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Composition advice

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Hi All, Started making music again after a long absence and keep on running into the same problems with my music and wondered if anyone had any ideas? Basically I'll come up with something I like the sound of and just keep adding layers to it - bringing the layers in one by one until I can't add anything else and then just stop and not know what to do next. I then find I abandon it and start something else and run aground again - any advice?! Cheers! Andy

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I agree with Brian- hearing some of your stuff would be very helpful. On top of this trying to emulate some music you like is a good starting technique. Take some tracks you like and try to create something that sounds like them. I don't mean copy exact patterns or chord changes- emulate them. This will get you thinking and noticing how certain groups (or composers) put songs together. This approach is very hands one and will help you identify and learn things on a physical level. On top of this, it never hurts to learn and read up on composition, arranging and basic musical styles. For this I recommend college music theory text books. Most often these books come with worksheets that make you put your knowledge to the test.

Finally- and probably the most important step- listen, listen, listen! Listen to anything and everything. The more exposure you give yourself, the better.

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Thanks for the advice so far! I am away from home at the moment and don't have access to anything I've done for a week or two but I think my main problem is structure - especially for game music. I used to play in bands years ago, and if I ever do finish anything it always tends to end up with intro -> verse -> chorus -> verse -> chorus -> solo -> chorus -> outro !! Which isn't usually what's required for game music...
I guess I need to listen to more game music outside of the game to see what sort of structure they tend to use. I know there's no rules as such, but I wan't to make my music less like a 3 minute pop/rock song.

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You might benefit from reading this page, and browsing a few links from it: Musical form (Wikipedia).

Especially of interest are the 'Formal structures' half-way down. You can take a look at how other composers have organised their music and perhaps take some cues from there.

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Good suggestion from Kylotan. Too many beginners approach music from a popular music perspective, and they overlook forms beyond the classical song structure (Thanks, Schubert). Most non-music majors refer to any piece of music they hear as a "song". But a "song" has a definite structure that's different than many other forms.

For instance, there's sonata form and its direct extension, the symphonic form. (These are unlikely to be used in a game soundtrack to full effect, but you can borrow useful elements from them.) There's the tocatta, fugue, chorale, tone poem, etc.

Also consider the difference between thematic and textural composition. In Star Wars, for instance, there is a perfect balance between the two. Williams used specific themes, called leitmotifs (an invention of Wagner's), for each main character. Darth Vader, Yoda, Leia, Luke, they each have their own signature theme which is instantly recognizable. At the same time, there is purely textural music as well. Listen to the ambient music you hear during the more quiet moments aboard the Death Star in Episode IV. There's hardly a moment in that movie that doesn't have music in it.

Then take another film. Let's use a recent example, The Dark Knight. Now there is a purely textural soundtrack. There are hardly any leitmotifs to speak of. If anything, there's Batman's minimalist signature theme, which is basically nothing but two notes. Sure it's harmonized in different ways here and there, but I mean, TWO NOTES. And it works! There are the brassy action pieces, and the rest of the soundtrack is simply beautiful and unsettling noise. Sometimes less can be more.

Another case in point for minimalism in film music: No Country For Old Men. Fantastic movie. But when a friend recommended it, he said that one of the most unusual aspects was that the movie had no music in it. None whatsoever, he insisted, not a single note. But when I saw the movie I heard music. Carter Burwell is listed as the composer on IMDB in case no one believes me. There are many scenes in the film that don't have any music, but some in fact do. The soundtrack is so minimalist that most people don't even know it's there.

So, in a nutshell: Do lots of analytical listening! Figure out what you like, then try to pick it apart to understand exactly what's going on that resonates with you.

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Original post by mambafia
Hi All,
Started making music again after a long absence and keep on running into the same problems with my music and wondered if anyone had any ideas? Basically I'll come up with something I like the sound of and just keep adding layers to it - bringing the layers in one by one until I can't add anything else and then just stop and not know what to do next. I then find I abandon it and start something else and run aground again - any advice?!

I think a main problem you are running into is giving a composition tendons and muscle without realizing where the skeletal frame begins and ends.

... let me explain. I am going to utilize the idea of music as a fully functioning body. Each 'piece' has different fibers, organs which construct a greater whole. Think of a complete melody as a complete skeleton, and harmony and orchestration as muscles and tendons which fill the structure out and give the melody a sense of body.
If the melody isn't thoroughly realized in its entirety, then the skeletal structure is incomplete and the muscle structure (harmonies and orchestrations) really have nowhere to go. (So the muscle is being added to a structure which can't support it.)

I sometimes run into this problem with my own writing because I tend to add too many small elements into concentrated areas without defining the nature of how the entire piece is constructed. Thinking ahead and thinking of the work as an entire principle with a beginning, a middle and an end beforehand will help prepare a composer for fleshing things out later.

Find the form of the melody first, get that completed from beginning to end and then perhaps try to fill out the 'body' with a bit of tlc. :)

(... I hope that wasn't too ridiculous a comparison)

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I basically agree with Rain 7.

Many of my early-mid compositions (okay, almost ALL of my compositions) were all done much the way you describe:

1. Find an element that I think sounds good
2. Record it
3. Repeat until done.

This is a super fast method for composing, but it tends to cause songs that don't really GO anywhere. Sure, you can mitigate this somewhat by dropping elements partway through and replacing them, but as Rain 7 says, if you have no idea where you're going and how long it'll take to get there, you can't really get a lot of balance out of a piece of music.

I'll even offer up an older composition of mine for ridicule:

Castles in the Air. Please ignore the bad clipping through the center of the piece - you would probably laugh if you knew the ridiculous sequence of hardware connections that this went through to get recorded.

You can really hear the layering in this, you'll note that one or two new instruments comes in just about every time the phrase changes. But you'll also notice at about 1/3 of the way through, it starts to feel repetitive. I had the presence of mind to drop a bunch of instruments for a moment in the middle, but they all come right back, instrumentation unchanged. Eventually, one final instrument comes in - a flute counter-melody (or does it take over as melody, considering how badly mixed the whole thing is? I'm not really sure). The dynamic level of the piece, with the exception of the break-it-down portion in the middle is, for all intents and purposes, constant. The instrumentation is generally unchanging. It all boils down to a rather homogeneous piece of music.

Now, contrast that with this one:
Piano of Destiny.

This was the first composition that I actually planned start to finish, and I think it shows (but maybe not as much as it could have, unfortunately until I finish the piece I'm working on, this is the best example that I have). The instrumentation is simpler than the previous one (because I wanted the piano to be very much the foreground, and because I was under a massive time crunch to finish the game this song was for). But it has way more in the area of dynamics, cohesion. You can (hopefully) tell it's going somewhere. The dynamic changes and melodic changes were planned ahead of time (though the instrumentation was only a rough idea). I don't believe the piece is a masterwork or anything, but I feel like it at least follows a path from beginning to end.

Even a simple sketch of "8 bars where things come in, then 4 bars of full-on fanfare, then pull back for 8 bars for a soft rehash of the theme" etc can be useful; at least you'll know WHERE you're going, and can layer appropriately :)

Recently, I've been trying to rework my composition method, as well. One way is that I've started writing down music sketches on paper (yes, on paper, using a pencil) - 1 to 2 lines for the melodic elements (melody/melodic harmony/counter-melody), and 2 lines for all of the background harmonies. It helps to plan harmonies and dissonances ahead of time, to make sure that your eventual harmonies won't be stomping all over the melody (leave a hole!) or vice versa (there's nothing like a melody sustaining an F during a CMaj chord to really screw up the whole effect of the chord).

You may not want to go THAT far, but it's helped me in two key ways:
1. By taking the time to write a sketch of a piece down on paper, it's making me stop and think about what I'm actually doing, instead of ending up with "here's a line that I was able to play into the computer on my first try"

2. It helps to plan more complex chord progressions. Most of my pieces followed some simple chord progression throughout the entire song (my apparent favorite being Cm -> BbMaj -> AbMaj ->GMaj, apparently). Now, I find it easier to set up more complex progressions ahead of time.

It takes practice (and oh, damn, the patience it takes), though, and it's frustrating where I would end up with an entire song in around 3 hours, I've been working on this piece for days.

But I know that, when I'm done, this piece is going to be far and above what any of my others have been.

Edit: wow, I didn't realize I'd written a NOVEL. [looksaround]

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I'm new here, and have joined actually to learn as much as this site can teach me with regard to development of a game franchise. Having read many threads so far I feel I can contribute possibly here, in audio, Pro Tools operator level Music and Post, and all supporting course work through Video Symphony in L.A.
I do the same Mambafia, I never am happy with anything creative. Brian Timmons, is correct, in describing the water, to a man drowning, not the point really. I like the flesh and frame Rain 7 you describe, a form, not a critique.
I personally like E.M. the sound creator for director S.L. "Once upon a time in the west". Play the picture with good sound, no picture, dark room, just listen to first twenty, then stop, come back to reality, take at least an hour break, then watch film opening normally, sound and picture, hard to explain, and well, you'll get a understanding as to why this picture and this isolating method, and you will come to this understanding on your own terms and timeframe, you can explain it to yourself, in your own way.
I probably can be more helpful with tech questions than personal creative ones, but if your working on stuff that is most important.

[Edited by - paul8585 on August 23, 2008 9:56:18 PM]

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It sounds like your only using one idea in the whole song and just adding things to it. If you are doing this then you could use variations, for example, play the melody once, then again but change the last few notes or play the melody in its relative minor/major key (3 semitones down for relative minor when in a major key and 3 up for relative major when in a minor key). Theres a number of things you could, you could even use serialism techniques and take the intervals of each note (example: C-D-Eb (tone, semi tone)) and flip them upside down so it would become C-Bb-A (tone, semitone). Your best bet is to alter the melody somehow on as many hearings of it as possible, only slight alterations though.

As for structure, abandon what you believe to be the "correct" way of writing music as there is no right or wrong way (unless your writing in a specific form, such as pop music)In orchestral music you dont tend to have verses or chorus's its more thematic material, think of it as a journey, start off slow with the main melody, build it up slightly altering the melody and adding more rhythm, completely change the music and go to its relative minor then bring back the main melody for the climax of the piece, its entirely up to you how you approach music. As long as you keep using certain melodic and rhythmic patterns your track will be unified and it will sound right. Dont be afraid to try out new things, I find the best ideas always come from a stupid crazy idea (i just recently wrote a song and at the end I thought I'd change key about 5 times in the space of 8 bars and it turned out to sound pretty good!)

It DOES help to know the theory behind music because it gives you an understanding of WHY it would sound good and you have more ideas to work with. All the techniques i have described above I have learned through text books and years of studying music and writing music. You just need to put the effort in and write as much music as possible, even if its not for anything. I have wrote countless tracks just for experimenting with new ideas and eventually you start utilising all the ideas naturally without thinking.

I hope this helps!

Liam Bradbury
MISoft Studios Audio Director / Composer

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