Whenever I have a release on the horizon, it’s a lengthy process to get across the finish line. First, there’s the initial listening process to make sure mixing/mastering went well enough. Then I have to upload the music – typically to Apple Music / iTunes so it will sync to my devices and I can listen wherever. When I’m satisfied, I move to the naming process.
I find that the process of naming music can be difficult. When you’ve spent months upon months creating the music, listening to it over and over, it kind of loses meaning at some point. I mostly file it into three categories: 1) Good, 2) Could be good, or 3) Needs to go to the trash bin. The main issue, really, is that through this process I have to set aside my feelings about the music and approach it in a more analytical approach.
There’s a problem though. All of this happens before the song gets named or before a theme becomes clear. By setting aside those feelings about the music, I kind of lose the ability to envision the story being told by the music. So enter the naming party!
The naming party is essentially a set amount of time where I get to force my loving partner into listening to the music and then leech out her creative force. It can be a collaborative process but mostly, I have to rely on her initial reactions and emotions to set the theme for the music. The theme leads to song naming and song order. She also largely decides on the naming of the songs based on those feelings and reactions.
It’s definitely one of the more important parts of creating an album and I can’t do it alone. If it had been left to me alone, most of my albums would consist of songs like: “House Music – C Major – Song 1” or “Ambient Piano – G Minor – Song 3”. Possible album titles: “Album 1”, “Album 2”, and so on.
The released album is made better thanks to this collaboration and it’s an important part of my whole process. A piece of the process I couldn’t do without a trusted partner.
P.S. In case you were worried that it’s a one-sided arrangement, I am occasionally involved in story ideas/editing/proof-reading for her… which I do with minimal complaint…
I was recently at a local outdoor music event, eating very interesting (also very good) Moroccan red quinoa tacos and listening to live music. After a while, I realized I wasn’t hearing the whole music anymore – instead, I was trying to find the song structure and the chord changes. Was that a 12-bar blues I heard? Was that a major turnaround? What was that drum pattern? So this is where I am at now – finding enjoyment in deconstructing other music to see what I’ve learned or what I can learn from it.
Song structure is important when you’re working with lyrics and vocals. The reading I’ve done on this seems to reinforce the idea as almost all the descriptions revolve around the lyrical portion of the song. All examples provided are lyrical songs – no instrumentals. It leaves me wondering how important having a formal song structure is to my own music.
I mean, in the strictest sense of the thing, any song I create will have structure. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be volume changes and instrument drones that fade in-and-out. There will be chord progressions and multiple instruments, but many of the songs I’m working on don’t follow standard structures (12-bar, ABABCB, verse-chorus, etc.). Does it matter?
Well, what I’ve found recently is that songs following a defined structure definitely stick around in my head longer. I’ll walk away from working on the piece and still be humming a catchy part of the song later in the day because there’s some repetition in the music and using a common structure leads to having certain expectations. It’s like watching a movie – once you’ve seen enough in a single genre, you know what’s coming next.
The music I’m creating that is free-flowing and doesn’t focus on structure? Mostly, I walk away from these songs with just a feeling. The melody is forgettable, nothing more than a snapshot in time from the day I originally played the part.
I call it forgettable but that’s not the most apt description. The goal of the music isn’t to have a melody that sticks out or be distracting in any way. It’s music that goes in the background. It fills the void of silence, but it doesn’t have to draw you in. When done right, you will enjoy the music enough to remember the artist name but forget all the song titles.
Hopefully, you’ll be left with a good feeling and forget all the rest.
In art, there’s a term “negative space” which refers to all the space in and around your actual subject. So if you were drawing a picture on paper, the ink or pencil defines your subject and all that blank space around it? That’s the negative space.
Negative space is important because it’s through this space that you guide your viewer to the thing that matters. It’s in this space that your viewer gets to take a break – their mind gets to relax from processing the visual and the overall picture becomes easier to look at.
In music, there is still a negative space. There’s a time to stop playing, to take a rest, to skip a beat. Sometimes, the melody stops. Others, the harmony might cut out. In the most extreme, everything will stop for a moment but this is all done for the effect of guiding the listener on a journey.
There are lots of stylistic options that contribute to the negative space in a song but the most comparable for me is the bridge of your song because it’s a construct specifically designed to wake up the listener and prepare them for a final hurrah before the song ends.
In common song formats, you generally have a structure where the verse sort of sets up a story and the chorus is the climactic, super-catchy part that you are humming all day. It’s the part that repeats in all those songs that you sing along with but if all you do is the verse-chorus parts, you’re missing out on a lot of your story. Where’s the intro? Outro? The transition between all the parts? There’s just so much more.
When the music is repetitive, it’s easy to tune out, so we have to have a way to guide the listener and wake up those senses. If we think of the verse-chorus as our artistic subject, we can’t just add blank space around it and have a complete picture. Something needs to go in that void and that’s where you end up with the turnaround, the bridge, and some other things. These seemingly minor parts transition the listener between the major parts or wake the listener up to let them know another section is coming soon.
So what’s the point? Those minor parts are important – those parts are filling the gaps to make the major parts memorable. No matter your choice of art form, the subject is only one part of the overall composition. Spend time working on the minor parts too because, honestly, the chorus is only catchy when there’s a bunch of stuff around it that you enjoyed too!
P.S. I like making connections between different art forms because it makes it easier for me to retain the information. I’ve been drawing a lot longer than I’ve been making music and anytime I can connect the two, well, that’s a win in my book.
In my day job, we frequently talk about the “sunk cost” problem in technology deployments. The idea basically goes like this: a company will invest a million dollars into a technology based on the sales pitch. Then they invest thousands of hours into deploying and adopting the technology across numerous personnel. After some time, though, the company realizes they are millions of dollars into a project and have zero returns to show for it because the product didn’t work as advertised. Yet, they continue to push the product because, “We’ve already invested so much…”
If you want to read more about that, do an internet search for the “sunk cost fallacy” and I’m sure you’ll find plenty. However, if you don’t want to read up on it, just keep this in mind. The more you invest in a thing, the harder it becomes to walk away from it.
This applies to artists of all types. Maybe you have a painting or an unreleased song that you keep returning to in the hopes you can finally finish it off. I have a few of these too. I have songs, I have paintings, I have drawings – things that I return to but am never able to finish. One song was added to a previous blog post a couple months ago that I’ve invested so much time in, yet, it remains unreleased. No matter how much I’ve changed it or worked on it, it’s just not right.
I’ve modified the song multiple times including replaying parts, changing the lead instrument, adding new instruments to the mix, completely reprogramming the drum track, and so on. Despite all that work and effort, I can’t release it because it isn’t right and I haven’t been able to fully delete it yet either. I’ve just spent so much time on it.
With paintings, I have this problem less because I’m working completely in a physical medium. Paint is mixed with mediums and applied to a support suitable for the type of paint I’m working with. When you add too much, everything becomes a muddy brown and there’s no real way to back out of it. Sure, sometimes you can just go over the top with an opaque medium and essentially reset back to stage one. But depending on your support, you might hit weight limitations.
Point is, I’ve hit those physical limitations many times with paintings and that led to a very natural end point. “This painting is not done and there’s nothing I can do to change it or make it better.” It gets thrown out.
Working with the music I create is similar to digital painting. Every component exists on a separate layer and it becomes incredibly easy to remove a layer or add new layers. So it’s easy to keep going ad infinitum…
So how do we know it’s time to walk away? You have to take a break from it. When you return to it again, if you feel inspired, keep working on it! But if you don’t feel inspired and you just want to work on it because you’ve already invested so much… walk away.
Your best work will come when you feel inspired and that inspiration will lead to a finished product. It’s not likely that you’ll produce your best work when your goal is to simply finish.
If you have some unfinished projects you want to tell me about, feel free to hit me via email or at Twitter.
P.S. Hey, don’t forget – walking away from something that isn’t working isn’t a sign of failure. Getting fixated, stuck, and frustrated leading to you being unable to get your whole creation out into the world because you didn’t walk away? That seems more like failure to me.
I love technology, generally, and the things it has done for us. But technology has created an interesting problem as it relates to cheating. Some of us are old enough to remember when calculators were forbidden from math class because you needed to know the steps instead of just getting to the answer, right? Now, computers are so ubiquitous in our lives that *not* using a calculator seems like the poor choice. Are we cheating somehow when we use the calculator?
If the calculator example doesn’t hit home for you, how about the last time you went to a music concert? (You know, back when we could still do that.) Or, honestly, to any event. Were you one of the people recording it on your phone to never watch it again? Were you one of the people silently hating the people with their phones out recording this once-in-a-lifetime event?
That is technology enabling people to experience an event in two different ways and we are left wondering if one of those people is cheating themselves. Either they didn’t record the event and can’t relive the moment later or they didn’t pay enough attention to the current moment and missed out on some emotion. I certainly can’t say which approach is right. Having grown up in a different time, I don’t record these events because I just want to be in the moment and know that I’ll never watch the recording anyways.
So what does this have to do with art? Well, technology has enabled artists in the same way and I’m left wondering – what is cheating anyways?
For a very long time, I subscribed to a purist attitude on this. Consider photobashing – or the concept of taking a photograph and blending it into your digital artwork in order to add textures or specific elements to your final art. I hated this concept. I felt like, “Are you an artist if you didn’t really draw the thing yourself?” It felt like cheating because it seemed like it removed the necessity of traditional art skills.
Fast forward many years and here’s a layout in one of my Logic Pro projects:
What you are seeing here is three different piano instruments overlaid in order to produce the song that I was going for. You can see my sections that I’ve labeled with specific chord progressions (3->5->6 or 1->1->5->1->1->6) that I reused. You can see where I loop parts and so on. This is very much a work-in-progress so it’s rough, but as shown above it sounds like this:
This is my cheating.
This is me taking shortcuts to achieve the desired end-goal because I finally came around to a different view which you can look at in one of a couple ways:
Technology enables me to compensate for my otherwise mediocre skills; or
Technology enables me to take shortcuts to get to my end goal and thereby saves time.
If I had to follow a more traditional route, I would have to pound out each of these parts on a proper piano and when I landed on something I liked – write it out in note form. Then I’d have to add in each part I wanted to play to those sheets of music. Eventually, I’d land on the same composition and then I’d have to play it and practice until I was adept enough at playing it error free – I could record it. (To be fair, the recording process could have multiple takes with a sound engineer taking the best parts of each take in order to produce the final recording. So, still kind of cheating!)
Past me, from so many years ago, would have considered this cheating and said: “How dare you call yourself a musician or artist!” Today?
Well, today, I see it as a more efficient workflow that helps compensate for areas where I’m not so great but most importantly, allows me to land on a final composition faster. I hit the record button multiple times and capture my notes in MIDI form. I listen through it, pick out the parts I like the most for the feel I’m going for, and I create a composition. I’m still doing the work to create a finished product.
I also get to take advantage of the process. Accidentally hit an E note when I meant E flat? Fix in post processing. Accidentally get off beat when you didn’t mean to? Quantize it in post processing. Having troubles playing left and right hand pieces at the same time? Play them separate and combine them in post processing.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure it’s much different than using samples and loops in music which happens plenty. But taking these shortcuts, cheating, leaves me with an important question. If you can cheat your way to a finished product, what makes you an artist?
Really, we have to answer that for ourselves.
I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I consider myself an artist because I practice hard and work at it every day. When I’m not producing something of my own, I am reading about other works or researching information that might make me better. One of the most telling things is that when you look at my desk, you won’t see a single book related to my day job but you will see lots of instruction books and printouts related to drawing, painting, and music.
Feel free to tell me what makes you an artist via email or at Twitter!
P.S. Another way to think about whether or not you are an artist is simply this: are you creating art? My partner once relayed a quote to me that went something like, “You are a writer as long as you are writing every day.” If you are doing the art you enjoy, actively pursuing it in your life, then you get to call yourself an artist regardless of your commercial success status.
When it comes to creating art, my process is very much like making spaghetti noodles. You boil the water, dump in the noodles, and then after some amount of time you take out a noodle and throw it against the wall to see if it sticks. I should say that this spaghetti trick has never worked for me, so I don’t do it because it just leaves me with a mess of noodles and wasted food. I’m now wondering if that is even a real thing or if someone told me to throw that spaghetti a long time ago just to mess with me…
Anyway, that visual aptly describes my creative process which basically work like this:
Step 1: Pound keys on the keyboard until I have a tune that I like Step 2: Put it away. Repeat Step 1 in a new project. Step 3: Continue doing this for a while, just depending on mood. Step 4: Start revisiting the previous projects Step 5: Add or remove things from the project until I have something that I like Step 6:Put it away! Step 7: Continue to a new song Step 8: Revisit projects for mixing Step 9: Listen to the complete song on multiple different outputs (car audio, headphones, office speakers, etc.) Step 10: Revise or delete as necessary
A big part of my process is just pure experimentation and throwing stuff at a wall until I have something that sticks. The second biggest part of my process is taking breaks from the creating. This is true in all things: if you do something long enough without a break, you lose the ability to objectively find and fix the issues. You get tired or you tune out the thing that was wrong.
Which brings me to some rules that I try to keep:
Rule 1: Have a defined target or goal Rule 2: Accept that 90% is sometimes good enough Rule 3: Take breaks and take care of yourself
For me, my defined target is pretty situational. For “Inside the Red Room”, I wanted a collection of songs that could be in the background and not be distracting. For the ongoing RPM Challenge 2021, I want to tell a story with music targeting a more sci-fi feel. And then for my next project, I’m planning to try for more lo-fi sound though I haven’t decided if I want to go upbeat or chill.
When I don’t have an active goal, I just target trying to create a little something every day… Something that I can come back to when I do have a goal. How does that work out for me? Well, here’s a sample of something I created a few weeks back and put away because it’s fun and nice but doesn’t really go with my current sci-fi story goal.
Untitled WIP by Achira
I do like the vibe of this thing but it’s not finished and it’s not fitting in with anything, so I put it away.
As an aside, the reason why that piece ended up sounding do different from my other work, really, was a reflection of something that I was trying to do based on reading I was doing a few weeks ago on song structure. Basically, I wanted to compose a song that followed a specific format while also trying a different time signature. (This was 6/8 instead of common time.) If you listen closely to the track, you can hear the pattern reflected in this screenshot:
I worked on it for a bit, adding bass, acoustic guitar, drummer track, and doing some basic mixing in an attempt to make it sound somewhat right and this is where I apply Rule 2.
Many artists that might want to work on this more and make it perfect, but I’m done with it for today because it’s 90% complete in its current form. Could it use more work? Yes! Could I refine it and bring it into my target genre of music? Definitely and that’s the long-term goal. But it’s better to leave it alone for now and figure it out later with fresh ears. If it never gets used as part of a collection, oh well, at least it was fun working on and I didn’t spend a lot of time nitpicking it to death.
Because nitpicking it to death would take hours and hours and hours… reducing the amount of time I spend actually creating. I would never get anywhere on my actual goals.
Speaking of that 90% rule, I feel like you can hear that rule in most of my upcoming album “Inside the Red Room”. Here’s one of the songs on the album:
The Last Toy Soldier by Achira
Like anything I do, I can hear the imperfection and think that I could have made it better but I had to stop somewhere. (By the way, if you hear a clipping sound when pressing play… that’s not actually part of the song or heard in other method of playback than here. And even then, I could only reproduce it in one specific browser during testing.) The question wasn’t, “Is this done?” Rather, the questions were, “Is this good enough? And does it match the vibe I want?” Yes, yes it did.
This is something that, as an artist, you have to come to terms with. You have to know your audience. Often times, we put things into the world for our own community to see – I like to draw therefore I put my art into the world in a community filled with artists that are also capable of seeing all the flaws in my work. Every one of them could pick apart any of my drawings and tell me that I could do better but it becomes a question of whether or not I need to do better. Would my target audience spot all the same flaws?
I struggle with that concept a lot – at what point do you stop and call things good? You have to have a place that you call “done” otherwise you’ll spend all of your time revising in search of perfection and never have a finished product to put out there. So really, the 90% rule is about knowing what complete looks like.
In the process above, I mentioned taking breaks and walking away, which is reinforced by Rule 3. Right now, I’m taking a break from new artistic creation to write this blog post. I took a break from writing this blog post, at one point, to do yoga. (It’s an active recovery day.) While I try to put as many hours towards my creative pursuits as I can, I have a scheduled bedtime (even on the weekends) and I work in time for exercise and my family.
Taking care of yourself – eating right, sleeping, exercising – is the most important thing you can do for your creativity. Trust me on this one. I’ve spent months of my life not being able to accomplish any creative pursuit because I wasn’t taking care of myself. The end result was that while I may have felt okay at the time, my creative output was stunted.
No matter how much you love your artistic pursuit, it’s a job. It’s stress. It has to be managed appropriately. So next time you’re feeling stressed or creatively blocked, go for a run. Do anything that cultivates some relaxation and gets you back on track… even if it means stepping away to take a nap.
That’s it for this post. I hope that you’re still with me, you enjoyed the music within, and most importantly, I hope you are taking care of yourself. Feel free to write and tell me what you think about my process or to tell me your own process at achira(at)achira.art.