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What is the modern-day music composition process like?
November 23, 2010 6:36 PM   Subscribe

Composers, musicians, songwriters: What steps do you take to create a piece of music from scratch? Additional questions about working as a composer, music software, planning processes, etc. inside.

[This is a multi-faceted question and I apologize in advance for the disorganized nature of this post. However, it is precisely because I am so confused about the nuances of modern-day music composition that I ask all these questions.]

I have always had an interest in music composition and sound design (which I would ideally like to pursue a career in) but find myself lost, confused, and hesitant to start because I don’t know how to. I was a music performance minor at USC, where I took a composition class and a few theory classes that required music writing, but often felt that there was a more “advanced,” contemporary approach to writing music that I didn’t know about (I would sit down at the piano with staff paper and a pencil and just jot down ideas that came to mind… but I would frequently either lose steam or completely forget an idea that I just had).

My composition professor has stated that the composition process is really “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” I am interested in knowing what specific steps go into the “99% perspiration” component of music composition and how modern-day composers approach their work.

A little background on my musical credentials and preferences:

I have been playing the piano for over 10 years. I have both a classical and jazz background, I am fluent in all 12 keys, I can sightread very well (both sheet music and chord symbols), I have a good sense of rhythm but am not very familiar with complex or odd time signatures (5/4, 7/4, etc.), and have good voice leading sensibilities. I have a very strong grasp of Western harmony through hours of self-study and coursework in music theory. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I have a good ear and can pick up pitches well enough to transcribe melodies accurately. I improvise every time I practice and would love to incorporate some of these ideas into a complete, structured composition.

I really admire the work of composers like Nobuo Uematsu, Joe Hisaishi, Koji Kondo, Matt Uelmen (mostly composers in interactive media). I have read interviews of how they made it in composition but they don’t really elaborate on the process of their work. What techniques/programs do they use, and who are the people they need to work with?

So, how can I apply the musical skills and knowledge I have towards creating an original piece of music? What other musical skills should I develop in addition to those I currently have?

I have a number of additional questions on this topic, specifically:

1) I don’t have a Mac. Should I get a Mac if I’m serious about music composition, or is a PC sufficient for extended levels of music composition?

2) What software recommendations do you have for composing music (Logic, Pro Tools, Garage Band, etc.)? What are the differences?

3) DAWs, music sequencers, sound libraries. Where can I find these?
Are there music sequencers that transcribe notes as I layer tracks together? Is there software where I could lay down a few tracks in Garage Band and have it laid out in sheet music form, like Finale would?

4) What general equipment / hardware is required for good quality recording?
I currently only own an 88-key Korg SP-250 keyboard, which has MIDI capabilities.

5) How important is it that learn to play other instruments? I only know how to play the piano. If I had the time and money, I would learn to play guitar and drums in a heartbeat, but would programs like Pro Tools obviate the need to learn how to play another instrument?

6) Licensing. How do organizations like ASCAP protect my music from being plagiarized?


7) What book recommendations do you have for music composition? I’m looking for process, not music theory, harmony, or the like.

8) Is the pencil/paper approach still widely used, or has it given way to electronic techniques? I wrote a few compositions in college, which I had played on the piano and scored completely by hand, but I remembered how excruciating it was to jot down new ideas in random spots on staff paper, only to have to rewrite everything on fresh manuscript.

9) How do you plan out your compositions? How do you decide what instruments you want to use and how long you want your piece to be?

10) Do full-time music composer/sound designer positions exist, or do these fields primarily entail freelance work?
For those of you who are composers, can you please briefly detail the nature of your work? How does one find work as a composer and get a foot in the industry's door?

Sorry that I’m asking so many questions! There’s just a ton that I want to learn about the field, and I really want to get started as soon as I can. Please don’t feel obliged to answer every question in my post. I’ll come back and follow up from time to time, depending on the responses. If there are other online resources I might direct my question to, please let me know!

Suggestions / reflections from your own experiences and familiarity with music composition and sound design would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks all!
posted by matticulate to Work & Money (23 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a strong musical background in classical and rock, and a mediocre one in jazz, on a number of instruments - but I'm not a composer. I write songs to sing and play guitar. So I won't be able to help you with most of your questions above.

But in terms of songwriting, what I have found while writing songs is that it's generally easiest to noodle around until I find a melody I like, then build a chord structure behind that. You mentioned that you improv whenever you practice, so you're not incapable of writing a melody from scratch. I find that they come easiest when I'm not thinking about it too hard - that is, when I'm relaxed and just kind of playing while hanging out, mind wandering a little bit. Once I've got a basic melody in my head, the rest of the process is generally fairly straightforward and simple, just takes a lot of trial-and-error to find what sounds best. YMMV.
posted by hootenatty at 6:50 PM on November 23, 2010


You should head on over to music.metafilter.com and hang out there for a while. It is full of people making and posting music.

Personally, I use Logic Studio on a Mac Pro. For hardware you can get away with very little: a decent audio interface, a decent condenser mic, a decent controller keyboard, some decent headhones and a decent set of monitors.

You absolutely need to learn other instruments. You can't fake an instrument properly unless you can play it. I would suggest guitar/drums/bass as a minimum unless you are only interested in electronic music.

Composition: I just pick up an instrument and play it until something interesting emerges. Then I work away at that, trying to find a melody and structure. Then I start recording... trying different instruments, melodies, harmonies and so on. Once I have it finalized, I junk all the temp tracks I recorded and do it again (and again and again) to record the final tracks. Then mix.

Nine times out of ten I will write the song using a piano or acoustic guitar. Once in a while I will start it on an electric guitar.
posted by unSane at 7:14 PM on November 23, 2010


PS Garageband will get you a long long way. If you need notation then you have to look at something like Sibelius, Logic or one of the other pro sequencer packages.
posted by unSane at 7:16 PM on November 23, 2010


I'm a songwriter as well. It appears you are mostly interested in the composition side. BUT many times when I write I actually start with a lyric, finding that the words themselves help me come up with melodic ideas. You can actually use this to write instrumentals-just find a phrase that is for lack of a better term interesting to say out loud (good poetry might work well, or Scripture, or maybe a turn of phrase from the New York Times.) Figure out what words in the phrase or sentence should get the most emphasis, etc and then go and do likewise on a keyboard with the melody. Having an underlying verbal rhythm helps a lot.

I have written instrumentals without doing all that-in which case all I do is sit at a keyboard and noodle around until I hit a chord progression or rhythm or musical phrase that sounds interesting. Then I build on that.

Your best friend in all this is actually a simple recording device. I am lowtech enough to just sing musical ideas into my cell phone for later use when I sit down to write!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:38 PM on November 23, 2010


All of that technology stuff is nice for producing songs, but almost useless for creating strong melodies. Can you make up a strong melody? A melody memorable enough that if you sang a few bars to someone, then they could easily sing/hum it back to you after a minute? (I've tried it. It's really hard.)
posted by ovvl at 7:51 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


9) As far as choosing what instrument should play what, I just hear it in my head. I'm not sure how other people go about that or if that's normal. But, for example, I'll be fleshing out an arrangement to a song, and I'll think, "hmm, I hear a viola playing a part here," and then I write a viola part there. For me, there isn't really a science to it. I just write what I think sounds good. I studied theory in college but never took a composition course, but I used to play in a lot of symphonic bands and orchestras, so that would be how I learned to do what I do. If I were to try to do this as a job where people were hiring me to score a film, maybe I'd get more scientific about it, but when it comes to generating my own compositions, I really just tend to go with what comes to me and feels right.

Keep in mind... Composers do have their methods, and there are some mechanics to it, but at the same time, I do think the 1% inspiration you quote is a bit off. I would put the inspiration/perspiration balance at something more like 35%/65%. Maybe that's just me, though. I just find that anything I force myself to write, when I don't have a nugget of genuine inspiration there, ends up sounding forced.

Although I wasn't a big fan of Lost, The New Yorker had what I thought was an interesting article about Lost composer Michael Giacchino and how he went about writing stuff for the show. Michael Giacchino and the music of "Lost". You need a subscription to read it, but that's the article, anyway. Maybe they have a copy at the library.
posted by wondermouse at 8:28 PM on November 23, 2010


I was a grad student at USC until recently -- I may know your professor. Have you tried asking him/her these questions? He/she will probably have great answers, but here are mine:

1) I don’t have a Mac. Should I get a Mac if I’m serious about music composition, or is a PC sufficient for extended levels of music composition?

It doesn't especially matter in most cases, as most software now is cross-platform. For some reason, though, most musicians/composers I know have Macs -- I'm not sure why that is. The one exception to the cross-platform thing is Logic Pro, a DAW only on the Mac that a lot of film/TV composers seem to use. So, if you are thinking specifically composing for film or TV, that might be something to consider. (However, that's not my area of expertise.)

2) What software recommendations do you have for composing music (Logic, Pro Tools, Garage Band, etc.)? What are the differences?

For composing music for acoustic instruments, I don't use any of these. Sibelius or Finale are the standard programs for music notation (I use Sibelius). Logic Pro and Pro Tools will export standard music notation, but they're less flexible in that area. Again, many film/TV composers will work straight in Logic or Pro Tools because those programs will make better electronic mockups.

3) DAWs, music sequencers, sound libraries. Where can I find these? Are there music sequencers that transcribe notes as I layer tracks together? Is there software where I could lay down a few tracks in Garage Band and have it laid out in sheet music form, like Finale would?

Most music sequencers (Reason, Cubase, etc.) have the option for you to lay down new tracks while playing other tracks, if that what you're asking. However, most don't export music notation. Logic does this, and so does Pro Tools, I think. But you'll probably have to tweak it a lot to get nice looking music notation. For example, you will probably have to adjust or quantize the rhythms, unless your playing is metronomically precise.

4) What general equipment / hardware is required for good quality recording? I currently only own an 88-key Korg SP-250 keyboard, which has MIDI capabilities.

That depends. What are you looking to record?

5) How important is it that learn to play other instruments? I only know how to play the piano. If I had the time and money, I would learn to play guitar and drums in a heartbeat, but would programs like Pro Tools obviate the need to learn how to play another instrument?

For composing? Not necessary. You should learn about other instruments and the general principles involved in playing them, so you can write idiomatic music for them for other people to play that isn't going to make them want to kill you. That doesn't mean you need to play them yourself. But let's say you're doing a film score with glockenspiel, Ondes Martenot and cello. You have a few options:

-Learn to play every instrument so you can record it all yourself
-Buy some expensive sound libraries and make a reasonable fascimile
-Hire a few starving and/or studio musicians to get the job done

These obviously have different time/money constraints, so pick what works best for you.

6) Licensing. How do organizations like ASCAP protect my music from being plagiarized?

ASCAP doesn't really protect you, per se. The role of organzations like ASCAP is to help you be compensated for your work, and the mechanism is pretty simple -- you send in evidence that your work has been performed, they send you money. Easy! But as far as someone else stealing your music... well, to be honest, I wouldn't worry about it. If you are writing concert music, no one will bother to plagiarize your music. If you are doing pop music, or music for film and TV, you will be doing a lot of work-for-hire and you may not get full credit, or any credit, for your music when you're starting out. As cynical as that sounds, it's the way it is right now, for better or worse.

7) What book recommendations do you have for music composition? I’m looking for process, not music theory, harmony, or the like.

This is... I am actually stumped by this question. While I have lots of books on orchestration, notation, theory, harmony, etc., I don't have a single one on composition. I think this is because the process is so highly personalized -- no one I know has the same method. However, if there is anything like a tried-and-true way to learn about other people's processes, it's score study. Check out works by composers you admire, and see if you can pick them apart to see how they work. If you are still a student you have access to the music library.

Get an orchestration book, though, if you don't already have one. Adler's "The Study of Orchestration" is one of the better ones.

8) Is the pencil/paper approach still widely used, or has it given way to electronic techniques? I wrote a few compositions in college, which I had played on the piano and scored completely by hand, but I remembered how excruciating it was to jot down new ideas in random spots on staff paper, only to have to rewrite everything on fresh manuscript.

Almost everyone works on the computer these days, for the reasons you mention. That said, a lot of people I know, myself included, scribble ideas down on paper first sometimes. Lately I've been using index cards.

9) How do you plan out your compositions? How do you decide what instruments you want to use and how long you want your piece to be?

This is a big question with probably infinite answers. For me the answer is different for every piece I have written. Sometimes, it is a short motive or fragment that I build the piece around. Sometimes, a friend asks me for a piece and I get to think about his personality and capabilities as a performer. Sometimes, it starts with a very abstract, even non-musical concept ("a man walking on a tightrope"), and I struggle endlessly with how to put that into musical terms.

The short answer is -- it doesn't matter. The important thing is JUST WRITE. You will learn more about your process, and what works for you, the more you churn out. It will get easier.

10) Do full-time music composer/sound designer positions exist, or do these fields primarily entail freelance work? For those of you who are composers, can you please briefly detail the nature of your work? How does one find work as a composer and get a foot in the industry's door?

Almost everyone is freelance, or a teacher in academia. There are sound design positions in the entertainment industry, I believe, but these may or may not fit your definition of "composer." There are composer-in-residence positions, but these are far and few between, and generally temporary. If you are in the film/TV world, you are looking at a lifetime of freelancing, most likely, or assistantships with other, more established composers. If you are lucky, you get big enough to be a recognizable name, and then you can hire a team of other composers to do your work. If you are writing concert music that is even remotely experimental, you will probably end up teaching to support yourself.
posted by speicus at 10:01 PM on November 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


way too much to respond to here, so I'll just pass on something I remember Kevin Shields (the main man from My Bloody Valentine) saying about songwriting in the age of hi-tech. Essentially, the more he got absorbed in and excited about advanced recording/performing/mixing technologies, the more he found himself doing his basic writing on an acoustic guitar, sitting at the kitchen table.

Not that you'd know it listening to the final recorded version.
posted by philip-random at 10:29 PM on November 23, 2010


I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this on AskMe multiple times, but I think it applies here: ICS

You seem like someone who could use some arbitrary boundaries and/or deadlines in order to help you ignore those 10 questions for a while. Each answer is just gonna bring up more questions anyway. Take any frustrated, confused energy you might be feeling and make some music- worthwhile or otherwise.

My advice:
Use your 'limitations' as a frame to create something within- don't go looking for more complications right now. You've got a PC, use what it has to offer (garageband is very easy to use). For many artists, it helps to narrow things down, way down. For some people, pencil and staff paper are where it's at. For others, it's software and drum loops. Those preferences can be default due to what happens to be on your desk, and that's cool. Don't be afraid to make shit music. Maybe you would benefit from finding a collaborator (or several).

Personally, my #1 objective is to protect and nurture my desire to create music, and make sure I don't outgrow the foundations that support it. Trying to do everything right and position myself to be a professional feels like quicksand to me. IMHO, the most important thing is to Keep Writing and Playing Music. Sounds cliche, but I believe that success is bound to follow, so long as your definition is reasonable.

(also, props to specius for such a thoughtful and informed answer)
posted by palacewalls at 12:20 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given the large scope of your question, here are a few suggestions:

You seem to not really know what your options are in terms of software, so I'd say at this point don't run out and buy ProTools. For recording live instruments it is a good tool, but for composition you don't need it except for compatibility reasons with other studios, and until you have paying gigs, there is no need to spend that much money on your software when it won't do what you need. Get something cheaper to get going (I suggest Reaper, which does just about everything that ProTools does, and many things better, at a much cheaper price)

For your sounds, that depends on what style of music you are composing and what budget you have. It is easy to spend thousands of dollars on samples, and still not have all of the sounds you need. I have 2 hard drives in my music PC dedicated to nothing but sample libraries, and between them I have about 600 gigs of samples.

Kontakt is a standard sampler software which should work in most DAW's, and comes with some sounds which are fine for general composing, although not all of them are pro sounding enough to use as part of the final recording. That is where those thousands of dollars of samples come into play.

For my process, it depends on the style of music. I have a template project that I open up, which has about 160 tracks of instruments already setup with correct levels, reverb, etc. That way I can just start playing in parts and don't have to spend the time over and over again to add in each instrument. This is what I use for all of my classical based stuff. If I am doing something more rock, I have a different template with tracks for drums, guitar, synth, vocals, etc. already set up. This saves me about an hour for each project on the rock stuff, and a couple hours for the classical/film score stuff.

I keep a notebook in my back pocket at all times, and scribble down melodies or chord progressions as they come to me throughout the day. When I compose, I take those ideas and throw them into the computer, and once I can hear them on a cello, or piano, or kazoo, I start working on harmony and counterpoint. Depending on the desired end result, I may write and record a song in an hour, or I might spend months. I did a group of small pieces all based around the idea of the desert and isolation, and for each one I just came up with a melody on the piano, added some percussion and strings, and was done. No more than 4 hours for each piece, and they are fairly short. Having the template with all of the instruments ready to go helps to keep creative, so that I don't lose an idea while trying to setup a new track or figure out how it needs to be routed.

In today's composing world, most people will want to hear a great sounding mockup, and unless you can provide that, it's hard to get gigs (unless you know the people you are writing for, and they trust your abilities), especially since most projects are not paying you simply for the written music, but the final recording as well. I have yet to meet a modern composer who is getting work these days who has not invested a TON of money into their samples to get realistic mockups. If this is a career you want to explore, be aware that the entry fee is fairly high. For a top of the line computer decked out to do this work, plus the software and samples you are going to need, along with some basic recording equipment, it would not be unreasonable to expect to drop $10,000, and possibly more. Not that you need to spend that much, but for certain things, the only way you can go cheap is if you really know what you are doing. I trust that Hanz Zimmer and his crew can make a $99 sample set sound great, but they have been doing this for decades. For me to get a similar quality sound, I am going to have to purchase the $799 samples, but if that is what it takes to get the gig, so be it.
posted by markblasco at 1:08 AM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not a comprehensive answer, and all from my, quite specific, viewpoint (I'd refer you to i_am_joe's_spleen's amazingly perceptive assessment of my approach...)

1) You don't need a computer to compose. It's a godsend for recording, typesetting etc., but a straightjacket for the creative process. Develop your aural skills, and get as much of the music done before you get to instrument or computer as possible. Then use these tools to shape and refine.

I did waffle a little about aural skills here as well. There might be some other relevant stuff in this thread, you never know.

2) It does depend how you compose, and who for. I write for classical musicians almost exclusively, so I compose away from the computer, then write it up with Sibelius.

5) Not very. But it's important that you know what's possible on them (for the players you're writing for), and what is idiomatic writing for them. Woodwind players hate me.

7) I'm watching this thread closely for a good answer to this

8) I sometimes use pencil/paper - but, as with the software, it's for notating rather than composing. Most of the actual composition happens in my head. Composing at your favourite instrument leads you to write where well-rehearsed muscle memory leads your hands, and, for me at least (although I've seen it in a lot of commercial work), over-reliance on computers leads to a cut-and-paste approach which is fine if you want to sound like Karl Jenkins, but not if you want your 6-minute piece to contain more than 20 seconds of music...

9) I work to order, so some of these decisions are made for me. I do find it's useful to make the other decisions, however arbitrary, in advance, though. If you have a plan, you can always change it - and it forces you to have a reason for doing so...

10) I write mainly out of necessity. None of my work is as a composer (and very little as an arranger), but sometimes I just need something very specific, and can't find it.
posted by monkey closet at 1:37 AM on November 24, 2010


Maybe this is not relevant, since you say your theory is strong, but I once interviewed a fairly successful (new music) composer who said that before doing anything else, he makes his composition students work through Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum, or Counterpoint in Composition if they want a more modern take.
posted by Emilyisnow at 5:32 AM on November 24, 2010


speicus' answer is great and right on the money, I think. The one thing that I can't get clear from your question is where you want to go with all this. Concert composition? Film/commercial composition? It's possible to give a more specific answer to your question, but only after you narrow things down a little.

I would say, though, that my general advice to all composers is to listen to as much music as possible. With a very brief overview of the history of western music at your side, youtube is your friend. Not that you should limit yourself to western music, but it's as good a starting point as any.
posted by ob at 6:43 AM on November 24, 2010


I am going to focus on the 99% perspiration part.

I've been making music with computers on and off since 1994. I've participated in competitions, contributed music to animations, used several pieces of music software over the years, and continued to produce music while having a full-time job. Even though many of my projects were done without a fixed completion date, I've set up artificial deadlines in order to get things done.

The secret ingredient for my initial inspiration has always been a new sound. It used to be a sampled instrument that I would create or discover and re-use. These days, it's more likely to be a software instrument. I would try out the new sound in a few different scenarios, trying to come up with a melody or a backing part. Coming up with one part that I liked was surprisingly easy. However, this is where many projects ended. My creation-to-completion ratio could be as high as 50:1.

The 99% perspiration part, I would say, is this: if you want to finish a song, you have to take the initial seed and keep growing it. It needs more. You need to do real work. Not all of the remaining work is going to be creative magic, so it can get tedious. You may need more great ideas for this one song. You have to focus on the arrangement (the order of the parts or events). Occasionally, the initial idea that started one of my projects ends up getting discarded as the project evolves. This happens when you're focused on the goal of completing the project rather than the goal of keeping the initial idea as the focal point. Whenever you add sounds or layers to the composition, you have to re-evaluate everything you have to make sure it still fits.

I have been deceived and led astray because I sought instant gratification. In my particular online community of computer musicians, it was easy to distribute works in progress to seek comments. This was fun, but also poisonous to the project. If I got some good feedback, my creativity and perseverance would switch off, and it would be hard to restart.

As for advice on getting through the 99% perspiration part, I recommend:
- Think of each song as one overall goal ("write a song") supported by smaller, easier to fulfill goals ("write a chorus", "use a unique synth sound", "switch the time signature for the chorus").
- Find ways to reinforce your overall goal ("write a song") with complementary goals: "when I'm done, I can get to work on cleaning my hallway closet", or "when I'm done, I should send this to my friends", or "when I'm done, I can investigate that new instrument / piece of software".
- Try things where you expect to fail most of the time and succeed just some of the time.
- Do things the wrong way, then question what makes it wrong. Maybe you'd accept it as the right way, and you can use it after all.
- Learn to recognize when you're just stuck with something (as I often get when sequencing percussion/rhythm). learn what works best for you when you get stuck: stop entirely, change focus, erase and start over, etc.
- Re-evaluate your overall goal dispassionately. Realize that you have to choose between "I want to finish a song" and "I want to finish this song". The most recent song I finished (in spring 2010) was created from scratch after my first attempt went down a path that wasn't leading me anywhere.
- When your project seems half-done or more, start managing it with a task list. Task list items of mine might include "replace the snare drum sample", "fix the bass mixing from 2:00-2:40 (in the song)", "rewrite the keyboard melody from 0:45 to 0:55", "reduce the reverb". I find that as I listen to the song all the way through, I hear lots of things that need work, and it gets overwhelming keeping track of them all. I even have unfinished tasks when I consider a song completed, but the items are so minor at that point that they would be insignificant contributions to the overall work.
- Longer term: periodically make a list of what you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses. As you gain confidence, try doing a project where you avoid one or more of your strengths, and try to focus on one or more of your weaknesses.
posted by germdisco at 8:23 AM on November 24, 2010


Thank you for all the fantastic responses so far. I just wanted to say that I appreciate the level of thoroughness in your responses to my questions (special thanks to speicus for answering each of my questions so comprehensively - you really clarified a lot of things for me!). Your suggestions and feedback on the music writing process, planning/goal-setting, work as a composer, and inspiration have all given me excellent perspective.

For context, I am specifically interested in writing instrumental, ambient style music, for video games first and foremost, and hopefully branch out into TV shows and animation when I develop some competency. The reason I included sound design in my post is that I was interested in learning about what tools I might be able to use to incorporate sound effects like "magical glitter," crystals, outer space sounds, water sounds, bird chirps, etc. in addition to the acoustic piano, guitar, violin musical lines that I write. I know that this is more music production than music composition, but the distinction between the two as far as creating music is still somewhat nebulous for me. I'd love some clarification on this.

The music that has most recently sparked my interest in this field is Matt Uelmen's "Tristram" theme from the game Diablo I, as well as his theme for the Catacombs. I've been listening to these tracks fairly frequently to get a gist of the instruments, sounds, and techniques he used to create his music.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to compose music in that style. I want to be able to draw upon my knowledge of Jazz, New Age, Rock, and Classical/Baroque/Romantic/Impressionist Era music to create soundscapes that describe a certain mood in a certain environment, with or without auxiliary sound effects. [By the way, wondermouse, it's funny that you mentioned the music of the TV show Lost, because Michael Giacchino's work on that show is actually the kind of music I'd like to write.] If you can take a listen to the couple of examples I've linked here and offer your perspective on how these tracks were composed, that would be a tremendous help.

Also, just to clarify: I'm not really looking for advice on how to create a melody or a harmonic framework for a composition. I guess what I was looking for in my original question was how I might be able to write a composition for multiple instruments, which I originally thought was done through music sequencer software. [For example, if I'm writing for piano, guitar, drums and violin, do I write one instrument's part first, record, listen, write second instrument's part, etc., record, and repeat? Do composers hire assistant composers to write out parts to instruments they don't know how to play?].
posted by matticulate at 12:33 PM on November 24, 2010


[For example, if I'm writing for piano, guitar, drums and violin, do I write one instrument's part first, record, listen, write second instrument's part, etc., record, and repeat? Do composers hire assistant composers to write out parts to instruments they don't know how to play?].

I believe that's where The Arranger comes in.
posted by philip-random at 12:41 PM on November 24, 2010


For ambient soundscapes specifically, look into Spectrasonics' Omnisphere. I have Atmosphere (haven't upgraded yet) and it's full of all sorts of ominous, glittery, shimmery sounds. While I don't know if it was created using that library, that deep, building, creepy sound during the Lost title animation always reminded me of sounds I've heard in Atmosphere.
posted by wondermouse at 1:03 PM on November 24, 2010


My copy of Kennan's orchestration book is held together with tape and staples. I've used it at least twice in the past three months, and it's been over a decade since I took the course for which it was required. It comes with a very good CD too.
posted by honeydew at 2:03 PM on November 24, 2010


I'm a big fan of ableton live, since it lets me record and play live with the same software, it sort of lets me evolve from some peices of ambient noise+effects into a more structured song. and I really like the interface and how quickly it lets me get things going.

If you get a decent audio interface, like a firewire one with a couple of preamps, it'll probably come with some trial software, ableton, cubase, etc. Reason is also pretty popular with keyboard dudes, it comes with a crapload of sounds

I really like the sound of live instruments, you don't really have to learn how to play, I play but I get the most fun out of having people over and sampling them doodling around on guitar, drums, etc, and building something out of that.

You can copyright your sound recordings online at http://www.copyright.gov/, I know people that have just filled up CDs with beats and then sent that in, it just costs like $40 and gets you a little extra protection.

In ableton, to make a quick song, I would play a part on a midi keyboard, cut + paste part of it to another track stretch it out and make it trigger a different instrument/synth, double time another one and and drag to other instruments, etc. Its really easy to change timing, and transpose things, either in midi or recorded samples.

You can also use gates, compression to really change the dynamics. I know other guys that are on labels that do things completely differently, and some electronic guys come from a more hip hop background and their workflow will be more like what you'd use on a sampler like the Akai MPC. I've seen some awesome video tutorials that can show you the workflow real artists use.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 2:09 PM on November 24, 2010


Also, just to clarify: I'm not really looking for advice on how to create a melody or a harmonic framework for a composition. I guess what I was looking for in my original question was how I might be able to write a composition for multiple instruments, which I originally thought was done through music sequencer software.

If you have a melody or harmonic framework, that should help guide you in what the different instruments can do. Can you fit a melody to a harmonic framework, or vice versa? Then you have an idea for a melody and accompaniment, which you can divide among the instruments in many different ways. That's oversimplified but it can give you a place to launch off from.

For example, if I'm writing for piano, guitar, drums and violin, do I write one instrument's part first, record, listen, write second instrument's part, etc., record, and repeat?

That's one perfectly acceptable way, and I know a lot of people who started out that way. As you get more experienced, you'll probably start to have ideas for sounds or textures with multiple instruments occuring to you simultaneously (I hope!).

Another good way is to try and think of the character of the music you want to write, and how best to achieve that with the instruments at your disposal, like in the examples you link to:

The music that has most recently sparked my interest in this field is Matt Uelmen's "Tristram" yt theme from the game Diablo I, as well as his theme for the Catacombs yt . I've been listening to these tracks fairly frequently to get a gist of the instruments, sounds, and techniques he used to create his music.

Well, when you listen to these pieces, can you pick out the instruments being used? Can you describe what they're doing, and how they support the mood of the music? I could do this for you, but you probably wouldn't learn as much.

I should at least point out, because it may not be super obvious, that the pieces you link to have just a few acoustic instruments supported by copious electronic effects and a lot of synthesized and sampled sounds. So to create the kind of music you're thinking of I would look into, and experiment with, basic electronic music effects like reverb, delay, compression, equalization, various kinds of distortion, etc.

For software, I think right now Logic, Ableton, and Reason are all close to the sweet spot for ease of use vs. power and flexibility. This is assuming you are doing mostly synth/electronic stuff. If you are writing out parts for other people to play so you can record them, I would also recommend picking up a notation program like Sibelius or Finale.

Do composers hire assistant composers to write out parts to instruments they don't know how to play?

Some people work this way, but I would really advise against it. One of the things that separates a good composer from a mediocre/bad one is that they know how to write for instruments they don't know how to play. This is why I strongly recommend picking up an orchestration book like the Adler or the Kennan someone mentioned above. These books will give you a reference for the ranges, mechanics, and capabilities of most instruments you're likely to write for, and especially starting out, they are indispensable.

Hope this helps, good luck!
posted by speicus at 3:23 PM on November 24, 2010


Oh, and send stuff to performers you know, if only to say, "Hey, how does this work for your instrument? Is it playable?" They can give you better, more specific feedback. If you don't know any performers for an instrument you're writing for, well, you'll have to meet some anyway, right? :)
posted by speicus at 3:29 PM on November 24, 2010


Answering as a songwriter who's interested in, but not yet experienced in, more formal composition:

I second palacewalls's mention of the Immersion Composition Society. I took a day to try out the Songwriting Game a few weeks ago and wrote 10 songs in 7 1/2 hours, after probably a year or two of writing nothing. And two of them are songs I really, really like.

The thing is: people can answer your questions by saying "Well, I do it this way", but I think most of your questions are more a matter of personal preference rather than there being a right way or a wrong way. I would strongly urge you to start with what you have (pencil and paper is fine if you don't have any software you like; or get whatever software you can get easily and cheaply and use that) and get the perspiration part happening. Tools are great, but they don't do anything until you pick them up.

The answers that are right for you will become clearer as you begin to answer them for yourself.

As for books:

I haven't read it yet, but you might find Hallelujah Junction by John Adams to be worthwhile.

Also, Composing Music by William Russo might be helpful - it's full of exercises for practicing ideas as you learn them. He also wrote Composing for the Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Composition and Orchestration.
posted by kristi at 11:42 AM on November 26, 2010


I'll stand corrected: while technology may be not that crucial to song-writing (thinking up melodies), technology/software is pretty important for soundtrack-scoring.

As mentioned, Pro-Tools is state of the art for someone detail-oriented who likes a lot of control over everything. That someone is not me, I prefer Garage-Band which is more quick and dirty and easy to get started on. I haven't tried Ableton yet, but I know that people who have tend to like it a lot.

Random note: don't be shy about trying obsolete technology. Vintage analog synths have come back into fashion, maybe those cheezy 80's FM synths are due next?
posted by ovvl at 9:51 AM on December 3, 2010


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