Music studios are notoriously unhealthy environments. Low lighting, stale air, computer screens and overexposure to loud volumes eventually take their toll on mental and physical well being. In this article, we’ll highlight some of the tried and tested methods designed to avoid bad health, anxiety, depression and the eventual demise of our beloved music makers, music producers and engineers.
1. Stay Fit. Don’t Sit.
Not for too long, anyhow. Being sedentary is a sure-fire way to drastically decrease lifespan and show signs of premature ageing. Take regular breaks from the seated position. And why not listen to those latest demos on a mobile device while out for a run? Or take a cue from legendary Sound Designer, Walter Murch and work standing up. It hasn’t hurt him in his 50 year studio career!
2. It’s Never Too Late to Rehydrate.
The standard daytime liquid refreshment in the recording studio is tea and coffee. Depending on the client, this may be replaced by something a little more alcoholic as the session wears on. But all of these drinks are diuretic and actually speed up dehydration by excreting water from the body. That’s why you need to drink plain old H2O. Up to 8 glasses a day is recommended. There are loads of benefits including better looking skin and healthier kidneys. Other advantages include the price. Apart from the bottled variety, it flows pretty much for free!
3. Light Up Your Life
It’s a sad fact that many recording studios don’t feature too many windows. Glass being the arch-enemy of sound frequencies, n’all. So it’s important to get a daily dose of sun rays, or at the very least, daylight. Before, during or (less likely) after your time in the studio. Even 15 minutes exposure to daylight daily can increase bone density and benefit mental health. Supplement this with a boost of Vitamin D and by eating plenty of greens like spinach, artichokes and broccoli (see no. 5) and soon you’ll notice a real difference in mood. And what’s more, it comes with fresh air, too.
4. Living The Screen.
Look around you. Probably right now you’re surrounded by screens. Computers, cell phones and laptops. All throwing out billions of pixels worth of electric light straight down your poor tired retinas. Screens can damage eyesight and cause insomnia. They can also drain energy levels making you feel tired, yet unable to sleep. Adjust the brightness to the lowest level possible and try apps like F.lux that adapts the display to the time of day and loads of other funky stuff. Too.
During a lunch break, why not ditch the phone altogether and buy a newspaper? It’s a great way to spend some time away from screens and to keep in touch with reality (depending on the paper, of course!).
5. Eat to The Beat
OK, here’s another impossible goal when you have demanding clients and stupid deadlines to meet. But a healthy diet is so important if you want to live long enough to reap the benefits of all this studio work you’re doing. And, yes, even most takeaways have a healthy option these days. But just be aware that it’s still highly processed food and will be crammed with salt, sugar and fat. Better to fall in love with preparing your own food. Studying nutritional eating habits like the Mediterranean Diet or Wholefoods. Switching to mono saturated oleic acid fats found in olive oil and avocados. Stepping up the vegetables, whole grains, pulses and oily fish. There are even healthy option food delivery services like Just Eat and Deliveroo. Keep your diet healthy and your body will thank you in so many ways.
6. All Things In Moderation.
OK, let’s not get too preachy and matriarchal. But if you’ve spent a lifetime in recording studios, one thing becomes clear. Excessive vices will eventually derail your career. It’s great for a period. Take as many drugs as you like. Drink as much alcohol. But eventually the industry will turn its back on you, because your work, physical health and mental well being will suffer. It becomes unsociable. Untenable. And before you realise what’s happening, it’s over. All things in moderation is a good mantra. Stay conscious of your consumption. Before it’s too late and addiction comes along and gets the better of you. If you think you may have a problem already. Please follow these links.
7. Find Time to Work It Out.
With such a sedentary lifestyle, workouts are essential and there will often be a gym within driving distance of most studio locations. A daily 45 minute class of aerobic exercise such as Spinning, Body Fitness, Circuit Training or Kettlebells can wash away the anxiety of the day and lead to positive, inspirational states of mind. Helping solve problems, clearing writers block and changing perspective. Don’t be Macho about it. Sometimes classes aimed at a female crowd can be just as tough and demanding as male workouts. Pilates, Yoga. Even Zumba. It’s healthy, exhilarating and great social fun. Try anything!
8. Stay In. Work Out.
Yes, there’s no excuses. You can easily turn your studio space into a makeshift gym. All you need is a fitness mat, squats, star jumps, sit ups and (the dreaded) burpees. And hey, a staircase is the cheapest gym in the world. When you get a taste for studio workouts, you just won’t want to quit.
Get others to join in. (They won’t, but, y’know. Try anyhow.)
9. Bed Time is Head Time.
To keep thoughts in order and a good mental regime, it’s important to get a full night’s rest. This is so difficult to achieve in an industry fated with over running sessions and after hours jobs like comping, editing, post production and mastering. But there comes a time when you must prioritise your own well being and part of that is ensuring that your working hours are kept regular and uniform from day to day. With a healthy 8 hour kip, you’ll be ready for the next day’s nose to the grindstone and be more confident to face another bunch of demanding musicians.
10. And Relax.
So there are a few ideas of how to keep your mental and physical health on track while in the recording studio. There are lots more, of course! You could try avoiding caffeine altogether by drinking anti oxidants like Green Tea. You could take care of your spine, by improving your posture while sitting at the mixing desk. You could eat more fibre to improve cholesterol levels and digestion. And yes. It’s difficult, it’s hard going it’s bordering on impossible sometimes to do any of these things. But here’s hoping you’ll find one or two new ideas to stimulate and inspire you and improve your chances of having a long and happy career in that sometimes crazy, sometimes wonderful place. The recording studio.
Simon Power is a sound designer & composer for BBC’s Doctor Who audio dramas. He is signed to Banco De Gaia’s Disco Gecko record label and as Dream Valley Music he produces music cues for all types of visual media. He is recently a credited composer on the Emmy nominated Amazon Prime series, Conversations in LA.
The prior post concerned the three major modes which are designated by their major 5ths. The minor modes are similarly designated by their minor 5ths. Each has a unique history and flavor, but they share the familiar minor darkness of emotion in common. From the bittersweetness of the Dorian, the tense power of the Phrygian, to the floating lunacy of the Locrian, they all hold a distinct place as one of our seven modern modes.
Mode II: Dorian
The first minor mode is the second of seven modes (three major and 4 minor) – named Dorian. In C major the sequence of notes begins on D: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. It’s intervals are very similar to the natural minor scale (known as the Aeolian), but it has a raised 6th note. This raised 6th is the peculiarity of the Dorian mode that gives it a special feel, wistful but not tragic, due to the brighter interval from the raised 6th. The sequence of steps is W, H, W, W, W, H, W (with W being whole-step and H being half-step) laid out in a symmetrical manner with the three wholetones in the middle bordered by halftones and ending on each with a whole tone.
The Dorian scale derives its name from the Dorian Greeks, who are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as living on the island of Crete. It was a scale during the Greek period and one of the church modes of the Middle Ages, as well as existing in a current modern form. Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) gave prominence to the Dorian mode when studying the structure of folk songs and dubbed the mode the “Russian minor.” Tracks of recent era seem to have a dark but hopeful sense to them, sad but not crushingly desolate. To me, at least, these songs share a common sound and I suppose it’s because they all employ the Dorian mode: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Evil Ways” by Santana, and “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel. If your in the mood to compose something in this vein, play around with the Dorian mode.
Mode III: Phrygian
Phrygian, the second minor mode, is the third of the seven modes. In C major the sequence of the notes begins on E: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Like the Dorian mode, the Phrygian is nearly identical to the Aeolian, but with a flat 2nd, giving the interval a dark and tense feel. This note sequence is especially tasty for metal tracks as with “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica. This flat 2nd gives the Phrygian it’s unique characteristics, unexpected by most modern listeners accustomed to the normal whole step from the first to the second notes in both the normal major and minor scales (Ionian and Aeolian), giving an impending negative mood.
Interestingly, it has the same notes as F minor, a common key in horror scores. The sequence of steps is H, W, W, W, H, W, W, and its sequence gives mysterious sounding mode and also coined the “Gypsy mode.” The notes constitute an E minor chord OR an E major, which with a C major scale played on top is reminiscent of “Spanish Music” as guitarist John Heussenstamm demonstrates:
The Phrygian mode is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Greece. Its music contributed to Greek musical traditions through Greek colonies and the mode is associated with combat and war. In fact, according to scholars the ethnic name Phrygian describes the wild and passionate people of the mountainous regions in Anatolia. It would make sense then, that the music derived from this mode does not fit neatly into the traditionally common Western Ionic/Aeolian box, being of the strange and the wild. Also, it’s not surprising that it lends itself to heavy metal with it’s wildness and power.
Mode VI: Aeolian
The Aeolian is the third minor mode, the sixth of the seven modes. Its series of pitches corresponds to the natural minor scale in Western music. In 1547, music scholar Henricus Glareanus first named and described the Aeolian in his treatise on music Dodecachordon. He added to the eight church modes that had dominated for 600 years to include newer major and minor modes and the Aeolian was one of the four (the others being Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and the Hypionian). The Aeolian used A as its tonic and matches the current minor of C major: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A with flats on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th. As with the other modes, Aeolian was named after an ancient Greek ethnicity – the inhabitants of Aeolis on the Aeolian Islands.
The sound and feel of the Aeolian mode, ie the minor scale, is commonly known even among non-musicians. It quite simply is the opposite of the major scale. While the major scale, the Ionian, is bright, happy, cherry and optimistic, the Aeolian is dark, sad, foreboding, and heavy. Often songwriters will move from a major scale to its minor counterpart during a transition or bridge. Again, it is striking that simply by rearranging the exact same notes from Ionian to Aeolian one can create an incredibly different sound and feel. REM’s “Losing My Religion” is in Aeolian, the natural minor:
Mode VII: Locrian
The fourth minor mode is the Locrian, the final of the entire seven modes. The triad based on its tonic is a diminished chord and is dissonant from B to F and termed a “tritone” – an interval of three whole tones. B is the tonic with the intervals H, W, W, H, W, W, W and the notes B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B. While Glareanus in 1547 happily added Aeolian to the canon of acceptable modes, the Locrian was left out, as it attempts to resolve on the B and creates the dissonant tritone. The mode is named after the Greek regions of Locris. Yet while the name Locrian harkens back to this era, it is rarely used and finding examples of its use difficult.
The dissonant tritone was not accepted into music for centuries as it fell under the label “diabolus in musica,” meaning the devil in the music. The tritone, and hence the Locrian, was forbidden until the Baroque era when it was used within limit. The sound of the Locrian can be sinister and unsettling as it is used over half-diminished chords and has the same pitches as B-flat Aeolian and D-flat Ionian. It uses notes and combinations of notes not in the norm of western music and tends to be avoided unless perhaps one wants something very horrific and disturbing. Some musicians, heavy metal of course, do use the mode as a scale to build riffs such as in “Sandman” by Metallica as noted by Christopher Smith on “What are some of pieces that use the Locrian mode” on quora.com.
Smith goes on to explain that, as stated, the Locrian mode doesn’t sit well with Western ears, but that it is used frequently in the music of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. He mentions that some Egyptian and Persian melodies in the folk tradition adhere to the Locrian mode. He writes further that three techniques have been used to solve the resolution problem with the chord cadence in the Locrian. 1. Just end on an octave note, not a final chord. 2. Use a minor chord to end instead of the diminished, but only in the final chord. 3. End on a flat 6th chord which suits as an ending yet leaves the piece feeling not quite resolved. In Western music though, it can be used to rock as with this demo of “In Your Words” by Lamb of God.
Because of this open-ended and unappealing feel of the Locrian mode, it has been called a “theoretical mode.” In other words, it exists in theory just as fine and dandy as the other modes, but in practice it is not widely used. It comes down to theory. In this case since the Locrian does not have a perfect 5th it sounds basically terrible and is unable to resolve if one intends to adhere to it perfectly, which essentially no one does. The mode is reminiscent of the Lydian major mode in that it floats rather than grounds itself. And, perfectly, Bjork, who uses the Lydian mode a bit in “Possibly Maybe,” also uses the Locrian in “Army of Me” briefly in the bassline. This makes sense of course as Bjork is the quintessential experimenter.
What is striking about these modes and their unique characters and the emotions that they elicit is this: they point to a pre-existing structure and pull us toward obeying that structure. A perfect fifth is a necessity, at least in Western music, or it sounds dissonant. Why? As with Hans Jenny’s work discussed in another blog post here on Cymatics, there is evidence of pre-existing order that humans are tapping into. To me, it’s the same question I ask regarding math. Did we invent math or did we discover it? Did we invent music or did we discover it?
Welcome to Part II of this blog discussion on David Tame’s The Secret Power of Music. Part I explained Tame’s main point of the initial part of his book. Namely, that music among the ancients, that philosophies that can be traced up to the present time, was considered an essential part of the source of the universe and a way for the divine to manifest in human beings, and for humans to spread the goodness and harmony of the universe on earth. While Tame’s book covers many aspects and variations of music across world cultures throughout time, it boils down to two conflicting musical conceptions: the divine and ordered nature of music among the ancients up to the 19th century vs. the individualistic and disordered conception and creation of music since then. The second part of Tame’s book drifts from classical music into the experimentalism of the 19th and 20th centuries and ends in discussions of jazz, “computer music,” and rock and roll. While in the end, it is rather obvious that Tame’s affection lies in the divinely inspired music of the ancients, the book in its entirety is worth understanding as it covers a broad swath of musical inventiveness.
Onward from the ancients
Tame moves from ancient China, which regarded music as an expression of “god” into the Middle Ages, Baroque, and Classical music. While he admits creativity and inventiveness throughout these ages, his main point that adheres all is that in each period music continued to be viewed as a means to promote spirituality among mankind as in the Middle Ages and/or at the very least to elevate the nature of humanity. As for the Middle Ages, music was used by the church to spread Christian ideals. During this time, the Church was the primary means of sustaining “serious music. Tame mentions the use of “plainsong,” is music sung without accompaniment, such as Gregorian chants. The liturgy was used as text for the vocals and thus religious and ideals were taught and reiterated through music. An example of plainsong:
In addition, “organum” developed on top of plainsong with the addition of a second harmonic voice. It was the beginning of polyphonic music and spread quickly throughout Europe, employed religiously in great cathedrals. In this case, the power of music was used to sway congregations toward the ideals of the Catholic church:
Both plainsong and organum inspired the subsequent classical and romantic composers to create out of altruism and ideals of sanctity. Like the ancient Chinese mentioned in Part 1, Western music was meant to inspire a connection between the human world and the greater cosmos or “God.”
Constrained but innovative in the 18th and 19th centuries
Stieler, Joseph Karl: Beethoven with the Missa solemnis Ölgemälde, 1819
From here Tame briefly covers the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His main point is that the music of Haydn, Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven were saturated with the goal of spreading “spirituality, joy, and brotherhood.” Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were replete with divinity in the perfect mathematical harmonies, their gorgeous melodies, and powerful rhythms that mirrored the vibrations of the greater universe. According to Tame, Mozart, as a Free Mason, ensured that Masonic symbolism and spiritual ideals were embedded in his work which culminated in the Magic Flute. Beethoven’s work, which called secular by some, is also renowned as spiritual in nature. His nine symphonies relate to transcendence and his five final string quartets understood to be mystical. Still, throughout the 19th century, the power of music continued to be used for “higher” moral purposes.
However, at the end of the nineteenth century, Tame further explains that the higher purpose of music began to go astray. The beginnings of change were brought on by experiments with technique, not a purposeful harnessing of the power of music for other purposes. Western music, though it had been used for centuries by the Church and for “morality” nevertheless did not have a code requiring musicians to play only certain music, as did the ancients. Therefore, over time, innovations occurred, led by the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. Their musical experiments were met with criticism and Tame mentions Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as a target of tradition. He created alternative parts to sway the critics and only after many decades that his avant-garde work was appreciated. During this time, composers introduced new instruments, increased rhythmic complexity, used tones more freely and modulated freely, though still obeying traditional rules of tonality. Wagner did modulate himself into a freedom from key in his later works as Tame notes.
The 20th century unleashes a new understanding: Art for art’s sake
The Secret Power of Music undergoes a major shift at this point as it delves into the musical developments of the 20th century. At this point, Tame states that composers no longer created music with a philosophical or moral purpose. But, instead, had different artistic reasons to create. Music was now drifting away from it’s spiritual based moorings and instead focused on the mental, emotional, and even physical elements of human experience. Human intellectualism began to replace the sacred math and spiritual symbolism of the past. Instead of experimenting to improve the quality of their music, the great age of experimentation began, experimenting for its own sake. Tame describes the “vertical” line of music in the past, from human to the heavens, as being replaced with a “horizontal” line from human to human. Here Tame covers one of the first realist composers Mussorgsky (1839-81) who emphasized connecting with the “people,” the real world of mankind. Tame likens him to the 19th century Jack Kerouac, a beat poet who emphasized individualism and a lack of rules. Tchaikovsky is mentioned next as a tortured artist due to his homosexuality (apparently according to Tame) who further expressed the personal emotions of anguish in his music. And, through him, we reach Igor Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring, which is heralded as revolutionary. The main focus when studying this work is academic, which Tame bemoans as lacking any sense of spirituality. At this point, the author seems to be implying that all sense of the “true power” of music has been stripped away.
The caging of music
Unsurprisingly, the book turns to perhaps the most influential 20th-century composer, John Cage (1912- ). Tame describes the power of Cage’s musical efforts – his plethora of produced sounds, his prominence and length of his career, the sub-movements he inspired, and Cage’s own philosophy as the “arch-enemy of spiritual idealism.” Undeniable, Cage took the creation of music to never before considered and unforeseen levels. His first renowned work, Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939) is a composition for “for records of constant and variable frequency, large Chinese cymbal and string piano.” This piece marks a great departure from past orchestral compositions in that it was not meant to be played live, rather recorded and broadcast, and it only required four people rather than a full orchestra. The composition is six minutes in duration with one movement. Two performers controlled turntables of variable-speed, one a muted piano, and one a Chinese cymbal at a constant tempo (another variation from music of the past which utilized changes in tempo.)
Cage of course continued to experiment and actively worked to deconstruct musical notions of the past. In the 1942 Credo In Us Cage required the use of a record player that would play a classical piece in tandem with jazz or other contemporary music. The performer was required to lift the needle from time to time, chopping apart the classical piece throughout. During the 1940s, Cage fully introduced the “prepared piano.” These pianos were altered by placing objects inside, resting on strings which included pieces of wood, nuts and bolts and other hardware. For this he is most famously known. Cage also reveled in composing by chance, using dice and alter computer-generated randomness. Cage himself deserves, of course, an entire book, surely have been written.
At this point, I can lend a story of my own. Yes me, the author of this blog. In college I was fortunate enough to witness a performance of a Cage piece at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. My music theory professor brought us there as he knew it could be our only change to ever see Cage speak, as he was there that evening. There are two are distinct moments that I remember. One, Cage recalled a mishap on stage once in which he was too near a massive speaker which suddenly emitted massive feedback and he lost his hearing for a few days. When asked how he felt about the experience, Cage said something akin to: “Wonderful, I got to hear a really really loud sound.” The second moment was during the Q&A when a music student asked Cage if he had any advice for an aspiring composer to which he replied, “You have to love sound. You have to love sound with your whole heart.” That is the power of music, in all it’s deafening force and all of its allure.
Throughout The Secret Power of Music, it becomes apparent where Tame stands. While his book is an excellent and detailed explanation of the evolution of music, he criticism of revolutionary thought in the 20th century falls a bit flat. While Tame attempts to paint 20th century music as some sort of fall from grace, a tumbling of human morality away from the divine, it is clear that Tame’s own biases shine through.
In Part One, I discussed how to make the most of your creativity by effectively setting a writing schedule that coincides with your creative peaks during the day, having a plan when you sit down to compose, and how to go about setting up some of the fundamentals in a new piece of music. But there are more ways to enhance your creative output both in quality and quantity than just having a schedule and picking what key to write a piece in.
In this article, Part 2, I will discuss a topic that plagues composers, young and experienced alike, without effective strategies to combat them: The pre-compositional process. I will also give a disclaimer here that I a primarily create art music, although many of these strategies could easily be applied to commercial music or any other genre.
Let’s get down to it. I have some bad habits as a composer, habits that make it difficult sometimes to write music. Hopefully this article is a place where you can learn from my mistakes, because I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to write better quality music more efficiently. I have found myself resorting, in the past, to sitting down with pencil (or computer mouse) in hand, blank staves in front of me, waiting expectantly for a good idea to jump out of my head onto the page. As if I’m going to start writing notes in measure one, write them in order until the piece is over, and have a satisfactory piece of music sitting in front of me. If you have ever tried this you will probably agree that it is a difficult way to get the creative juices flowing. What you need to start is a concept, an overarching idea, of what the project looks like. The more ideas you can get down in this stage, called the “pre-compositional process,” the less work you have to do when actually writing the music out and getting to that final product. Below are seven strategies that I have collected from professors, friends, and my own experiences on how to pre-compose. I have tried all of these to varying degrees of success, but not every process works for every composer, or even for every piece of music, so I’m sharing all of them with you in hopes that at least one might make you a better creator of sound.
1. Graphic Overview
Have you ever found yourself with a really great idea for a piece of music, but by the time you start writing it the initial idea starts to lose focus? If I were a music doctor, I would probably diagnose you with a forethought deficiency. One method of pre-composition that I have found to be particularly effective at combating this is a graphical overview. This is a really good way to get down a large quantity of general ideas, without becoming bogged down by the specificity of melodic or harmonic plans. You can use lines and other symbols to indicate instruments, register, textures, and essentially any other musical components that you think of, over a linear timeline. This way you can see the shape of a whole piece from the start, and then gradually fill in specific notes, and work gradually towards a final piece of music. This is also a common technique used in the analysis of 20th century art music, because textures and large formal ideas are often easily represented by chronological graphical representation. An example of such that I found useful in the past can be seen in this visual analysis of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), uploaded to YouTube by user carlintuitive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7HD-95knVQ
2. Word Sketch
A word sketch is something that works well for people who organize their thoughts better in writing than in images, although this method can easily be combined with a graphic sketch. This method involves creating a written outline of a piece, identifying key sections of the piece and subsequent detail in as much depth as you need. For example, you might indicate under a section titled “Development” that the strings enter with an ominous diminished chord while the trumpet plays a blaring melody in the upper register. This particular syntax does not indicate specific notes or harmonies, but it does evoke a clear musical image and mood that will be easily recalled when you are filling in all the details later.
3. Sample Mock-up
This method of precomposition is different than the others listed in this article because it relies on using pre-existing music to create new musical forms. Essentially what this method accomplishes is the creation of a temp track for your music. Begin by thinking of what kind of mood or style of music you would like to evoke with your own piece. Then find a piece of music that already accomplishes this. Cut an excerpt that represents the duration you want for your own piece from this one into your favorite digital audio workstation (DAW).
Continue in this manner for each section of your piece and splice them together with crossfades or other appropriate transitions, and in no time you can have an overview of the shape of the piece you want to create. This is a very fast way to work, and to draw clear inspiration from existing music that you enjoy and wish to emulate. The risk of this method is the same as working with any temp track: it is easy to become limited by the pre-existing musical materials. If you use this method, use it only as a quick, initial step into something that involves more of your original content.
4. Emotive overview
Similar to a word sketch, an emotive overview is something that I have used specifically for collaborative projects. For example, if I were writing a five minute cue in conjunction with a visual media (film or TV), how the music makes the listener feel is going to be very important. If they should feel at ease, stressed out, pumped up, etc., these are all emotive cues that are vital to take into account during the pre-compositional process. Create a sequential map of how the audience should feel over the given duration and make some decisions on how you are going to get there, particularly if the changes in mood are abrupt or there are a lot of them. This also holds true for concert music. In the absence of a multimedia presentation (i.e. traditional concert music), the emotive content almost needs to be more blatant because there aren’t visuals enforcing extra-musical ideas on the observers.
5. Motivic Outline
Jumping right into writing some music down is great if you just came up with a great melody or musical fragment. How you take that motive and manipulate it over time though, is what separates amateur music from professional music. Even a short motive of four notes, when properly placed temporally and masterfully manipulated can drive an entire piece of music. If you don’t believe me, listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So what you can do is take your motive, and make a list of all the possible ways to manipulate it: transpositions, reordering of notes, retrograde, inversions, rhythmic expansions and contractions, etc. Decide on what versions of the motive you like and how you want to present them over time. Whether you are writing EDM, indie-rock, or neo-classical art music, melody is going to be a driving factor and having a clear picture of how to treat it over time is something to think about up front. This will save you many headaches as you set out to write.
6. Meet with Performers
If you are writing concert music, as I primarily do, meet with performers that play the instruments you are writing for, particularly if you are not familiar with the instruments. This is a good opportunity to build connections and learn what different performers are capable of, because in the rapidly expanding world of extended techniques there are an infinite number of sonic possibilities for instrumentalists. Not only will you be able to test some preliminary compositional ideas with them, but the collaborative nature of such a meeting might also provide you with further inspiration and direction on a piece of music. I have found this method to be particularly useful in my own experience, having recently written a piece for solo bassoon this way. It was severely lacking in direction, but then I met with a bassoonist, talked over some ideas I had for the piece, and within 24 hours the entire thing had been written.
A lot of what has already been said in this article about the pre-compositional process could be categorized as “brainstorming.” However, going beyond strategies for starting to write a piece, actually brain-storming should not be overlooked. Give yourself enough time without distraction to just think about music. Let your mind wander and have liberty to stumble upon interesting inspirations and ideas. In a world that moves very fast technologically, we are often too overwhelmed by notifications, emails, and deadlines to just stop and think for a few minutes. In part one of this article, I talked about how Tchaikovsky would go on a walk every morning, feeding the birds and enjoying nature as he gathered compositional inspiration. It was an integral step in his pre-compositional process. I would highly recommend doing something of similar effect – it will clear the mind in a way that more easily permits creativity. I can almost guarantee that you will find yourself writing more effective music if you do this.
A Few Tips
Don’t spend too much time on this part of the process. If you can, get it all out in one sitting. Breaking up a pre-compositional session might result in losing a train of thought that could take days or weeks to get back, if at all.
Pre-writing is also a great anti-writer’s block strategy. If the piece is well-laid out ahead of time, it’s going to be a lot less likely that you will hit a wall and not know what to do.
Don’t be afraid of trial and error. One of the best parts about living in the digital age is the flexibility we have when it comes to creativity. If you want to hear what two melodic ideas sound like when they are overlapped, just drag them on top of each other in your DAW or engraving software and play it back. It takes virtually no time at all, and simply experimenting with positioning, layering, and effects can sometimes lead to really interesting and unexpected results. Chances are, no one else is watching you compose. If you end up with something that sounds like garbage, just Ctrl+Z and try something else, no harm done.
I hope that you have found some new strategies here to begin writing your own music and I wish you the best of luck in your compositional endeavors!
About the Author: Lukas Stanley is a composer, violist, and music educator in Michigan. As an active composer since 2006, his works are written primarily for local concert performances. However, he is also passionate about creating new music for film, video games, and other collaborative projects. To find out more or to contact Lukas, visit his website at www.lukasstanley.com
As I’m writing this article, my target audience is composers / musicians who would like to get into the business of writing music for stock music / production music, and who does not yet fully understand the way in which the administration of your Mechanical Rights through an organization such as GEMA, MCPS, STEMRA etc. basically prevents you from being able to sell / license your music as stock music.
To manufacture a disc that contains music, you need to obtain the Mechanical Rights.
First of all, what are Mechanical Rights administration organizations?
Many composers, at one time or another, decides to join one or more societies or organizations that help them to police and administer their rights as a composer. Such organizations include ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, PRS, MCPS, GEMA, SIAE, BUMA/STEMRA, TONO, APRA and many others.
Some of these organizations administer Performing Rights (meaning your right to some income when your music is performed in public or broadcast on TV/Radio), whilst other organizations administer Mechanical Rights (meaning your right to some income when your music is duplicated on physical media such as DVD, Blu-Ray, CD).
Then there are some organizations that administer both Performing Rights and Mechanical Rights.
Mechanical Rights is where the conflict with stock music / production music happens.Why? Because the license sold by the stock music website / production music library overlaps with the exclusive administration that you have assigned to the Mechanical Rights organization when you joined them as a member.
When a stock music site / production music library sells a track to a customer, they sell a license which allows the customer to put the music in a film/game, and then to go ahead and make physical copies of this film/game. For example, at Shockwave-Sound.com when you buy the Standard License for a track, you may put the music to a film/game and then manufacture up to 5,000 copies of that product. For more than 5,000 copies, you need the Extended License. Most other stock music sites operate with something similar, although perhaps slightly different license configurations. The stock music site sells a license to the customer, which includes mechanical reproduction rights.
The issue here is that, if you are a member of an organization that administers your Mechanical Rights, then that organization has the exclusive administration of your Mechanical Rights, and that organization is the only one that can issue such a license.
With Performing rights this problem doesn’t come up, because the stock music site doesn’t get involved with the performing license. The License that the stock music site sells is a Sync License (the right to put your music to film or other media) and a Mechanical License (the right to reproduce physical copies of that film or other media).
If that film should end up being broadcast on TV or in a cinema, your Performing Rights organization should collect performing royalties for you and you will get these royalties from your Performing Rights organization — but this doesn’t really affect the stock music customer / user in any way, because these royalties come from annually paid blanket license fees that broadcasters pay to the Performing Rights organization in their own country.
To sum up, if you are a member of an organization that administers your Mechanical Rights, you cannot have your music sold as stock music / production music from Shockwave-Sound.com or from other stock music sites. Any company that sells your track to a customer and thereby allows that customer to manufacture physical copies of your music, is doing so in violation of the exclusive Mechnical Rights administration that you have assigned to the Mechanical Rights organization when you signed the contract with them.
When I first started out in the stock music business, I was both the composer and also the stock music business owner. I was a member of PRS (Performing Rights Society) and MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) which are the UK organization for Performing Rights and Mechanical Rights respectively.
One day I got a telephone call from an Italian customer. She had licensed my music track from my website, used it in a film, had the film put to DVD, manufactured 10,000 copies of that film in a professional DVD pressing plant, and a few weeks later she received a huge invoice from SIAE, the Italian organization who looks after both Performing Rights and Mechanical Rights in Italy. The bill she got was for Mechanical Reproduction Rights for 10,000 copies of my music, and the bill was many times larger than the amount that she had paid me to license the music from my stock music site.
It was this episode that really made me sit up and force myself to learn about these different rights and organizations, and how they affected my ability to license my music as stock music. After a bit of to and from, I believe I managed to talk MCPS into letting the client off the hook so she didn’t have to pay after I explained the whole thing as a misunderstanding to MCPS and SIAE, the Italian rights collections society.
I ended up quitting my MCPS membership but remaining a member PRS. Since then, I’ve had no problem. Since terminating my contract with MCPS, there is no longer any organization that has the exclusive administration of my Mechanical Rights.
In USA, I believe all three societies: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are all Performing Rights based and do not administer Mechanical Rights (somebody correct me if I’m wrong?)
In the UK, the organization for Performing Rights is called PRS For Music and the organization for Mechanical Rights is called MCPS. If you are a member of PRS, you may want to check if you also joined MCPS at the same time.
In Italy you’re dealing with SIAE and in Germany you have GEMA, and I believe both of these are organizations that take care of both Performing Rights and Mechanical Rights, so really if you are member of SIAE or GEMA, you can’t have your music sold as stock music — although you may be able to sign a special addendum to the Agreement that you have with them, which would make them administer only your Performing Rights, and not your Mechanical Rights – you need to contact GEMA/SIAE to inquire about this.
In the Netherlands, I believe BUMA is for the Performing Rights and STEMRA is for Mechanical Rights, so you may want to make sure that you have signed a contract only with BUMA, and not with STEMRA.
Sweden, Denmark and Norway each have their own organizations for Performing Rights (STIM, KODA and TONO respectively), but they share one Mechanical Rights organization called Ncb (Nordic Copyright Bureau) which administers Mechanical Rights. So if you want to try to sell your music as stock music, make sure you’re not in Ncb.
If you have specific and confirmed information about similar situations with the organizations in other countries than the ones I have mentioned above, please feel free to comment below. If it’s good info, I will include it here in the main article too.