Now don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of a masterfully
played grand piano or open chords strummed on an acoustic guitar, but
sometimes that just doesn’t work. Perhaps you’re writing just
for yourself, a commission, or a media project… either way, these
4 tips will help give you refreshing ideas for creating unique musical
1. Write it Different
What exactly do I mean by this? Well it’s actually quite subjective
(as most of this article will be) because I don’t know what “normal”
is to you; I can only assume that there are a set of “rules”
that we are all familiar with and tend to follow when writing (whether
it be consciously or not). So, when I recommend writing differently than
you’re use to it could mean any of the following.
A good composer should know what it is idiomatic on
the instruments he is writing for, so I recommend consciously writing
something that isn’t. For example, certain closed piano voicings
are ridiculously difficult or almost impossible to play on guitar
(quite obvious when you have 10 fingers available vs 4). However,
you can change the tuning of the strings on the guitar so that you
(or the performer) is now able to play these unique voicings.
- Do you always tend to write huge thematic melodies that soar sky-high?
How about switching the roles of the musical ranges and using the bass
clef for most of your melody work? I just recently did this for a project
(as I was developing a theme through multiple ranges) and was pleasantly
surprised with the outcome. A simple change like this (even when keeping
the melody/harmony exactly the same) can give you drastically different
results and evoke dramatically different emotions from the listener.
- Change your writing location/time! I just recently became aware of
the fact that I write about 70% of the time around midnight or later
right in my home studio. My whole studio has a unique “mood”
to it and has seemed to permeate through everything I’ve created
from there (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just not “appropriate”
for certain projects). However, my home studio is not the ideal environment
for a “Sunshiny-Bubbly-Happy-Time” type of piece. For that,
I forced myself (as if it were difficult haha) to write while sitting
outside under the shade of a tree. The results were quite different
and I believe a large chunk of that is owed to the change in my physical
location when writing.
2. Play it Different
A majority of us here are performers as well as composers and most likely
play at least a few different instruments. So, I’d like to talk
about a few different ways you can “play” your instrument
differently or more accurately instruct your performers/session musicians
to play the written notes in a unique way.
- First and foremost, if you tend to write a lot of Arco/Pizz. string
lines, then why not switch it up with some Col Legno or maybe even instruct
them to play at the bridge (Sul Ponticello)? As a general “rule”,
if you’re playing an instrument that has been around for centuries,
then there have been quite a few composers before you that have gone
through a ton of different experiments to find unique musical colours.
So, use this to your advantage and do some quick review reading in your
- Use a different “attack” device. If you play guitar,
who says you have to use a pick or just your nails? Why not use that
pick for some heavy duty Pizz. Picking on a viola? Perhaps you could
do some “ricochet” w/ the wood of a viola bow on your guitar
while holding down chord shapes? The possibilities are endless, so use
another instruments “attack” device or find something that
wouldn’t normally be considered a musical device at all!
- Approach the instrument differently. I have a few friends that prefer
to play their guitar like a piano (using both hands as well). The unique
colours (not to mention melody/harmony combinations) they create are
phenomenal. Perhaps you can think of your piano more as a percussion
instrument for a certain piece, rather than that which would usually
play melody/harmony? I bet with that mindset, you could come up with
some great new colours. In fact, HERE is a link to a song I composed
using “slap” techniques on a guitar tuned to DADGAD.
3. Record it Different
Just like everyone has a unique compositional voice, everyone seems
to have a different opinion on recording. Many believe that there are
set rules/guidelines that must be learned and followed a majority of the
time to create great recordings. Then there are others who believe it
can’t really be taught at all, but must be learned through experience
and a majority of the “rules” are garbage. My opinion lies
somewhat in the middle.
- Use different mics. There are tons of mics out there which are “specialty”
mics and are usually only used for recording vocals or only guitar,
etc. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use those mics
for anything different. Why can’t you use that high end vocal
mic to record a cello? Who is to put a limit on how many or what mics
you use if you end up liking the end result?
- Use different mic positions. Have a huge basement or garage and want
some more depth to your snare or other random percussion instruments?
Setup a mic at the end, one in the middle and one up close. Do you like
to hear the percussive attack of a guitar? Position a mic closer to
the picking hand and fret board (if you like to hear the slides from
chord changes) to hear more of the performer come through on the track.
4. Mix it Different
This can cover everything from effects & EQ to Reverb & even
your system/method of mixing. First I’d like to talk about the more
obvious and perhaps more easily changed options when mixing. Mixing (as
pretty much everything else I’ve spoken about) is quite subjective,
as I know many guitarists that would boost certain frequencies when EQing
their lead guitar track and yet there are many others (just as “qualified”)
that would scoff at their choice. So, I recommend becoming aware and keeping
track of your tendencies when mixing.
- Do you tend to roll off the bass of all your violin tracks? Is there
one reverb preset that you tend to use more than any other? Do you tend
to use the same distortion/pedal effects for you guitar parts? Keep
track of all of this (physically writing it down is recommended) and
identify the things that are a part of your sound and which tendencies
can be “manipulated” to help you reach the goal of creating
unique musical colours.
- There are of course many other factors that come into play when mixing,
but the other major “event” in the process that I recommend
changing, is your system of mixing. I know that when I mix, I like to
have everything very organized in their unique groups (aka strings,
brass, electric percussion, etc.). However, if my goal is to create
something completely new and unique I may tweak (don’t need to
necessarily overhaul the system) those groups. So, now instead of organizing
the groups by instrument sections, I could perhaps organize them by
their relevance or importance to the piece. Perhaps the first violins
would be grouped with a sitar and thus my whole approach to the individual
(and the entire) mix would be much different than if I had kept my previous
I’m sure that there are many more variables in each one of these
topics that I have not addressed (Probably many more topics as well!).
However, this should be a great starting point to help you create some
unique musical colours and anything I have left out could perhaps be material
for a later article ?. Until then, I wish you all the best and if you
learn anything at all from this article, let it be this: Don’t be
afraid to ask questions.
Take care and keep composing fellow artists!