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:
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!