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Composing EDM the Old-Fashioned Way: By Score!

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

colorful yellow and fuchsia psychedelic rocks sandstone volcanic

Continuing my blathering from last week about my take on the structure of electronic music, I’d like to talk a little about the composition process.

This is, of course, my own experience, because everyone’s experience and process is different (every entity is essentially a lens to focus the energies of the vast universe, known and unknown, into a shining star of incarnation).

I usually start off, all of a sudden and all a-flutter, with what I think is a sweet idea.

Like the other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who was subjected to a Steiner School education in his formative years, and learned (with interest and amazement) that what little maths they were taught wasn’t even called “maths” — it was called “Glitter Fingers” (aaaand… I’m laughing again). And I was just… “Oh, crikey! I am SO writing a song called Glitter Fingers!” (Done. And it’s good, perfect for bashing in skulls in games, as it happens. I’ll put it out for y’all to hear soon.) This friend has recovered very well, by the way.

Anyway. Sometimes a title or word will present musical ideas, or the echo of a 1,000-year-old memory, received in the glint of a salamander’s eye and mysterious smile — a beat, a theme, a tone, whatever, suddenly communicates itself. It’s different each time. Sometimes I’ll have an overwhelming feeling — melancholy, triumph, fortitude) and express it in musical shapes. It can be pretty therapeutic with some of the darker and more intense emotions I’ve got locked up in this odd little body o’mine.

At times the music cries out unexpectedly from other places. The hum of a refrigerator harmonising with the buzz from an amplifier with an unplugged lead, the far-off echo of my neighbour’s 40-year-old cement mixer, the odd mechanical noise when the well pump powers down, somebody’s loose alternator belt on their car passing by with a nice Doppler effect, birds announcing a coming rainstorm. Or it can come in the shape of one of the twisted logs my dog leaves all over the place, or the damned plastic flowerpots I keep finding chewed up on the porch (where does he even find them? I don’t know). It can happen anywhere, at any time. Something that just… strikes you, and fans the embers of an idea.

the most dubstep cement mixer you'll ever see

(the most Dubstep cement mixer you'll ever see.)

Other times (probably more often than not) it’s in the form of some motif or musical phrase I’ve got singing around in my head, unbidden, but always welcome. Sometimes I dream them. Once, in the long, long ago, I dreamed I was on an airship, playing the piano (in the so-called wake-world, at that time, I’d never even touched a piano, I don’t think). A whole symphony, really lovely, with a long, soul-wrenchingly beautiful piano composition at its centre. As I woke into normal conscious life, crying, I could only remember snatches of it, and, having no means with which to write it down, it slowly dimmed and faded.

I only have the feeling of it left, in odd moments, like when brightly coloured leaves rustle forlornly in the Autumn breeze under a glowering sky with slanting beams of sunlight at around 4 pm. Or when I find myself imagining what the day-to-day “home life” of MC Hot Carll might be like these days…

In fact, it was a long time before I studied music properly. I played instruments by ear, but I couldn’t really read, much less write, notes on a score. I could sing from a piece of sheet music put in front of me, given a starting note, but I couldn’t tell you what was going on in any intelligible, communicative way. And so I lost a lot over the years. It was profoundly frustrating, and for a long time I thought writing down “my” music was just beyond me, even if I was getting these sweet motifs burrowing around in my brain all the time.

One of my strongest memories of my present, Stalin-esque mother was being told that I seemed like a mentally challenged person (I’ve used a politer modern-day terminology here, and omitted the expletives, so as not to offend) because I used to hum to myself all day long… not “normal”, apparently. She stopped that happening for a number of years. (Fie on her! The word of Sin is Restriction!)

So, getting back to whatever the hell point I’m trying to make, if you’ve got this kind of musical outpouring happening to you, and if you can’t already, take the time to learn to write and read music, like as soon as you can. Make the time for it. Cultivate a working knowledge of scoring and of music theory. These are tools that will serve you well, no matter what kind of music you’ve got pouring out of you (or stopped up inside you, as the case may be). They will help to open up a whole world of expression. Don’t be afraid to hear the song of the spheres speaking to you in shapes and colours and ambient sounds of the myriad creatures and things you find all around you.

And don’t let anyone put you off.

What, you may ask, does this stream-of-consciousness blither have to do with EDM? Well, for me, everything. Now, if I hear something in my head, I can open up my lovely little free music scoring program (I use MuseScore) and write it down before I “lose” it, either by forgetting it altogether, or by playing it on an instrument and losing the original train of thought in the mechanics of trying to capture it. Once it’s written down in its basic underlying form, I can export it as (in my case, invariably) a truly awful-sounding MIDI file.

There’s nothing more satisfying (or funnier) than hearing a crunching, squealing, writhing, grinding synth lead in your head and exporting it as a computer-generated trombone. I love me some good trombone…

golden trombone on red velvet

But the fact remains, the idea is there, ready to be twisted, mutilated, transposed, forced through humiliating effects, buried in waves of reverb, cut up into loops, and compelled into a form that matches the original idea in my head. This is what works best for me.

I hope, if you’re struggling to get your ideas into a final form that satisfies you, my strange and elegantly inelegant little solution might also be of service to you.

The universe around you is a symphony — a unified, chaotic cacophony in its noise and in its silence. Listen to it, and live the dance.

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