘open space’ feeling to it that I really like with piano music and it naturally flowed from the verse into a chorus without me having to really think about what chords I should be playing. I added some simple percussion to give the song a bit more pull and energy.

Now i am not a very good singer. I’m probably not even a ‘good’ singer, but I do love to sing and one of the best ways for me to come up with a nice vocal line is just to sing random words over whatever I am playing. And I mean really random – I just sing whatever words (or sounds) come to me just to play around with melody lines that might sound good.

Here is an unedited example I recorded simply by placing a microphone on my piano. The verse I have played a few times before just because i wanted to get the chords just right, however this is my first or second time letting my hands play around and improvise a chorus. I don’t really like the chorus that came out of it and you will hear me sing total gibberish, but hey, random experimentation is how i go about inventing music – and in my opinion, all experimentation is good :)

Keep improvising and don’t be afraid to experiment – even if it sounds silly at the time, you will get better and better the more you do it! Let your mind drift and all sorts of great ideas will come to you!

Composition 101 – Changing Keys

Changing key within your song is a great way to change the mood of certain sections, create interest or add and resolve tension. Plenty of great rock songs never change key – Smells Like Teen Spirit uses the exact same 4 chords throughout the entire song – and you shouldn’t use it just because you can. Use it when it makes sense and you want to make part of your song stand out by making it darker, happier or more mysterious than other parts.

Here are two small examples transitioning from a verse to a chorus and back with a key change. Have a listen :)

Sounds like the same to you? Well, they are almost the same, but not quite. The chord just before the chorus is different in the two examples and I think that Transition 2 sounds more natural. But why? Let’s have a look at what exactly is going on.

The verse is in E-minor and the chorus is in G-minor.

Verse (Transition 1): Em | D | Am | G | Em | C | Am | Am
Verse (Transition 2): Em | D | Am | G | Em | C | D | D
Chorus: Eb | F | Gm | Gm | Eb | Cm | D | D

Notice that even though I’m jumping from one minor scale to another minor scale, the chorus has a more positive feeling to it? That is because I’m entering it on a major chord – Eb major.

The reson the key change in Transition 2 works better (in my opinion) is because the last chord in the verse, the D major chord, is

  • a part of the E minor scale, therefore sounds natural in the verse section and
  • the D major chord is the major dominant to the tonic of the G minor scale, or in other words, the D major chord is a part of the G harmonic minor scale (which is G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F#)

Harmonic minor?
The harmonic minor scale is a minor scale in which the seventh degree is pushed up by a semitone, which makes it a ‘leading note’ towards the tonic of the scale. This alteration to the natural minor scale causes the dominant chord to become a major chord, e.g. in G naturalminor, the dominant chord is D minor but in G harmonic minor, the dominant is D major!

Now because we end the verse on a D major chord, it leads up to the G (due to the F# note) and thus, we can easily transition into the G minor scale without it sounding unnatural. And since we are ending the chorus on D major, we can simply fall back into the verse because D major is a chord in that key :)

In Transition 1, we end the verse on an A minor chord, which is part of the E minor scale but is not part of the G minor scale (and not closely related either) and thus the key change sounds a bit more abrupt and sudden. Now a sudden change might be what you are after and is certainly appropriate in certain situations. Personally though, I prefer the harmonies to flow together a bit better, which is why I prefer the D major chord for the transition.

To smooth out the transition when changing keys, you should generally go through intermediate chords – chords which are either common or related to both your current and your new key.

For example, if you want to transition between A minor and D major, you can look at the chords in those scales
A minor: Am, Bdim, C, Dm, Em, F, G
D major: D, Em, F#m, G, Am, Bm, C#dim

Additionally, the major dominant for the A minor scale is D major (how convenient ;)) and for the D major scale it is A major.
Your best intermediate chords for a key shift would therefore be either common chords (Am, Em, G) or a dominant chord, e.g. using D major to transition to A minor.

To conclude this post, I have turned the Transition 2 example into a song fragment to demonstrate how the key change could sound in the context of a song.

Note that during the transition, the bass and the drums change and a new instrument (distorted guitar) is introduced – these are additional tools that can be used to ‘glue’ transitions together and I think even Transition 1 would have worked alright in this instance because the sudden key change isn’t harsh enough to break the glue provided by all the other elements.

Here’s the song fragment with Transition 1 – enjoy! :)

Changing key can introduce a lot of excitement into your songs, make use of them!

‘Louder is better’ – The Fletcher-Munson Curves

When I first started mixing, I had a strong tendency to continuously increase the volume I was mixing at, either by increasing the level of my master fader (which should always, always remain at 0 dB!) or by raising my monitor volume. There are two fundamental principles that cause this tendency:

The first is ear fatigue. Ear fatigue occurs when you listen to music for too long and your ear, trying to protect itself from continuous bombardment, starts to shut down and block out the sound. The best way to prevent this from happening and from interfering with your mixing is to take regular breaks during a session (probably at least 15 mins every 2 hours).

The second principle has to do with the way we perceive different frequencies at different loudness levels and, together with ear fatigue and increased volume, is often the reason we end up with an unsatisfying mix that is lacking lows and highs.

In 1933, Fletcher and Munson performed an audio experiment where listeners were asked to (subjectively) compare the perceived loudness of two different tones – one reference tone at 1 kHz and a second tone of a random test frequency. Fletcher and Munson then graphed their findings into a number of curves known as the Fletcher-Munson Curves. This experiment was re-examined later with similar findings which became the basis for the ISO 226 standard.

The way to read this graph is as follows: look at the blue curve at the 1 kHz / 40 dB point. Now follow the curve towards the left until you reach 50 Hz on the horizontal axis. You should now read about 70 dB on the vertical axis. In essence, this states that in order for a 50 Hz tone to be perceived as loud as a 1 kHz tone is at 40 dB, it needs to be played at 70 dB. That’s 30 dB difference! A similar thing happens when you move into the high frequencies. A 10 kHz tone needs to be played at about 55 dB to be perceived at the same loudness level. Notice that this difference in loudness evens out as the volume increases (the curves higher up in the figure), for example at 100 dB, the curves have flatten out considerably, meaning the perceived loudness difference between tones at different frequencies decreases.

There are two important things to take away from these curves:

  • We are less sensitive to low and high frequencies, we hear mid frequencies more prominently (especially between 1-5 kHz)
  • As the volume increases, this perceived loudness difference between the frequencies diminishes

In terms of mixing, this principle is the main reason why we have a tendency to increase the volume; as we raise the levels, the low and high frequencies become more prominent in the overall mix, leading to increasing power (lows) and clarity (highs). This makes the music appear more appealing to our ears and thus we often feel that ‘louder is better’. However, if we mix at very loud levels and then play the mix back at a lower volume, we will often find that we end up with a weak and muddy mix containing mainly mid frequencies.

There is no ‘simple fix’ for this problem. Your approach will also depends on your target audience and on how loud they are likely to play your music. Personally, I like to listen to my mix at different volume levels, from very soft to pretty loud, just to get a feeling for how well my overall frequency distribution will hold up in different situations and to make the mix as loudness proof as possible.

It is very useful to be aware of ear fatigue and our perception of frequencies at different levels and I hope it will be beneficial to your mixing!

Song Challenge – The Circle Concept

Welcome to SurfacedMusic!

If you are passionate about writing, recording and mixing music, you’ve come to the right place!

While I am not a music professional, music has always been a big part of my life and I have been writing, recording and mixing my own pieces for well over a decade now.

There are 3 main reasons I have created this blog:

1. As my creative outlet.
I have large amounts of ideas, fragments, unfinished songs that got stuck somewhere between inception and mastering, lying around and I want to have a place to gather them, share them with other people and get some feedback to – hopefully – gain more motivation to complete them.

2. To share knowledge.
To teach and learn (there’s plenty of stuff I’m still having trouble with) about song writing, recording, mixing and the general music creation process with other musicians.

3. To collaborate.
I consider myself a fairly good guitarist/pianist/drummer, but I am not that great at the bass guitar or with vocals. I will post ‘collaboration’ posts on this blog where I will put up a song (or parts of a song), disassembled into individual instrument tracks, for other artists to download, modify, remix, put their own ideas, melodies, vocals over and submit back to me.

My plan is to regularly update this blog with my own music, random tutorials, collaboration posts or general music experiments for others to enjoy, learn from, or give feedback on.

Today’s post is going to be a collaboration post :D


The Circle Concept

The Circle Concept is one of my many unfinished rock songs. It’s missing an escalation/solo part as well as an ending and I haven’t gotten around to recording any vocals for it yet either. However, I have chosen it because I think the sound quality of the song is just so much better than my old music (mainly due to new gear and learning more about mixing) and will make it easier for other musicians to work with.

Here is the current version of the song!






Simply right click the links to download the mp3 files. Feel free to remix the tracks, add instruments, add vocals, redo instruments, add whole new sections, anything really, and send them back to me so I can post them online on this website for others to hear!

I myself will continue to work on this song and I already have a few good ideas, but I am curious what other artists can make of the material I have so far.

Again, welcome to SurfacedMusic and I hope you will enjoy this blog!