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The Additive Model For Composing

edited May 9 in Off-topic

It seems I, like many others, often default to an additive evolution of a track. In other words, starting with A, after a while adding B, then C, etc. it is very effective to build interest, but can easily become routine. Rarely do you hear the opposite.... BLAM! You get it all, then one by one the elements drop out till it is nothing but a pure sine wave.

I am not suggesting this, except as an exercise, but I am suggesting the exploration of other structures for making a track musically effective and enthralling. Those of you who have followed my musical approach know that I am a big feeler and try to open myself to bolts (or trickles) from the blue. That works well for actual improvisations, but when it comes to arranging and mixing, I often find myself bound to routines that need not routinely be employed. In the learning curve that approach helped me a lot, but now self observation leads me to other ways in to engaging a listener (and myself). Listening to Frank Zappa again has helped. He often employed the usual forms, but he was not bound to them. A stream of consciousness progression of musical ideas (tho he really was composing), perhaps not even fully developed, is personally very appealing to me, tho many find it disorienting. I guess I hear structure (if only because I listen over and over and that repetitional memory imposes a “structure” just by knowing what comes next) where others often don’t. The relativity of musical feelings, concepts, “thoughts” are sometimes more compelling than a standard idea of developmental evolution for me. I want to hear something I don’t expect. But that is me.

I hope that these thoughts might cause you to take a look at your own approach and, seeing routines which are effective but well worn, will lead you to new creative ground if that is your interest. Best, LL


  • edited May 9

    Love this post! Thanks @LinearLineman

    My own composition model is what I call the Chrysalis Pivot©

    The first phase is where I build the Chrysalis - the incubator for good ideas. In this stage you are literally building up from nothing - just like the additive model you describe above. Add some synth sounds, experiment with presets, try melodic and rhythmic combinations. etc.

    At some point in this process you will (hopefully*) discover the kernel of a really good musical idea. Something just clicks, or will make you smile with smug satisfaction. You'll know when this happens. At this point you need to Pivot.

    The way you Pivot is by ditching the outer chrysalis (unused sounds and patterns) and creating a new project with just the core theme - which is either a melody/progression, a drum pattern, a particular sound, or some combination of these. I often find that when I build the accompanying structure and bits and pieces the second time around (the 'pivot') they always sound better than during the chrysalis stage. If not, I also keep a copy of the chrsyalis so I can go back and grab other pieces from before the pivot.

    * Note - many projects never leave the chrysalis phase, and this is OK. This is normal

  • @tk32 thanks for responding, very interesting and well expressed. I see that same process in my arranging. Assemble a lot of stuff and then pare it back. It sounds as if you are more of a sculptor of sound than a painter and that you are not bound to an additive routine. Would love to hear some of your tracks!

  • I think this buildup structure is almost required in EDM if you want a DJ to consider playing your track in a club or mix.
    It exists to facilitate easy mixing, not because everyone thinks it sounds great or can’t think of another structure.
    And yes, it usually bores me, too. But some tracks build rather beautifully, so for me, sometimes it is exactly what was needed.

  • Good topic. I think a lot of it too comes down to your actual workflow. I believe the workflow absolutely affects the output track. A perfect example is the difference between using a loop based approach or a linear timeline approach. I find my best structures come from building up a collection of loops, which I can then easily trigger live as a performance which becomes the structure/track. It’s always a bit of a happy surprise those performances. Whereas if I’m structuring out the ideas linearly, I too often resort to very basic progressions of ideas.

  • edited May 9

    When I started playing around with synths at a young age, it was all about sound for me, not structure. Sound that moves me, excites me, helps me forget everything around me.

    Then I found out about harmony, rhythm and patterns that make up what people consider a nice phrase or even a song. I played around with it but it was always only a by-product.

    I could always afford it because I had the freedom to make sounds and music for my own pleasure, without any obligations.

    I listened to loads of different music and I tend to say that the better a song is, the less I can hear it follow a well-known pattern or structure although that doesn't have to be mutually exclusive.

    I find it hard to describe what really makes a good song (if it was easy then algorithmic/automatic composition would be much more successful) but a good idea is usually neither very complicated nor does it follow a well-known pattern.

    Oh my, what a flawed explanation of my feelings about music :D

  • It doesn't hurt to learn the basics of form: fugues, rondos, theme and variation. The old fiddle tune AB structure never fails.

  • I could probably use a shift in compositional methods, I’ve definitely being falling into using a comfortable form. ABA for the most part.

  • @Wrlds2ndBstGeoshredr said:
    It doesn't hurt to learn the basics of form: fugues, rondos, theme and variation. The old fiddle tune AB structure never fails.

    Gonna do me sum googlin’!

  • My thoughts on why you get the build up versus a build down approach is based upon our brain physiology. We filter out almost all of what our senses perceive on a conscious level. In a build down scenario, you can’t really appreciate the complexity going on because your brain has already filtered it out for you.

    In contrast, during the build up your brain isn’t overwhelmed and you can consciously register those incremental changes.

    Nevertheless the brain does also crave the stimulus of new experiences which explains why people can easily become bored with the repetition of the same build up formula. In many respects this process is similar to what happens when we become habituated to the mood elevating or relieving effects of a substance and over time we come to need more of the substance to achieve the same stimulus response.

    These dynamics are also in play when people engage in more extreme sports to experience the rush it provides them and keep pushing their limits.

    It does seem that trying different approaches is a good idea as we already know what to expect if we don’t so if that’s not an inviting prospect the alternative is to do something different.

    Dr. Phil, who hosts a high drama, high stakes television talk show based upon a therapeutic premise has made a ton of money from his tagline, “So how’s that been working out for you?” (delivered in his Texas drawl) whenever one of his guests insists on doing what they’ve always done while clinging to the belief that if they’re persistent enough in their approach things will get better despite all objective evidence to the contrary that things are in fact getting worse for them.

    Observing these people in action on the screen seems to give viewers a rush of sorts too as they can’t believe people would actually behave this way. The urge to watch these sorts of shows is akin to rubber necking when there’s been a car accident. Fortunately we’re safely seated on our couches and lazy boy recliners rather than being out on the road.

  • @LinearLineman Are you familiar with The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski? Your post made me think of it.

    As the story goes, Mr. Basinski was recording very old reel to reel tape loops, that he made decades earlier, to wav files. During the process the old tapes began to decompose during playback, but in a fascinating and musical way. Instead of the audio just crackling and dropping out, some of the musical elements of the loop began to soften, beautifully degrade, and eventually fade out. Each of the different elements of the loop (each “instrument” so to speak) degrades in their own way on their own timetable within the loop.

    It’s haunting, beautiful, and thought provoking. Many people find it to be representative of memory, how over time only faint impressions are left of once clear and stark memories, each memory degrading at its own pace.

    My favorite is the first loop of volume one. When I first heard these it changed my original definition of “composing.” I love your thought provoking posts and this thread instantly made me think of these unique musical pieces.

  • Gosh, @marmakin, that really sounds fascinating.i will see if Mr. Basinski is on YouTube. Thanks for enjoying my posts. I really want to give something back for the invaluable help, info and comraderie I get here every day.

  • @LinearLineman said:
    Gosh, @marmakin, that really sounds fascinating.i will see if Mr. Basinski is on YouTube. Thanks for enjoying my posts. I really want to give something back for the invaluable help, info and comraderie I get here every day.

    This article on a study to elucidate the molecular basis of memory is fascinating as is this one on erasing unpleasant memories with a genetic switch or there’s scientists who use light to make bad memories good in mice.

  • There's a great interview with him about this somewhere. Will see if I can dig it out.

  • edited May 10

    Really once a bare bones simple idea has been put down, every other step of the entire process from the micro to the macro can be broken down into a cycle of two steps. You’re always on one of these steps.
    1. Copy/paste/repeat
    2. Change

    So you can quite simply write a melody for the entire song by just repeating a rhythmic motif at different intervals. Then spice it up by adding a note here, removing one there, lengthening, shortening, skipping a repetition, squeezing additional repetitions into the same time space, etc. It’s pretty liberating looking at it this simple way. Makes for quick work

    As for the “complexity” of the piece, it’s a question of how long the motifs are. To generalize, for a basic pop song we’re talking one to two bars. And you can extrapolate out from there.

    As for the arrangement, it’s a question of how many distinct timbres do you want bringing these motifs to life at various intervals, and how thick do you want the polyphony of these timbres. Again to generalize, for pop music, we’re looking at two to four distinct timbres at a time.

    Now when we think of the “cohesiveness” of a piece, as far as things sounding like they belong perfectly and there could be no other possible flow of ideas, we can think about adding to all the above, things like making the bass the lead, or the backing accompaniment the bass pattern, etc. Recycling ideas in new packages, etc

    This is my current philosophy of looking at music making and it’s been helping me quite a bit

  • When I make music alone I’m a bit rubbish at structure. I’m not a songwriter and it’s all too easy for instrumental music to get meandery.

    When I collaborate with a lyricist I find it much easier to structure a song. Words automatically give a certain structure and it’s easy to work with verses and choruses.

    I enjoy making instrumentals far more than I like listening to them.

    I find a lot of released instrumentals suffer from a lack of structure and often lack direction too.

    Since the advent of sequencers a lot of electronic music (especially dancey stuff) is subtractive. Make an 8 bar loop with loads going on, loop it over and over and mute patterns to make a track. Cubase and logic made this kind of arranging a doddle.

    I have looked at it the arrangement structure of tracks I do like and often find there’s nothing particularly clever going on with the structure. But They have good melodies, sound design and hooks.

    An interesting structure is pointless when the content is boring.

  • McDMcD
    edited May 10

    Composing is adding more material.
    Decomposing is the loss of material.

    Organizing sound creates structure.
    Disorganizing sound might be the wrecking ball.

    Arrangement implies architecture.
    Disarrangement implies anarchy.

    Cohesiveness is the quality of holding fast.
    Distributed is the unplanned use of sounds and we detect synchrony and other effects.

    I guess I just love creating scales to measure things or place them in a context. It makes a one-ness from opposites: yin-yang.

    What brings us together here is the love of possibility and the opportunity to be exposed to new thinking. (I suspect the @Linearlineman approaches other "third-rail" topics with the same sense of wonder and investigation: Just to tie this back to the OP).

  • Love this post, I always appreciate inspiration to structure or deconstructions in my work...
    As I vary, often....
    This meme made me smile;

  • edited May 10

    As a pop music writer foremost, I’ve always taken the curveball approach and bent the second verse or third chorus or some other little section as necessary to create something interesting and fresh, if it makes sense to do it in context (it usually does due to my refusal to count syllables while writing lyrics) . It can’t be forced, but it’s just a matter of spiffing up the expected because I get bored with traditional structures (not too many repeat choruses now! Leave them wanting one more!)

  • What's interesting about the @LinearLineman's approach is:

    1. He sits at the keyboard
    2. Hits record
    3. Plays for 5-10 minutes
    4. Hits Stop

    Most of us can't do that as the essential core of a project.

    I think he likes to have an audio and a MIDI track if possible for this initial creative act.

    Then he decorates that track with additional recordings and/or uses the MIDI track
    to add additional instruments play the same notes.

    Now he has a lot of tracks and he records automation of the mixes.

    I'm trying to pull him into disclosing more about his process. He may have moved to
    new approaches.

    In other words be can compose long form pieces with realtime performances.
    There might be a few here that could do that but not likely. I try to do it but use
    shorter recordings. I do have the decorator model. Lately, I've been using generator
    Apps to create the track to start decorating which is a lot like improvising over backing tracks or assembled beds of loops.

    It's generally an additive process. But I'm sure you could add tracks from collections of long form stems (wave files) and play with moving them about, mixing them into and out of focus
    and have a type of subtractive process by pulling down the volumes rather than adding
    more and more tracks while listening to existing tracks for direction.

    I suspect there are a lot more subtractive processes people use for the ambient style creations.

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