How To Write Music

Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 5:30 pm

There’s no step-by-step formula for music. Almost everyone picks up on this intuitively… yet, people will still ask, “How do you write music?” Music journalists ask this question of some great (wo)man of music, only to get a sarcastic, ridiculous reply, i.e. “with my dick.”

It’s easy to ask, but impossible to answer properly. A musician has no one technique. Rather, (s)he has a zillion little techniques and tricks and notions, amassed over time. You write something, you mull over how it went, and then you write something else based on that. You do that over, and over, and over. One day, you realize you have your own sound — your tunes sound like your tunes, but you’ll be damned if you know how. When someone asks you how you write music, you just say, “Um, er, that’s just how I do things?”

If, on the other hand, someone asks you, “How do you get those growly bass noises?” or, “How did you program the melody in track ____?” you can give an immediate, specific answer. Questions about specific techniques and tools are very, very answerable, while questions about the whole, the gestalt, are frustratingly impossible to sum up. So, how do you go from zero to gestalt?

I often think of music as some mysteriously shaped object. I can’t see it directly; I can only see the shadows it casts on the walls. Depending on the time of day, and where I stand, the shadow changes. I studiously observe these patterns. I try standing in certain places at various times of day. At first, it seems frustratingly random, complicated, and difficult to get a handle on. After enough observation (and no small amount of patience), I start to say, “Oh, yeah… I’ve seen this before.” My predictions about how the shadow will look from a particular corner of them room at a particular time start to match up with what I see — and it’s overwhelmingly rewarding, after ages of thankless observation. Yet, I’ll still have no idea what the mysterious object actually looks like. I’ll just know the patterns of shadows a bit better.

Someone will come to me, and we might have a conversation like this:

“What is the shape of the mysterious object?”

“I have no idea.”

“Then, how are you able to predict the shadows with such accuracy?”


Annoyed at this curt, unhelpful answer, but still overwhelmingly curious, the person will start observing the shadows with me. They observe the shadows day after day, and gradually start to develop their own notions of how the object is shaped. They take note of patterns I point out to them, but they also notice patterns I’ve overlooked. We share our theories, and start to develop differences of opinion. After a while, we’re both able to predict the shadows with equal accuracy… but, curiously, we have very different ideas of what the object actually looks like. Somehow, our different theories give us equal results.

It turns out that the mysterious object is infinite; it is every shape at once. In studying the shadows, we are actually studying ourselves. We are attempting to perceive how we perceive. It’s a paradox in which we give the object shape via attempting to figure out what its shape is.

As that probably twisted your brain into a pretzel, let’s try it from another angle: Schrödinger’s cat, the famous quantum mechanics “thought experiment.” From

Schrödinger’s cat is a famous illustration of the principle in quantum theory of superposition, proposed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Schrödinger’s cat serves to demonstrate the apparent conflict between what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level.

Here’s Schrödinger’s (theoretical) experiment: We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.

The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer’s paradox : the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made. (That is, there is no single outcome unless it is observed.)

Until we start to see patterns in the shadows and picture the shape of the object, it is every shape at once. It is alive and it is dead, it is smooth and it is rough. We observe, we take note of the patterns we see, and we collapse the waveform into something personal to us. This is why a musician can talk at length about production techniques, but cannot sum up their sound. They can’t sum up how they write music, as it’s their personal take on infinity, constructed from every experience they’ve had throughout their life. Being asked to sum up your music is no different from being asked to sum up yourself.

When you write a track, there are infinite possibilites on every level. How you navigate that infinity, how you collapse the waveform, determines the end result. There’s no one decision that makes the track; it’s a zillion little decisions seen from a distance. You make all those little decisions based on your personal notion of music. You can explain why you made a particular decision, but you can’t sum up the track. Even if you explained every individual decision you made, it wouldn’t explain the gestalt, the whole. It’s a mass of seemingly irrelevant details that pile together into something greater than the sum of their parts.

The practical upshot (finally, right?) of this is summed up nicely by Bruce Lee, whose delightful nuggets of philosphy can be applied almost anywhere. He said,

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”

I’ve used step sequencers, piano rolls, and trackers.  I took some piano lessons, I took some music theory classes, and tried working with sheet music. I’ve tried ditching notation entirely and going by ear. I’ve free-improvised. I’ve simply smashed my elbow on the keyboard and dragged the notes around until it sounded nice. I’ve used algorithms to generate melodies. I make it a point to try approaching music from as many angles and disciplines as I humanly can. Some of it’s fantasticly inspiring, and some of it is useless. I remember things that work, and I store them in a very special place in my soul.

Over time, you build up a collage of knowledge that determines your musical identity — your sound. It is yours, and yours alone. No one will ever learn exactly what you’ve learned, in the order in which you learned it.

If you write music entirely on the computer, ditch the computer for a bit and use hardware. If you’ve done both individually, try using hardware and software together. If you’ve done that, get a bass guitar and learn to play it. Then come back with a true jumble — play the bass guitar into some hardware box, sample it into the computer and chop it up. Try as many techniques as you can stand. As Chris Clark brilliantly puts it,

The processes lose their novelty, and thus lose their importance as singular, autonomous techniques. They feed into each other and often are contradicted by other “themes” within a track. So they inevitably become tiny bit parts in the wider picture of the work that I am assembling.

I’ve joked with friends that I’ll be all washed up after a few months of writing this blog, having given away the crown jewels — my techniques and philosophy. Really, though, I’m quietly laughing to myself when I say that. Lazy people, looking for quick and easy answers, will not be able to read this blog and then write tunes like me. You can’t cut around the core requirement of personal experience. What I do here is not so much a blog of “how-to” as it is a blog of Koans. As Morpheus says,

[I] can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.

Footnote: The bit about the mysterious shape casting shadows borrows heavily from The Allegory Of the Cave, which I highly recommend you mull over a bit.

Categories: musical development, philosophy, songwriting

One Comment on “How To Write Music”

  1. – Write something.
    – Listen to it. Hear what you like.
    – Use that as a starting point for the next track.

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