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Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Sat Jul 23, 2016 11:47 am
by jcwillia
Hi I need some direction.

I've been writing music on and off (Scream Tracker, Impulse Tracker, Fruity Loops and Ableton Live) for 20+ years (mostly off) and it's all terrible. Ok there have been one or two pieces that don't kill the ears but even they aren't "good" by any traditional standard and I just sort of lucked into the melody and harmony by experimentation - it didn't come from any sense of purpose or knowledge.

And it's been growing on me more and more that I don't really understand at a musical notation level why I love the music that I do. A lot of it has to do with just "finding a sound and a style" - there's nothing particularly innovative about Max Martin's pop songs but damn if he doesn't find the sweet spot for me on some of his better known tunes.

I know it isn't necessarily good manners to steal other people's tunes and that's not what I'm after but where do I go - what do I do to more fully understand why I love the songs that I do so that I can become a better writer?

I've tried piano/guitar lessons and music theory on and off for 10-15 years and the problems are that a) I have very bad hand eye coordination, b) I don't have a lot of free time (out of my house at 6am, home at 630 pm most days), and most importantly c) I feel like every music teacher I've ever had has never listened to a song that I love. If I have to hear "twinkle, twinkle little star" ONE MORE TIME I'm going to lose it. I've been binge-ing on music theory books and lectures for the last month or so including Music Theory for Computer Musicians, Raven's Spiral Guide, Robert Greenberg's Understanding the Fundamentals of Music, and Coursera's Music Theory by the University of Edinborough (what a weird thing that is...)

I'm looking for some kind of online community, an app for my phone or some other way to engage with my music, to understand it better and get out of this rut that I'm stuck in.

Any suggestions appreciated.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Mon Jul 25, 2016 9:42 pm
by smutek
Hey man, I can relate as I've got a similar story.

I had a little bit of a breakthrough when I bought my Volcas. I think they've been so inspiring to me because they are such simple little machines. For a little while there I had the original Volca trio (beats, bass, keys) and a BeatStep pro. Eventually I added a Roland JU-06 module, but in all it was an inspiring little setup.

I was using Ableton just for effects and recording, and the sounds I dialed in on my Volcas were what I had to work with. Aside from the Roland, there were no presets, I made the sounds I wanted and if I changed them they were gone.

I think the key for me was the simplicity. When I use my software instruments I've got too many options.

It was a bit of a renaissance for me, so I decided to move my little setup completely OOTB. I bought a hardware mixer, and some more little machines, and some rack effects, and some guitar pedals, and another sequencer, and some Midi splitters, a midi effects box and..... next thing you know I was kind of uninspired again. Until this past weekend.

Just Friday I was considering selling all of this crap except for the Volcas. I was actually kind of frustrated by it all and thought to myself that it had just lost its magic again.

I was looking for some inspiration for drum programming when I stumbled across this dudes blog.

The guys name is Ethan Hein, he teaches music technology at NYU and Montclair and is a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. He has a couple of interesting articles on teaching Ableton (part 1, part 2) where he talks about the need to teach some people (like me) how to work with a limited tool set when faced with near infinite options and possibilities.

I especially like the stuff he writes about avoiding option paralysis, and the concept of "structural simples". I spent some time digging around his blog and it's been some of the best music reading I've ever come across. I ended up signing on the free "theory for bedroom producers" class he links to.

I don't know, your mileage may vary, but I found some really helpful and inspiring info on that site. I went from being kind of down about music on Friday night, to being pretty inspired again.

Either way, good luck to you!

Good luck!

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Mon Jul 25, 2016 9:50 pm
by jcwillia
Thank you for that - I'm less interested in the technology side of things and more on the music side of things.

Think of it this way - I want to write books but I want to write them in the settings and with the characters of books that I love to read. So I need to learn how to speak that language - how to live in the settings of the books and how to talk for hours to the characters that I like.

Right now I can see and appreciate the songs that I love but I can't speak that language back to anyone. It's very frustrating.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Mon Jul 25, 2016 10:31 pm
by smutek
No problem, best of luck.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Mon Jul 25, 2016 11:25 pm
by Tagor
i think i know the wall you running against quite well.
for me always when i switch the genre just for an experiment, i return to my music and learned something.

in my example it can be very healing for a psytrancer just try to make a regular rootsdub-track.

when you turn back you learned a lot of things which can help you in layers you cannot imagine.
also movie-scores can teach about tension and mood. if you like the trailer of orphan black, then
analyse it and try to make a minute of music with the same mood and power.

the switch between focusing on very each single simple sound and the artwork as an whole is the balancing
thing you can only find inside of your own. if you do not balance yourself, you will not be satisfied with
your creative output.

maybe its hard and it will take hours or days, but you should really try to recreate one track you like second by second, sound by sound and beat by beat. it will be hard like learning kungfu or quantumphysics, but on the way you will find some aha`s.

do not hesitate to write those aha`s down into your own diary/documentation. that will help you in moments of emptyness or frustrations, because there are so may things and they can be quickly forgotten.

consider this will give you glue of what has to be done, to achieve your goal with your own production.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Mon Jul 25, 2016 11:34 pm
by Tagor
if all not helps, buy a hurdy ghurdy, ocarina or didgeridoo and play it really with passion.
forget about the thousands plugins, filters, macros and just make one instrument sounding good.
thats the way humans are used to learn music for thousand of years, so it cannot be too wrong.

good luck

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Tue Jul 26, 2016 1:03 am
by dougpowell
This is my first post here...but I've been where you are and I think I can help point you in the right direction.

I agree with the poster who suggested recreating a track. Pick a song that's a good representation of your musical goals and re-create it completely in Ableton. Chose similar sounds and remake every melody, every chord, every bass note, and every drum hit. Bring you reference track into Ableton and A/B constantly to see what missing. Make sure you pick a song you really love're going to hear it a lot.

It might sound probably will be, and often extremely frustrating, but if you push through you'll learn a ton about what goes into making a song and significantly improve your critical listening ability, which will allow you to more easily hear and identify whats going on in the music you like. If it seems like too daunting a task, break it into smaller ones, and tackle them one at a time.

After you recreate one track, do another. It will get easier. Patterns will emerge. You'll start to understand how to get from a blank page to a finished song.

I've personally done this many times, so if you need help getting started let me know. There seems to be surprisingly little discussion of the "nuts & bolts" of song construction (sound selection, note choice) online. Personally, I find it more interesting than talking about gear and technical details.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Tue Jul 26, 2016 1:52 am
by jestermgee
You sound just like me, though i'm very hand-eye coordination, avid gamer and love tech!

I too started out about 20 years ago in the mid 90s on Fasttracker and the first song I created was "mary had a little lamb", using 8 bit samples and I still have it as a reminder of how much I have learned from that first summer day of sitting down to figure out how to make a computer make music.

Everyone has their own methods but what I use to do to learn structure and also how music works was basically to copy what already worked.

I would take songs I already loved from all genres, at the time it was Daft Punk, Prodigy, Metallica, Pantera and basically listen for a part I could imitate or remix. Before I learned how to sample I would simply play the song and try and hit the same notes and create a small loop of the song then later I would rip loops and try and recreate the elements and mix in new elements.

Remixing can be something you can use to just give you a base to work on and honestly I have ome of the most fun and learn more about the actual plugins and parameters when I have something that takes care of its self.

There are reasons when you learn the basics of music you use known and accepted tunes because they have properties that are easy to understand and recognise. I'm not trained in any instrument but I have learned quite a bit over the years about different techniques and still find it fun to waste a whole day making sounds, though it's not as much of a fucus these days.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Wed Jul 27, 2016 12:04 am
by dougpowell
Can you give some examples of songs you love? Then we can talk more specifically about the "language" they're using.

Since you mentioned Max Martin, keep in mind that many of his songs (and contemporary pop songs in general) are quite heavily layered and use a lot of subtle techniques to build energy. It takes a very careful balance of sonic and melodic density to achieve results like that. If you want to recreate a popular song, its worth looking around for an instrumental version or remix stems to better hear whats going on behind the vocal.

Re: Learning how to write the music I love

Posted: Wed Jul 27, 2016 8:59 pm
by Roi de Janeiro
There's one thing most people don't think about: Listening to your own music is a totally different thing than listening to other peoples music. The thing is: When you create a song you always begin with a tiny pice of melody or harmony or lyrics (...or so) that you want to become the song. You have something that feels good to you, but it definitely is unfinished. What you do next is finding other stuff to add until it becomes a whole working song. While doing this you are inevitably concentrating on the quality of your additions. You will always ask "Does this sound good?" After you decide the work is finished, this state of mind will stay with you for a long time. So you will always be a little unshure about the choices you took. And since whether somebody likes a song or not is nothing you can't grasp with math, you will never be shure.

The listener on the other hand is usually much less biased. He starts from thinking that the way the song sounds, is the way it was intended to sound. Did you ever listen to your music in a group of cheerful people who suddenly seemed to understand what you tried to create, leading you to temporary enjoy the song, too? Thats because you couldn't tell if the songs where good or bad, so you looked for other peoples opinions.

What im trying to say is: Don't hunt after existing songs you like. Start liking your own music. Feel free to walk into the direction of the music you like, but don't bother if yours sounds different. Music theory helps, but I strongly suggest you to never stop just pressing keys, plugging strings, hitting drums or just producing sounds that sound nice to you. In music there is no real amateurishness. People can enjoy the music of a five year old as much as a verdi opera or electronic noise stuff or just the sound of the sea. There are no limitations of what one can like and you can't possibly produce any music that doesn't appeal to someone. And one of this someones should be you. Just imagine you as someone else who likes you as a person and watches you doing your music thing, producing all kinds of sound. Even if those sounds are right now not working for a mainstream audience, you will still be able to enjoy them. The only kind of exception here are lyrics. Those are not as abstract as the rest of the music, so you can easily offend someone, which often eventually leads to that person not liking the whole song. In most cases this should be OK to you as long as you stay honest in your lyrics. If someone is offended by something you really mean, you intended that person to be offended. If you just sang it because you thougt it was cool and someone doesn't think so, it hurts! :)