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I posted a question earlier, which a number of people pointed out was coming off too broad to make for a good post, and it was suggested I boil it down to a smaller bite, so here goes.

I have been a music nut for my whole life, more passionate about music than probably even some musicians - but always only as an obsessive consumer, never a creator. Over and over throughout my life, I've come at creating my own music from various angles, and I never succeed, always hitting the same wall.

That wall is notes.

Background: I have a good amount of experience with DJing/controllerism, an absolutely extreme 14+ year rhythm game hobby, have taken lessons for piano/guitar/bass (1yr ea. back in high school), have played with and extensively studied the use of various DAWs and VSTs, and took part of a music theory course at community college before life circumstances forced me to move - I've also watched tens of hours of music theory lectures and tutorials. From all this, I'd like to think I have a pretty good understanding of how music 'works' and is structured. Not the kind of innate understanding one gains through practice, but I know the vocabulary and basic concepts.

Whenever I've pursued an instrument, the best I could ever do was play other peoples' music by rote memorization - and while I'm good at DJing/controllerism, that's, again, other peoples' music.

The Problem: When I try and compose my own tracks, I never even begin to feel as though I have traction. I come from a motion graphic design and programming background, so I'm used to having a pretty concrete and clear methodology for accomplishing certain things.

I'll use one specific inspiration as an example here: Let's say I'm inspired by this track, and trying to make something similar in feel: Djunya - Ites (Picks up around 1 minute in)

The best I can manage is laying down some basic, fittingly sparse rhythm, with a similar structure - slap some dub delay on there, etc. - whatever isn't right about it, I'd tune later. Then, I hit the wall - notes.

That inspiration track has a few layers of notes to consider - the bassline, the dub guitar in the middle, and the higher pitched flourishes of melody. When I listen to it, even just one little flourish of six or so notes can punch me in the heartstrings and fill me with euphoria - even the hyper-simple dub guitar ticking away behind it transports me to a whole new place...

...but when I try to do that in my own projects, nothing. I screw around on the keys, and if I manage a sequence that sounds okay, it usually clashes with the mood I want to create, and doesn't lead me into ideas for the other layers - and the notes I play sound like the stuff I was playing in my early piano lessons - all the impact and depth of Hot Cross Buns, no matter how I process, voice or tweak them. They feel like a random selection of tones, not a coherent musical phrase.

The Question: So I have the desire to create something in that vein, roughly. I have a DAW I know how to operate (Maschine Mk2) loaded to the gills with quick-access sketch tools (almost every Maschine expansion) and oodles of more complex stuff should I want it (Komplete 9 + a few other NI products). I'm staring at a blank project file, or maybe I've created a pattern or two of basic percussion.

How would you proceed from this point? How would you find a collection of notes that worked, that didn't just sound like a kid poking a piano? How do you get that initial sketch down that can be fleshed out into more?

In short: How do I notes?

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    You may find something useful in the answers to this question as well: music.stackexchange.com/questions/20395/… – Caleb Hines Feb 4 '15 at 4:14
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    And also this one (by the same poster), though neither has a selected answer: music.stackexchange.com/questions/23048/… – Caleb Hines Feb 4 '15 at 4:17
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    I think the biggest problem here is that you don't actually realize how little you know about music theory. Tens of hours doesn't cut it. I've spent thousands of hours with music theory; as a result, notes are never a problem. You have spent most of your time with the tech, so it's reflexive / easy for you. You need knowledge. The idea that musicians don't need to know how to read or any training is a toxic one that is becoming more and more popular in our culture, because those are the types of musicians we see / listen to. Get some workbooks; learn an instrument; it will change you. – jjmusicnotes Feb 5 '15 at 5:02
  • @jjmusicnotes: You can manage without formal theory in many fields of music. You need to spend the time and absorb the idioms in some way though, be it by studying books or by listening/imitating. I'm certainly not against people learning theory, I've done so myself, but this comment is a bit theory-centric, I think. – Meaningful Username Feb 6 '15 at 21:55
  • I never meant to imply I can really speak on theory - just that I have the basic groundwork and vocabulary. In the disciplines where I consider myself skilled, I have indeed thousands of hours, and I know music will be no different. I mostly point out my preexisting theory knowledge so it can be safely assumed I know what scales, chords, bars, time signatures, flats and sharps, triplets, cadence etc. etc. are - also, while I personally do intend to study theory, there are countless genius musicians dating back decades who can't read sheet music or tell you what key their song is in. – user1002617 Feb 6 '15 at 22:55
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I agree largely with the other posted answer, but from the perspective of someone who has messed around with electronic music to at least a modest degree. I have a lot of VST synthesizers (enough that I definitely stay directionless most of the time) but when I feel inspired to write . . . 'something' . . .I find it very helpful to start extremely simple.

First I find a synthesizer that I like the idea of (whatever that means at the time), then I play around until I have found a sound that I like. Then, I will play with that sound until it essentially seems to write its own melody. With a little concentration this can result in a melody of 4, 8, 16 bars, or a 10 minute directionless jam in the vein of countless indie acts touring college towns.

Now take this small form and copy/paste it a few times, probably with some gaps in between at least a few iterations.

Repeat this process with a bassline, or harmonies to your original part. Keep filling in things as inspiration strikes. If there is no inspiration for a while, start deleting things. Or just start over, a hundred times.

There is no magic solution but the trick is in viewing the process itself as the ends you seek. Most importantly, throw out all the rules of what you think music composition is 'supposed' to be like.

  • Thanks for that process outline idea. Regarding being overwhelmed, that can definitely happen with all the stuff Komplete gives me (so sometimes I disable all of it) - but the Maschine Expansions are worth a look, you might find their concept interesting. They provide themed packs of sounds, kits, samples, presets etc, set up in such a way as to make that kind of sound-finding and sketching very easy and quick. I quite like them, even if I struggle still with notes. It allows for grab-and-go sound kits to work with, or rapid assembly of your own. Once you like what you have, you can customize – user1002617 Feb 4 '15 at 3:03
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How would you find a collection of notes that worked, that didn't just sound like a kid poking a piano?

That's just it. My field is slightly different (classical), but the way I force inspiration is roughly equivalent to "poking a piano". I have never actually worked at a piano (not even for piano pieces - I check them when I'm done), but the method is similar: I lay out notes and see what they imply, sort of "Nope, that rhythm isn't right - I need some faster passing notes to make it work"; "If I take the melody to that note, it loses tension. What happens if I take it there?"; or "The theme seems to be pushing towards this key. If I let it go there... Bingo!"

It's not unlike modelling in clay: start with an almost amorphous lump, then add clay, squeeze it in a few spots, scrape some off, and then, after a bit, you start to get a really good idea of what that lump of clay wants to be. Play with your materials, the way the kid at the piano would, but do it with a critical ear, the kind that demands "But what if I...?"

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I am going to answer your "in short" "how do I do notes?" with a much more simplistic approach - one that works for me when I compose melodies for songs I write lyrics for.

Start by deciding what key you want to use. Your choice of key could be influenced by the feel you want to create. Many composers will use major keys for happy songs, minor keys for sad songs for example.

Within whatever key you choose, you have a basic set of parameters for a chord progression. I play around with the available chords for that key (based on I,ii, iii, IV, V, vi etc.) until I arrive at a chord progression that seems to fit the vibe I am looking for.

If, as your question states, you are inspired by a particular track and want to create something with the same feel, find the chords that could be played over the notes in that track. From there you can notate the chord progression (ie. I V IV ii I etc.) in case you want to transpose to a different key.

Once I have my chord progression down - I am ready to select the notes for the melody. Within each chord there are three or four notes with possible octaves of each. Those notes will all work well over that particular chord in the progression. To expand the palate of potential notes to play over that chord, I would select from the notes in the pentatonic scale corresponding to the chord I'm playing at that point in the progression.

Sticking with the pentatonic scale notes will diminish the chance of creating a sequence of notes that clash. Of course you can play around with any note in the scale for the chord you are playing over if you choose - but for me that would be more of a trial and error process than if I limit my selection to the pentatonic notes.

If you prefer that your composition not sound chord based - then after you construct the melody from notes, just take the chords out.

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    Loved the pentatonic scale suggestion:) – mey Feb 14 '15 at 11:36
  • Thanks @mey I try to keep my melodies reasonably simple - for the relatively simple songs that I write. Plus as a hobbyist song writer, I don't have time to think about it in great depth. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 14 '15 at 16:04
  • and simple songs often sound good & leave lasting impression in the listener's mind. – mey Feb 14 '15 at 21:17
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I thought I'd pull my comments from your other question & ramble on in here, in a more answer-form…

It depends what I'm aiming for, of course…

If I'm doing sound to picture, I will start by watching the film through once, not touching anything; then back through again with a straight piano sound on record. No stopping, I'll just play left-handed, 4-note chords, as & when I feel. [almost always 4 note groups, because otherwise there is structure, but no 'flavour']
I'm a lousy player so that can sometimes generate surprises & mistakes (as I'm playing without watching what I'm doing, too busy actually watching the film & my main keyboard is to my left), which I go back & either embellish or fix later.
A 3rd pass to listen to what I did & start tweaking the basic ideas.
It's not a very disciplined method, but my head tends to be quite 'butterfly' at the best of times, so rather than have a start point, I just 'guess for a bit' then listen back to see if any of my incoherent ramblings make sense on playback.

After that I get my 'toolbox' out & start orchestrating some parts, 'synthing' others, to try pull a coherent piece from the jumble. This can be very simple to start with & I don't do full arrangements until after I get the director's go-ahead.

I would usually submit those early ideas to get some feedback on how the director feels it is going. Some people can't extrapolate from small arrangements to how it will sound with an orchestra, but fortunately a lot now can.
Makes the early stages far easier - there's nothing quite so disheartening as a full-blown score that someone wants 'happier' or "I need to feel the butterflies when she says that" [that was a real comment from one director]
It's come to be known as "I need to hear more yellow" when discussing how directors try to explain their thoughts to musicians.

If I'm doing anything more dance/pop based, quite often I'll start by running through the presets, see what jumps out, but I would usually already have a soundscape in mind, if not an actual song.
Not always, though - sometimes if I'm uninspired I'll just bang on some notes whilst flitting through presets & see what might make a nice noise. That way, I'll rarely arrive at what I thought I was trying to achieve, so it's no good if I'm writing to a brief.

If I have a tight brief but no clue as to how to get there, I'll start with the rhythm track - get a groove going & see if it suggests something. If not, it's back to the presets & bang at things to something makes even the smallest amount of sense.

If I'm writing actual songs with lyrics, I write the lyrics first & mumble a melody as I'm writing them, then find the chords to go with what I'm mumbling.
With songs+lyrics, I often tend to start setting the accompaniment out on guitar, rather than synths, but it depends what genre I'm working in.

I think, whichever way you do it, the 'magic' doesn't happen at the early stages. It's more what you do with the original ideas than those ideas themselves. Somewhere between that first fumbling pass at a new piece & the final arrangement, something gets added [more than just more notes] that can make the final thing more 'special'.

Unfortunately, that 'magic fairy dust' doesn't have a recipe, otherwise everybody would just stir it into their product & sell it;-)

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I don't believe there is some magical trick you can use to get past the wall you're facing. Unfortunately, you just need to write a lot of music, and your first songs aren't going to be very good.

Writing good music is hard, and it takes experience. I'm a programmer myself, and I can tell you it's comparable in difficulty to programming. When you started writing computer programs, you had to write countless poorly formatted, rather hacky toy programs before you could move on to even moderately-sized programs. This wasn't because you weren't smart, but rather because programming just takes a lot of practice. Writing music is very similar: your first songs will not be very good because you need to get some experience under your belt.

Because of this, the only way for you to get past the wall you're facing is to force yourself to write music, even if you're not satisfied with the results at first. Once you've gone through the entire process of writing some songs, you'll have a much better sense of how to pick out the right notes, and you'll quickly see the quality of the music you write improve.

I do have some good news for your particular situation. Since you have a lot of experienceplaying music, listening critically to music, and music theory, I suspect you'll improve as a producer much more quickly than most people. However, you're still going to need to force yourself to write a few songs you're not happy with before you're able to really take advantage of everything else you've learned.

  • Agreed with Kevin ' s ssuggestion. @user1002617, my first composition was a crap, and i wasn't able to play any musical instrument at that time. Except the recorder flute many years ago ☺. But i kept trying and now have written more than 20 songs. (And i study music theory along the way, though i was lucky to know enough basics from my school days ). My songs tend to be simple, 16-32 bars each. Not the level of Bach or Handel☺ – mey Feb 14 '15 at 11:32

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