Help me know what I don't know about music
September 14, 2018 10:00 PM   Subscribe

I've received literally no music instruction at all in my lifetime. I didn't even know the difference between rock and pop until I was 18. I want to make my own music, but I've struggled to put the bits and pieces I'm learning (synthesis, music theory, composition, etc) together into an integrated mental framework.

Alongside music, I've also been trying to learn how to draw. It took me a while, but at this point, I have a fairly good sense of the tools artists use and how they all combine together to form a finished picture. As a result, whenever I start drawing something and get stalled, I know how to get unstuck. I know the areas I need to work on. Perhaps most crucially, I can critique my own work- I can see where I made mistakes in perspective, say, or anatomy, rather than just feel a general sense that it's 'off'. This ability has been essential, as I am 100% self-taught.

I've been trying to recreate that same high-level mental framework for music, but I'm struggling. Right now, this is my supremely weak mental model:

Basic Components of a Modern Music Composition:
Beat | Melody | Chords | Bass

Notes, scales, modes, harmony, etc... and then a bunch of very complicated sounding vocab words. Which I'm willing to learn, but all the books on it seem to focus on classical music, and I'm not sure how they apply to 'modern' music, and just in general how theory fits in with the rest of the map.

DAWs | Instruments | Those intimidating looking machines. I know at least some of them are synthesizers, but is that it?

Acoustic instruments (Guitar, violin, piano, drums, etc) | Synthesizers (Waveforms and Filters)

Mixing and Mastering:
Honestly, I just find this terrifying.

...Clearly, there are a few holes.

For comparison, my high-level mental framework for art is:
The basic methods of drawing: Observational Drawing | Constructionist Drawing
The fundamentals: Proportion | Form | Perspective | Value | Color | Composition.
Specialized Techniques: Drawing People and Creatures (Gesture and Anatomy) | Architectural and Industrial Drawing (Advanced Perspective) | Animation | Landscape and Environment.

This framework isn't just an isolated collection of elements, however, I also have a sense of how they relate to each other when creating a finished work: how, for example, you should start by creating rough thumbnail compositions, then lay out the perspective grid, break down and draw the largest and most prominent forms, etc.

So: as a comfortable composer of music, what's your high-level 'mental map' of the essentials of music making? And how do those essentials relate to each other?

If you have recommendations for books and resources on any of those pieces, I'd be especially grateful, but even just responses like "you totally missed [important thing X]" would be very useful! Thank you!
posted by perplexion to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Would you be ok with answers based on songwriting, not composition, or are you seeking full composition schema only?
posted by peppercorn at 10:33 PM on September 14, 2018

Would definitely be okay with that! I'm interested in anything that helps flesh out that mental map a little bit more. I'll be honest, I didn't even know 'songwriting' and 'composition' were thought of as different skills. I thought they were interchangeable, if that gives you an idea of the level I'm currently at.
posted by perplexion at 10:41 PM on September 14, 2018

I really like How Music Works as a basic and also fascinating intro to everything music.
posted by Xany at 10:50 PM on September 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Do you have any interest at all in learning to play an instrument? Having lessons and working through simple pieces of music (which will still have the same primary components as more complex music like rhythm, melody, harmony, etc). There is so much you can learn by actually doing. And work with an instructor who can teach you the terminology and technique. This is not so that you necessarily become a great musician, but actually trying to play will deepen your appreciation for what professional musicians do.
posted by acidnova at 11:14 PM on September 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

Your question history suggests you have a good bit of programming experience, so Pedro Kroger's Music for Geeks & Nerds might be of interest. It used to cost money, but it's free now.
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:52 AM on September 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

My answer may be a bit orthogonal to the question you're asking, but I think (I hope) it may be of value anyway.

If you really want to make music, the only real prerequisite is the desire to do it. Don't let the idea that you need to have a comprehensive mental model keep you from getting started. I can understand the discomfort, but It's OK to start out blind, or semi-blind. Some of my favorite songwriters and composers have, or at least started out with, little to no technical knowledge.

The approach that worked for me was to just pick up an instrument (in my case, guitar) learn a few chords and scales, and just start experimenting. Learn a few of your favorite songs/pieces and see if you can start to figure out how they work. See what sounds good to you and what doesn't. Lessons might help, but there are also lots of self-teaching resources out there; books, videos, etc. I have been playing and composing now for 16 years, and there is still so much I don't know! I still know very little about audio engineering, for instance, though it's a subject of fascination for me.

All that having been said, there are some things I recommend anyway for knowledge and inspiration:

The YouTube channel of Michael New is a good resource for learning some basic theory and applying it to writing.

The Song Exploder podcast is wonderful. Each episode has an artist break down the process of a song they wrote. It's not especially technical, but it I find it very interesting and inspiring. Some really amazing songs begin with some surprisingly simple ideas!
posted by zchyrs at 2:46 PM on September 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would work on learning to read music. Western music has a specific scale. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do are not all the same distance apart in tone. That's why and how we have sharps and flats and keys. I took a music theory class in college and that helped me understand a bit.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 PM on September 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Agree the book How Music Works is exactly what you're asking and is a good read.
posted by bongo_x at 12:34 AM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

but all the books on it seem to focus on classical music, and I'm not sure how they apply to 'modern' music

Very generally speaking, modern Western rock and pop (and jazz, and hip hop, and and and) and Western-influenced music uses the same musical "language" (time signatures, chords, scales, notes, key signatures, consonance/dissonance, modes, the whole shebang of "music theory") as Western classical music. There have been plenty of pop/rock creators and musicians with little or no formal knowledge of theory who have just absorbed what "sounds right" from listening to music, but they are still using the basic tools of "classical theory" whether they recognize it or not.

So "classical music theory" is very relevant, but maybe not necessary.

(Again, (strong note) to WESTERN (aka Europe, US, UK) music - other cultures and civilizations have their own music theories and languages, which can and have cross-pollinated with Western music, but that's some pretty advanced stuff. I'm bringing it up just so you might grasp that there is (literally) a whole world of music beyond what you're likely to commonly encounter in your learning process.)

Back in the age of dinosaurs, I found The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer an invaluable resource (I was still using it as a quick reference even as a non-guitar music major in college.) Of course, it's aimed at guitar players, but it's got a ton of short-yet-comprehensive sections on the many varied elements of theory and music technology. (The last edition was 1992, so it's undoubtedly kinda out of date re technology, but a lot of the same principles apply even if the form has changed.) Plus the short bios of important guitar players and the chapters on the creation and evolution of the guitar provides a bit of historical perspective.

DAWs | Instruments | Those intimidating looking machines. I know at least some of them are synthesizers, but is that it?

In a DAW, that's almost certainly not it - there will be audio (dynamic range) compressors/limiters, reverberation emulators, echo emulators (also called "delay"), equalizers, and a variety of other "effects" - all of which existed as hardware before the existence of DAWs.

When it comes to music technology you could try picking up the Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook. While of course it's aimed at producing sound in a live performance situation rather than recording, much of the same technology is used in both circumstances, and it gives lots on information on how these pieces of technology work and why, when, and how they get used.

Mixing and Mastering:
Honestly, I just find this terrifying.

Mostly I wouldn't really worry about this. Recording, mixing, and mastering are skills/talents that are of course an integral part of the production of modern music for public consumption, but are kind of orthogonal to the actual creation of music/songs. For all that the rise of simple & cheap computer recording has changed the music industry greatly, there are still thousands upon thousands of musicians, songwriters, composers who know little to nothing about the technology or use thereof. (And vice versa - there are plenty of excellent audio engineers who can barely play an instrument or sing and who have never written a song in their lives.) Heck, recording, mixing, and mastering are themselves often considered sub-specialities within the overall category of "audio engineering", and there are professionals who make most or all of their living in one of these sub-specialities.

If you have access to an Apple device, GarageBand is not the worst way to experiment with both creating music and recording/mixing concepts.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:17 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I also agree that music recording/mixing/production is a separate beast from composition. But if you do want to see a video on how some of the different parts come together in a recording studio, here is Tony Visconti talking about producing David Bowie's "Heroes". One of the most famous aspects of recording the song was in how they recorded the vocals which created more cavernous, echo effects when Bowie sang the louder parts. It was not done digitally but rather by having three microphones placed further and further apart from Bowie.
posted by acidnova at 12:01 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have an older version of this book that I've found really useful as a semi-amateur musician type cat. It explains a lot about different instruments and gear, what mixing and mastering are all about, and has some illuminating interviews with pros. It's written in a way that someone who is unfamiliar with these concepts can understand IMO. You can also get a free subscription to Tape Op magazine by visiting their website. A lot of their articles are kinda over my head, but it will give you ideas and point you in some good directions.
posted by SystematicAbuse at 6:29 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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