Song Creation Part 2 – Composition and Arrangement

User avatarDecember 5, 2010 by Surfaced Studio

This is the second part of my song creation series and today I will be focusing on the second phase, the composition and arrangement phase. Again, this is just how I do things and my way is not necessarily any better or easier than anyone else's. I am merely presenting it here so you might take some tips away

First off, in my mind i clearly distinguish between 'composition' and 'arrangement'. To me, composition involves the inventing and transcribing of notes, chords, melodies and their evolution throughout the song. Arrangement is about how these composition elements are layed out to form the structure of the song.

Whenever inspiration strikes and I come up with a fragment that I consider good enough to be a part of a song, the first thing I do is transcribe the notes. I used to do this by hand on note paper, but lately I have found it much easier to go straight into Cubase and transcribe my ideas as MIDI notes since I will need all the MIDI tracks for arrangement later on anyways.

Here is a screenshot of one of my song projects as it looks in Cubase during this phase:

There are a number of reasons why I prefer to work (almost) exclusively with MIDI during this early stage of the song creation:

  • Having your notes in MIDI means you have them written down. Even after 5 years you can come back to your piece and start playing without having to pick everything up by ear.
  • This early during the process, the whole song structure, all melodies and chords can easily change and when I work in MIDI it is very easy to move, delete, edit, clone and modify whole sections of the song. If it was all audio at this stage, I'd have to re-record instruments for any minor change I might want to try out randomly.
  • I can try out different instruments for the different tracks just to see what effect I'd be getting. Again, no recording is required.

Of course, MIDI is not all awesome and two disadvantages come to mind straight away:

  • You need to know how to transcribe music notes. If you are having trouble with that, try plugging a MIDI keyboard into your computer and recording the notes as MIDI signals while you play. You can clean up your recorded MIDI notes afterwards. I do suggest you learn how to transcribe your own music notes though - it makes life a whole lot easier
  • Working with MIDI will give you MIDI sound. You will need a bit of imagination to 'see' how the final song would sound.

To me, composition and arrangement are not cleanly separated or consecutive activities. Instead, I will compose a little bit, integrate the fragments into my arrangement, make changes, come back and compose a few other elements, etc, all depending on the flow of the song and what mood I'm currently in - late at night inspiration is more likely to strike so I prefer to invent music then. It is a circular process that, for me, works best when I feel the song growing naturally. Forcing a section into a song usually makes it sound odd and out of place.

composition_arrangement_circle

For the last few weeks I have been working on 'The Circle Concept', which I used in a very early version for my initial collaboration post. I have not had as much time as I would have liked since I was on holiday the last two weeks, but here is the current MIDI version of the song:

[/audio]

There are still a few more modifications I want to make before moving on to recording stage. The drum breaks need to be a bit more varied and I want a little bit more of a build up during the interlude section at the end. Notice that there is neither a solo guitar nor any ambient effects or guitars yet. I usually improvise these during the recording stage because I find that trying to transcribe them using MIDI takes away from their 'feel'.

I am not a professional composer, I am self taught and have mainly learnt by writing my own songs for many years. Still, I have picked up a few tips to keep in mind during composing and arranging that want I to share

Create space

I am a fan of light arrangements (classical music excluded) where the number of instruments playing simultaneously is kept fairly small. Since songs live from their dynamics, having all instruments play all the time and blasting a consistently loud wave of sound at your listener will simply cause their ears to tire out and block out your music.

I'm not saying to never have all instruments play at once. Simply consider creating some sections with alot of space where most instruments are muted before it all comes swinging back in for one last emotional chorus. Of course it all depends on your style of music and the message you want to bring across in your song

Another option is to not have your instruments play too many notes, but let chords 'hang' for a little while before anything new happens. This will create a very easy and relaxed atmosphere like in the following little demo song I recorded a while ago.

[/audio]

There are many ways you can create and resolve tension in your compositions. I have talked about using dominant chords and key changes to freshen up sections or making transitions stand out more.

Another great way is by using dissonances or very off-beat/non fitting patterns. During a transition, you could introduce an instrument that plays at increasing dissonances or at a beat contradictory to the main beat of the song. This will create tension which you can then release by having the instrument fall back in line when the next section of the song comes along.

Bush is one of the bands that comes to mind when i think of tension and dissonances. Have a listen to the following song and note how the dissonances increase just before the chorus kicks in.

The Chemicals Between us by Bush

Another way to create tension is by (ab)using the expectations of the listener. Often when the listener is expecting a certain instrument to come in, withholding that instrument can create tension that can then be resolved with a greater emotional effect than if you simply did what the listener was expecting.

For example when you have a bridge building up tension and the listener is expecting the fat guitars to kick back in, try inserting a few bars of just drums or just bass or just a hanging ambience instrument before you jump into the chorus! This of course works just as well with withholding chords or entire sections of your song.

Be unconventional

Dare to try unconventional things! Ever listened to a song and liked it mainly because it was a 'breath of fresh air', something a little different that contained unusual instruments or had a style that you couldn't quite place? Being unconventional can range from creating songs that break the typical verse-verse-chorus structure to piecing together a rhythm section from recordings of coins hitting different types of surfaces. Go crazy and try different things - they might not always work, but sometimes you can discover some amazing sounds and it's usually always fun to play around

I find that listening to musical styles that vastly differ from mine, I often get inspired to introduce new elements into my own music. Here is an African song I really love. It is very simple, but has a great ambience sound and a simple yet memorably melody.

Kothbiro by Ayub Ogada

Arrange with MIDI, compose with improvisation

MIDI is great to arrange instruments and work on the structure of your song, but I cannot sit in front of a virtual staff placing notes with my mouse and hope to come up with something that sounds great - for that, I need improvisation!

Once I have a certain part of my song layed out in MIDI, I grab my guitar, drums or piano, hit playback in Cubase and start to jam along. I try to let my hands naturally continue after my playback has ended or try to come up with supporting rhythms or melodies that fit very well into the song. Once I come up with a fitting piece, I transcribe it as a MIDI track and add it to the arrangement.

Improvisation to me is a natural way to make my song 'grow' organically and because I am merely jamming to it, I can try alot of different things without having to transcribe them first and then decide if one of my ideas is suitable. I will have a separate post about the importance of improvisation with some examples, theory tips and backing tracks for you soon!

I think I’ve been ranting on for long enough now, but I hope I gave you some ideas you can potentially use for the way you create your own music

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I am passionate about providing high quality VFX & Film Making Edutainment online. Check out my training courses on Udemy
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