Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Music, Composition And Literacy: Are We Really Composing Or Just Faking It?

Recently I've been getting attacked on the fact that I use a music editor that is used for mixing pre-sampled music quite often. Some of the claims goes to the ends that I can't really play, or I can't play live. If I record a guitar line using my keyboard and include it in my composition, then I'm made fun of in the fact that I'm not really a guitar player.

That's the truth, I'm not really a guitar player at all. I know about 15 chords and that's about it but with my theory background and about a year of practice, I'd be able to call myself a guitar player.

Not that I'm jealous though there's a joke in the music industry that keyboardists are all really just frustrated because they never became guitarists.


Maybe guitarists are frustrated that they never became violinists.

They usually have a come back for that one that goes: we're really not into sax and violins.

It's true though that the electric guitar became the violin of the modern age, so guys like Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and many others really were the virtuosos of the modern violin.

Anyway, this isn't about keyboardists versus guitarists. Its about the fact that just because you use a sample and midi editing software that includes a prepackaged set of samples, are you really creating music?

That answer I'd say is a twisted one but I'd say yes in certain terms but different people do different things with it and for it. Could you play your creations live or in an acoustic set with other session players? I mean something that you composed via sample mixing. Most in that aspect are mixing music and not delving into the world of melody, harmony and rhythm (not referring to the Kybalion brand of rhythm mind you, that some people might use to try and manipulate you), but mixing is a talent and a skill all in itself and a part of the fold.

In most such editors though, there's the option to record your tracks live off the floor or record them via a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) instrument (like a keyboard) or a step recorder (the equivalent to notation in the world of MIDI, might be a standard notation interface like the ancient program for the Atari ST series called Notator or a step time editor where you can set and delete individual notes in a time line).

The reason that sample mixers and midi editors are so powerful is that they make great scratch pads for jotting down your musical ideas. Usually most people might come up with a motif they like musically or melodically, and work it around into a series of themes and phrases maybe hammering out a structure for the overall piece. Then they get down to recording it. If its a commonly patterned piece of music like most pop music with the structure:

hook intro / verse / transition / verse / transition / chorus / verse / transition / chorus / bridge / instrumental solo / transition or verse / transition / chorus to fade

Not all music follows a structured patterned like that (take classical music, progressive rock and contemporary jazz or many kinds of ethnic music) but that's most common for standard radio airplay tracks and popular music.

Most popular music is composed in short segments called bars. Usually a bar has four beats in 4/4 time of which most popular music is composed for its time signature. The top 4 means that there's 4 beats to a bar, and the bottom 4 means that each quarter note gets one beat (one count). In other kinds of music such as a shuffle you'll find 6/8 time signature or for most rock and roll and blues you'll see 12/8. Pink Floyd's Money by the way is in 7/8 time with a 4/4 instrumental bridge.

In our pop song above, you might figure out how long each section is and what kind of a rhythm section (once again, not the Kybalion kind) you want for that part of the track, so you might compose a drum pattern with one of the midi instruments or VST (Virtual Synthesizer Track) to compose your drum patterns for each part.

Then you might come up with a bass line that goes with the motifs you've come up with. Usually most bass follows and accents the kick drum of your drum pattern, and follows the tonic (the root note of the currently playing harmonic chord) in your motif. Sometimes your bass parts might benefit from a bit of fills and riffs, or even getting into the area of harmony (playing parts that aren't always following the tonic). Billy Sheehan, John Entwistle, Verdine White, Adam Clayton and Geddy Lee are among many bassists who write and play some of the most creative and versatile solid bass lines memorable in pop and rock music. If you want to get creative with your bass lines, listen to their music for an idea of just how unlimited the bass really is and can be.

Each of those parts are called patterns and they're easy to work with when editing your pop song. All of them arranged together to the structure of your song is called your bed tracks. That's usually composed of drums and bass and any other rhythmically oriented tracks.

After doing so you might do the same for your harmonic lines. Those are anything to do with the harmonic composition that compliments and accompanies your melody. Keyboard pads and guitar lines often fill this area. You'd follow the same pattern structure as you would with your drum and bass lines once again for the purposes of editing.

The vocal lines, melodic lines and any solos generally are part of the final was of these means of recording. Vocal lines might include any harmony parts and the all important lead vocal. The instrumental solo just after the bridge and usually played over the musical part of the chorus or verse.

That's structured creation of a song and that's pretty much what you do when you are going for that kind of a sound, in simple terms and explanation.

Now are you creating if you do it with a sample editor? If the melody and the majority of the harmonic parts are yours, then yes. The question is though, could you play it live or in an acoustic unplugged set? If it has a lot of samples that you didn't write or play, then the answer is likely no.

Part of composing music is arranging and that's part of it to. Any great piece of music can be redone into an acoustic version, without production and maybe played with just one instrument or maybe just one instrument and a vocal line. Even the most over produced and latest electronic dubstep and dance music will find a classic audience when that generation reaches their 40s and 50s, you'll see the dubstep generation playing their music on guitars and pianos in acoustic sets. Most of it follows the same idea that a memorable and striking melody line, harmony and rhythm is what it takes.

Not all music is composed in such a "canned" method of doing so and a lot of purists believe that doing so takes the "art" out of composition. In other words, any time that you try to pattern something into predictable time slices of experience and reuse them over a period, you're really taking away from the essence of what art is about: familiar unpredictability. Knowing enough about what you're seeing or hearing to gain some familiarity with it while being presented with enough unpredictable experience so that you're learning or considering something new. A new point of view that you might not have considered.

A musical motif that gives you goose bumps when you hear it. Some symphonies will build on a theme, and touch upon it many times throughout each movement, but rarely the exact same way as the previous passage of that theme or motif. There are different kinds of music for different situations and the amount of time and the atmosphere around which the music is providing a foreground or a background. So that does not make pop music lesser than other styles of music, just more suited to different situations and listeners who invest a certain portion of their time to music. For instance some music combines many elements (such as accelerando and diminuendo) some of which can't be achieved with some software or have to be mimicked (turning the metronome off and playing your tracks live and slowing the tempo or speeding it up gradually as need be). Even some modern dance and electronic music takes advantage of this. Dynamics are an important part to composition as well (how much presence a part has versus how little and how that changes over time). A lot of modern music plays with dynamics on many levels, with frequency filters for some parts (which would be like automating your graphic equalizer to vary itself over time in tempo with the music), and many other techniques as well which were not a part of the tools of yesteryear (though some very inventive musicians learned how to do so with bowing techniques on their violins and string instruments or by making parts for their instrument like the mute of a trumpet or putting a towel on a kettle drum).

When you make music with software there's probably going to be a few people who don't believe that you wrote it, that you just grabbed some samples and mixed them and tada! There you have your shiny new song. That impression is something that many composers must overcome. Being able to play your piece acoustically live (on a piano, synth, guitar or other instrument) is one way of convincing naysayers but you have to ask yourself, why do you need to convince them? What are they doing? There were naysayers when the electric guitar amplifier was invented. There was an outcry when the guitar was first invented just as there was for the piano. Music used to be for the privileged and only those who could afford an instrument and the training to read and write music were allowed to play it and most certainly compose it. Portable instruments were at one time by the

Nobles and the Church had seen as a bane to society and that is not to say that they were bad, but more likely worried about the power to read and write music falling into the hands of the common people. Much like the transition of mass literacy requiring the invention of the printing press and the spread of ancient works for everyone to learn to read (such as many religious texts which actually resulted in the spread of literacy). There was a time that playing the wrong harmonics could get you a death sentence (the famed interval known as the Diablus En Musica). Counterpoint was developed (used in many Gregorian chants) around this idea and around a rigid set of rules for how linear melodies could be combined. If the melodies ever crossed the Diablus, it was seen as an omen or could result in the death or imprisonment of the composer.

Funny enough this mode of thinking was present right up until the evolution of early blues and rock and roll and is why when blues started to spread in popularity, there was an outcry against it. That's because the Diablus En Musica (the devil in music) is an interval of exactly half an octave. This interval occurs in nearly all dominant seventh chords (eg. A7 that is a+c#+e+g) by way of the major third and the flat seventh and is a natural part of the fifth mode of the major scale (Mixolydian). The dominant seventh chord is present in a lot of rock and popular music, but the Diablus interval is present in some of the greatest works of all time as well. So maybe the real Diablus was in those who tried to stop the spread of music and literacy. So every time another tool comes along that puts an art form in the hands of many, there's always going to be some people who try to stomp it in some way. Most of the people who try to stop it are those who want to wield that power for their own or reserve it for a certain few or those who are afraid to try to learn to do it themselves. Maybe even jealous.

Keep in mind there's a whole new brand of theft too that's been taking advantage of technology, that plays upon duality, whereby one group of people might spy upon someone creating, and try to build the same or similar thing at the same time while tricking the originator into contradicting their own creation. That way, you seem not to really be defending your own efforts. Then they make it a competition between the two for the credit despite who really came up with it. Many people and teams play in this sort of competition and as a result and the real creators could end up being at a loss as a result while thieves ride of the wings of those who created it. I'd honestly say to watch out for that if you write or compose. Chances are a lot of the naysayers about whether you are really writing or not when you compose via technology are actually part of that idiom. I am definitely not a member of any ideology that does things that way.

Everything that I compose, I can play live if I had to on the piano or a keyboard because I do nearly every one of my instrumental tracks via recording (except on the rare times when my ASIO drivers aren't behaving and I'm fighting latency issues). I've probably lost more recordings and compositions over the years than I have with me now (at forty or fifty pieces of music I've composed as far back as the pre-computer portable four track era).

Even the stuff that sounds like it was recorded on guitar because I really played it on keyboards, not guitar. I just know enough about guitars and theory to be able to play a lot like a guitarist.

Maybe that's because I'm really frustrated that I never became a guitarist.

I think its because I really like playing with my organ  and I like sax and violins (that didn't quite come out the way it was supposed to).

I mean, I can't keep my pianist down.

Errr. Maybe that's enough for this article.

Brian Joseph Johns
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