Four weeks ago I started studying at Point Blank Music School in London. The coronavirus lockdown has meant the experience has been quite different from what I signed up for – instead of being based at their studios in Shoreditch, all classes are currently being delivered remotely via Zoom. But the transition to online learning has been handled really well, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it all so far.
One of my modules this term is Music Composition, and each week the homework is to write and finish a track from scratch. Nothing focuses my mind quite like a deadline. Normally I would tinker with tracks intermittently over the course of months, or even years, but being forced to come up with something new each week has done wonders for my productivity.
I’ve completed three weeks of this homework so far, and I have three tracks which are “finished” – at least, to some extent. This is the Music Composition module after all, so that’s the focus – which means none of these have been properly mixed or mastered, and they’re all using out-of-the-box presets from either Ableton Live or Massive. I would certainly like to spend more time on all of them to give them some extra polish, and possibly even rework them extensively. I may well do that at some point in the future, but for now, here are three new demos.
Week 1 – The Leader Vanishes
There was not much of a brief for week 1 – simply write and finish a track in about 3 hours.
I kept a little diary as I was writing this, noting down the decisions I was making, and the barriers I was facing. This was instructive, as I’ve never analysed my process for writing music before. Generally my biggest barrier was confidence, because of a lack of knowledge. I felt like I was fudging this together, plonking down a rudimentary chord sequence and bassline. I like the melody, but then I struggled to know what to do with the track so it would “go” somewhere.
I like where this ends up (from about one minute in), but it seems to take a little too long getting there, so that’s something I would rework.
I called this “The Leader Vanishes”, because it sounds like something that could soundtrack a TV drama where the Prime Minister has gone missing.
Week 2 – Killing Time
Again there wasn’t much detail in the brief for week 2 – just take a few starting points (a short rhythm, melody and chord progression) and finish a track.
I quickly created a basic drumbeat, with a few variations taking elements in and out. I used Captain Chords to give me a chord progression (Am, Em, D, C), and chose an ambient Operator patch for the chords, which gave it a weird Boards of Canada vibe. Then I jammed a basic melody on the Push.
I created a bassline by following the root note of the chords, then varying it a little using other notes from the chords. I then adapted the simple melody I’d created so it used more notes from the underlying chords. Something felt a bit weird to me though. The Push was set to the scale of A minor, and I spotted that the D chord which Captain Chords had given me contained an F#, which is not in the scale. I changed that note to a G, which creates a Gsus2 chord.
Aside: As you might be able to tell from that description, I’m still feeling my way around with this stuff, but technology really helps. I use the J74 Chord Detect plugin in Max for Live, which will name any chord it detects from incoming MIDI (I believe Logic can do this out of the box?) – that’s how I knew I’d turned my D chord into a Gsus2.
I felt like I was getting a bit stuck, so I freshened things up by trying a different sound for the chords. I liked this as a progression from the previous sound, so decided I would keep both. Although then I felt that this same chord progression constantly looping round was just making things feel bleak and oppressive.
I played the track to my partner, who pointed out that the “bleak and oppressive” track I’d been talking about was actually quite fast with lots of things going on. I realised that sometimes my ears will just somehow “forget” to hear all of the things that I’ve thrown in, which is a useful lesson.
I decided to slow things down, reducing the tempo and rewriting the melody to be much simpler and slower. Then I created a new chord progression (Dm, F, C, Bb), using Dm as my new tonic chord is it’s next to Am on the Circle of Fifths. I’m pretty clueless about modulations but this seemed to work fine placed right after my initial chord progression. Definitely something for me to spend more time researching and practicing.
With a new melody and a new simple bassline to go with the new chords, I was finished. “Finished”.
I think this would sound really nice with vocals. I tried playing some random acapellas which are in the same key at the same time as the track, and they sound cool. That will be something to play with if I develop this track further.
Week 3 – Untitled Pop
This week, the brief was to use elements from a genre or style you wouldn’t usually use. I chose to experiment with a genre that is somewhat alien to me these days – pop music!
I must admit I’ve not been following the charts for about 20 years now, but since starting at Point Blank I’ve been spending some time listening to chart music, catching up with what the kids are listening to these days. I’ve been looking at Spotify playlists, and occasionally turning on Radio 1 or MTV Hits. Sometimes I will look up an artist who is completely new to me, and I will find out, for example, that they are in fact the second most-streamed artist ever on Spotify. Or that they had a number 1 for 10 weeks last year. I feel so out of touch. But at least I’m getting better. And it turns out that some of this pop music is rather good. It must be popular for a reason…
For my starting points for this exercise, I took a song that has recently been in the charts and studied it closely. I copied the chords – Am F C G, at 145BPM, changing every 2 bars, and made a similar drum beat. I also wanted to try and stick roughly to the same structure as the original song, so we have an intro of 8 bars, a “verse” of 16 bars, a 2-bar breakdown, then a 16-bar “chorus”. After that I’ve changed the structure a bit, as I’ve created a variation of the chorus, and towards the end I have the chorus and verse playing at the same time.
Starting from the chords, I created a bassline which mostly follows the root note of the chord. I initially had more variation within it, which sounded good on its own, but as soon as my melody had its own variations, things started clashing a bit, so I simplified it a lot from what I started out with.
Some of the melodies I created by jamming on the Push, set to the scale of A minor. And some of them I just experimented by drawing in notes into the piano roll in Ableton Live. I then moved notes around so I was mostly using the same notes as the underlying chord. The creative barrier I felt this week was getting a feel for how much to use not-in-the-chord “passing notes” to add interest to the melody without having it clash with the bass, but I think I have a better understanding now of how these fit together (basically I now know not to have passing notes in the other layers at the same time, otherwise that effectively creates a different chord).
I’ve varied the drum pattern (adding and removing hihats) throughout to add interest. The chorus and the verse use different presets, and I’ve also tried to give them a different feel to each other. The verse has two 8-bar sections (one with all long notes, and one with a mixture of short and long notes) which have more melodic movement, whereas the chorus is a simpler hands-in-the-air stabby dance riff. This gives a bit of contrast, and also enables them to be played together towards the end.
I’m quite excited about this track, as it feels like the most “commercial” thing I’ve ever done, but it’s still “me”. It’s definitely one I want to spend some time developing further.