As the music editor for the Tribe, I ought to be more transparent. I must admit I play in an active band in St Andrews. Because complex copyright issues and ongoing legal allegations, I cannot mention the name of the band at present, but we are an alternative-indie rock band in town. I also have to admit that the Music Section is often subject only to one side of music as an art form – the product. The process is something that is, more often than not, simply taken for granted. Writing here, I aim to shed some light on my personal experiences in songwriting and how this process relates, on a larger scale, to the final products that we hear every day. First I’ll explore the creation of musical ideas and second I’ll cover the implementation of ideas through the ‘hardware’ of music making.
Songwriting seems to be somewhat of a black art – the ‘black box’ of music – to many outsiders of the craft, and the industry. Besides behind-the-scenes clips of musicians in the studio and brief mentions of recording, not much attention is given to the complex, exhausting, difficult, (and of course, creative and artistic) dimensions of songwriting. The first thing I can say about songwriting, from a musician’s perspective, is that it is a very subjective matter. People songwrite depending on their personalities, interests, abilities, and attitudes towards the music they express. In a sense, one may be right in calling it a ‘black box’ – as there are so many ways of generating output from input.
In my band we songwrite using many methods. Sometimes, one of us will have a full song already composed with lyrics and parts written. One person thinks of an idea, expresses it in a bass part, guitars, drums, and vocals; the others take this information and digest it. They then change and edit parts and pieces of the song, while keeping to the original structure. Sometimes, one of us only has a riff or a melody that we play to the others. From there, we work together with guitars to determine chords, verse and chorus form, and we begin arranging different parts with consideration given to the vocal melody. Sometimes we are simply sitting around, and someone plays a chord progression – another asks them to repeat it, while he figures out a different part. This is developing a song from thin air, working with others in the moment to make the foundations for a complete song.
The methods we use often involve music theory. Everything from considering chord qualities, timing, part-writing, natural progressions, cadences, and overall form incorporates this kind of knowledge. However, our process is different to many other forms of songwriting insofar as we don’t actually notate the songs we compose. Many theory-trained musicians, especially in jazz and classical music, orient themselves completely (or at least partially) to written sheet music. Mozart could compose and write out a full symphony score for nine, ten, or more parts by just sitting and reflecting by himself. He was able to write all the parts simultaneously for a full score from beginning to end. While this is incredibly impressive, many songs today are not written with this kind of immediate presence of knowledge. It is often a group effort.
Group dynamics in writing are often what makes the process so interesting. In my band, we write as four people with different music tastes and interests, but we write with consideration to one sound. It is the combination of all of the elements of all of our interests (and the omission of certain elements) that creates the final sound that is heard on a record. We incorporate elements of rock, folk, indie, alternative, ballad, and electronic altogether to find one sound. Sometimes coordinating this is difficult – and it is definitely one of the main hurdles in effective songwriting. All of this is hard enough, but this doesn’t even take into consideration the ‘hardware’ of the music making process – the instruments, the recording studio, and the mixing and editing. Ideas are malleable and flexible, but the sounds that result from them are definite and need much consideration and reflection.
Starting with instruments, music ‘hardware’ is multifaceted and extremely versatile. For guitar alone, one not only has to consider the guitar played (not to mention the type of wood of the body, the cut, the neck, the finish, the pickups, the strings, the frets, the electronics) and the amp used (not to mention the tone settings, amp choice, power, sound, age, the make, pedal effects, wiring combinations) as well as considering how this will be recorded in the studio. Will it be mic’d? Where will it be placed, in front of the amplifier or to the left? How far back? Maybe more than one recording source? Maybe more than one guitar track? There are so many questions to consider from just an instrumental point of view. Many decisions are (and have to be) made that will determine the overall sound before recording even starts.
And this is not just the case for a guitarist – but a pianist, a flautist, a bassist, a drummer, a saxophonist, a keyboardist, and a DJ all have the same sets of questions concerning sound and their hardware. In a band of four, this is something we discuss everyday. It takes a long, long time to arrive to agreement on such matters even after the musical ideas are sorted. Musicians do not often simply walk into the studio with an acoustic guitar they’ve never played and no preparation – in every recording session, there is most likely weeks and weeks (or months, or years) of time already put into thinking about what will be recorded, and what sounds will make those ideas possible. The recording studio is where those ideas become real.
The studio is adapted to the purposes of the musician recording there. It is a highly flexible environment, depending on the desired sound of the musicians recording. The options are open, and it is up to the musician to decide how she wants to record. They can either record a song with separate tracks (i.e., record a guitar part, then stop and record a bass part, then stop and record a drum part, etc), or can choose to record a song with all the parts recorded simultaneously (i.e., play the song in a room with the guitarist, the bassist and the drummer). Each produces very different quality sounds, and can make the same song sound very different. Recording the tracks separately often results in a cleaner, highly produced sound that is difficult to replicate live but sounds very smooth and textural. Recording a song simultaneously results in a realistic sound that is more raw, unrefined, and edgy.
Beyond this, the real magic goes on in the studio office. A mixing board, digital processors and computers combine to manipulate the sounds played to sound professional and top-quality (if that’s what one is going for). The sound engineer becomes a member of the band in the studio, as his ideas shape and define the overall sound. He may offer musical suggestions as well, and he often helps musicians think of unconventional ways of playing their instruments to achieve a desired sound (like playing a guitar solo with a drumstick… seriously). This part of the music-making process is the one that defines the sound and sets it in stone, so it is very important to work closely with the engineer to accomplish one’s musical goal. It is not as easy as recording yourself on a microphone at home – this process is immensely complicated (as it is an industry), requires years of know-how, and is remarkably challenging.
Although I may make this whole process seem rather difficult and complex (which it is), it is an amazingly rewarding process to be a part of. Like any other art – architecture, painting, poetry – it is a great joy to work with a fluid idea, and to turn that idea into a concrete form. Making your ideas manifest is the whole point of the music-making process, and its complexities and intricacies make this process so open-ended and so free that no two songs end up like one another. If you are interested in music and writing, take it from me – go for it. There is so much information on the Internet about how to record and writing tips that if you want to express your musical creativity, well, there is really no excuse. Although this process is complicated, with some practice, study, and musical know-how you can turn your ideas into reality.
Image credit: Daniel Halasz