One of my all time favourite scales is the harmonic minor scale. It is just like the natural minor scale but the seventh degree is raised by a semitone.
E natural minor consists of E F# G A B C D E.
Here is how E natural minor sounds
E harmonic minor consists of E F# G A B C D# E.
Here is how E harmonic minor sounds
I love how the D# adds alot of tension and a touch of mystery to the scale. The D# creates tension by wanting to resolve towards the tonic of the scale, the E. Harmonic minor is used very widely in jazz and rock music.
I always have to think of Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses when I hear the harmonic minor scale since he uses it extensively in his soli.
Have a listen to the Sweet Child of Mine solo (at 2:34). The first half and the high speed fill are entirely in Eb harmonic minor (it’s just E harmonic minor but his guitar is tuned down by a semitone) and then the scale resolves to Eb natural minor which creates the ‘release’ feeling.
Here is a bit of music theory about why harmonic minor is actually called ‘harmonic’ – it all has to do with chordal harmony. But don’t worry, it’s very simple :)
E major consists of E F# G# A B C# D# and the chords you can build with this scale are
I – E (the tonic chord)
II – F#m (the supertonic chord)
III – G#m (the mediant chord)
IV – A (the subdominant chord)
V – B (the dominant chord)
VI – C#m (the submediant chord)
VII D# dim (the subtonic chord)
A very classical chord progression is I – IV – V – I, which in E major would be E – A – B – E. Here is what it sounds like
It does have a very classical feel to it doesn’t it? I like the tension created by the dominant chord (the B) and the resolution to the tonic.
Now let’s see what happens when we do this chord progression in a natural minor scale. In E natural minor, the chord progression is Em – Am – Bm -Em. Have a listen!
Hm, kinda lacks the tension doesn’t it? That’s because the dominant is actually a minor chord. The chord lacks the D# that would make it a major chord to create the tension and lead back to the tonic of the scale. In order to give this natural minor scale a more harmonic feeling, we need to make the dominant chord (the Bm) a major chord. We do this by raising the seventh degree, the D#, by a semitone – and thus we get harmonic minor.
The progression has the feeling of a minor scale, but the same harmonic tension as the progression for the E major scale. Harmonic minor is a great sounding scale and you can
easily switch between the D and the D# while the harmonies of the song progress over the E minor scale. Have a listen to some other of Slash’s soli – he has an amazing feel for when to introduce more tension by using the harmonic minor scale :)
This is the second part of my song creation series and today I will be focusing on the second phase, the composition and arrangement phase. Again, this is just how I do things and my way is not necessarily any better or easier than anyone else’s. I am merely presenting it here so you might take some tips away :)
First off, in my mind i clearly distinguish between ‘composition’ and ‘arrangement’. To me, composition involves the inventing and transcribing of notes, chords, melodies and their evolution throughout the song. Arrangement is about how these composition elements are layed out to form the structure of the song.
Whenever inspiration strikes and I come up with a fragment that I consider good enough to be a part of a song, the first thing I do is transcribe the notes. I used to do this by hand on note paper, but lately I have found it much easier to go straight into Cubase and transcribe my ideas as MIDI notes since I will need all the MIDI tracks for arrangement later on anyways.
Here is a screenshot of one of my song projects as it looks in Cubase during this phase:
There are a number of reasons why I prefer to work (almost) exclusively with MIDI during this early stage of the song creation:
Having your notes in MIDI means you have them written down. Even after 5 years you can come back to your piece and start playing without having to pick everything up by ear.
This early during the process, the whole song structure, all melodies and chords can easily change and when I work in MIDI it is very easy to move, delete, edit, clone and modify whole sections of the song. If it was all audio at this stage, I’d have to re-record instruments for any minor change I might want to try out randomly.
I can try out different instruments for the different tracks just to see what effect I’d be getting. Again, no recording is required.
Of course, MIDI is not all awesome and two disadvantages come to mind straight away:
You need to know how to transcribe music notes. If you are having trouble with that, try plugging a MIDI keyboard into your computer and recording the notes as MIDI signals while you play. You can clean up your recorded MIDI notes afterwards. I do suggest you learn how to transcribe your own music notes though – it makes life a whole lot easier :)
Working with MIDI will give you MIDI sound. You will need a bit of imagination to ‘see’ how the final song would sound.
To me, composition and arrangement are not cleanly separated or consecutive activities. Instead, I will compose a little bit, integrate the fragments into my arrangement, make changes, come back and compose a few other elements, etc, all depending on the flow of the song and what mood I’m currently in – late at night inspiration is more likely to strike so I prefer to invent music then. It is a circular process that, for me, works best when I feel the song growing naturally. Forcing a section into a song usually makes it sound odd and out of place.
For the last few weeks I have been working on ‘The Circle Concept’, which I used in a very early version for my initial collaboration post. I have not had as much time as I would have liked since I was on holiday the last two weeks, but here is the current MIDI version of the song:
There are still a few more modifications I want to make before moving on to recording stage. The drum breaks need to be a bit more varied and I want a little bit more of a build up during the interlude section at the end. Notice that there is neither a solo guitar nor any ambient effects or guitars yet. I usually improvise these during the recording stage because I find that trying to transcribe them using MIDI takes away from their ‘feel’.
I am not a professional composer, I am self taught and have mainly learnt by writing my own songs for many years. Still, I have picked up a few tips to keep in mind during composing and arranging that want I to share :)
I am a fan of light arrangements (classical music excluded) where the number of instruments playing simultaneously is kept fairly small. Since songs live from their dynamics, having all instruments play all the time and blasting a consistently loud wave of sound at your listener will simply cause their ears to tire out and block out your music.
I’m not saying to never have all instruments play at once. Simply consider creating some sections with alot of space where most instruments are muted before it all comes swinging back in for one last emotional chorus. Of course it all depends on your style of music and the message you want to bring across in your song :)
Another option is to not have your instruments play too many notes, but let chords ‘hang’ for a little while before anything new happens. This will create a very easy and relaxed atmosphere like in the following little demo song I recorded a while ago.
There are many ways you can create and resolve tension in your compositions. I have talked about using dominant chords and key changes to freshen up sections or making transitions stand out more.
Another great way is by using dissonances or very off-beat/non fitting patterns. During a transition, you could introduce an instrument that plays at increasing dissonances or at a beat contradictory to the main beat of the song. This will create tension which you can then release by having the instrument fall back in line when the next section of the song comes along.
Bush is one of the bands that comes to mind when i think of tension and dissonances. Have a listen to the following song and note how the dissonances increase just before the chorus kicks in.
The Chemicals Between us by Bush
Another way to create tension is by (ab)using the expectations of the listener. Often when the listener is expecting a certain instrument to come in, withholding that instrument can create tension that can then be resolved with a greater emotional effect than if you simply did what the listener was expecting.
For example when you have a bridge building up tension and the listener is expecting the fat guitars to kick back in, try inserting a few bars of just drums or just bass or just a hanging ambience instrument before you jump into the chorus! This of course works just as well with withholding chords or entire sections of your song.
Dare to try unconventional things! Ever listened to a song and liked it mainly because it was a ‘breath of fresh air’, something a little different that contained unusual instruments or had a style that you couldn’t quite place? Being unconventional can range from creating songs that break the typical verse-verse-chorus structure to piecing together a rhythm section from recordings of coins hitting different types of surfaces. Go crazy and try different things – they might not always work, but sometimes you can discover some amazing sounds and it’s usually always fun to play around :)
I find that listening to musical styles that vastly differ from mine, I often get inspired to introduce new elements into my own music. Here is an African song I really love. It is very simple, but has a great ambience sound and a simple yet memorably melody.
Kothbiro by Ayub Ogada
Arrange with MIDI, compose with improvisation
MIDI is great to arrange instruments and work on the structure of your song, but I cannot sit in front of a virtual staff placing notes with my mouse and hope to come up with something that sounds great – for that, I need improvisation!
Once I have a certain part of my song layed out in MIDI, I grab my guitar, drums or piano, hit playback in Cubase and start to jam along. I try to let my hands naturally continue after my playback has ended or try to come up with supporting rhythms or melodies that fit very well into the song. Once I come up with a fitting piece, I transcribe it as a MIDI track and add it to the arrangement.
Improvisation to me is a natural way to make my song ‘grow’ organically and because I am merely jamming to it, I can try alot of different things without having to transcribe them first and then decide if one of my ideas is suitable. I will have a separate post about the importance of improvisation with some examples, theory tips and backing tracks for you soon!
I think I’ve been ranting on for long enough now, but I hope I gave you some ideas you can potentially use for the way you create your own music :)
Compression is used extensively in most modern musical styles and is a great tool to have in your skill set. Compression is a complex tool and while it is (fairly) easy to get your head around it, it takes a lot of time and practice to master. Even I still have a long way to go, but I want to share what I have learnt so far anyways :)
What is compression and why should you care?
Rather than just talking about it, let us use a concrete example instead. Listen to the following bass line!
I hope that does sound awful to your ears – because it is! The dynamics of the bass are all over the place, there are really soft and really loud notes played erratically and it’s hard to get a good feel for the rhythm. If you look at the waveform of the bass line, you can clearly see the abrupt changes in volume.
Now if you ever record a track like that, I’d urge you to “flush and re-record”. Working with a horrible recording makes mixing difficult and your final sound quality will suffer if you end up processing the signal too much! However, for the sake of this example, let’s assume you have no chance to re-record and are stuck with this inconsistent bass line. Good news is that we can apply compression to even out the dynamics of the track :)
Essentially, compression takes all sound waves above a certain volume threshold and reduces their excess volume by a specified (compression) ratio. It is important to remember that only the overshoot will be compressed, not the entire signal. This allows us to push down the peaks of a signal and reduce the volume fluctuations of the instrument track.
For our bass line example, I will start off with a threshold of -24dB and a compression ratio of 1:4. This will cause any sound louder than -24dB to have its excess volume reduced to 1/4th of its original output volume.
The red lines mark the -24dB line that we will be using as our compression threshold.
Notice that after compression all levels that exceeded the -24dB threshold have been reduced.
Listen to the compressed version.
You should be able to hear that the overall volume fluctuations of the bass line have been reduced and the bass line sounds more consistent. Notice that the overall volume of the signal has diminished. However, by compressing the peaks of the signal, we have freed up some headroom so we can increase the gain of the entire signal by a certain amount, called the make-up gain, to compensate for this loss in volume. I will use a make-up gain of 8.3dB to bring the level back up to where it was before compression. Be careful to avoid clipping when using make-up gain.
The following image shows the waveform of the compressed bass line after the make-up gain has been applied.
Again, here is the audio example. Compare it to the original bass line.
It’s not perfect, but can you hear how much more even the sound of the bass line has become? Compression is a great way to control the dynamics of an instrument and even them out. The loudness of the overall bass line has also increased because we pushed down the peaks and raised the level of the entire signal up to compensate.
One thing you have to be wary of is overcompression. Too much compression can lead to a very flat and dead sound and, because you typically apply make-up gain to make the quieter parts more prominent, you also increase the volume of any noise in the signal and decrease the signal-to-noise ratio (which is not a good thing). Here is an example of the above bass line overcompressed with a threshold of -40dB, a compression ratio of 1:8 and a make-up gain of 23.5dB.
Notice how our threshold is so low that almost the entire signal will be compressed and not just the peaks.
The waveform of the overcompressed bass line looks almost like a square – all dynamics have been squeezed out of it.
Have a listen to this overcompressed bass.
In this example, the life as well as the natural sound of the bass has been squeezed out of the bass line and a lot of low noise that was present in the signal has been increased in volume by using too much make-up gain.
While compression has a distinct sound that experienced sound engineers can pick up on very easily, most people (including me to some extend) will hardly notice even strong compression. I do hope you notice the ugly compression sound in the overcompressed example tho ;)
Compressed instruments usually sound thicker, more compact and punchier, which makes compressors popular to use for kick, snare or bass tracks. It is also used for vocal tracks, but simply to even out the dynamics a little like we did in this example.
In order to preserve the natural sound of your instrument track, it is usually better to compress a signal more frequently by a little bit than to compress it a lot once.
I like to start off with a fairly high threshold (so little of my signal is affected) and a small compression ratio (approximately 1:4 is fairly common) and then adjust your parameters based on what it is I am mixing. Compression is best learnt through experimentation and feel free to download the above bass line and play around with it :)
You didn’t mention the attack and release parameters!
Yeah I know, but I’m feeling like this post is already getting way too long and those compressor parameters are important enough to warrant a separate post to cover them properly. I will write about them soon – promise :)
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!
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#)
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!
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!
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.
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!