Can you make music out of the sound of a pen squeaking against a whiteboard? What about from the sounds of stones banging together, metal trays being smashed together, or the loud click of someone’s knuckle joints?
You absolutely can -and by trying it you might learn some new ways to think of your own sognwriting.
When I was a student I studied a few different methods of composition – one of which was electroacoustic (sometimes called acousmatic) music or Musique Concrete. This kind of music has a history as long as recording technology, but the French composer Pierre Scheaffer is often credited with starting it in the early 20th Century with his Five Studies of Noise.
Musique Concrete literally means ‘real music’ – music created from real sounds that might otherwise not be considered music. It involves taking source recordings, the chugging of a steam train perhaps, or the sound of birds singing, and manipulating the recordings in various ways to create music.
My tutor in electroacoustic music was a composer named Alan Stones – Here’s a piece by him:-
That’s not songwriting!
No, depending on your definition of songwriting, the pieces above aren’t songs. But by studying this music, and creating some of my own, I learnt some very important lessons about how to shape music.
Finding ideas – Branching variations
Alan taught us one approach to creating music that I found very useful.
1st you would take a sound source, and original recording, something from an effects library – anything interesting.
Then you would use an audio manipulator to make variations. You could reverse it, time stretch or transpose, cut and paste, apply processes or effects. Each time you came up with a new sound, you’d save it, and then move on.
This would give you a bank of new sounds, based on the one original sound source.
You’d then take those new sounds and repeat the process, creating tens, or perhaps hundreds of variations on those variations, branching out until you had a whole tree of different possible sounds, related to each other but still different and interesting.
These sounds would then form the material with which you would create your piece.
Can that be applied to songwriting?
Absolutely it can. The same process can be applied to any musical or lyrical idea. After all, once you have an idea, it’s relatively simple to create variations. With enough experimentation you should be able to find variations that work. For example, if you have a riff or ostinato repeating – does it have to repeat? Why not have different versions?
More importantly, creating lots of small (or large) variations forces you to really explore your material. You’ve voiced the chords one way – but is that the best way? You’ve put the words in that order – but is being literal and clear the right approach?
Gesture and Texture
We’re used to to thinking of music in terms of harmony, melody, accompaniment. Much electroacoustic material simply can’t be though of in those terms – there might be tones, but they aren’t necessarily going to be tuned notes. There might be foreground and background, but accompaniment and melody aren’t the right terms. Instead we can think of gesture and texture.
Gesture is almost analogious to melody – it’s those sounds that are focused, moving, perhaps in the foreground – almost a solo voice that moves through time.
Texture is more likely to be in the background, perhaps more static – a feeling that stays for a time rather than a moving foreground sound.
Can these ideas be applied to songwriting?
Absolutely. Particularly the idea of texture. Rather than thinking of chords, harmony, rhythm, why not create textures and backdrops to your melodies. Think less about notes and more about timbre and feeling. Make liberal use of effects and studio techniques.
Music as sculpture
The biggest lesson I took from having a go at this kind of music was in putting all those seperate sound together into one piece. With harmony, melody, rhythm and all the ‘normal’ musical ideas out of the window, I found that my main concerns were things like pace and shape. It seemed sensible to leave long pauses of silence, or to worry about whether the gestural material joins together properly. Tiny details seemed incredibly important, and much use was made of the volume and panning automation in Logic.
Thinking of gestural or melodic material as having shape is a very useful metaphor – it makes you think of the highs and lows your music goes through and the overall feeling of the piece.
Learning about electroacoustic music took me out of my comfort zone. It made me really explore some of the things that can be done with technology, and made music seem more than notes and chords – it’s also about timbre and shape and feeling and texture.
Trying out new things is almost a good thing, and I’d urge any songwriter to explore new kinds of music. Making music from squeaky pens, clanking chains and rustling leaves is great fun and can teach you a lot about how music works.
Here’s something I composed and recorded as a student:
Beats and Crazies by Tom Slatter