My Closing Thoughts for Composers

Almost a year ago I set a challenge for myself to write a blog post every month, specifically with composers in mind. My goal was to cover areas of composition that I felt were very important yet severely lacking attention. Although I feel that it’s difficult for an individual to be 100% objective, I sincerely believed that the topics I planned to cover would have benefitted me greatly when I was younger. With that in mind, I thought that maybe it would be useful to others as well…..thus a blog was born.

However, it dawned on me a couple of months ago that the ideas I was starting to come up with (for new articles) were already very well covered and extremely ubiquitous.  Basically, I realized that I’ve said what I’ve needed to say, and have reached the end of my blog. Rather than cover ground that’s already been paved, I’d rather wrap up with the knowledge that I felt good about — all the time, effort, knowledge, and ideas I’ve shared.

This last blog is going to give some suggestions on how the industry-end of music works, as well as, what character or personality traits lead to the most success in such a confusing, crazy business.

The first and most important idea is that the music industry is unique, and different from any other industry. Not even related industries (ie..film, writing, art) are comparable in how they function. This is an important, albeit pedestrian observation, because music has very finite scalability. What does that mean?

Music is unlike most industries in that multiple variations of one composition are generally disliked by the general public. If we look at the art world, a painter can take one subject and paint it many times with only minor variations, and still sell each and every painting. Monet was a good example of this. He had a series called Haystacks, where he painted the same Haystacks multiple times but at different times of the day. (Everyone of those paintings sold for thousands of dollars when Monet was alive, millions now.).

Film, TV,  and books have sequels to main characters, for instance,  The James Bond franchise has 26 movies. Photography is like painting where you can sell variations of a single subject. The same applies to food and household products. There’s chocolate chip cookies with M&Ms, or walnuts, or almonds. There’s Tide with Febreeze or every fresh type scent you can think of.

Contrary to popular belief, only having minor variations in your music is not acceptable or generally liked when selling to the masses. Music buying consumers would be upset if they purchased an album of music where every single track had the exact same music, with the only distinction being that the lyrics were different from song to song. If you want to make money selling your music, then the burden is on you to create fresh, exciting, and unique music for every single piece of music you compose.

Obviously this is a very tall order and essentially, most music composed has a short shelf life. New music is released into the world and if it’s lucky enough to be accepted and appreciated, will have a bell curve of success. It will jump quickly to a high, and plateau. Then the composition will dramatically drop in popularity, as well as in sales. Some compositions fade into obscurity, and some will continue on to a modicum of success. (There are examples of living composers with decades of commercial and financial success from a single piece of music, however that is a rare case so we will not be focusing on needle in the haystack scenarios.)

Why have I gone into excruciating detail about the unique characteristic of the music industry?  If the answer isn’t obvious, then I will enlighten. In order to be successful in the music industry, one must not apply generalities, or scalability when composing. Basically, if you are trying to sound like what is currently popular, or trying to make the most with the least amount of diversity, you will not gain big success.

It may seem difficult to have every single piece of music composed be unique and self contained, unless you unburden yourself from trying to be like others. I’m really homing in on this because in no other time in history has it been easier for an individual to record a highly polished piece of music without the help of a major label or recording studio. If you find the right people (which isn’t difficult) you can create something great!

Ironically, there also hasn’t been a time in music history where a good amount of new music has been so poorly composed. I’m not talking about whether a song is good or bad, I’m talking about music fundamentals. If 2 carpenters build a dresser and they both are sturdy, hold clothes, and look nice, then good or bad does not apply. It’s merely a matter of preference. If, however, one of the dressers feels unstable and the drawers don’t open, then definitively that is a poorly built piece of furniture.

I unfortunately hear poorly composed music in all genres. Most of the time contemporary compositions lack harmonic support to the melody, and have overly produced drums pounding and drowning everything else out. There are so many music processes that have now been automated for us. I’d imagine, with all these automated processes, technology has made us even lazier. I suppose we’re all guilty of that to a degree, but technology is a tool not a substitute for composing. It’s akin to knowing how to do math with a piece of paper and a pencil or just putting the numbers into the calculator. When you understand the process behind the fundamentals, your tools will enhance your abilities and understanding of music. If you do not understand the fundamentals, then your music will reflect it.

Now this isn’t me pointing my finger in judgement, but merely putting a spotlight on 2 of the biggest mistakes that the music industry is making, consequently causing repeated failures.

  1. The first mistake that a majority of musicians/composers make is, that many believe they need to sound like everyone else to be acceptable and profitable.
  2. That technology will make up for lack of knowledge of your craft.

Many people do not seem to realize (or don’t care) that the world craves originality in compositions. In fact it rewards those individuals who are original. The system is designed specifically for everyone to release original music. Since most music has a short shelf life, this allows you to do whatever you want without it being expected to have scalability. This only works in your favor, because if you happen to release music that doesn’t do well, it will be quickly forgotten and not held over your head. This means you can continue to release new music without penalty. Also, again unlike other industries, growing and changing your musical style overtime is a gift. If music was like film, where an actor may be asked to reprise a role 6 or 7 times, it would get really old and tiresome. In fact many successful actors who get stuck in these roles get type cast. Which is a dreaded and awful position to be in. Getting work becomes difficult when people only see you as being able to do one thing, and one thing only.

In like manner, technology is also used to reinforce the current unoriginality of compositions. A new piece of equipment or software gets developed and released, and everyone uses it to sound “fresh” but really only ends up sounding like everyone else. Technology offers us infinite possibilities, but a good foundation has to be laid for technology to enhance your music. What I see happen many times is novice composers will use a DAW to compose a piece of music. When their compositions don’t meet their expectations, due to lack of understanding music fundamentals, they compensate by adding a ton of virtual instrument and effects to fill the void. This inevitably leads to hours  wasted time lost to turning knobs, pressing buttons, and loading software without achieving desired results.

I do believe that there’s a certain amount of entertainment that one derives from clicking on things within a computer to see what happens. It can be fun to create and manipulate sounds in software. This can be very helpful to any individual wanting to focus solely on electronic music and its off shoots. I argue that even if you want to just press buttons and turn knobs, playing around with your software to create a composition, you’ll be greatly diminishing your success. I believe, that any genre that has a competent composer behind it, will vastly outshine music that does not.

I’d like to finish this article by saying a couple of things about how to conduct yourself and how to manage your business affairs in the music business. When people decide that they want to pursue music as a career, they may not realize that it has heavier emotional weight than other jobs. This causes major development and growth problems for some people. Often times, composers/musicians cannot separate who they are from what they create and thus, they form an impenetrable defense mechanism.

Comparatively, most careers in most industries have goals or development plans for their employees. They will look at a person’s performance over several months and tell them where they are lacking in success. Generally speaking, most employees (even begrudgingly) will make those adjustments asked of them by their employer. Although this line of thought runs counter to the artistic mind, I believe it to be the difference between making it and not making it in music. In order for a composer/musician to have success, it is necessary for them to be open to constructive criticism from noteworthy sources. It’s even a good idea to listen to the criticisms of non-musical people, as they are the barometer for what will be purchased by the masses.

Obviously, it is up to you to separate what criticisms are helpful and what are just spewed hatred, but you have to be open to it. Nothing shuts down a potential composing gig faster than someone who’s perceived to be overly head strong. Quite often, the folks paying for your music, come from a corporate setting, and expect you to act like a professional, and not a head strong bull. If you know deep down that you are not less than a person if someone doesn’t like your music, then you’ll be less likely to be defensive, and passive aggressive. You just need to take in the ideas and use them to develop and grow your music until it’s where it needs to be. Of course you can apply these same ideas to those you are working for. If they’re being head strong, lacking in knowledge, and uneasy to work with, then it’s okay to decline work from them. It’s okay to politely tell them you’re booked. It’s better not to work on a gig you hate, because it will absolutely drain your creativity.

Lastly, I have to insist that composers/musicians become more involved in the boring, mundane, not fun, uninteresting aspects of being a composer/musician. Some of these subjects include: accounting, music licensing, listening to music genres you’re not into, cold calling, website design, reading business development books, and finally, helping your fellow man/women.

All of the topics listed above have huge amounts of text that give great detail into their understanding (and I highly encourage that you read more about them) but for yours and my sake, I will give the composers cliff’s notes on why they’re important.

  1. Accounting-know what you’re spending month to month. Most likely you are a freelancer who gets paid irregularly. Do you really need to buy a cup of coffee every other day? How often do you eat out? Can you lower your car insurance, phone bill, utilities etc.. You do not need to be a starving artist! If you are not making a regular chunk of change, then all of your financial gains need to be leveraged towards becoming a full time artist! Most banks allow you to download your statements, where you can easily pull them into an excel type spread sheet and track your finances. You’d be surprised at what you spend your money on!
  2. Understand the contracts you’re signing. If you don’t know what you’ve signed then you deserve the consequences. The book titled The Musicians Guide to Licensing goes into great depth into the most common music licensing contracts you may be asked to sign and how it will affect you. If you’re serious, I recommend you read it.
  3. It’s important to listen to everything. I’m a firm believer that if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always be where you’ve always been. Basically, great ideas can come from anywhere. Even from music you may not have cared for.
  4. Referred cold calling is when you ask someone you know to put you in touch with someone you don’t know who may be able to help you with your career. Without making contacts, you won’t get any gigs. No one will knock on your door asking you to compose music for them. I would say that I am not a fan of having to do this as I don’t like bothering people, however I’d have no career without doing it!
  5. For the love of all that is good, please have someone who’s knowledgable make your website for you. It doesn’t matter if you have a traditional .com site or just a Sound Cloud page, make sure it’s easy to navigate, has your contact info, examples of your best work, and it loads very quickly! Poorly crafted sites will turn people off and drive gigs to other people.
  6. If you’re reading this blog then chances are you’ve been studying music for many years and are probably proficient at it. Regardless, it’s important to read business development books. Read whatever you can from books about Leadership, growth, interpersonal skills, etc… These help immensely as it will help you to relate to other people in other industries. Being able to talk shop in different industries leads to more work. Plus, most public libraries offer e-books now. You can just go online and read them for free.
  7. I’ve befriended people from all walks of life. It’s formed amazing camaraderies over the years. The people I’ve helped and the people who have helped me has not only been good for my heart, but helpful in life too. Forming a community with people you care about and care about you is absolutely imperative. In the beginning they will be there to help you when you’re struggling, and later on they’ll be there to celebrate your successes with you. No one can do this alone.

Okay! Many thanks to any of you who have read my blog! I hope that it has in some way helped or given some insight into composing! Good luck on all of your endeavors!

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Mixing Music Basics for Composers

I come from a family of engineers. My father is an electrical engineer, my older brother is a software engineer/music engineer and my younger brother is a mechanical engineer. All three of them are also musicians. Even though I didn’t follow suit and become an engineer I feel their presence and skill sets really helped me to understand the gaps in knowledge (or lack of care) I generally find when I talk to composers about mixing. Obviously there are exceptions in that we find a rare composer that is extremely talented at mixing as well as composing. Of course there are also the polar opposites who are just all around terrible at music and mixing. However, not counting these 2 extremes, we find that most composers fall into 3 categories on the mixing music spectrum.

On the far left side we have producers/engineers who’s music has amazing production value, but lacks completely in compositional depth or value. On the far right side we have composers who can compose really well, but are lacking in production value. Finally, we have those who are down the middle and are okay or adequate at both.

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This article is mainly for the composer who has little to no knowledge of mixing music. The two reasons for it being focused on the novice mixing composer, is that:

  1. Producer/Mixers and Composer Mixers will most likely already know what I’m about to share
  2. Producer/Mixers and Composer Mixers have an upper hand because as of today, good, bad, or indifferent production usually wins out over composition.

The reason behind production winning over composition is there’s an industry standard expectation for everything to sound amazing, regardless of whether it’s a good piece of music or not. Just listen to the radio. There are several examples of forgettable songs with amazing production value.

I’m not trying to diminish production value, because it’s one hundred percent important. I’m also not trying to make a composer minded only individual, try to become an amazing mixing engineer either. If you are not into learning or have the passion for the ins and outs of audio engineering then you really won’t learn it. It will just be a drag on your life!

What I do hope to do is point out the major missteps that I hear and give solutions, so that your demos will get you gigs. Essentially, if you are an incredible composer, and can pull off a decent production, you’ll have a better chance getting a job composing. Then you can budget for an engineer to really help your music shine. You’ll also be able to better communicate your wishes to the engineer during the final mix down.

Okay let’s get to it.

The very first issue I come across with poor mixes from composers is the lack of panning. On an actual mixing console there is a knob that says “Pan” usually above the volume fader. The “Pan” is the shortened name for Panoramic Potentiometer. (Pan Pot) The pan pot directs a mono signal left, center, or right of a 270 degree sound field.

Basically, if the pan pot is in stationed down the center at a 90 degree angle then the audio will come out equally between the left and right channel. If the the pan pot is at 0 degrees then the signal will mostly come out the left channel. If the pan pot is at 180 degrees then the audio will mostly be heard out the right channel. If you turn the pan all the way left or all the way right, the signal will completely come out those sides. Of course there are incremental degrees in-between.

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The Pan is an underutilized knob, but it is important mainly for 2 reasons.

  1. When you pan a signal/instrument it can allow for separation from other instruments allowing it to be heard better.
  2. When you pan a signal/instrument you’re helping to recreate how the human ear hears audio in the real world. This contributes to a more natural a appealing mix.

In the real world when you’re enjoying music,  instrumentalists do not line up one behind the other in a straight row. Why then would you mix them like that in your compositions? Instruments are usually arranged by their tone and volume. Essentially the louder more penetrating instruments will go behind the ones that aren’t. Below is a diagram of a general orchestral layout. The direction or degree you set your instrument pan to has already been decided. Really,  your only job is to finesse the degree to taste.

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All genres have a pretty standard expected placement of instruments. For example pop/rock music guitars are usually stage left, drums are usually stage up center, bass is usually stage right and vocals are usually stage down center.

When you’re panning your instruments within a mix, it’s best to pan them from an audience perspective. When you’re mixing music, imagine that your are row 1 center in seats looking at the stage. Where are the instruments in relation to you? When you ask yourself that question, you’ll be amazed at what specialty and depth you can create with just a simple panning of an instrument.

One thing to keep in mind when your panning virtual instruments is knowing whether or not the sample library you have has already panned the instruments for you. For instance East West sample libraries have their instruments already panned for you. They usually set their instruments pan according to the instruments standard placement on a stage. There are plenty of other libraries that do this as well, so it’s best to check to see your pan is already set or if you need to change it.

The next thing on my list I’d like to talk about is EQ. Many people do not know that equalizing frequencies by raising or lowering their amplitudes cannot make a poorly recorded piece of audio sound good. Essentially, if you didn’t have a knowledgeable person using good gear to record the instrument to begin with. Consequently an EQ cannot make your audio sound better.

My older brother, who’s a software engineer, has a term for poorly thought out processes. It’s called garbage in, garbage out. In his case he’s referring to poorly written computer code that will not be useful or work even if you have a nice graphic user interface. The same applies to recording anything. If your audio sounds like crap after it’s been recorded, then adding EQ won’t help it. In fact it can make it worse.

Moreover, the first step to EQ’ing properly is having a decently recorded piece of audio to begin with. This can easily be achieved for 1 person recording 1 live instrument. (I recommend that larger groups that need to be recorded simultaneously be handled by professional studios. You alone will not suffice. You’ll be stressed, and you’ll be really unpopular by the people you’re recording.)

These days there are many inexpensive great sounding pieces of equipment that help you achieve really great live recordings. Most audio professionals and enthusiasts already have computers and audio interfaces. In my humble opinion you just need to have a decent audio interface then you can easily get good tones with it. All you need in addition to any decent interface is 1 mic pre, like a Golden Age Pree-73 and 1 good mic, like an SM81. This mic pre and microphone are not the only game in town, these are just products that I think do a great job for the money. Also there’s no rule to having to buy equipment brand new. You can easily find these items used on eBay as well

Now that we have a good piece of audio recorded how do I EQ it? Well, I like to take the simple approach when it comes to EQ’ing. Less is definitely more. Specifically, I think that cutting or lowering frequencies is much more effective than raising them. First and foremost is, cutting unnecessary low frequencies.

The human ear can only hear 30hz at it’s lowest. Unless you are an enigma, most people will not hear below this frequency. However, many instruments and tones have frequencies and amplitudes below that. Consequently you have all this extra noise that’s adding unwanted volume to your mix. Everything then starts to compete for a space to be heard, and it just ends up sounding very muddy. Although there is an argument that you can feel the frequencies below 30hz and that can add a dimension to your mix, most of the time people do not have a bass or sub-woofer speaker that’s capable of playing those frequencies, so it would just be lost anyway.

What I do is apply a High-Pass EQ. A high pass filter does exactly what the name says. It lets higher frequencies pass while cutting out lower frequencies. All you have to do is turn the gain all the way down on your EQ around 30hz. If you have a spectrum analyzer (some are already built into EQ’s) you’ll be able to see the frequency range of instrument. If you insert this into your channel you’ll be able to see if you can set the 30hz high pass filter to a higher frequency. The instrument may only have a range to let’s say 80hz, and by cutting the frequencies below that you can potentially increase the overall headroom of your mix.

This technique can still be applied to sample libraries. I put high pass filters on every single one of my tracks and adjust accordingly regardless of the track being live audio or a sample. This significantly increases the clarity of my mixes as well as gives me more room to increase the volumes of the tracks that need it.

I don’t recommend raising the frequency gain of instruments, live or sampled, if you are not skilled or practiced in EQ’s. You will absolutely make your mixes sound overly bright or piercing. It takes time to learn when or when not to adjust the gain louder for frequencies. Start with cutting frequencies, as more often than not, the cutting of lower frequencies will allow for higher frequencies to stand out a bit more anyway. With time and practice, you’ll start to hear when it’s necessary to raise the amplitude of frequencies.

(Below is an example of an EQ with a high pass filter enabled.)EQ.png

The next thing that I’d like to address is reverb. What many novice audio engineers do not realize is that reverb is actually a very very fast delay. Think of being at the Grand Canyon and yelling hello. You would obviously hear an echo as the audio hits the canyon walls and bounces back at you repeating itself.

The difference between a delay and reverb is you cannot discern the time difference between the signal returning back to you, yet you still have a sense of the space the signal is in.

Now my reason behind talking about the difference between delay and reverb  is that quite often poor mixes do not realize that they are artificially applying the reverb effect. What I mean by this is that unless you are intentionally trying to create an unnatural sound, a good mixes goal is to recreate a sound based upon how it occurs naturally. When you’re applying reverb, you need to think about how the instruments would sound in a live environment.

For example if you are mixing an orchestral track, do you want it to sound like it’s an orchestra playing in a large concert hall, a scoring stage, outdoor venue etc…..? This will help you to determine how much reverb to apply to your mix. If you don’t have an idea in mind, you may put too much reverb on your mix and it’s like have multiple delays piling up on each other. Consequently this starts to dull the mix, and wash out clarity. When applying reverb think about the space the instrument would be playing inside of with regards to composition and adjust for that. If you’re not super confident on how to adjust reverbs, it’s always better to err on the side of less. Your mixes may sound more intimate and close in perspective with less, however that’s far more acceptable than an indiscernible mess.

Okay the last bit of business is compressor/limiters. For this article I am not going to go too in-depth into compressors as that can be a whole book in it’s own right. A compressor in it’s simplest definition is an automatic volume control. It’s basic function is to even out dynamics in a recording by making loud amplitudes softer and softer amplitudes louder. It’s very easy to screw up audio with compressors either by distorting the audio or changing the tone into something undesirable. For this reason I recommend that novice mixers don’t use them. I’m sure there’s plenty of people that disagree, but I really think that the only thing novice mixers should start out with is limiters.

A limiter can be thought of as an extreme compressor. It has many uses, but if you’re just getting into mixing, then only place you’ll want to worry about using it, is on the master output of your mixer. What the limiter allows you to do is to “limit” what frequencies and volume level will make it into the final mix down. This is necessary because even when you adjust the volumes and place high pass filters on your audio tracks the summing of all the audio tracks together can still cause the output to have an overload and the track will distort.

The limiter allows you to to adjust the over all gain of the mix as well as what frequencies it will limit from exiting the mixer. The limiter achieves this through it’s Peak Reduction (also known as threshold) function.  The most basic explanation is that the frequencies with the loudest amplitude will first start to be quieted when adjusting the Peak Reduction. The further you change the amount the more frequencies are affected. Keep in mind that it’s necessary to listen and not blindly set the limiter. You are basically trying to use as little of the limiter as possible as the tone of the mix will be colored the more you use the limiter. You are trying to adjust the limiter as little as possible justso that it does not  distort or “Peak” in the mix down.LA2A.png

Obviously, I am only touching on a very small part of all the infinite amount of techniques and skill needed to create an amazing mix, but these are still important. Your job is to get your music into a presentable form to get you noticed or at the very least understood. If people can hear your music and at least see the potential in it, that will weigh heavily in your favor for present and future work.

Arranging Techniques

 

The ebb and flow of current musical trends changes at an astonishing rate. This can solely be attributed to the advancements in technology in all industries. Although there are countless benefits associated with this quick progression, it’s also created a void and shallowness to current music compositions.

If we travel back in time to the 1940s and listen to all the genres of that time (from Big Band, Folk, Country, to Classical) you will find very carefully crafted and conscientious compositions. Now I’m not saying that all of the music from that time period was amazing and I like it. In fact one could argue that at times the music could be overly sappy, and sweet. You could even argue that a good chunk of the composers overwrote and put everything but the kitchen sink into their pieces. However, one thing that you couldn’t argue against was the music had much more thought, structure, and design.

Unfortunately the pendulum has swung very far the other direction and current music, in most genres, lacks depth and are very weak harmonically. I’m not just talking about popular music. Countless popular film scores have very flimsy structures  and are completely unremarkable. Except for the Captain America films, all the Marvel film scores are forgettable. It’s not just the Marvel films, but Marvel is worth mentioning because of how well known the films are, yet no one remembers the music.

This brings us back to my point about technology affecting the integrity of current music. Technology has decreased the production time and increased an expectation for a turnaround. To add insult to injury, editors, producers, directors, and the like, now use technology to edit temp music to their scenes that the composer is just supposed to copy to their score in way that isn’t plagiarizing.

This puts the composer in a tight spot because on the one hand they’re getting paid handsomely to compose, but on the other it’s total dreck!

My dad always says that the real golden rule is: “He who has the gold makes the rules!” This couldn’t be more true today, especially for the world of entertainment. Then the question becomes, how can this be changed?

The answer surprisingly comes from actor/comedian/musician Steve Martin, who said “Be so good they can’t ignore you!”

Basically, build your craft and get so good at it, that when the opportunity arises, you can overshadow the requests of the directors/writers/producers/editors. Your music will be so good that they can’t ignore it and will want to use it over theirs. It will speak for itself. I sincerely believe that will lead to even more success, and more memorable music then just copying what was asked of you.

One of the ways current composers (of all genres) could use the most help with, that will help them in becoming amazing, is arranging skills. If you learn how to orchestrate and arrange quickly, you’ll be able to still make your deadlines and be better than what’s given.

Arranging has a broad encompassing definition. My definition of arranging is the permutation of established or precomposed musical ideas that are orchestrated for genres and instruments of your choosing.

Essentially, if you’ve come up with or have been given a theme for a song (and it isn’t intended for a solo instrument) then the theme needs to be expressed in interesting ways throughout the piece. Otherwise, it’s forgettable and boring.

I will touch upon just a few arranging techniques that can greatly enhance and broaden your skill set. However, this isn’t a full complete list of all the arranging techniques, and I implore you to find more.

When you are arranging a piece of music it’s either taking your own melody and expanding it for your chosen genre and instrumentation, or you’re doing it for someone else. If you’re doing the latter, then hopefully you are given a completed sketch or piano reduction that has the necessary information to arrange for the piece. I’ve seen composers given sketches to arrange from other supposed “Composers” that have nothing but bass notes and no key signature written. When I looked at the sketch I thought to myself that, I hope they were getting paid very well for it! Keep that in mind when accepting arranging jobs or assigning them. A song sketch needs to have the key signature, time signature, melody, and harmony at the very least. Otherwise, you’ll be opening yourself up to major complications.

Anyway, the example I’ve decided to use is not one of my own compositions. I decided to use George M. Cohan’s composition, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” I chose this song because it’s pretty well known within pop culture, and it’s public domain. I felt that there was a pretty good chance that it would be known by people reading this blog, and therefore  give a better understanding of how I arranged it. I only arranged 8 bars of the chorus to give a small demonstration of what techniques were used.

I will first describe what techniques I used starting with the reduction of Give My Regards to Broadway. Then at the end of the blog will be the full score of my arrangement with the techniques listed within it.

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As an arranger, the first thing you’ll want to do is analyze the harmony of the song you’re arranging. I analyzed the 8 bars above as: C,C, dmin7(b5)/Ab, G7, G7, G7 F7b9 (#11), G7.

Now that I have my piece analyzed, I needed to choose what instruments to arrange this for. (When arranging a piece, you will either be told what instruments to arrange for, or you may get to choose. It all depends on the situation.)

The instruments I chose to arrange for are: Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, Strings, and Percussion.

The next decision I needed to make was what instrument should have the melody? It’s usually common practice for one section or instrument in most genres to perform the melody throughout the piece. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to trade the melody from one section to another throughout a piece as well. For the sake of this article, I chose to keep the melody in the 1st trumpet throughout the entire 8 bars. I wanted to be very simple in my explanation of the techniques I used.

Okay, we’ve got our melody in the trumpet, and since that’s part of the brass choir, we can easily harmonize the rest of the brass to the trumpet to support it. However, what do we do with the rest of the instrument choirs?

Here is where different arranging techniques come into play. Arranging is part composing, part orchestrating, and part creative critical thinking. The techniques described below can be used in any way shape or form, but how they’re used and how well they sound is solely determined by the arranger.

One technique I decided to use for my additional instrument choirs was Inverting The Melody. The way you invert a melody is to pick an interval of your choice from either above or below the melody line (It can even be unison) and then have your melody move in the opposite direction as the original. For example, if the melody goes up a 3rd and then up a 4th, then your inverted melody would go down a 3rd and then down a 4th. When you invert a melody you have the option of keeping the melody diatonic, or to follow the intervals exactly, which can lead to a non-diatonic melody. It really comes down to whether or not it  works and you like the way it sounds. I chose to invert my melody starting a 6th above the original. I decided to use this inverted melody in the woodwinds as a fill.Inverted Melody.png

Another method I used for arranging this piece was using a retrograde melody. That is basically taking the melody and reversing the order where the last note become first and first note becomes last. Again, I used this in the woodwinds.

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The last few techniques I used are quite simple to understand so I will just list them with a quick definition.

  • Double time – the rhythm  from the piano reduction was subdivided making it twice as fast as the original rhythm
  • Rhythmic Altering – keeping the pitches of the melody but changing the rhythm
  • Augmented the melody -raised the melody above the original pitch
  • Diminished the melody- lowered the melody below the original pitch
  • Combined techniques from above

 

Here is my finished arrangement.

GMRTB Tim Arrang 1.jpg

GMRTB Tim Arrang 2.jpg

A couple of other techniques that I’ll mention but didn’t use are

  • Call & Response – one instrument starts a motif and a different instrument finishes it, or the same musical line played on one instrument is then repeated in another.
  • Transposition – taking a section of a song and transposing it into another key. ( Keep in mind that a lot of compositions will modulate into another key at the end of a song. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it before that, however it may confuse the listener as people have come to expect that.)
  • Dovetailing – a phrase, melody, or line, is played in one instrument section, and then another instrument section overlaps the musical line and proceeds to complete it.

 

Obviously when using these techniques, you’ll still want to make sure that you’re supporting the harmony of the melody. It is not a good idea to just have all these musical techniques bouncing around a score without harmonic support.   Without a good harmonic foundation, then your music will just sound like random solo’s popping in and out of the piece.

As with anything in life, it will take a lot of trial and error to find out what works and what doesn’t as well as what techniques you do and don’t care for. Also with time, practice, and study, you’ll develop your own techniques that will help to define your personal voice and sound!

 

 

Getting Right Before You Write!

I was asked not to long ago by a producer if I would talk to an aspiring composer friend of his, and speak to him about how to make a living as a composer. I always cringe at having to talk to anyone about that subject, as I think the nature of gravity is more understood than the career of a composer. I also hesitated immensely with regards to writing an actual article about the subject as there is no definitive answer. I would much rather stick to music theory and recording articles. However, since I’ve been in the that place of uncertainty before, and I’ve been asked this question consistently a multitude of times I will share what I know.

Now, for an “Expert” to be deemed viable, there has to be credibility behind their craft. It can’t be based upon believed notions, but upon experience, trial and error, work that shows effort, and a continued good working relationship with past and current clients.
As a professional composer I have worked on many different media projects with entities such as: Disney, Kyocera Camera, Public Storage, Infiniti, Digital Domain, University of New Mexico, Sandia National Labs, and great deal of great independent film makers.

Does this make me the end all be all of film scoring? Absolutely Not! However I do offer to you for consideration, experiences that can be very helpful to anyone who either is a professional, is a hobbyist, or just starting out as a composer.

Basically being a composer , if you didn’t know already, is a career not a job. It doesn’t have an application you can fill out in order to be hired. Although it’s possible, I would be very taken aback if I ever met someone who did fill out an application and was hired full time. For now I just consider it a unicorn…doesn’t exist. Anyway not to get you down, but with this general fact, if you know the odds are not in your favor how do you navigate through the proverbial waters?

Well the first thing any composer has to hands down do is ask themselves one simple question? Why am I a composer? As cliché as that question might sound it’s absolutely imperative to know the answer. And no the answer can’t be, because you’re good at it.

I know plenty of talented composers -a few that are even better than me- that are not successful with their talents. I also know some composers that are only okay yet seem to do great. What’s the difference? Well at some level these people asked themselves the question whether they knew it or not, why am I a composer?  I believe they answered with: I am willing to persevere during the lean times, overcome harsh criticism, keep an open mind with regards to what people think of my music, keep working and striving to become better, and the most important feel completely at a loss if I weren’t able to compose. I mean if living meagerly means you get to write everyday then that in itself is a success.

With that said let’s talk about what doesn’t work to make a living as a composer. Todays technology has made most people incredibly lazy. I was once guilty of indulging in the lazy wonders of using technology to further my career and it did not work! Many years ago I had a simple software program that would scour the internet for composing job postings. The second they were posted  it would fire off a  pre-composed generic email immediately to the post, expressing my interest to work on said project. This software program looked at websites such as Craigslist, Indeed, Music-Jobs and a few others. I did this for months and I unfortunately only got one bite from that. Sadly, I did not end up getting the one gig where I actually interacted with someone.

You could say that my obvious issue with this technique, was that I was essentially sending spam. As we all know spam ends up in the trash can! You could then proceed to tell me that crafting a personalized email to each posting would have yielded better returns. Yet, that is in fact not the case because with most things in life it’s a numbers game. Composing personalized messages to posts takes a lot longer too. The type of people who have their projects posted on websites are generally students, unprofessional, or just plain crazy. They are not like a company and most likely will not read every email sent to them. By the time you send off your nicely crafted email  20 “Composers” will have already expressed their interest in the project.

Now let’s say that you do somehow get a gig from an internet posting. The amount of work to pay ratio is awful. Generally, you will be busting your butt for very little money. Even if you do not have a lot of experience and need more projects under your belt to improve your skill set, you should avoid internet postings. If you need more work experience, you are better off going to your closest university, with a film and tv program, and look to work with the students there. Most university media programs allow students to work with people who do not attend their school, on their projects. Years ago I personally contacted USC and the University of Long Beach and got permission to come down to their film departments and introduce and interact with their film students. I got many projects and experience from doing that! Even though there was little to no pay, the students had access to professional equipment and resources that really helped me broaden my skill set.

The one other thing that I need to mention that doesn’t work is online pay services for “Industry Posts” that need music. You are cattle to all of these companies. It is completely like gambling in that the house always wins. What I mean by that is the companies that get exclusive dibs on professional projects, ask you to not only pay a monthly subscription, but pay a submission fee and take a portion of the monies paid from the gig. Essentially you could pay a monthly fee and then submit to a bunch of projects with a piece of music that you worked really hard on, and get nothing. Moreover, the company doesn’t care because someone from their really extensive roster will get the job and they’ll always get paid from that. Meanwhile, you’ll be out of time, effort, money, and goodwill!

All of the online submission companies are very very bad for your health. I have not had one good experience with any of them. I had a piece of music selected on the Film Music Network website (after I paid a monthly subscription and a submission fee) where after months of not being compensated, I had to sue the production company that posted the gig. The Film Music Network was completely worthless and washed their hands of me. I finally decided to seek legal action. The minute I dropped a case in the production companies lap, they paid the next day. What a hassle! Taxi primarily caters to Singer Songwriters, so if you’re a composer you have very little chance of being placed. BroadJam may be the biggest scam, but they did  give me statistical information that was useful. They want a subscription fee as well as charge you for your submissions. When you do submit to a post it tells you how many people have submitted music. One post I submitted to had a count of almost 300. I was competing against 300 people. That was terrible odds! Funny enough though, I did happen to have one song selected even with these terrible odds against me. Unfortunately the track that was selected on Broadjam, was from a music library company that  offered me 50% of my royalties if they happened to place the track on a project. Essentially, I paid this money  to Broadjam, put time and effort into the music and beat out a ton of people,  just to have an opportunity to possibly earn money!

Now being the big dummy that I am, I thought that maybe it was the caliper of company that I was dealing with online that was the issue. The companies I mentioned above have very low standards across the board. I thought that if I could work with a higher end company with higher end clients that would be the difference. Unfortunately that is not the case either. I was able to get on a top tier roster for an online outfit that caters to really big names and companies. Due to the fact that I am currently still with them I must leave their name out, but they were able to place a piece of music of mine for a Taco Bell advertisement. We’re now on month 4 since the placement of the music, and I still haven’t been paid.

Okay, now before you get depressed or label me a complainer or whiner about the trials and tribulations of being a composer. I would like to convey that I only wrote about my poor experiences as a warning and lesson to others to not make the same mistakes that I did. I do not regret getting involved with these companies or my spamming techniques as they gave me immense amounts of helpful knowledge. As of today, I’m extremely happy and grateful the career I currently have. I’m working on fulfilling projects and working with great people. Thankfully I do not depend on spamming or internet postings for my livelihood.

With that said, you may be asking yourself how did I do that?  For me it was through personal live interaction with people in the real world. You see, the internet allows for a great many things, but as far as personal interaction goes, it does not. When you email, or submit to a project, you are just a number. You get lost in the vast sea of people clamoring to be heard and to be paid. Although you could possibly get discovered or make a decent once in a while check, it is extremely inconsistent. The people who post the jobs have no personal connection or loyalty to you….. and why should they? There is no rapport or trust to base the relationship upon.

How my very long adventure into my career came to be was through developing relationships with good people who gave me a chance. This was done by asking the people that I do know to put me in touch with people that they know that could help me.

If you go into your email or social media accounts and look at all the people you know, one of them is bound to know someone who could use a composer. I firmly believe in the 6 degrees of separation, so if you say that nobody you know, knows anyone that you would like to know, then you’re not trying hard enough. Moreover, the people that know you, will vouch for you and can put you in touch with the people they know. If you keep at it you will eventually land a meeting (whether at an office or just coffee) and they can put a face to the name. If you’re positive, friendly, knowledgeable and patient, eventually someone will give you a chance. If you are really good at what you do then you will get referrals, and then you’ll be able to support yourself solely by composing music. Referrals are the most important gift you can be given, and you have to give thanks to those who trust in you and what you do. These relationships are extremely important and valuable. They offer the friendship, loyalty, and continued opportunity that hiding behind a computer doesn’t provide. It just takes a little bit of courage to talk to the people you know, to talk to the people you want to know. You’ll also need some considerate persistence to create opportunities as with many things in life, it won’t be easy, but anything worth doing usually isn’t.
My final thoughts on this subject is that I think it’s very important for the composer to find joy and contentment with just composing. If you keep writing and striving then all that extra good stuff will come. I’m sure by now if you’ve read this far you might feel as though this is rhetoric. However, if you’ve studied music for years then don’t let all that technical knowledge you’ve learned be for naught. If you’re that passionate and put in all that time, then you have to be willing to wade through the muck, to really realize your dream.

Besides, those lean times can really have a profound effect on your composing. Your perceptions will change and like any great composer, you’ll have this wealth of experience to draw from.
It also makes for a good story when you’re at some Hollywood producers’ mansion at a wrap up party for a movie you just completed…….

How Jazz Theory interprets Neapolitan, French+6,German+6, & Italian+6 Chords

While studying in music school I (for the most part) had amazing teachers. The teachers that I learned the most from were primarily schooled in Jazz Theory. Ironically my Traditional Harmony teachers were not that great. One in particular was a well known conductor and basically had a substitute for most of his classes because he was too busy jet setting the world conducting.

As one can imagine this made it extremely difficult to find continuity and understanding within the curriculum. Having different teachers from week to week not only left me with a bad grade but a bad taste in my mouth. In hindsight I probably should have dropped the class and taken it another semester. However, I’m not sure that I would have aced the class if I did have an amazing teacher.

Let me explain. I came to a realization that, although classical composers were geniuses and laid the ground work for most of modern music, they too didn’t have a complete grasp of traditional tonal harmony. What I personally believe, as this is just a theory, is that traditional classical composers were still in the throws of figuring out how tonal harmony worked.  For that reason (again in my personal belief) they used really poor ways of explaining their extended harmony techniques.

As an appreciator of music, I put these classical composers on a pedestal, and at the time didn’t think for a second that their techniques could be easily misinterpreted or that the composers poorly explained them. Neapolitan, French +6, German +6 and Italian +6 chords didn’t register for me, and again as I said earlier, even a good teacher may not have been able to help me understand them.

About all I understood about these chords was that they didn’t fit into the Traditional Harmony theory they had at the time, so they just named the chord from which country or region that developed it. To me these chords were like a brain surgeon pressing on a part of the brain, not knowing what it would do, and then the patients arm would rise. Then the surgeon would name that procedure after him or herself even though it wasn’t understood why that would happen.

Not until I understood a good amount of Jazz Theory did I realize how these chords  were functioning. Also I realized that a whole slew of harmony may not have been discovered or understood during the classical period. Jazz Theory helped me to see that there was a better explanation for what these seemingly random chords were doing.

My views on the Neapolitan, French +6, German +6 and Italian +6th chords may not be revolutionary, but I believe them to be helpful. Moreover, before I can get into these chords, I need to explain the differences between how Classical Traditional Tonal Harmony and Jazz Theory interprets a chord symbol. This will help immensely in better explaining why Neapolitan, French, German, and Italian 6th chords could use some updating.

When analyzing classical music it is universally accepted across the board to use Roman Numerals to indicate the chord quality (upper case for major and lower case for minor) as well as the interval or distance of a chord from the root of the scale. Additionally, Arabic numerals will be placed next to the Roman Numerals when indicating an inversion of a chord as well as whether or not the 7th chord tone is present.

For example if you are in the key of D major and  are moving from an  “f#” minor chord in first inversion, to an “A” major chord in root position the symbols would be iii6 to V. (see below)

1st Inversion.png

As you can see above, the f# minor triad is relayed to you with a lower case iii and the number 6 indicating first inversion. The 6 indicates first inversion because when you invert the root into the octave above, it creates an interval of a sixth from the 3rd to the root above it. The “A major triad” has an upper case V underneath it. This indicates a major chord quality, and there is no number next to the Roman numeral, which means there is no inversion and the chord is in root position.

If you were to add the 7th chord tone to each chord from above, the Arabic numbers change a little bit. 1st inversion with 7th.png

The V7 chord has just a seven next to it to indicate that the 7th chord tone is present and the chord is in root position.

The “f# minor 7”  proceeding it, in first inversion, is a little more involved in explaining it’s chord symbols.

When four chord tones are present in the first, second or third inversion, it creates an interval of a 6th between the bass and the top most note. The inner voices are different from each other from first to third inversion. Technically a chord in first inversion is considered a 6,5,3, a seventh chord in second inversion is a 6,4,3 and seventh chord in third is a 6,4,2.

However,  those are long and unnecessary titles for each inversion. First inversion 7th chords are the only ones that form an interval of a sixth, and a fifth from the 3rd of the chord in the bass, so the symbol is truncated to 6,5. The same goes for a seventh chord in second and third inversion.

A second inversion seventh chord is truncated to 4,3  (for the intervals of a 4th and a 3rd formed in it’s inner voices) and a third inversion seventh chord is inverted to 4,2 or just 2.(for the intervals of a 4th and a 2nd formed in it’s inner voices) Since each inner voice of the inversions of the seventh chord are unique, we can just refer to the inner voice intervals when giving a chord a chord symbol and it’s understood which inversion a chord is in.

Below is a chart for all of the  Arabic Numbers representing which inversions your triad or seventh chords can have.

Inversions.png

Traditional Harmony chords use Arabic numbers next to Roman Numerals to define chord quality, inversions, and how many chord tones are present. The numbers next to Traditional Harmony Roman Numeral Chords will never ever be anything other than an indication of intervals.

Now that we’ve established the basics of Trad Harm chord analyzation, I can now show an inherent flaw with this system. Moreover, this is why Neapolitan, French, German, and Italian +6 chords confused me, and why Jazz Theory mostly does a better job of explaining them.

In Jazz Harmony, there is not a universally  standard way to name a chord.  Jazz Theory uses a conglomerate of symbols including Roman Numerals as well as just writing out what the chord is.

Nonetheless, the differences from one persons symbol to the next aren’t so extreme that one could not decipher what chord is intended. For example, I’ve seen a G minor seven chord written 3 different ways. Gmin7, Gm7, G minor 7. The same goes for a major 7 chord. (GMaj7, GM7, G major 7)

As you can see from above the differences are slight and easy to figure out and there are probably more iterations than the ones I have above. Now when a Jazz Composer wants to indicate an inversion, a slash mark with whatever chord tone he or she wants will be put next to a chord. For example if you wanted a G minor 7 with Bb in the bass, you could write that Gm7/Bb.

Now the one extra thing that a Jazz written chord will do that a Trad Harm won’t is indicate tensions. (ex-tensions) A number next to a chord in Jazz Theory tells the performer to play tensions not inversions. If you saw a chord that said C maj 9 its telling you that a “D” needs to be added to the C maj chord. It’s quite a common practice to drop the 5th of the chord to make sure that the 7th, 3rd, root, and tension is heard to not confuse the listeners ear. This technique is used on all chord qualities.

The “7th” of the chord is not always listed next to the chord if tensions are present as the 7th chord tone quality is implied by what the chord quality is. If you see G maj 9 then you know that 7th is a major seventh because the “major” tells you that it is. If you see G min 9 then you know to use a b7 because the minor tells you that it is. If you don’t see a major or minor indicator between the note and the number then it is considered dominant. The chord G7 tells you that you have a b7 on a major triad. The other two words you may see is “dim” which is diminished and “Aug” or  which means augmented or to sharp the 5th of the chord.

Here is where the two styles of theory intersect and where I believe Jazz Theory does a better job of explaining the Neapolitan, French, German, Italian +6 chords.

In Jazz theory the “+” sign also means augmented “Aug” but is only applied to the 5th of a dominant 7 chord. Jazz would never tell you to “+” the 6th as it knows that it just becomes the b7 of a chord which is also a chord tone. I completely understand that Trad Harm is coming from an interval point of view and that when you see “+6” you’re telling the performer to raise the note up by a half step.

However, I think that the +6 visually implies a different tonality than what’s heard. These chords are performing a dominant function and they should be telling your brain with your eyes as well as your ears that is what it is doing. Essentially defining a chord with a +6 is like using B# in the key of C. Although you can use it, it doesn’t make sense to.

Some may not agree with my analyzation of these chords but I argue that the ear does not lie! If we apply Jazz Theory to these classically used chords, we come to find out that the Neapolitan, The German +6, and Italian +6 chords are what’s called Substitute Dominants.

The French +6 chord is just  a Secondary Dominant in second inversion with a b5 or(#11) instead of a 5th. It is  is derived from the melodic minor scale and is heard as V/V. It is considered an altered chord in Jazz. When properly used this chord will only be found as a secondary dominant in minor keys.   (I’m not going to go into secondary dominants as I’ve already covered that in a previous article which is linked above. I will only talk about the Neapolitan, German, and Italian as Sub Dominants)

GIN.png

In Jazz Theory a dominant chord can be Substituted (Sub Dominant) for another dominant chord that it shares the same tritone with. For example a C7 chord forms a tritone with “E” and “Bb” or the 3rd and 7th of the C7 chord. The “Bb” and “E” can also be found in a Gb7, yet the “Bb” and the “E” have changed chord tone position. The “Bb” is the 3rd and the “E” is the b7.That is what the Neapolitan, Italian+6, and German+6 chords are doing…acting like sub dominants.

In the case of the Neapolitan chord, classical composers didn’t use a “b7” with it and it’s traditionally in first inversion when found in classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean the Neapolitan does not still function as a substitute dominant for the “V” of whatever key you’re in. If we add a b7 to the Neapolitan in the key of “D” we find out that the 3rd and the 7th of Eb7 are the same as the 7th and 3rd of A7.

GI+6.png

The German+6 and the Italian+6 are the same thing except the Italian+6 is missing the 5th of the chord. The Italian+6 missing its 5th plays no significance in it being different from a German+6. The German and Italian both share a tritone with the secondary dominant V/V and they both want to resolve to the five chord of the diatonic key. No matter how you slice the Neapolitan, German+6 and Italian+6, they want to resolve down to the chord below it by half step just like the substitute dominants do. These chords lay outside of the diatonic key so you create tonal uncertainty if you don’t resolve down by half step.

This leaves me with one last observation. If classical composers had realized it, they would have known they had a whole slew of substitute dominants at their disposal. Who knows what their music would have sounded like had they been aware?

For whatever reason classical composers didn’t use  sub dominant chords (sub V7) chords that were available for the ii, iii or, IV,  or vi. To my knowledge classical composers only used Sub V/V and Sub V/I.

sub.png

(Sub V/vii is the same chord as V/V that is why it is not listed)

Keep in mind that substitute dominant chords can be used in minor scales as well. However, I will let you figure out what additional substitute dominant chords are available for those.

Although classical composers were profoundly important and influential to music it’s also good to note that they were human. Of course they were geniuses but they weren’t perfect. I believe it’s a good idea to expand on those ideas from those who came before and be open to others who wish to add to your ideas. I believe that’s how true knowledge is gained!

 

 

 

 

Counterpoint…..Modernized

If you understand counterpoint, you’d know it was developed mostly during the Renaissance as a way to create individual interesting musical lines within a SATB framework. Essentially each voice of a piece would support the harmony of the composition, yet their contour and rhythm could be totally separate or independent of each other.

This technique’s creation can mostly be attributed to the genius efforts and works of J.S.Bach. His rhythms and direction of each musical line or voice, often times worked independently, yet harmoniously together. In many Bach compositions, if you separate and view each voice independently,  it could appear that the individual musical line did not relate to the other voices of the composition it came from. He was a master at creating lines  and melodies that worked “interdependent” with each other.

Now before you start to think this is going to be a rehash of the multitudes of material written about Bach’s technique, let me put you at ease. This article will attempt to explain and convince you why this age old technique is still important. Additionally, I will also talk about a few  counterpoint  fundamentals that I’ve adjusted and put my own spin on, to be used for todays musical tastes.

Music today has obviously evolved beyond Baroque style composition. Nonetheless, I believe that a basic understanding of counterpoint is needed by composers of ALL GENRES (some styles more than others) to avoid the trappings of compositional repetitiveness and mediocrity.

Although I haven’t heard every single new piece of music recently released, for the most part, current music (again all genres) can be analyzed as  homophonic!  This is not to say that homophonic music is wrong or bad, it’s just overwhelmingly ubiquitous. Ironically, many of todays singer songwriters/composers, who don’t have strong harmony and counterpoint in their works,  often cite artists who did as their influences. Again, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, fresh inspirational ideas are the only thing, in any field really, that will sustain you in the music industry. Learning as much as you can from every source available, is necessary to flourish.

There is an anti-establishment belief in the music world, that studying music theory  will overly influence your musical choices, or just make you sound like everyone else. As much as I applaud the desire to break from the norm, I argue that you cannot break free from what’s commonplace, until you learn what that is. This is analogous to: if you do not know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

Many new genres of music have been created over the last 100 years. Most of the prominent figures who developed those styles, worked,studied, and learned all they could to go beyond what was ordinary. I can refer to a famous painter and a composer as examples.

Pablo Picasso could literally paint anything. In fact he was so good at painting what everyone deemed masterful, that he became bored and invented a whole new category of art. (Cubism) The same can be said about Arnold Schoenberg. He could literally compose any tonal music of his day. However, he wanted to create something different than what was commonly composed, so he developed atonality.

All music that is heard today (except for Aleotoric) is based on how frequencies do or do not order themselves in nature. (*See my article on Chord Progressions for more detail about the nature of notes.) Whether you’re composing tonal or atonal music, it’s necessary to know what the natural characteristics of  intervals are, and how they relate to each other.

Many years ago, it was determined that different intervals from either major or minor scales, had different degrees of strength or resonance. Basically some intervals of a scale dominated or could be heard better than others. The two most dominating of these intervals are the 5th and the Octave. This natural occurring phenomenon drove composers to figure out a way to counteract this effect.

Counterpoint is the system that allows all  intervals to be more balanced and heard within a composition. There are many techniques to be utilized from counterpoint, but I am only going to focus on 3. These 3 rules have been adjusted by me and are based upon traditional counterpoint.

My adjusted rules do not stem from a place of arrogance. I do not assume to know more than music scholars with years of experience. I have merely analyzed scores of noteworthy era defining composers of “recent” years and have observed that these are techniques that they used in their compositions.

Most of these adjustments I’ve made are based upon the Neo-Classical era. I feel it is the birthplace of modern music. Stravinsky was one of the more notable, if not most notable, composers of that era. He influenced everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Frank Zappa as well as many others. I am not disregarding the music that came before the Neo-Classical era, it’s just that during that time period they really threw out convention and literally caused a riot in doing so. Moreover, I believe these 3 adjusted rules below, can be applied to any genre and they will enhance a composition.

  1. Unless you knowingly choose to use the same subsequent 5th intervals that share the same voice from one chord to the next, (great in fast passages) Avoid Parallel 5ths
  2. Avoid Parallel 8ths (this does not include doubling melodies or bass lines)
  3. When harmonizing, do not have more than an octave interval between the Soprano and Alto, and do not have more than an octave distance between the Alto and Tenor. The bass can go into whatever octave you’d like as long as it’s below the Tenor voice.

There is an additional “rule” that needs to be mentioned, but I personally believe it’s more of an important guideline. When composing a melody, it’s best to not make large interval leaps between notes. This increases the difficulty for it to be performed from everyone playing the piece.

However, it really depends on who you’re composing the music for. At the end of the day if you’ve composed a melody that you feel is inspired and the people who are performing it are capable, then do it.(Mozarts Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute is an example of this)

Just keep in mind that it’s not something that will always sound great, as well as be welcomed by your performers. This guideline is a rule in most counterpoint text books to ensure a successful composition. It really takes some finesse and experience to pull off large interval leaps successfully  in a composition, and for it be regarded as noteworthy.

Okay, now that we’ve gone through the rules let’s explain what they mean.

A parallel 5th and 8va in music is: when an interval of a 5th or an interval of an octave of a chord,  retains that interval of a 5th or an 8va within the same voices of the next chord that follows it.

An example would be if you have C & G in the bass and tenor voice of a chord, moving to  D & A that are also in the bass and tenor of the next chord. You do not have to worry about parallel 5ths or 8vas if your chord isn’t changing. If you are repeating the same chord over and over, you don’t have to worry as that is acceptable too. Also, if you’re doing inversions of the same chord over and over this rule need not apply. Below is a  diagram of some of the different ways 5ths and 8vas can be encountered when composing.

P5P8.jpg

  • Static motion P5 and P8 is when the 5th or an 8va of of 2 different chords are shared within the same voices.
  • Contrary motion P5 and P8 is where a 5th or 8va interval moves opposite of each other into another 5th or 8va interval within the same voices of a different chord. This opposing direction occurs because the pitches are usually a 12th or a 15th or more apart in interval, yet still have the same sonic quality as a parallel 5th or 8va.
  •  Oblique motion P5 and P8 is where one pitch of an interval stays static and the other interval changes, yet a parallel is still created within the same voices. This is usually caused by inverting a chord
  • Parallel Fifths and Octaves, are  an interval of a 5th or 8va of one chord moving to another interval of a 5th or 8va of another in a parallel direction within the same voices.

The examples above are just that, examples. These types of parallels can occur in any voice in any number of configurations. It takes practice to avoid an imbalance of sound. Here are possible solutions.

P5P8 Fixes.jpg

When doing counterpoint the tools you have to avoid dominating parallels include:

  • Dropping the 5th interval of one of the chords your harmonizing. The fifth can be deleted and the chord quality will still be maintained.
  • When doubling voices, it’s usually a good practice to double the root for major chords, and the 3rd for minor
  • Try to invert chords only on the weaker beats and do so in the way that the inverted interval in the bass is moving in a stepwise motion to the bass note of the next chord

With all that said, consciously choosing to use parallel 5ths and 8vas can be likened to breaking the 4th wall in acting. If you are consciously choosing to acknowledge the audience during your performance, and do so with confidence, it can be received really well and even enjoyed. If you are accidentally acknowledging the audience in your performance, you can be regarded as… well not so great. The same can be said for using parallel 5ths and 8vas.

Every single genre of music has exemplary examples of parallel 5ths and octaves that work really well in a composition.  I think that they absolutely have their place in music today. Nonetheless, they need to be padded by strong harmonizations and counterpoint. I think using parallel 5ths and octaves should be saved for parts of a composition other than a chorus of a song, or a climatic section of score. Those sections will shine much brighter if arranged in a more fundamental way. This technique lends itself to making choruses, or climatic sections sound even bigger. Since most genres other than the Pop/Rock realm require, some knowledge of arranging/counterpoint, I will just point out where the Pop/Rock genre would benefit most by using counterpoint. Pop/Rock (or any of it’s offshoots) genre would be greatly enhanced if they used counterpoint in their background vocals, keyboard/synth parts, and especially in the bass lines.

Okay let’s put all this material together to demonstrate how its used for an actual piece of music, and not just exercises.

  1. Compose a melody
  2. Determine the chords you want to use for that melody
  3. Plot only the bass notes of the chords you chose to coincide with the melody
  4. Return to the beginning and fill in the remaining notes for the chords, being careful to avoid parallel 5ths and octaves, unless you are consciously choosing them.
  5. Add flourishes and connecting melodies to each voice in-between notes to create uniqueness and more interesting melodic lines.

Here is a piece I composed where the violin has the main melody and the viola, cello,bass have secondary melodies, supporting harmony and mostly interdependent rhythms.

HOTM

 

In traditional counterpoint and harmony, I would be scolded for measure 7 as I have parallel 5ths moving between the 3rd and 4th beat between the bass/cello and viola. If you want to get really technical, I also have err’d on the 4th beat of measure 7 with a minor 3rd interval between the “A” and “B natural” moving to the tonic in the violin.

You see, I’m not trying to stay strictly adhered to the rules of counterpoint. However, traditional counterpoint really allows for a strong harmonic, and melodic foundation that will support the overall integrity of the piece. Moreover, I think an individuals voice benefits from learning the fundamentals, taking the best parts from them, and then adding to or creating an entirely new idea upon it. With time, a unique, solid, and creative idea will emerge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MIDI Orchestration

Whether modern composers are aware of it or not, an unspoken clash exists between music technology, and the fundamental teachings of composing. Modern technology is actually not the cause of the disparity, however it does reinforce and amplify a long standing issue. The issue was eloquently stated by Rimsky-Korsakov over a century ago (though it probably existed before him) when he noticed that novice composers used dynamics to artificially enhance an instruments voice within a composition. A common occurrence he noticed was, novice composers would write forte in music for a register of  an instrument that is not as sonorous as it’s other registers to get it to stand out in a passage. Rather than re-writing the passage so that the line naturally stands out or even assigning a line to another instrument that could properly carry it, the composer was essentially telling the musician to just play the line louder. Obviously this made for a poorly written, and probably poorly heard piece of music.

Unfortunately, the clash continues today as virtual instrument manufacturers and many composers tend to mix their samples/compositions so that they’re explosive without any degree of subtlety. I believe this to be one of the reasons why the composing fundamentalists disavow computer sequenced compositions all together, and to a good degree, I agree with them. However, I think that there can be a happy overlap between the two courts, and I think focusing on and talking about MIDI orchestration is the ice breaker.

MIDI (Musical, instrument,digital interface, as most of you probably know) is a protocol written to represent, access, and execute commands from one digital instrument using MIDI, to another. It is not unlike the ASCII keyboard you use to type characters into your computer. The keyboard is just telling your computer that when you press a certain button on your keyboard, that it seeks out that character within the computers program, and places it into whatever application you’re using. This is exactly what’s happening with MIDI.

No actual audio information is ever exchanged through MIDI. Whenever you press a note on a MIDI keyboard, it’s accessing a receiving program (like a D.A.W.) to trigger the sound that’s stored (either analog or digital) that correlates to the note you played. This is amazing because, it essentially allows you to do anything you want to the virtual instrument you’re accessing. This is also awful, because it essentially allows you to do anything you want to the virtual instrument you’re accessing.

It may be apparent, but orchestrating for live instruments is really about writing to the strength of the instrument and understanding the instruments limitations.*(See Foot Notes) MIDI allows you to throw that all out the window, which is why many sequenced compositions using high end samples trying to compose acoustic music, sound fake or extremely synthetic.

In reality, the emulation/sampling of  any live instrument (whether it’s a guitar or a violin) as a virtual instrument, is not 100% convincing. It might be in the future, but as of now, I have only heard a handful of sequenced compositions that’s comprised of all virtual instruments, that sound amazing.

Obviously, most musicians I know lack the budget, experience, and resources to record mostly live musicians. However, trying to emulate live instruments using virtual instruments is a lot more involved than many composers take the time to do. This means that if you want to be taken seriously, and make money composing  music with sequenced instruments, you have to learn how to orchestrate MIDI convincingly.

I am going to focus on some of the major missteps I hear in sequenced music that I think can be easily fixed by anyone with entry level music knowledge. (Although, it does make for much better productions the more you know about fundamental orchestration)

Within any D.A.W. there is what I call a “MIDI Matrix”. The MIDI Matrix has a different name from every single piece of recording software, but it all does essentially the same thing. It is a grid representation of sheet music. It tells you where a note lies within a measure, what duration it is, what pitch it is, as well as how loud/accented the note is. These are just the main features of the matrix as it also allows you to manipulate a virtual sound or midi triggered instrument in mind numbingly different ways. (We will not be going too deep into MIDI’s functionality.)

I’d like to start with a frequently occurring issue that I call the machine gun effect. What I mean by that, is often times I’ll hear  phrases within a sequenced piece that have fast repeated notes that sound more like a machine gun unloading, rather than an instrument playing. This is often caused by a composer copying and pasting the same note at the same velocity over and over again, or it’s an inadequate virtual sample that has no velocity variation.

I haven’t tried every single D.A.W. that exists, but generally how loud a MIDI note will play and how accented it is within a D.A.W.,  is represented in the Matrix by color. Red being the absolute max in volume and accent, and purple/blue being quiet and subtle.

When there is no color variation from MIDI note to MIDI note, you are telling the D.A.W. to play a MIDI note robotically. As any musician is aware, no note or performance of a piece of music from a live player will be reproduced the exact same way exactly the same time. You need to account for this variation in your sequenced composition.

Here’s what a MIDI Matrix may look like when a note has been repeated over and over again at the same velocity.MIDI Orchestration Pic 1.png

The easiest way to create a performance variation is by playing and recording the passage into the sequencer with a MIDI keyboard. (For anyone out there that does not possess piano skills for MIDI recording, the company Sonuus created an audio to midi converter. It will attach to any instrument and convert your audio to midi notes.) Also if your composition is set to a challenging BPM, just record the passage at a slower tempo and then bring it back to speed.

Here is the same passage recorded into the  D.A.W. instead of a note plotted or pasted repeatedly. The velocities are varied and will produce a “more” human sound.MIDI Orchestration Pic 2.png

If you’re still getting a machine gun sound then you may be dealing with a poorly recorded and encoded sample. If money is an issue (and it usually is) one way to combat this, is to create 2 virtual instrument tracks using 2 different virtual instruments that have the same articulation. For example, many string libraries have a Violin I & Violin II samples recorded.  Let’s say you have a spicatto passage that you’ve written. You would load Violin I spicatto into one track and then Violin II spicatto into the other. Then you would copy the recorded MIDI and paste it onto both Violin I and to Violin II.

Your last step would be to delete the off beats on Violin I and the down beats of Violin II. You are essentially trading back and forth between the two tracks to give a more realistically performed sound. Of course you’ll need to make sure that the volumes are balanced and then “bus” each virtual instrument to 1 track so that you can adjust the volumes of the 2 different instruments simultaneously. This trick is not just confined to orchestral instruments. It works extremely well on electric bass, guitars, and works the best with woodwinds. Experiment with different articulations from different instruments.

The next major issue I hear on sequenced compositions is, no articulation variation from a single instrument. When a track is sequenced using only (let’s say) a legato patch when sections clearly need staccato. Or a crescendo or sforzando is created by automating the volume of the instrument. (They’re are many more not listed here) Sequenced compositions are already at a disadvantage by being synthesized, and by not putting in the detailed articulations, even an untrained ear will perceive your music as either inexperienced, poor, or lazy.

This is easily fixed, albeit labor intensive, by loading the necessary instruments articulation needed for the piece on their own track. Many sample libraries offer a function called key-switching to address the need for multiple articulations for a sequenced composition.

Essentially, a dedicated section of the virtual instrument, out of the instruments register/range, can be triggered to switch between the most common articulations an instrument has. It is done by placing a MIDI note in that section that corresponds to the each type of articulation you want at the moment in the piece you’d like the articulation to occur. When you play back the piece it will switch automatically between types. If you are using a trumpet, and would like to go from a “Sustained” sound to a “Stacatto” sound, you would need to place 2 MIDI notes in the section of the MIDI matrix that reflects those articulations from the virtual instrument library you are using.

KeySwitches.png

Although there is a time and place for key-switching, I actually do not think key-switching needs to be used too often. Unless you have composed a piece of music that makes use of many types of articulations, it’s best to create different individual tracks for each of an instruments articulation utilized.

A virtual instrument that contains key-switches will most likely load a bunch of articulations that you won’t use and eat up computer memory that could be used for other instruments you are using. Some virtual instrument libraries allow you to dump the samples you don’t want or need, but I find that to be time intensive de-selecting them. It’s not worth having to do that for every single instrument you’re composing for, within the piece.

Also by default, articulations inherently produce different dynamic qualities. Moreover, it will be way more difficult to mix a single track of an instruments many articulations, when you could easily adjust their volumes and EQ needs on separate tracks.

Lastly, many sequencer programs trigger kew-swtich articulations with the playhead. This creates a quirk where, if you are jumping around in your composition by clicking on measures directly, the last articulation you were on will still play in the next section you’ve jumped to, regardless of what articulation you’ve programmed for that section.

The playhead has to play over the MIDI trigger note of every section you’ve placed one in, for it to be triggered. Basically if you need to jump around in your composition, you are forced to jump to each key-switch trigger point of the composition, in order to hear that sections articulation properly. Again, there’s a time and place for key-switches, but most pieces really only use 4 different type of articulations, and setting up individual tracks for each one tends to be the easiest.

After focusing upon some of the common issues of MIDI sequences that can be fixed without money begin spent, I will now make mention of one that requires money to fix. Special articulations like portato or glissandos, or pinch harmonics or octave runs will not sound realistic , with todays current technology,  if you use a modulation wheel  or try to manually perform it into the software with a MIDI controller. These types of ornamentation have so much information, subtlety, and nuance that it’s best to have a pre-recorded sample of that function triggered. For example, if you want a harp glissando, rather than running your finger up and down a keyboard while recording, to mimic one, a virtual sample recording of a virtuoso playing it, will be far more convincing than you. (Unless of course you are a virtuostic harp musician and can record it live)

Obviously purchasing a high end sample library could solve this problem. However not all high end libraries will have glissandos, portatos, crescendos, etc.. You have to research and find the ones that encompass all of these features, for the price you’re willing to spend.

Here is the last comment I’d like to make about MIDI orchestration. If you are trying to emulate “LIVE” acoustic or electric instruments using MIDI Virtual Instruments, do not compose parts that even a virtuosic player couldn’t play in real life. If someone couldn’t play it in real life, then that will stick out in your composition. If you are unsure if what you’ve composed is possible, ask a proficient musician of that instrument!

I tried to touch upon just a few of the major MIDI orchestration hiccups I come across regularly. Most of the time the issues can be solved with effort. The more detailed, ornate and “Humanistic” you try to make your sequenced composition to sound, the more likely you are to attract a buyer. Even if you’re not interested in selling your music, it really doesn’t make sense to half heartedly create art. That can be saved for the things you truly don’t care about!

I’ll end this post with a composition of mine that is composed with 100% sequenced instruments, yet I feel I did a good job fooling people into thinking some of it wasn’t.

 

*EDM, Rap, and Aleatoric/Atonal music were born or influenced by electronic music technology. These genres embrace the synthetic capabilities of technology, and it’s completely appropriate to manipulate sounds in a completely unnatural way for a piece of music.