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Monday, May 11, 2009

Weekly Music Writing - Like lifting weights made of creativity

A while back I wrote about writing music constantly in order to build your skills and flex your creativity. I've been making music for several years now and my biggest project had been a 16 track score for a tragically unreleased computer game, which I finished in about 6 months. This was a great exercise, but afterward I got somewhat lazy. I was still producing music and getting better all the time, but unfortunately at a very slow rate.

It was roughly two months ago when I had completed a song in the studio that took me about a week to make when I realized 'You know, I should really be finishing a song every week.' That's when I decided to start my project.

I call it the Jupiterman Weekly Song-A-Thon. I'm writing and producing a new piece of music every week for three months. This means by the end of it I'll have twelve tracks, and so far I've completed nine. There are no requirements in the project other than finishing each song by Friday. The songs can be any length and any genre. In the 9 songs that I've already made, I've done electronica, jazz, solo piano, cinematic, ambient, and... er, harpsichord rock (kind of a failed experiment. It was a rough week.)

Here are some things I've learned along the way so far:

1. There are ways around writer's block. Usually by Friday when I'm finishing up a new song I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do for the next week and I may even start working on the next song immediately after finishing. This isn't always the case, however. There have been a couple of weeks when I've started without any clue what I was doing and nothing I try seems to click with me. It can be very frustrating. This is not the end, however! I've somehow managed to deliver a song every week regardless. How?

Well, one week I simply couldn't get much time to work on anything. Instead of just giving up, however, I dug around through my hard drive and dredged up an older song that I had been working on several months before. I hadn't been too happy with it, but in the few hours that I had that day I polished it up and finished it off in time to release it that afternoon. I became much more satisfied with it.

Another week was truly a case of writer's block. Friday came around and I still had nothing, despite having spent a lot of time in the studio previously that week. I didn't know what I was going to do. Then I remembered I had a piano piece that I had written as a sort of chord exercise for myself almost a year ago. I only played it on my keyboard in my bedroom and never really considered recording it. Until now, that is. Despite it starting out as an exercise, it was musically sound, had an interesting chord progression, had some real emotional power and I could play it fairly competently. Problem solved! I recorded it, tweaked it, and had it done in less than two hours.

Writer's block will most likely hit you sometimes, but there are creative ways to get around it. You can also try doing something completely off the wall, if you have no ideas left. This is how you get stuff like harpsichord rock; not the best thing ever, but something different, at least.

2. I have a style/formula and I have certain limitations.
I've always kept this idealized vision of myself as a composer who is genre-less who can write a competent piece of music in any style imaginable. This project has shown me the reality of myself as a composer. There are certain genres that I gravitate towards, like electronica, and others that I struggle with, like rock or symphonic. I really want to make another rock song after the success of Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, but I have a hard time mixing electric guitar sounds and coming up with chords to make up the verse and chorus sections. I have an easier time with symphonic works, but again, chords (my arch-nemeses) are difficult. The real problem with symphonic, however, lies in the technical limitations of my own studio.

I also have a very specific way of putting chords and, indeed, whole songs together. I tend to have chord changes occur every measure, but almost never more frequently. This can be very limiting.

None of the problems I've mentioned here are insurmountable. They are not intrinsic aspects of my or anyone's character. There more learned about music and more practice one gets, the better their work becomes.

3. Time constraints will give you perspective. Since I'm not living in a mansion built out of solid gold BMW's, I have to work at a job like everyone else. My particular job, thankfully, affords me some flexibility to work on other endeavors. Still, work, social obligations, self-education and writing for multiple websites take up a lot of my time, and I'm sure you can relate. With all of this in mind, I set aside around 8 to 16 hours of my free time each week to work on my music. This is certainly not enough time to create a masterpiece, but it is enough to put together a well-made 2 to 3 minute song.

Having such a time constraint will force you to know and understand what is most important in the music you're composing. There are many things I could tweak on each piece that I write; making sure every last drum beat and portamento swing is absolutely perfect, but I simply don't have enough time. Instead I focus on making sure it's a finished product that has some emotional weight and is produced well. When you write all the time, you get more efficient. Little technical things that you struggled with before and would take up so much of your time will eventually fade away as you become more competent at them or you find a more efficient way of doing things. You'll learn to produce quality on your first try, rather than your third, simply because you'll have no choice.

4. Forcing yourself to make music is incredibly rewarding.
This project has been great fun and I've learned a ton from doing it. It has even given me a lot of ideas for things to do after the project is over. I'm thinking of doing a pure electro-jazz album in the style of my third song in the project. I want to do some collaborations with a few of my friends. I've now proven to myself that I can make quality music quickly and efficiently, so there's no hesitation or wariness about getting started on a new project.

I urge you, fellow makeshift musician, to start your own Song-A-Thon. It doesn't matter if all you have is a guitar and a tape recorder, just give it a try. Maybe bring some other musicians in to help. By the end of it you'll have a sweet album to give away or sell. It could just be the best thing you've ever done for your music writing career.