I’m a pretty big fan of the Beatles. Okay, so I’m a huge fan. I think I’ve read literally every bit of trivia about the most famous band in the world. When I first started writing music, I found it amazing that the Beatles could write so much material and create amazing hit songs time after time. At their most productive, they put out 2 albums in one year (Help! and Rubber Soul). Help! had one or two covers, but still. That’s 26 original tracks between the two albums. Plus, they had a slew of singles in between those two releases. It roughly accounts to about 30 new songs in 1965, including, of course, Yesterday.
I use to find that intense output of material incredible. 17-year-old me couldn’t fathom how they wrote so quickly. And every song was amazing.
One of my favorite Beatles stories comes from Paul McCartney himself. Yesterday is perhaps his most well-known song. He spoke of how he “fell out of bed with the melody in his head”, and then ran over to the piano and started playing it.
And like that, BOOM! He had a song.
How was he able to create that song so quickly? At the time, he had the melody, but no real lyrics. He even sang “Scrambled eggs…. na-na-na-na how I love your legs”. Eventually, he wrote the lyrics we all know of. What’s more important is that he wrote the song completely in that one shot.
And how was this possible? Paul didn’t stump himself on the lyrics. He got the entire structure of the song laid out, all the chord changes, the vocal melody. Once he had a song completely done, he wrote the lyrics.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
When I was in college as a composition major, I found that I could barely finish ANY piece of music. I would start a song, not be able to write much of anything, throw it aside, and try another song. Rinse and repeat. My senior recital was barely at the minimum time (45 mins of music), and even then, I had to pull in songs from my band at the time to fill in some space.
A lot of my excuses were: “I’m just not feeling inspired” or “I’m too stressed from my other music classes to write”.
The real issue was that I just wasn’t focused. I would just start trying to write a piece of music with no plan for its structure or anything.
I am very grateful that my composition professor in college came from an intense songwriting background. He knew song structure better than anyone. He knew how he could write music quickly and efficiently. And it was great music. Always catchy, always capturing the mood of the scenario so well. He taught me so much that I’ve only just begun to understand in the past year or so.
College Alyssa couldn’t get anything done. Sure, she was a decent composer, but it didn’t mean crap if she couldn’t finish a piece to save her life. Present-day Alyssa has a much more productive musical output. Let’s review 2015 thus far:
- Pixel Prison Blues Theme (2:00)
- 7 Tracks for Labyrinths of Astoria (30-45 seconds each)
- Games, Seriously Theme (45 seconds)
- Hall Way Theme (90 seconds)
- Mahou Shojo Trailer and Tutorial Video (1:45 each)
- Fly Bros Trailer Music (1:30)
- Music For Albert + Otto’s PAX Prime Demo (~2 min)
- Cover of Frog’s Theme for Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra (2 min)
- Cover of Kirby’s Green Greens for MGSO (~1:40)
- PX-57 Theme (Logitech crowdsourced game) (2:00)
- Music for the Comcast Games I worked on with Bumblebear Games (~1:30)
- Various tracks for the unreleased 1000 Years of Bones/Buried Bones.
- About 3 mins of Gameboy Jam Music.
And that’s not to mention all the stuff that never actually came out into the public yet (or at all). I’ve written music tests for some clients that unfortunately didn’t lead to more work, but that’s still music I wrote.
Looking back at the list I just wrote, I’m kind of astonished that I put out that much music. And the year isn’t even over! Looking back, it doesn’t even feel like a lot of music, but it’s a hell of a lot more than College Alyssa could even FINISH.
I can tell you a million reasons why I couldn’t finish any music back in college. I made too many excuses. I got distracted too easily. I wouldn’t make composition a priority, even though I was a composition major. I did get straight As in my other music classes, but no one who has hired me or ever will hire me really cares about that.
So if we go back to the Beatles, one of my favorite stories is John telling George to “finish a song in one go”. His belief was that you’re in a certain mindset and mood when you’re writing a particular song, that if you leave it and come back to it, it’s hard to get back into that same mindset.
My music is very iterative, but I think that’s the case for everyone who isn’t Mozart. But what I do is that I’m always sure I have my structure, my beginning, middle, and end, before I put my pencil down. I’ll let the song rest a bit then, then play through it on the piano when I come back to it and make my revisions. I’ll improvise a little on what I have written down and try to come up with some new ideas. This process usually happens until the piece is done, which surprisingly, ends up happening pretty quickly these days.
Even if I’m working on a huge orchestral score, I’ll take the strings through the piece, all the way to the end of the piece (or section if it’s a very long piece). Then I’ll make another pass and write woodwind parts, or transfer/double some string parts. Then I’ll get my brass in there. Then it’s back to add percussion touches and flourishes, and voila! It’s a piece! I have a very specific workflow for writing orchestral pieces, because it’s very easy to otherwise get lost in such a huge score. My first attempts at writing an orchestral piece (again, back in college), were all over the place. That’s because I couldn’t even finish a string quartet or solo piano piece, let alone write for a huge orchestra. Somehow I cobbled something together back in 2008, but I was lucky that the piece was even 2 minutes. And the orchestration was pretty terrible.
Due to this workflow, I was able to get this piece done in 3 days:
And I was able to arrange this in 3 hours:
And I’m pretty damn proud of that.
Sometimes, we get stumped on our music. It happens to everyone. What do we do when we’re battling with some horribly dreaded writer’s block?
Let’s go back to Paul. He wrote his entire song, Yesterday, but he didn’t have lyrics. He didn’t get blocked by his lyrical writer’s block. Instead, he focused on creating the whole song and letting the lyrics come to him. When sitting down to write a song, the worst thing you can do is stare at a blank page or a blank screen. College me spent about 50% of her time in school doing that.
A lot of what blocked me is that I would sit right down in front of Finale and try to just input my music directly without PLAYING anything. Big mistake. As soon as I adapted my workflow and made myself start at the piano (or guitar if it’s a rock song or written for that instrument), then making music became as easy as playing music.
When I first sit down to write some music, I decide what the most important aspect of my song is. Usually, it’s the melody. So I’ll work on a few little ideas. Two-four bars at most. Tiny motifs. Then I expand those motifs and start developing a full melody, while playing some chords because I need to think harmonically and melodically at the same time. I’ll play the melodic motifs and some chords at the piano, figure out new places to take the melody, until I feel like I have a good section to start with. Then I’ll come up with some more variances at that point so can bring my piece to a new section. I’ll also force myself to “discover” a new place harmonically, depending on what emotions my piece is supposed to convey. Sometimes, it’s playing a few chords and figuring out if it matches the emotion of the song, but I’ll usually have a good idea of where to go thanks to knowing a lot of music theory. (I’ll likely end up covering theory and how it can relate to music making in a future post.)
And if I’m ever stuck on where to go in a piece, I’ll just play. Play play play play until something good comes out. I find myself noodling on the guitar and improvising on the piano all the time. It’s how all my compositional ideas spring to life. Don’t let yourself get stuck on another piece! Just play your instrument until you can figure something out. I do highly recommend having some decent piano chops- it allows you to be able to conceptualize melody and chords at the same time- you’ll find that writing music will become much easier that way.
So if you’re reading this, and you want to learn how to write music, I say you should write something and FINISH IT. Even if it’s 8 bars long. In fact, if you haven’t finished a piece of music yet, then make one that’s only 8 bars long. “Frere Jaques” is 8 bars long. Forcing yourself to finish an 8 bar piece will prepare you to eventually finish your 10-minute concerto, or your 10-track LP. You’ll produce something. Then you can share it. And that’s the greatest thing you can do if you’re looking to create music of your own.
Thanks for reading everyone! Tune in again for another blog post soon.