Ah that ever elusive question! 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: 'Weightless'
For this blog, I’ll use the piece titled Weightless 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.
To create a positive, uplifting mood (broad)
To create a tense, dramatic pulsing track for a crime show (more specific)
Or with 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 Weightless, 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).
Looking back through my notebook, here are a few of the ideas I jotted down that I wanted to explore:
Slow moving string chords
Piano with low attack and long sustain
Paddy, lush synths
Felt piano sound
Vinyl warble effect
Long, long delays
I settled on featuring a felt piano sound since it’s very soft, warm and beautiful. [A foot pedal on the piano literally moves a piece of felt over the strings so that the hammers hit the strings with much less force].
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 D-flat major (somewhat arbitrarily – I just like the way that chord feels under my fingers). When deciding upon the tempo I at least knew that I wanted the piece to be quite slow. A typical resting heart rate is about 60bpm, and I wanted this piece to be extra calming so I settled in around 50bpm.
So with these loose guidelines in place and the words peaceful, calming, and sleepy floating in the back of my mind, I plunked around at the piano to see what ideas I could flesh out. I can’t really explain this part other than to say that for me it really is just throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. When I came up with something that I was feeling good about I’d record it into Logic (the music recording software I use).
With Weightless, I came to the decision pretty early on to write the piece in the odd time signature of 7/8 instead of 4/4. [This means that there are 7 eighth notes per bar instead of the typical 8 eighth notes per bar]. Why? I don’t know, I just really like writing in odd time signatures when I can. Hopefully you didn’t even notice that it was in an unconventional time signature!
So from here I played with the ideas, working with repetition and variation in the hopes of striking a nice balance between the two. For the first two minutes of the piece I play around with a repeating 4-chord structure (D-flat, G-flat, Bb-flat minor, G-flat). Then I move into a new chord structure, alternating between E-flat minor and D-flat. I decided to end the piece with a very gradual slow down (ritardando), coming full circle to end back at home on a few repetitions of the D-flat chord where we began.
So, once I had the framework for the piece written, I recorded the piano part a bunch of times to get some performances that I was happy with. Here is the composition as solo piano, with no further production added.
Next comes the fun part of building up more production around the piece – adding more layers and other subtle, tasty parts to compliment the main idea. You’ll hear at 0:53, I added in a soft, washy electric guitar layer that stays until the end of the piece. At 1:30, I layered in a high synth pad to fill out some more of the high frequency range. At 2:04, there are some swelling strings brought in, adding some low-end weight to the piece. They’re barely audible initially but by 2:30 they’re digging in and they really give that final swell the impact that I wanted.
Here are the added production layers from 1:30 to 2:40 without the piano.
So there you go! That’s my 2 cents – or maybe more like my rambling 75 cents. Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface here, but hopefully it has opened your ears up a bit to what’s happening in Weightless and opened your mind up a bit to some of the processes that I use when writing music.
A final note: You may have noticed that “I don’t know!” is a commonly used reason for why I made a decision that I did. Music composition is so open-ended in this respect and so I’ve found that I have to just make decisions. The fact that there is no right or wrong answer can be daunting, but also very liberating!