I was watching a behind-the-scenes feature on one of the Pixar movies, and John Lasseter (the head of Pixar), spoke of a concept called “Truth To Materials”, which is one of the defining techniques in every Pixar movie. Let’s say they’re making a movie, and they need to create a park bench. Well, it’s not enough for them to just make a park bench, they ask themselves detailed questions like how old the bench is, what style it should be, should it have scratches, should there be parts where the paint has been worn off from people sitting there… that kind of stuff. These are questions that the audience would never ask, but because the people creating the movie go to that extra level of detail, you feel more immersed in the movie.
I decided to apply the same technique to music as well. As a composer with hundreds of virtual instruments at my disposal, it would be very easy to just make an instrument play whatever I want it to, but that would not be true to the real instruments that the virtual instruments are based on. Every time I add an instrument to a song, I don’t just add it and make it play my every whim; I ask myself if the instrument could physically be played that way. Here are some examples:
- If I’m using an acoustic guitar, I make sure that there are never more than 6 notes playing at any one time, because the vast majority of acoustic guitars only have 6 strings.
- If I’m using a timpani, I make sure that I have it playing a maximum of 4 tones through the whole song. Why? Because a timpani is a huge, expensive drum that can only play one tone, and in a real orchestra, 4 is about the largest number of drums a timpani player can be surrounded with before it gets too hard to reach them.1
- With any instrument I’m using, I try to find out what the actual range is for that instrument. For instance, a trumpet has a range of about 3 octaves that it can physically play. However, the highest notes are so difficult to play that I avoid using them unless it’s absolutely necessary (in a real orchestra, I wouldn’t want some poor trumpet player to injure himself trying to play a piece I’d written)
I could give about a dozen more examples, but the point is this: every instrument has little quirks about it that makes it easier to play some notes than others. To find out what they are, you’re going to have to do some research while you’re composing. 2
However, “Truth to Materials” should extend itself to all aspects of music. If you’re composing a piece of music that is related to a partiular culture, you should also choose instruments true to that culture. In some styles, using a specific scale will make the music more authentic to that style. The classic blues C-scale is C Eb F Gb G Bb C, so a melody played using those notes in a blues song will probably sound more authentic (if the song is played in the key of C, anyways). Playing a song with only the black notes of a keyboard can make a song sound more Oriental or African, depending on the way it’s played and the instruments used. This is because, in many cultures, this limited five-note scale was quite common.3
“Truth to Materials” is a rule I try to follow in nearly everything I make… but that doesn’t mean that all good music follows this rule. For instance, watch almost any episode of the kids TV show “Pocoyo”, and you’ll see this rule being broken. In episodes like this one entitled “What’s in the Box”, instruments are treated more like sound effects, reacting to the scene in ways that real instruments normally couldn’t do. Yet, the music still works very well, largely because it stays true to its own unique style.
In the end, my advice is to be true to whatever musical instruments and styles that you’re using. As you get more experienced and as you experiment, you will learn when it works fine to break the rules too.
- There are exceptions to this. Sometimes, the key of a song will change… in those cases, a timpani player will have to be given time to retune the timpanis in the middle of a song. An expert timpanist can do this in less than 30 seconds. However, the timpanis will now be stuck with those four new notes unless they need to be retuned again. ↩
- Homework while making music? Yep, I’m afraid so. ↩
- You may need to transpose the black notes to a different key for better results… C D F G Bb have always worked well for me. ↩