How to Submit

Throughout this site I ask for readers to submit the songs they’ve come up with in applying my exercises (they can be found in the Reader Submissions section).  

Submitting is simple. Here are the guidelines:

  1. Tell me which exercise you followed.
  2. Don’t worry about recording quality.
  3. For most exercises, lyrics can be nonsense. “Da da da” is fine.
  4. Song fragments are fine.
  5. Include a link to your music website if you want me to link to it.

I’m currently improving the submission system, so in the meantime either send a link to your downloadable mp3 to organizingsound>gmail.com or send the mp3 itself (if it’s under 20mb).

Avant Garde Techniques: Recording Blind

To kick off the avant garde techniques series, I’m going to describe a simple experimental recording method that might just surprise you. The idea here is to discover some rhythmic and melodic counterpoint that you might never have written otherwise. I call this method “blind layering”. You’re going to need some kind of multitrack recording device, whether a software DAW or an analog machine.

STEP ONE: THE FOUNDATION

Your first step is to lay down a foundation track. This can be a simple beat repeated ad nauseum. Use a drum machine plugin if you’ve got one.

You’ll need to choose whether or not you want your foundation track to include harmonic information. Including some will increase the chances that the final product will be coherent. Leaving it out will be riskier but increase the chance of really strange discoveries.

I’m using “harmonic information” as a fancy term for adding a single note to every measure. So you can just play a C at the beginning of each one. If you’re using a DAW, you can then copy and paste this note over and over.

Your foundation track is going to remain untouched for the rest of this exercise.

STEP TWO: LAYERING

Now that you have your foundation, it’s time to record your first layer. Simply improvise a chord progression, melodic line, sung vocal, percussion part, or whatever while listening to the foundation. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer one.

Now mute layer one and forget it ever existed. Listen to the foundation again and improvise a new chord progression, melodic line, etc. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer two.

Now mute layer two and forget it ever existed. Got the idea? You just continue this way until you’ve built up a bunch of layers.

STEP THREE: SCULPTING THE LAYERS

Now it’s time for some weirdness. Unmute all the layers at once and press play.

Depending on how many you recorded, it’s going to be noisy. Start taking some away. Pull some back while muting others. See what you have there. The hope is that some combination of tracks is going to strike you as musically interesting.

And that’s blind layering. If you come up with something you like, submit it and I’ll add it to the site with a link to your music page.

Next: Composition by Subtraction

 

The Art of Borrowing: A Little Manifesto

The vast majority of musicians throughout history have thought nothing of taking the musical ideas of others and building directly on their basis. Most ethnic traditions rely on stock melodies and melodic phrases that the skilled player treats as building blocks for a performance whose subtlety and meaning depends on creative responses to the expectations of the audience. Bach, of course considered a towering genius now, regularly took the themes of other composers and built pieces around them. This was not considered stealing; his originality came through in the brilliant ways he reworked the context of the melodies and ultimately the melodies themselves.

The idea that musicians must create harmonies and melodies ex nihilo is as naive as it is puritanical. Whether they recognize it or not, songwriters are constantly drawing on and modifying the work of others, building songs around tried and true chord progressions, and building melodies out of conventional melodic phrases. It’s both healthy and honest to recognize that this is a good thing, and the way music has worked from the beginning.

Now, of course there are copyright laws that must be respected these days, which means that there are limits to the number of things a musician can borrow from others. But in this series, I am going to suggest methods for beginning from someone else’s idea and sculpting it into something genuinely original. I highly recommend you try it out. You might be surprised at what you come up with.

Great musicians from prehistoric times to the Beatles have been “stealing” ideas. What makes them great is their ability to transform these materials into something newly striking, interesting, and powerful. Originality, in my view, is much more a matter of modifying conventional materials than it is of “creating” anything. This doesn’t mean you must self-consciously build on conventions (many great musicians probably do not). But it does mean that it can be fruitful to do so, and particularly to see what kinds of ideas you can take from genres of music different from your own.

IMPORTANT PLAGIARISM NOTE

Setting Up a Free DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

Since you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have a computer and an internet connection. This means that with a minimal amount of work, you can set up your own personal recording studio.

In this article, I’m going to suggest a number of free programs you can download to get your DAW (digital audio workstation) up and running today. I’d argue that with this simple setup alone, you have all you need to record a pretty impressive collection of songs.

[NOTE: This article is a work in progress.]

1. HARDWARE

I’m not going to make specific hardware recommendations here. Ideally, you’ll get yourself a sound card with a number of useful inputs for microphones, guitars, MIDI, etc. But you can also get away with buying an inexpensive USB microphone and USB keyboard for MIDI purposes.

2. YOUR DAW

First things first, you need a DAW. This is what you’re going to use to record tracks and ultimately mix your songs.

I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of Reaper. It’s not free per se, but the demo version is fully functional and never cripples. This will give you plenty of time to mess around with it before you decide to fork over the reasonable $60 for a license. If you’re like me, you’ll actually want to pay for it by the time you get to that point.

There are a lot of fine and esoteric debates about which DAW is best. The features that might put Reaper behind some competitors wouldn’t have much of an effect on the average musician. I’ve used it for years and all my complaints are pretty minor. Try it out!

3. CHEAP AND FREE VST PLUGINS

Once you’ve got your DAW up and running, you’re going to want some VST plugins. These act as digital versions of synthesizers, samplers, effects, and processors. These days you can build a pretty solid (and legal) collection without paying a dime. If you don’t know where to start, the following list will give you a great foundation.

If you have a little money to spend, I recommend the ToneBoosters Track Essentials bundle. For under $40, you get great EQ, compression, reverb, modulation, tape saturation, and others. I often use these as my standbys.  (This isn’t an affiliate link.  They’re cheap and sound great, so I think they’re a good place to start.)

And now, the free plugins (I’ll be adding to this list over time):

Synthesizers

  1. Elektrostudio Analog Synth Emulations

EQ

  1. ReaEQ (comes with Reaper)
  2. BootEQmkII
  3. Antress Modern Black Dragon

Compressors

  1. ReaComp (comes with Reaper)
  2. Antress Modern Seventh Sign
  3. Antress Modern LostAngel
  4. BLOCKFISH compressor

Practical Chord Progressions: I (The Tonic or “Home Chord”)

In this exercise, we’ll get accustomed to the idea of a harmonic home and explore the variety of ideas you can build over a single chord.

BACKGROUND

No matter how little you might know about music theory, you’ve probably heard of keys before (the Key of C, the Key of A minor, etc.). Though we won’t be delving much into theory on this site, it’s important to know that a musical key always has a kind of harmonic center, its “home chord”. This chord shares the name of the key, so it’s easy to determine. Many songs begin and end on the home chord, and it’s helpful to have some idea of why this works.

In this exercise and the exercises that follow, we’ll be learning to establish a sense of home and then venture out into gradually more unfamiliar territory. Thinking of your songs in terms of this metaphor can help you build the kinds of expectations and surprises that make for an interesting tune.

We’re going to start with the simplest possible chord progression possible: playing the same chord over and over again. If nothing else, refusing to change will clearly establish a harmonic home. We are simply staying in place, after all.  In this exercise, we’re going to act as musical homebodies, exploring what we can come up with without every leaving the house. You might be surprised at what is possible against such a simple backdrop.

THE EXERCISE

Choose one major chord (I’ll be sticking to C major). This will be your “tonic”, or home chord. In this exercise, you will never leave “home” on the instrument. All of your exploration will be in terms of the rhythms of your strumming and the melodies you sing.

Okay, start playing that chord, sticking with a single strum pattern. If you want to keep it really basic, just strum up and down. Or get as crazy as you like. Start singing whatever notes come to mind. Pay attention to any little melodic ideas you like.

Now use those as a basis and start developing them. If you have a recording device, record your melody.

Start over and come up with a different melody. Record. Repeat. You might be surprised at how many different melodies you can come up with over a single chord.

For a more romantic perspective, think of the exercise this way: You’re getting in touch with the pure spiritual center of your chosen key.  We’re going to build on this knowledge in the exercises to follow.

HELP! I’M STUCK!

Okay, this exercise sounds simple but maybe you’re not getting anywhere. Your melodies are really boring, perhaps, or maybe you’re not coming up with melodies at all. Here’s one idea you could use: while playing the same chord over and over, sing up and down the appropriate scale. If you’ve chosen the C major chord, then this will be the C major scale. If you don’t know the C major scale, you can listen to it here.

Keep singing this scale up and down until you start to hear some ways to change it up a little. If you let go and just get into the process, you should find that you can begin to sculpt the scale into new melodies. If you’re still stuck, try stopping on random notes and going back up or down.  Give it a try!

NOW SUBMIT ONE OF YOUR SONGS AND I’LL ADD IT TO THE SITE!

If you have a website where you host your music, include it and I’ll also link to you. Don’t worry so much about lyrics. You can just sing “la, la, la” or “da, da, da”, or strings of nonsense. The focus is on the tune itself here. I just ask that you leave out obviously offensive or violent content.

AFTERWARD: But Real Songs Can’t Be Based on Only One Chord, Right?

Historically, the vast majority of music has been primarily rhythmic and melodic in character. Listen to Hindustani music (an Indian classical form), for example, and you can discover songs in which the harmonic equivalent of a single power chord is repeated for a full hour at a time. To Western listeners, this might sound pretty boring on the face of it. If the chord isn’t changing, then nothing’s happening, right? In fact, constraining chord movement opens up possibilities for rhythmic and melodic ideas focused on a single scale (or mode) or modulations through different modes.

Hindustani masters are reputed to respond with similar surprise when thinking about music based on simple rhythmic structures like 4/4 or 3/4. Nothing’s happening, right? Well, constraining the rhythm opens up possibilities for harmonic development. This is not to say you can’t have both (see jazz and 20th century classical music), but accomplishing this raises all kinds of difficulties that we won’t be focusing on here. For now, when sticking to one chord, pay attention to the possibilities for melodic and rhythmic variation. It might surprise you how many different songs can be written on top of the same chord.

Next: V (The Magnet Chord)

Practical Chord Progressions: Overview

In this series, I will be discussing the use of chord progressions in songwriting. My approach will be a little unusual, however. For the most part, I will not be discussing stock chord progressions that a player can integrate into his or her repertoire. Instead, I will outline some techniques for becoming familiar with basic chord relaionships.

These techniques are not just meant to help players learn theory. They’re meant to be practical methods for coming up with songs. Each article in this series will serve as a recipe for writing a verse, chorus, or bridge.

Here are some of my aims in writing this series:

  1. Provide beginners with some practical starting points for songwriting (so they won’t get stuck staring at the instrument wondering what to do next).
  2. Provide methods for breaking out of habits and looking at simple chord progressions in new ways.
  3. Illustrate how many different kinds of songs can be written around the same simple chord changes.

In light of #3, I’ve created a section of the site where musicians can submit their own results applying these methods.

I highly recommend getting a digital dictaphone or other portable recording device for these and other exercises on this site.

So why not get started now?