How to add variation without losing the audience? Where’s the middle point between a monotonous, repetitive song, and a song of pure chaos totally lacking direction?
Aye, thats always the issue here at GoM; I don’t remember how many times I used the word “variation” since it seems to be what’s lacking in almost every medeocre song I hear.
I’ve had the same problem with my compositions; often it would be in the one extreme or the other. Thanks to the help of a few books, a few experimentations, and some lessons from a few old guys though, I think I’ve found a pretty decent system which musicians, especially electronic musicians could benefit from. Note that theses are just quick notes and if people want more detailed explanations they should probably borrow a book from the library. (“Techniques of my Musical Language” by Oliver Messian is a very good one. Concise and to the point, and examples for every technique in detail.)
In my hack-job attempt at a musical “guide”, this will start from simple methods gradually getting to more advanced and complex ones. As a matter of fact I’m writing this primarily for myself as a list of what I’ve learned so far, so I can use it as a reference. Of course these aren’t the only way to get variation, as the possibilities of music is endless; but these are just a few methods that people can exploit if they find it useful.
When I first started as a musician I had this notion that the more ideas I threw in the more “complex” it would be, therefore somehow more “artsy”. What resulted was a lot of chaos that people (other than myself since I wrote it) found it impossible to follow. I’d watch out for the people who write these kinds of music, because they can be very rabid in defending their “art”, since it’s all complicated and stuff if people don’t like it that means they’re just not smart enough right? Wrong! If you want to write a good song you need to make it at least followable to some degree. And interesting. Hard stuff! Jazz and improvisational music is an entirely different story and I won’t get into that in this guide.
1. The best (traditional) method to achieve complexity while still maintaining the song’s integrity is to –extract- variation from a few original ideas. That way people will still hear what has been said before, but in a different way, making the song interesting throughout. Methods of extraction, is what this guide will focus on.
2. In general, you don’t want to repeat something too much. “Too much” depends on the kind of song and audience you’re writing for, but in general you probably don’t want to repeat something for more than 4 bars unless you have a very specific reason to. For avant garde and classical works probably less. (Some people go as far as to say don’t repeat anything ever.) I wouldn’t repeat 4+ bar phrases in the same manner EVER (at least change something, no matter how small), unless the intended effect is “oh I heard this before, boring!” You can repeat individual phrases indefinitely as long as the interaction with other voices is changed (used often in ambient/trance mixes). If you want to write the most boring song ever, I suggest doing consistent 8 bar phrases with very little variation anywhere.
3. Extend the range of your instruments/voice. No how good your song is, it’s going to sound boring if your instruments are only playing within one or two octaves. Stretch it out a little. Really high notes and really low notes make a song sound interesting. There should be no excuse for electronic musicians especially, since they don’t have to worry about instrument range and the performer’s skill. You can squeeze a lot of interesting sounds out of just moving certain parts up or down (like making a flute play extremely low notes or a tuba in the extremely high register).
IIA Simple Methods in Melody and Harmony
Easy cut and paste methods that require almost no thinking on the part of the artist. These methods won’t change anything in the song other than change the color of how the song sounds.
1. Instrument changes: Pass off the melody/harmony/rhythm to a different instrument. Probably the most simple and easiest way to get variation, but none the less still can be very effective. It’s kind of amazing how many electronic musicians fail to do even this, when it’s such an easy cut and paste job.
2. Octave changes: A phrase played in a different octave can add color and texture changes that could sound interesting. Like the instrument changes, very easy to do, but yet it can be very effective. Going up traditionally means more tension/excitement, visa versa.
3. Phrase Doubling: Have a different instrument double whatever the other instrument is already playing. Changes the color somewhat, depending on what sounds you’re using.
4. Octave changes of individual notes: If you want to change the contour of the melody/harmony without changing the structure, you can move individual notes from the phrase up or down an octave to make it sound different…yet the same!
IIB Simple Methods in Rhythm
Again, easy cut and paste methods that require very little work on part of the artist. These methods could change the feel of the song but ultimately won’t change the structure.
1. Rhythm shifting: In other words, just get that rhythm phrase/loop off of beat 1. This could disorient the audience for a little while until they get used to the new groove that’s been established. Altering the shifts or successively shifting the phrase can make the song sound unpredictable and exciting.
2. Rhythmic canons: In relation with the first method, you can make a sort of a rhythmic canon, just layering two of the same drum loops playing at different times. In my opinion this is one of the best methods to get that nice polyrhythmic feel without having to throw in random drum loops.
3. Accents: Play the same rhythm but make them hit certain notes harder. Different groove but at the same time still the same thing. This can be done manually through volume control or improvised with a touch-sensitive keyboard in electronic music.
IIIA Slightly Advanced Methods in Melody and Harmony
These methods will require at least a fundamental knowledge of music, although in principle they’re not that complicated as long as you can get past the vocabulary. These will change the feel of the song and have stronger implications than the one shown in section II.
1. Melodic/Harmonic transposition: It’s the same idea as the octave change in section II, but instead of an octave you transpose it up or down by X intervals. A fifth or a fourth might give it a ethnic feel, up a tritone (6 intervals) could make it sound evil and nasty, but it really depends on what’s been moved and what it’s played together with. Take note that don’t transpose everything; otherwise that’s just a chord progression (or “modulation” is the more correct term). Try playing a harmony and melody at the same time, then transpose the melody up or down and see what it sounds like. All sequencer programs have an easy option to do this, and it should only take 1 second to change things around. There are a total of 11 different intervals which to choose from, excluding the octave.
2. Parallel motion: It’s the same concept as doubling a phrase with different instruments, but one is playing the original phrase and one is X intervals above or below it. The result is two identical lines being played at the same time, but in different intervals. Sounds pretty spiffy if you ask me! If you need a flavor of what this would sound like, there should be a sound called “fifths” in every midi set so you can try play around with that. For this method, since you can have more than 2 instruments doing this, the possibilities are infinite! (Ex. 1 original+1 playing a fifth above+1 playing a half-step below+1 playing a seventh up etc.)
3. Chopping up phrases: Cut it in half or cut it in thirds or cut it however you like it and rearrange the order. Like putting a puzzle together except that you’re not required to have all the pieces. Sometimes this works and doesn’t, since if you put it back together it might make the music awkwardly hard for a performer, but in electronic music it’s not a problem. Editing the phrase after it’s been pieced together is probably a good idea if you want it to sound more natural.
IIIB Slightly Advanced Methods in Rhythm
People who are unable to read music might have trouble with this one, since it kind of requires a visual representation to really understand the concept. People with good ears can pick it up, but nonetheless it’s still harder than someone who can read it off the paper.
1. Retrograde: It’s a complicated word, but all it really means is reading from right to left instead of left to right. If you have 1 half note then 2-quarter notes, then the retrograde is 2 quarter notes then 1 half note. EZ.
2. Chopping up phrases: Same as above, you can get tons of cool sounds out of just rearranging things.
3. Add or subtract a note: It is what it says, just adding or removing a note somewhere in the phrase can really change the feel of the groove. If this method is used then the time signature will invariably change. If your intention isn’t to get a 17/32 time signature then try adding or removing something simple like a quarter note value.
4. Value change: Retain the ratio of the rhythm but change the value. Huh? The simplest example is say you have 2-quarter notes and 2 eighth notes. Doubled gives 2 half notes and 2 quarter notes. Cut in half its 2 eighth notes and 2 sixteenth. In classical music they use odd ratios like cutting a fifth or adding 2/9ths (which gives some pretty weird ass time signatures) or whatever but for pop music usually adding and removing simple values works best so it doesn’t lose it’s rhythmic feel.
IVA Somewhat Advanced Methods in Melody and Harmony
For these methods a basic knowledge of theory is extremely helpful, but not necessary. A very good ear is needed, however.
1. Related intervals: Fifths are related to fourths. Thirds are related to sixths. Seconds are related to Sevenths. If you have a keyboard it should be pretty easy to remember. A minor third down from C is an A, while a major sixth up from C is also A. A perfect fifth up from C is G, while a perfect fourth down from C is also G. If you need to remember it by interval numbers, just subtract the interval from 12 and you’ll have its relation. A half-step which is 1, 12-1=11, and 11 is a major seventh which is it’s relation. There are not too many rules to this, other than the fact that we know that they’re somehow related with each other. Go nuts.
2. Prominent intervals: So you write a melody down, pretty catchy and good sounding…what kind of harmonies to write? A good method is to analyze the melody you just wrote and label all the intervals (or at least the important looking ones) in between each note, and also as the phrase as a whole. What kind of intervals are there between the first note of every measure, or what’s the interval between the highest and lowest note in the phrase? If you get stuck with a bunch of boring intervals like a bunch of whole steps then it’s probably a sign that your melody is kind of boring and isn’t really getting anywhere.
Here is an example of this. Notice the first three-note motif, the interval between the first and third is fifths. The bassoon and trombone play fourths and fifths as the melody. Notice the third beat of every bar is exactly the same as the first, except that it’s transposed up or down a fourth. The tie from the first to the second measure is there because I transposed the first note of the measure up one octave. Looking at the first beat of every measure, it’s always an A, so it’s kind of boring in that sense. The fourth measure goes into a new section, where the relation between the three-note motif is no longer a fifth but a fourth. Still related, though.
IVB Somewhat Advanced Methods in Rhythm
The artist will need a good sense of rhythm in this section, unless they have a sequencer that can play it for them, then it’s not as important. For polyrhythm it’s probably best to have a sequencer, unless you’re just that good and you can hear multiple rhythms playing in your head. Some people can do it. I wish I could…
1. Adding a “dot”: If you know what a “dot” means in music then you’re already there. Just add a dot in your rhythm. Because of the nature of how it works, it will most likely change your time signature pretty drastically. For example, if you have a simple 4 quarter note 4/4 bar and you decide to add a dot to one of the notes then that changes it into a 9/8, which can be a little too far out in pop songs. What you can do is maybe add two dots, which turns it into a 5/4 (or 2/4+3/4) which is less awkward rhythmically. Noone says that it has to be a dot either; all it really means is that you’re changing the value of a few notes in the phrase. Cut it in half, add a 4/7th, or whatever suites your taste.
2. Polyrhythm: We talked about how to get rhythmic variation out of phrases, and all this means is that you can layer the variations with the original, or variations with other variations, etc. They’re all extracted from the same rhythm but layered over each other. Can sound cool and related at the same time.
3. Rhythmic Pedal: As long as you don’t have it playing too loud, you can have a rhythm playing itself indefinitely in the background. This acts as sort of a base for the rest of the song, acting independently of everything else. Keep in mind that you can’t just repeat a drum loop and call it a pedal; you need to have additional rhythms playing on top of that, otherwise it’s just repetition. Quarter note bass drums can be considered a pedal, but a boring one at that!
If I write anything more than this then I’ll be getting into subjects that I have less knowledge on, possibly giving out misinterpreted or even wrong information. These are some quick tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your music, and hopefully you found at least a few of them helpful. Keep in mind, this is only the tip of the ice burg, there are literally hundreds of methods out there, all of them valid in their own way. It’s a little overwhelming in the fact that despite what I used to think, I know very little about music. This is everything I wish my teachers would’ve taught me when I first started writing music. Ahh, if only I could go back in time…