This is the second article in this series. To start from the top, check out the article on Weightless. So just to re-iterate from before: I’m going to try to offer some insight into what the title is asking using some pieces that I’ve recently written as specific examples. I’m trying to make this accessible for those who have little to no musical background, so my apologies to those who want some more music theory and deep analysis!
Case Study: “Dream State”
For this blog, I’ll use the piece titled Dream State from my latest album Finding Stillness. I hope most of what I describe becomes clear once you listen to the track.
First off, before sitting down at the piano or picking up the guitar, I like to first know why I’m writing this new piece. This answer can stay pretty broad or get very specific (especially if there’s a creative brief). But I find that just reflecting on the question helps me gain clarity and get started.
The ‘why’ for the new album Finding Stillness:
To create the most peaceful, calming ambient music I can
To help the world slow down
To make great music for people to enjoy while they're working, focusing deeply, meditating, unwinding, sleeping, etc.
Knowing that much helps me to eliminate certain options and at least find a starting point to begin chipping away at an idea. With Dream State, knowing that I wanted to create peaceful, calming ambient music meant that I wanted to move towards sounds that were soft and warm, and avoid anything with fast attack (ie. no drums & percussion).
In my notebook, I jotted down a bunch of ideas that I wanted to explore for the album and one of them that I was excited about was:
Slow moving, swelling string chords
In my head, when I jotted this idea down I was imagining slow ‘waves‘ of string chords – starting quietly, slowly swelling in volume, and eventually retreating back to the quiet place where they began.
I like to choose a key signature and get a rough idea of the tempo range before I start writing. With this piece I chose to write in A-flat major. When deciding upon the tempo I knew that I wanted the piece to be very slow moving, so I settled around 50bpm.
So with these loose guidelines in place and the words peaceful, calming, and sleepy floating in the back of my mind, I started feeling around on the piano for the right chords. I relied more heavily on major chords to keep the mood lighter and I used a lot of extended chords to create more interesting tonal colour. [A typical chord (triad) has 3 unique notes but in many of these chords I’m using 4 or 5 unique notes]. After this exploring, I eventually had a pattern of eight chords that I really loved. (In the composition, these eight chords take just under 2 minutes to get through – I said slow moving!)
I’d love to say that at this point I went down to the scoring stage, with sheet music in hand, and we recorded a full section of string players, but that wouldn’t be the truth. That is ultimately where I intend to take my career, but for now I am using sample instruments. [Companies have meticulously recorded live musicians playing every note in the instrument’s range with an array of different articulations so that they can be played back using a keyboard controller]. Using violins, violas, and cellos, I orchestrated these chords and gave them the swelling dynamics that I was after.
Next comes the fun part of building up more production around the piece – adding more layers and other subtle, interesting elements to compliment the main idea. First, I added quiet layer of rain ambience. Next, under the slow, dynamic strings, I added in an organic sounding synth pad, created by manipulating and combining the sounds of an electric piano and a vibraphone. This layer is playing the same chords and matching the timing of the string swells. The soft, ringing bell-like sound that you hear come in at 1:50 is the sound of a celeste (think Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). Using Logic, I adjusted the attack time of the instrument so that it comes in slowly and rings out for a long time. There is also a quiet layer of hang drum playing long, individual notes.
Here are the additional layers isolated from 1:50 to 3:40, starting right where the celeste comes in.
So there you go! That’s some of the secret sauce behind Dream State. Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface here, but hopefully it has opened your ears up a bit to what’s happening in this piece and opened your mind up a bit to some of the processes that I use when writing music.
Music composition is so open-ended, but I’ve found that over time I get more and more confident in just making decisions and not looking back. The fact that there is no right or wrong answer can be daunting, but also very liberating!