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Notes and Emotions: The Major Modes

Notes and Emotions: The Major Modes

Music Modes Chart and Circle of Fifths by Endorpheus

Musical modes are variations of musical scales by moving the tonic (the root note) up or down a number of degrees and beginning the scale from that new starting point, while retaining the same notes of the scale. As with everything human made or discovered, the modern modes have a long history behind them. The concept began in ancient Greece and underwent stages in which they grew from 4 modes to 12 over the centuries. Early Christian, Jewish and Eastern cultures contributed to what became known as the “church modes of the Middle Ages” in Europe. Today, the modes retain their original Greek names: the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.

These seven modes can be transposed onto our current twelve note system to create all twelve keys. Various modes are used throughout all musical styles, heavily for example in jazz, but by musicians of all other genres as well. Each mode within each key creates a different emotional feel elicited from the listener due to the various intervals played. There is agreement that certain abstract concepts and emotions such as “triumphant,” “somber,” and “exotic” can be attributed specifically to certain modes. Each one has its own character. When combining each mode to each key we have a plethora of possible variations with which to approach music composition and improvisation.

Music makes the mood/mode

The idea that modes produce emotions is ancient and goes even further: that exposure to certain modes influences behavior. The great Plato himself believed that soldiers should only listen to Dorian Phrygian modes which elicit strong powerful vibes, but not Lydian or Ionian as they to feel more dreamlike, innocent – not qualities wanted in warfare. Like the ancient Chinese concept of a people’s music representing the behavior of the people themselves, Plato felt that music can also go the other way and influence the behavior of people. Aristotle, in Politics, writes that the essential differences between the modes create a different effect on all those who listen, “Some of them make men sad and grave .. enfeeble the mind … produce a moderate or settled temper” or “enthusiasm” as in the Phrygian mode.

Major and minor modes and the intervals between

The most striking difference between the 7 modes are the 3rd interval, which determines whether a mode in question has a minor or major feel to it. This is the interval between the root note of the scale and the third note. If it is a major third (whole step between the 2nd and 3rd note) and then the mode is major. If it is a minor third (half step between the 2nd and 3rd notes) then the mode is minor.

The there major modes are Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Because, for example, in C Major the 3rd between C and E in Ionian is major, the third between F and A is major in Lydian, and in Mixolydian as well the third between G and B is major.  On the other hand, the four minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The post will cover the history, characteristics and emotions associated with the major modes only. Importantly, most might agree that it is the key, not necessarily the mode, that determines the emotional feel of a piece of music. That said, musicians employ a wide variety of modes across all keys to capture their emotional intent and messages

Mode I: Ionian

The first mode is the Ionian. It is basically the modern major scale that most of us know: doh re mi fa so la ti.” The sequence of steps is W, W, H, W, W, W, H (with W being whole-step and H being half-step). The Ionian mode was singled out to be named in 1547 by Henricus Glareanus, a Swiss humanist in his work, “Dodecachordon,” a treatise on music that expanded the contemporary eight mode church musical system. Major and minor modes of the time were increasing in significance and Glareanus saw a need to incorporate them into the current agreed upon church modes, therefore naming the major mode Ionian and also adding Aeolian which, by the way, is the current modern minor mode to be discussed in another post.

Ionian in the key of C nearly universally the first scale that children and future musicians are taught. It is generally thought of as happy, bright, innocent, reassuring, cheery, joyous and absolutely “major.”  When played at a slower tempo it can sound royal and majestic – add a little tempo and we have triumphant.

Examples of C major songs range from childhood tunes such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to timeless masterpieces such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Only John Lennon with his genius could turn C Major bittersweet, but there it is folks.  I often think C major gets a bad rap from music snoots – Lennon made it work, it’s not just Twinkle Twinkle territory:

Varying the key will impact the feel, however the “positive” aspect of the emotions the music elicits remains firmly in the major. For example the track “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2 is in D major (D Ionian).


Mode IV: Lydian mode

The second major mode, the fourth mode of the entire seven, is the Lydian mode, named after the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia.  It is the major scale with a raised fourth note (compared to the major scale), which as explained below gives it an entirely new sense of movement. The sequence of the steps is W, W, W, H, W, W, H and is the fifth of the original church modes though is not a commonly used one because of its character. Here, listen:

In “The Lydian Scale: Seeking the Ultimate Mysteries of Music”, Andrew Bishko does a fine job of uncovering the mysterious nature of the Lydian scale. He goes far in his explanation, but in sum, the entire reason for the dreamlike character of the Lydian scale is the augmented fourth degree (note). Compared to the major scale, it is raised by a half step. This small change violates what music theorist George Russell coined “tonal gravity,” the tendency for a feeling of openness to occur in the direction of the root to the fifth and a closing, and ending feeling, from the fifth to the root – a common musical resolution. Basically, an attempt to resolve the Lydian scale is difficult, as they augmented 4th creates a situation of little tension so there’s nothing to resolve. This creates a dreamy, floating feeling.

As Bishko writes, “Musically, it is quite literally going nowhere.” Interestingly, Bishko states that Russell has a term of musically going nowhere – horizontal.


Mode V: Mixolydian mode

The final major scale here, the Mixolydian scale, is a major scale played with the fifth note as the root (or tonic). So, C major played from G is the G Mixolydian with the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F. While the Lydian differs from the Ionian (major) scale by only an augmented 4th, the Mixolydian differs with the Ionian only by a flat 7th. The sequence of the steps is W, W, H, W, W, H, W and often used in jazz improvisation, its special character derives from the major thirds and the minor sevenths. While its name was given by the Greeks as with all modes, and it was the seventh of the eight medieval church modes, the modern Mixolydian differs.

Mixolydian can be considered the “cool” one of the major modes, used extensively in jazz, the blues, and rock. The Mixolydian mode feels neither major nor minor and instead is known to give an exotic feel and to me – bittersweet. It has a seriousness, but also a sweetness to it, used by Bob Dylan in “Lay Lady Lay,” “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, and “All Apologies” by Nirvana.  This mode can also rock. Songs such as “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns and Roses, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and interestingly Lorde’s track “Royals” all employ the mixolydian mode. Phil Whitmer in “Here’s the Music Theory Behind Why Lorde’s Songwriting Is Objectively Kickass” on notes that “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Royals” ‘in fact not only use the same mode but in fact the same main chord progression D-C-G. Whitmer’s post is an excellent read that sheds light on the vibe and purpose of the Mixolydian mode: well-written, witty, informative.

Next up: the minor modes. And I must end by saying how odd it is that simply by switching the root of the exact same notes we can so drastically shift the emotions a set of those exact same notes bring.

Music of the Minor Modes

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

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?

The Secret Power of Music: The Ancients – Part 1

The Secret Power of Music: The Ancients – Part 1

The “The Secret Power of Music” by David Tame is a wide ranging work that covers the inherent power of music and its origins in the human story. For anyone who marvels at this phenomenon that we call “music,” this is an excellent read. The book is a wide but deep study of the role of music not only in the human sphere, but also its inextricable ties to the cosmos and our natural world itself. The books includes discussions of music and morality, music therapy, sound and color, the origin and effects of jazz and the blues, atoms as harmonic resonators, the physics of OM and more. It is a self-proclaimed “study of the influence of music on man and society, from the time of the ancient civilizations to the present.”

The beauty of this book is that it isn’t simply a history of music, music as entertainment, or its prominence in human cultures, but describes the actual power of music, hence its title. As Tame notes in the “Overture,” (the intro), music’s influence plays on us constantly as it alters our heartbeat, relaxes or tenses us, affects heartbeat and blood pressure, and fills us with a range of emotions. He contrasts historical societies in which people were very conscious of music’s power as compared to today’s materialistic notion that music is not essential, something on the periphery, something in the United States at least to be cut from many school’s curriculum as unnecessary.

Tame begins with fact that ancients believed there was sacred power within sound and music. A main thrust of Pythagoras’s research was to discover the nature of music and he discovered that tones could be reduced and explained through numbers and mathematical ratios – the same as those of the mathematical universe and many of the forms therein. Pythagoras’ concept of music was deeper than the material and the academic, as it reached to and from the cosmos and combined the spiritual with the material. Tame presents the notion that music is a force that creates order out of chaos, helping to achieve a greater universal order. His favorite axiom seems to be “As in music, so in life – ,” raising the belief that civilization is shaped and societies are molded by music and in turn the character of a civilization shapes the music. In addition, as shown on the left, throughout history humans have related the structure of music and its ratios to the natural world. In this case, the Fibonacci sequence which creates this spiral shape matches the ratios of the notes on the scale perfectly.

“Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony impose compatibility upon the incongruous” ~ Yehundi Menuhin – American Violinist and Composer

Music in the formation of society

Tame uses ancient China as his primary example of how music played a role in civilization building. The Emperor Shun, Shu King, would travel each year throughout the provinces to check on the health and status of each territory. He would not audit books, observe the population, or interview authorities as the most important means to assess the health of his empire. Instead, the Emperor tested the exact pitches of their notes of music, the five notes of the ancient Chinese tonal scale. Eight types of instruments were brought and local songs played so that he could verify that they were all in line with the 5 tones.  To the ancient Chinese, music was the basis of not only civilization, but of everything. The nature of the music reflected the nature of the people and Emperor Shun would use it to determine their health.

Music governs the universe

The reason that music was so vital to Chinese society and philosophy stems from their belief that music held the same powers that governed the entire universe: it was a form of the Primal Sound, called OM. The OM is not audible but a divine Vibration. From here, according to Chinese beliefs, the Primal Sound is broken down into twelve tones with each representing the twelve zodiacs.  In fact, Tame states that astrology itself arose from the influences of the twelve tones and the Cosmic Tone. He goes further to write that the ancient civilized world incorporated the number twelve, which derived its significance from OM/music, further into their daily lives and hence twelve months of the year and the twenty four hours of the day. In true Chinese form, on a side note, these twelves tones were divided into two: six Yang tones and six Ying. Together they created and sustained the entire universe.

OM: The Primal Sound

Tones and music were considered a reflection of the celestial order. The harmony and perfection are maintained by the Cosmic Tone and in parallel the harmony and perfection of human lives and society on earth should be maintained by music. This belief, as referenced by Tame, is rooted in the Chinese text The Spring and Autumn by Lu Bu Ve representing a time between 722 and 479 BC.  Ve writes that music arose through proportion and ratio manifested by “the Great One” who initiated a cosmos of cycles between light and dark, heaven and earth, ending and beginning. All is in coordination: the planets, the seasons.  When all is in coordination on earth, peaceful and perfect, then music can be perfected. Therefore, a province’s “perfect” music proves their health.

The musician as the medium

Perfection is the most important word in ancient Chinese music. Nothing was left to the whim and creativity of the musical performer, as in jazz for example. The musician was viewed as a medium to allow the perfection of the celestial universe shine on earth through music.  According to them, life on earth and music must follow the same logical patterns. Random notes by individuals would create turmoil and uncontrolled chaos. This is why Emperor Shun paid so much attention to the music of his provinces. If one area’s music was wild, out of control, unique, or did not follow traditional rules of structure well then most certainly there must be a serious societal problem!

What would the ancient Chinese think of Western Music today? –

As stated, the tones were aligned with the months of the year, the first six being Yang tones and the second being Ying tones, each having its own key. The musician was responsible for playing according to the musical scale of each month. Staying in harmony ensured health and success and this was not only beholden on the musicians to maintain, but also on rulers.

Music and modes

The next point that Tame explains is how the concept of twelve tones, based on the twelve months, create separate keys for each
month. They changed the root note. This is precisely how Western music moves through the modes and it is based on this musical inventiveness of the Chinese. These are the modes that aspiring musicians learn and practice today, the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. They are achieved by simply moving the base note and beginning the scale there.  The Chinese only used seven notes of their twelve, which are the seven major notes of today’s scale: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti.  Interestingly they rarely used the semitones Fa and Si which corresponds to today’s pentatonic scale.

This ancient concept of the embedded nature of music, powered by the Celestial tone, was considered a part of the human character as well. Each of the five notes were related to the five important Chinese virtues of benevolence, propriety, faith, righteousness, and knowledge. Human qualities are aligned with tones and specific types of music have an actual objective effect on humans, a power of music. Tame wraps up his discussion of China by tracing the events that led to civil war and transition to communism in China. In the late 20th century Communist leaders required the populace, including children, to observe a daily routine of “death chants” which called for destruction of capitalism and the western world. Tame writes that the ancients would have seen these death-chants as a means of utilizing the power of the Cosmic Tone and music to create an objective change in the human world. He infers that the disappearance of the ancient Chinese belief in perfection and harmony is reflected in its demise from classical opera of the early 20th century to “death chants.” A similar belief occurred in the 1980s as well, that heavy music “made” teenagers “devil worshippers” and that the music was proof of a sinful society. Tame leaves us with a question at the end of his section on the origins of the Power of Music: we may scoff at the Chinese belief that music is an actual cosmic power because of our scientific and “enlightened” minds today. We know better, that sound is only a vibration, and we are so much wiser today – or, Tame asks, are we?

The beginning section of Tame’s book covered in this post raises some questions. Does music have an ethereal power, or at least a power over human beings, something greater than simply a physical vibration? Today most would say that it is certainly a reflection of society, but can it also influence society? Totalitarian regimes would think so. When did the change occur from valuing traditional “perfection” among the ancients to valuing individualism and improvisation that are explicit in jazz and other forms? Can it be traced to the individualism of the 19th and 20th centuries? Can music only be divine if it mimics the harmony of the universe, or divine if it is uniquely human?

Writing good descriptions and keywords for your stock music tracks

Writing good descriptions and keywords for your stock music tracks

This article is meant for the many talented and wonderful music composers / artists who regularly submit music for publishing by Shockwave-Sound.
One thing that we all have in common is that we want our music to be heard, licensed, and used in media. Media producers these days are looking for music for a wide variety of different projects; from casual games, video games, little YouTube clips, amazing nature videos, up to full production feature films and TV commercials.
How do media producers (customers) find the music they need? There are millions of tracks out there. Some are great, some not that great. But even if your track is really great, what good is that, if your track just disappears in an ocean of other tracks — or even worse, in a soup of mediocre tracks presented on a page with annoying titles and bad descriptions?
Making headway as a composer/artist, producer, contributor of music tracks to the music licensing business, relies on spending a little bit of thought into how your tracks are presented to potential listeners, before they have even heard the first note. From the very title of the track, through to the on-screen description and the behind-the-page Keywords that make up the track’s ability to be found in user searches, musicians these days are forced to not only be good at writing and producing music – but also to understand the basic psychology of customers looking for music tracks.
Let’s start with…

Track descriptions

Too braggy:

“This feel-good dance track will have you going in no time! Packed with energy and loaded with awesome sounding synths, this is a really great energy super-pack that will really get your audience going! Huge drums kick and drive behind sizzling layers of synths and bass. This track will be suitable for lots of different media projects!”

If you’re writing like this, you are spending too much energy on trying to make this a really great description and trying to convince people reading it that it’s the right track for them. With a good track, the music will brag enough for itself – you don’t have to brag in the description. Instead, be neutral, short and to the point: “This electronic dance track has a high level of positive energy throughout. Feelgood / Dancing / Celebration”. THAT IS ENOUGH. 🙂

Too specific:

“Imagine yourself on the white beaches of a paradise tropical island, with a cocktail drink in your hand and the sun setting behind the ocean waves….”

Don’t try to weave exact images for the readers, because you are only distracting the customer/user from the possibility of imagining this piece of music in their own production. By writing something like the above, you are setting your music in connection with a very specific visual image, and this image will 99.999% certainly not be the scene that the customer needs a music track for. So you are in a way excluding your music from being imagined inside the scene that the customer is actually looking for a track to go with. Instead of the above, just write “A romantic track with a sense of relaxation and natural beauty. Hint of tropic / island paradise.” This way, you are leaving it open for the user/reader to imagine the track within their scene – not yours.

Too descriptive:

“This track starts with a simple choir melody. Then the strings join in and play in unison with the choir. Then some big drums start pounding and after a while they rise in intensity. The energy then drops and a mystical harp starts to play. Then the drums come back in and start to play a faster rhythm…”

Well, you get what I’m trying to show here. This is a description that quite literally explains and describes what the track does as it goes along, and it’s just no good. There’s no point to this. I mean, if something very drastic happens at a certain point in the track, you are allowed to mention it. For example, at the end of the description you can add one sentence such as this: “The intensity picks up and reaches a climax at about 1:30.”

Examples of good descriptions:

“Quirky and humorous, yet hard hitting Hip Hop piece, with cheeky samples, big beats and cool cuts.”

“Modern and uplifting indie soundtrack piece, with airy wordless vocals and positive strings. Builds strength and power to a rousing finish. World fusion feel.”

“An uplifting pop-rock track with multiple guitars, drums, bass and subtle piano melodies and a very slight country feel. Inspiring / Heartening / Motivational.”

As you can tell from the above examples of good descriptions, actually, these are easier to write than the more fanciful and flamboyant descriptions that some of you are trying to write. Keep it simple. Keep it neutral. Short, to the point. Notice at the end of the last example, it’s not even a sentence. You can add something like this to the end of your description: “Inspiring / Heartening / Motivational.” If you feel that you simply want to describe the track with a few more words than you have written, but you don’t wish to actually write any more full sentences. I often do it like that. Here’s another example:
“Pop / Drum’n Bass track with a reflective synth and piano heavy track with a fast, uptempo feel. Light and springy. Soft, but also active. Dreamy, Heavenly, Positive.”  — Note the additional three descriptive words added at the end, after the full sentences are done.


Please supply at least 30 different keywords / key phrases for each track.
After we receive the materials from you, we here at Shockwave-Sound will also add to these. We spend 5-10 minutes listening carefully to the track and write down everything we can think of, that you haven’t already written. We then end up with a keywords / key phrases field that’s the result of two people trying to think of everything that customers will search for, when it will make sense for them to find this track — and usually the result is pretty good.

Don’t list common instrument names in the keywords field

Even if your track contains guitar, bass, drums, synth etc., do not write “Drums, Guitar, Synth” etc. into your Keywords field. There is no point. There are 20,000 tracks and nearly all of them contain drums, synth, bass, etc. There is no chance that a customer will come to the website, type “bass” into the search field on the track, and this will bring up your track, which turned out to be the perfect track for the customer because he searched for “bass” and your track contains bass. Try to “think like the customer” a little bit and imagine what you would search for, if this track is what you’re looking for. It’s not going to be “bass” or “guitar”.
You can write instrument names into the keywords field if the track is truly defined by the sound of that one instrument. An example of this can be “hang drum” which has a very specific sound, or perhaps “bagpipes” or “didgeridoo”. These are special instruments which, conceivably, a user could come to the site and make a search for. And even then, don’t include it in the keywords if it’s only just used in the background, as part of the overall orchestration of the track. The only case in which it will be right to bring up your track in the search result after a customer has searched for “didgeridoo” is if your track really features the didgeridoo, prominently. Because somebody who comes and makes a search for “didgeridoo” is actually looking for a music track where the didgeridoo is very dominant.

Don’t just copy your keywords from one track to the next

Most of you will submit a batch of tracks that are a bit different, and even though you’ve found a few keywords that you think are nice (like “corporate”, “advertise”, “beauty”, “background”), don’t just automatically include these with every track. Consider each one for every track and consider if it’s suitable for that track. I mean, the entire concept of searchable keywords will simply fall apart if “advertising” is added as a keyword to every single track. What point is there then, in anybody searching for that keyword?
The only circumstance in which we accept keywords just being copied from one track to the next is if you have worked on a batch/collection of tracks which really are very similar. For example, we hired you to produce a collection of deep-house tracks. All have exactly the same mood and feel. In this case we will accept some “copied” keywords fields.

Don’t forget to include alternate forms of your keywords

If you write “Motivating”, don’t forget to also include “Motivational”. If you include “Inspiring”, don’t forget to also include “Inspirational” and “Inspired”. Same with Happy -> Happiness. Joy -> Joyful. Cheery -> Cheerful -> Cheer -> Cheery. Celebration -> Celebrate -> Celebratory. Victory — also include “Victorious”. And so on. Some “combined words” will be spelled in one word by some users, but in two words by others, so include both. Examples of this will be “Feelgood, Feel good, Carefree, Care free, Lighthearted, Light hearted”. And so on.

Feel free to include “music” after some of the keywords

Some customers come along and they do searches like: “feelgood music”. This will not be found if you simply have “feelgood” in your keywords. So, within reason, feel free to include something like this:
“feelgood, feelgood music, dancing, dance music, exciting, excited, exciting music, pumped, pumped music”. If somebody comes along and searches for one of these words with “music” after it – in this example, maybe somebody searches for “exciting music” – your track will be found. Use it.
I hope this has been helpful. We’ve all seen stock music websites with an “open for all” track upload and track configuration policy — where anybody, amateur or professional, English speaking or not, can just upload their own music, provide their own description, and it just goes out on the site, in front of customers. It’s like taking any musician off the street (talented as he may well be!) and put him behind the counter in your store, in charge of presenting products to customers. Madness. 🙂 is not such an open, “free for all” type of place. Everything that goes out in front of our customers here is actually checked, heard, descriptions read and corrected, keywords looked and and added to as needed. Having said that, we too require our composers/artists to submit Descriptions and Keywords (along with BPM tempo and writer information) along with their track submissions. And the better content you can deliver — musically and description wise — the more sales you will achieve.
Good luck!
From the Mind to the Page: A Composers Tips for Optimizing Your Creative Process: Part 1

From the Mind to the Page: A Composers Tips for Optimizing Your Creative Process: Part 1

By Lukas Stanley 

The creative process is a tricky beast to tame. A lot of the time, it seems as if
creativity is intangible and difficult to even conceptualize. Bursts of
inspiration strike at random and sometimes inconvenient times. Here is a
question I have asked myself many times: why are there days when I can sit down
and write quality music and the next day not a single good idea comes to mind?
While there isn’t a single, ubiquitous answer, I can offer you some advice from
my own experiences on how I have made the creative process less elusive and something
I can use as a tool to optimize my compositional output. 

I am writing this to be geared
towards music composition, but many of the concepts can be applied to any sort
of creative endeavor.

1.     Know What Works for You

It might sound like I’m leading off with a cop out, but knowing how to play to
your own personal strengths and weaknesses is the number one piece of advice I
could give any composer. For starters, people have different peaks of
creativity throughout the day. I usually experience the best creative
concentrations in the early afternoon and between midnight and 2:00am. If you
are a morning person, maybe you like to sit down with a cup of coffee at 6:00am
and start putting notes on the page. Every person is slightly different in this
regard, so try different things and figure out what works for you.
writing music in different ways. If you have never written notation by hand
with a pencil and paper, try that for a change. If you have never used a
digital audio workstation, try using one. There are a lot of tools out there to
use, and knowing which ones you are most compatible with is the first and
easiest step to success.

2. Create a Schedule

Knowing what kind of time structure gels best with your creativity is sure to give a
boost to your productivity. I have encountered two main camps of composers with
this regard: some compose in short (less than one hour) sessions throughout the
day while others compose in large (1.5+ hours), pre-determined blocks of time. Experiment
with these as you are able to and figure out what works for you. Here are some
advantages and disadvantages I have found in each:

  • Pros of working in short time blocks:
    Smaller goals are more easily attained. If you have 20 minutes to write music,
    you could make your goal to write two or three measures. Then when you achieve
    that small goal, the feeling of accomplishment and motivation carries you into
    the next session.
  • Cons of working in small time blocks: It
    might be difficult to quickly shift in and out of a composing mindset throughout
    the day. If shifting gears quickly is not your thing, this option might not be
    for you.
  • Pros of working in long time blocks:
    Getting a lot done all at once. With this method you can sit down and write a
    substantial amount of work, all within the same train of thought. Ideas have
    room to breathe and be experimented with. If use this method, make sure to set
    goals for each session that are realistic. It can be more difficult to
    anticipate what you are actually capable of accomplishing over a longer period
    of time.
  • Cons of working in long time blocks:
    Burning out and losing focus. If it is difficult for you to focus on a detailed
    project for a long period of time without losing focus or becoming frustrated,
    working in long time blocks might not be for you.
like to plan out my week hour by hour to make sure everything important gets
accomplished. I try to work the rest of my schedule around the composing times
that I know work best for my creativity. Usually my blocks for composing are
2-3 hours and I have at least one per day. Some weeks I will get lucky and have
a totally empty Saturday that I can fill with an eight hour composition binge (often
followed by an eight hour Netflix binge).
isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to scheduling your composition time as
long as it is productive, consistent, and works for you. In fact, sometimes I use
a mix of the two methods depending on what my schedule looks like on a
particular day. Having a regular routine is the important part – you can’t just wait for inspiration to
If you have found that what you are currently doing isn’t working
very well, change it up and try the other way.

3.     Structure Your Composing Time

you are entering MIDI sequences into the DAW of your choice, notating music
into an engraving program like Finale or Sibelius, or even handwriting sheet
music, structuring your composition time with goals is another way to optimize
your creativity for maximum production. The famous Russian composer Pyotr
Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite models of this. Every day he followed this
Wake up, read/study, drink tea
Go for a walk to gather inspiration / take notes of compositional ideas
Compose sketches at the piano
After lunch
Go for another walk
Afternoon tea, read the paper, meet visitors
Compose and orchestrate the sketches from the morning
Walk, play piano, supper, write letters, play cards

note of how he used his two blocks of composing time during the day: in the
morning session he would write sketches at the piano; in his evening session he
would orchestrate these sketches. It’s a very simple structure and while I’m
sure that he probably had more specific daily goals, incorporating a broad
system of goals like this into your routine will give you a place to start. He
didn’t just sit down with a blank sheet of paper in front of him and wait for
the ideas to emerge. If you don’t already, I would highly recommend writing out
a detailed schedule like this. Set goals in your schedule. For example, write “on
Monday from 10:00-12:00 I will write 20 measures of music for [name] project.”

4.     Secure the Fundamentals

that we have talked about when you
will be composing, let’s dig into the how.
Creativity in itself is nothing without some basic tools for effective
execution. Even when you are inspired and you feel on the precipice of a masterpiece,
you must first decide on some fundamentals of the music.
This will depend on what the nature of the project is. If you are writing a
sentimental film cue, maybe you just want some delicate solo piano playing. If
you are writing a chiptune for a video game, knowing what synthesized sounds you
will be working with should be one of the first things you do to get the
project rolling. Immersing yourself with other music in the genre you are
writing will give you a good sense of what an appropriate instrumentation is. It
might be that you are working on music for a film or video game project, in
which case some parameters might be predetermined by a director, but if you
have free reign over this aspect of the music, make deliberate and informed
choices. Instrumentation might also be determined by what resources you have
access to. If you have limited resources, don’t be afraid to get creative. An
entire film score could be written with a piano or a string quartet on a budget
and still be very effective.

Key center:
There are 11 standardized major and minor keys, as well as seven modes for each
of those key centers. So how do you know which key to use? Does the music
modulate at any point and why? These are good questions to answer before starting
a project. Knowing what you want your harmonic language to feel like is a good
way to start getting that great idea from your head into real music that other
people can enjoy. Here’s what not to do: pick your favorite key and write the
music in that key. Every key has slightly different colors and connotations.
Familiarize yourself with what keys other pieces of the same style are written
in, because people hearing your music will create associations with existing
music. For example, if you are writing a cue for a game that takes place in the
medieval era, you might write in a Dorian mode. If you are writing something
uplifting and positive you will probably want to write in a major key (Ionian).
If you are already a very experienced composer, or you are just a theory buff,
you might also take into consideration when using atonality, bitonality, micro-tonality,
non-pitched materials, and other 20th century ideas about harmony
and extended techniques are appropriate. These concepts can create very
distinct and effective sounds for the stage and for multimedia collaborations. Here
are a few considerations for picking which key center to use:

If you are working with live instruments, pick a key that works with your melodic
and harmonic content to create the most idiomatic music for these instruments.
of the key for performance:
Accomplished musicians will be
able to perform in any key, but there are tonalities that resonate better with certain
instruments. For example, the keys of C, G, D, and A are really good for string
instruments because of the strong sympathetic vibrations that the instruments
produce on their open strings.
of the music:
If the music goes too high or too low
in a certain key, consider moving it chromatically to accommodate the range.
While you might not discover this is the case until you start sketching melodic
and harmonic ideas, it is good to keep in mind early on. This is especially pertinent
when writing music for acoustic instruments. Typically, you will want to
maximize an instruments full range potential. This means structuring the piece
in a way that both the lowest range and highest range are taken advantage of. Using
a key center that effectively accommodates your use of the instrument’s range
is a staple of idiomatic instrumental writing.
If you are writing a piece that is
supposed to sound inspired by a particular piece or composer, consider using
the same key center that they used in a related work. For example, if you are
writing a piece that is supposed to mimic the drama of Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony, consider writing your piece in C minor.

(or genre):
Putting yourself in the shoes of your
listeners and figuring out what style of music creates the right mood to
achieve your artistic goals is a key item to not just identify, but to fully conceptualize
before you begin to write. The style is created by carefully combining
instrumentation, orchestration, harmonic language, texture, timbre,
articulation, and dynamics. Each of these elements is vastly complex, and the
ways in which they can be combined are infinite.

that we have a solid foundation for setting a schedule and securing the basics
of your composition, there is music to be made! In part two of this article, I
will further discuss how to optimize your creative process. The topics covered
will include strategies for an effective pre-compositional process, and how to
overcome writer’s block as a composer.
next time, happy composing!

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