August 2, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 8: Song – Hunt for the Orb

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 9:23 am

A few weeks ago, I linked to a video that showed Mech Mice, the project I’m working on for Rocketsnail Games. The background music was part of a larger song I was working on, and here is the finished song 1 (you can also find the song added to the Music Player).

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Now, I’ve been giving composing advice for the last two months. Would you like to see how I used my own advice to help compose this song? (If not, just enjoy the music… if yes, click the link below.)
(click to read the rest of this post…)

  1. This song is owned by Rocketsnail Games. Used here with permission.

July 26, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 7: Composer’s Block

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

Choosing music composing as a job instead of a hobby suddenly means that you’re going to have compose music even when you don’t want to. 1 If you were a writer, it’d be called “writer’s block”, so “composer’s block” seems an appropriate enough term for us. There are many obstacles that can cause composer’s block.

Obstacle #1: I don’t know where to start!

Sometimes, just starting the song can be the hardest thing. First, try asking yourself the questions in Chapter 4: Starting a Song for a Client so that you know what kind of song you’re making. Second, set your metronome (called a “click track” in some composing programs) to an appropriate tempo and time signature.

Now that you’ve prepared yourself a bit, you have to actually record your first notes. What’s the best place to start? Well, there’s no one right answer, but there are multiple ways you can begin:

Melody. It may be that a really clear melody line is what starts this song, with the other instruments coming in after to support it. This isn’t as common as you might expect, though… I frequently have to start with a non-melody instrument so that I have something on which to build the melody.
Lyrics. Even if you’re making completely instrumental piece, sometimes a few lines of lyrics will just pop into your head, and making an instrument play that rhythm will start the song for you. This can work for melody or harmony.
Bass line. This is my usual weapon of choice. I choose an appropriate instrument with a lower range, and record a bass line. It may only be a few bars long, but it’s always how I prefer to start. A house needs to start with a good foundation, and for me, even if I don’t know what the rest of my “house” is going to look like, the bass line is the best foundation. Plus, if you come up with a really fun bass line, the melody is more free to improvise to it.
Percussion. While I’m big on the bass line, the true foundation of most songs is found in its percussion section. Thus, many musicians will prefer to start with a percussion line and build up from there. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and many times I will start this way. However, if the clicking of my metronome is enough of a percussion track to begin with, I still prefer to start with a non-percussion instrument.
(click to read the rest of this post…)

  1. Reality Check: Yes, there are times when you won’t want to compose music. Every job, no matter how amazing it is, has days when you don’t want to do it.

July 19, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 6: Sharing the Load

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

When composing, it can be easy to ask a single instrument to do a bit too much work, when it would be better off spread between multiple instruments.

Let’s say you’re composing something, and you have a trombone line that goes like this:

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This is okay, but the trombone is doing a lot of short, staccato notes. Trombones are stronger when notes they perform are not so close . Let’s try giving the load to another instrument… in this case, how about a low string section? 1

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See? Same exact notes, but now the trombone is only playing half of them. The original melody played by the trombone is now played by the cellos.
(click to read the rest of this post…)

  1. Strings and brass are some of my favorite types of instruments to use when sharing the load. It won’t always work, but when it does, it’s beautiful.

July 12, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 5: Truth to Materials

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

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:
(click to read the rest of this post…)

July 5, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 4: Starting a Song For a Client

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

So, let’s say you have a client, who’s going to pay you to make a song. Hurray! But then you run into a problem. When you ask them “What kind of song do you want?”, they answer “I don’t know… you’re the musician.” Uh oh.

This is one of the classic problems that any artist has when they’re working for clients. Clients frequently don’t know what they want, and if they do, they don’t know how to communicate to artists. But, if you don’t get some information about this song, you can’t possibly hope to make something they’d like, and you won’t get paid!

Time to make this situation less painful… here’s my list of questions that are guaranteed to give you more information about the song you need to compose:
(click to read the rest of this post…)

June 28, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 3: The Equipment You Need

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:01 am

Finally! Enough talking about music, it’s time to compose a song! Let’s get out our equipment and compose!

Wait… what equipment do you need to compose, you ask? Good question… I suppose it would help to go through that first. Here’s what I’d suggest as the necessary equipment to be a composer:

Computer

There are many modern composers who don’t use a computer for composing. In fact, the soundtrack for Disney’s The Incredibles was recorded entirely without computer assistance. However, if you are trying to compose on your own as “an orchestra of one”, a computer is essential.
(click to read the rest of this post…)

June 21, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 2. The Types of Instruments

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

Now that we know what music is, the next step is to find out what artistic tools we have at our disposal. Just as a painter has a variety of paints and canvases, composers have a variety of instruments available. Anything that makes a sound is an instrument, and most all of them can fit into a few broad categories.

Percussion:

Percussion instruments are simply objects that can make a sound when they’re hit, shaken, scraped, or otherwise set into vibration. Due to their simplicity, most of the oldest known instruments are percussion.

Now, of course, you have your classic drums and cymbals, along with slightly less common instruments – xylophones, marimbas, steel drums, for instance – but it goes much further than that. Anything that makes a sound when you hit it has the potential to be a percussion instrument. A pot, a plate, a door, a chain link fence, a rock, a suspension bridge – they all can be percussion, a fact that bands like Stomp use to their advantage.
(click to read the rest of this post…)

June 17, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 1b. What is NOT music?

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 9:04 am

I wasn’t originally going to do this, but there has been some good discussion about the definition of music from my last post, so I wanted to address it. The main thing that people seem to be commenting on is my statement that for something to be music, it has to be arranged with some intelligence behind it. In my definition of music – a sequence of sounds, arranged so that a listener may appreciate the sounds themselves – a random series of sounds like those made by a rushing waterfall or wind chimes are not music. However, many people have argued that, yes, they are music.

Now, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s not a big deal which way you believe on this… and considering that people have been debating the definition of “art” for centuries, I don’t think this question will get solved any time soon.

But, let’s say for a moment that all of these random sounds that have not been arranged are, in fact, music. It creates a bit of a problem for me, because I’m trying to write blog articles about how to compose music, and if music can be composed by throwing a trash can off of a second-story window, then composing music becomes too easy. Literally any sound you hear becomes music, and while that sounds like a fun, all-inclusive definition, it’s not a very useful one for composers. I’ll admit that any sound might be able to be used in a piece of music, but not every sound is music by itself.

Here’s an example: try searching online for “Dot Matrix Printer Symphony”. You will find a few examples of people who’ve taken the clicks and hums of an old printer and turned them into music. In my mind, if those people had just printed a document, the printer’s noises would not have been music, but because there was thought behind what the end result of the printer’s sounds would be, those sounds become music.

I’m probably going a bit too far into this. In any case, my definition for music is the one that I’m going to be using for the rest of my blog articles about music.

Next: Chapter 2: The Types of Instruments

June 14, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Chapter 1. What is Music?

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 1:00 am

I have a challenge for you… define “music”.

No, you may not go to any dictionary and have them define it for you. This is just between you and me, and I’m giving you two minutes to come up with a definition for music.

It’s deceptively hard to do; to come up with a definition of music that applies to all music being made throughout the world in all of history. And yet, if I’m going to be giving out tips for how to compose music, I have no choice but to begin by answering this question.

WHAT IS MUSIC?
(click to read the rest of this post…)

June 10, 2011

An Orchestra of One – Introduction

Filed under: Music,Orchestra of One,Writing — Screenhog @ 3:37 pm

Learning how to compose music is hard.

OK, not as hard as, say, rocket science, or brain surgery, or folding a soft taco so that half the contents don’t spill on your plate. But still, it’s a hard art to learn.

Traditionally, the only way you could learn was through apprenticeship. You’d find a master composer, you’d become his apprentice. You’d learn how a composer thinks and learn how music can be arranged to tell a story. You’d learn his ways, working side by side as his apprentice for years until you finally became a master and defeated Darth Vader… or something like that.

I am not a master composer, nor am I a composer’s apprentice… but I am a good listener. I’ve learned by listening to the masters at work; in concerts, in movies, in recordings, and in video games. I have used the knowledge I’ve learned to make a lot of songs, enough that people have come to me sometimes for advice of how to compose music.

So, starting next Tuesday, I’m starting a series of blog posts called “An Orchestra of One”. They will be tips, tricks, insights, or whatever comes to mind. Those of you who want to compose music yourselves will hopefully get a lot out of it, and those of you who have no desire to compose music will hopefully still find it interesting to learn how a composer thinks.

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