Any tips for faster composition regarding the modulation and expression?

Pug user

New Member
Dear composers,

for past 2 months, I learned alot from this forum as I was just starting to use the cubase.
I feel sometimes very bad that I can't anyhow pay back for all the valuable advises and information that I have acquired from here.
Yet here I am visiting the forum for another advise. Please excuse my manner.

Usually when I start to write new songs,
I get inspired, listen to lots of songs related to that image,
then search for the picture or image that is similar to my inspiration,
write down the rough structure of the song,
then finally start to write through the cubase.

However I found that sometimes the flow of the song changes to the song I did not imagined it to be.
Or I get to find the better harmony or progression I would like to use.
I mostly try to compromise with the part I already wrote however sometimes,
there are parts that I can not compromise.
Then I get to upside down parts, massive amount of set back and works follow as you can imagine.
However changing the adjusted modulation and expression map is the most annoying part.

Hence, I questioned myself that,
"Am I doing this in a wrong order? or is it due to the tendency of writing a song progressively? Not structuring enough beforehand?"
I heard that a good composer writes the score before even he starts to use the software and then listen through the software that how it actually sounds. Thus for them, the software such as cubase or logic/abletone are only the tool they "check" if it sounds alright, not the tool to write a song from the scratch. Is that also true?

In which order do you compose your song?
Any tips for it?
and does everyone experiences this kind of workflow like me?

As always, I really appreciate your valuable advises.

Sincerely
 

shawnsingh

Senior Member
I've had this tendency too, when writing a piece sequentially and trying to "complete" each section before moving on. suddenly the piece takes on a slightly different vibe than I intended. And also I found myself listening to what I had created far too many times, hoping I could "hear" what I thought should come next, and the overall process does feel like I get a different style piece than I intended, and it came out slower, and I've lost all objectivity about the piece by listening to it too many times and trying to complete each section before completing the composition...

There have been other techniques that I feel work much better: (a) a "top-down" approach, and (b) an improvisation approach. The "top-down" idea is just to sketch out the idea just barely enough that you can imagine what you really wanted it to be, focusing on getting the composition parts figured out first - the motifs and the interplay of motifs, the rough structure and arc of the piece all the way to the end, etc. Then you can gradually fill in ideas later. The improv approach is similar, because you won't be able to get too much nuance and detail while improvising. The real underlying trick is to take a leap of faith that we would be able to orchestrate and program reasonable MIDI performances to make the piece complete, and focus on sketching first.

As a side note, I had been thinking about how audio and music gets represented in our brains. I used to believe that I'm hearing some mostly-completed ideas in my head, and maybe I just need to practice the skill of transcribing what I hear in my head. And as I've tried to do that, I find my mind is way more blank than I thought it was. Now I'm starting to believe something different - instead of actualy musical ideas going through my brain, I think I probably am just triggering the "feeling of experiencing music" and the music actually is way more hidden and fleeting and sometimes impossible to grab, even if I feel like I'm hearing it in my head.

So that also makes me feel like top-down and improvisation and sketching are really good tools. Because it helps make concrete the "feeling of experiencing music" more quickly, and that's the part that is very fleeting and hard to grab when you're self-aware of it. And filling in the details later is much easier to do after the ideas were captured.

Or maybe that's just me being ridiculous? I don't know :)
 

flamestalker

New Member
I've gone through similar, glad to see I'm not the only one. I sometimes get fixated on a particular section in the programming and editing.. and then it doesn't really turn out the way I envisioned. At that moment I'm left in confusion with what to do next.. continue and see where it goes? or start from scratch again?

I really like the 'top-down' idea you suggested.. I've been meaning to try and get more of the composition ideas down first in a 'sketch' process before actually committing on the DAW (whether it's sketching on paper or on the DAW.)
 

shawnsingh

Senior Member
I still don't have the discipline to do it a lot of the time. I always have this fear that I won't be able to orchestrate/program it as well as I want, so I end up doing that first. But somehow when I have had the discipline to do top- down, I always managed to orchestrate/program just fine and those songs are some of my better ones too.
 

ghandizilla

and .then()
I have been going through the same issue on almost all my pieces: having an idea in my mind, a feeling of how it should sound, and spending enough time laying out the parts and tweaking the MIDI parts so that I start going on an unpredictable direction and completely lose the initial feeling in the process.

What is interesting is that even when I lay down my entire piece on two-handed piano before arranging it, I still can lose the targeted feeling in the way. Maybe it's because my piano "track template" is poorly executed (since I am a clunky pianist) but nevertheless, the two-hands piano thing is not enough to retain what I had in mind. It retains the core elements, their dynamics and where their registers are, but somehow I keep losing the initial feeling during the arrangement and MIDI programming process - the piece ends up having the same core elements than the piano, but just the same core elements, while roller-coasting everything else. I tried for several months to get better on the piano, practicing scales and arpeggios and my left-hand control, but still didn't fix it.

What has been helpful lately is going fully silent, deactivating the samples playback. Silence helps keep things straight in my mind. I feel myself more disciplined this way.
 
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youngpokie

Active Member
What really helped me (and, in all honesty, I am still learning to stick to my own rules), was to insist

- that I have an idea of scope/form in mind from the start and flag it with markers in Cubase;

- that I use the piano only to write my main A/B/C melodies (one hand-one track) and then harmonize it (one or two hands on a separate track), meaning I avoid getting married to the piano performance;

- that I finish a rough outline of my melodies and harmonies; and they are very very basic but they are actually finished for all my markers before I move on.

- then, when I start orchestration, I have to consciously resist the piano approach (block chords on strong beats and piano-style gaps between left and write hands); and instead to really get my head into the inherent rhythm of the phrase/bars I am orchestrating to find its ebb and flow or spikes, for lack of a better word, so that I can support and enhance them via orchestration with ensemble, accents or mini-phrases and not just constant pads (I find piano is really blocking me here, always);

- that when I orchestrate the melodies, I mentally deconstruct them to understand if a melody would be better split between several instruments (like a question/answer or beginning/end type of phrase handed over from one instrument to another) or if it has a natural arc where additional instruments can join in to add emphasis or if it has a harmonic element that needs a polyphonic bit.

Before, I tried capturing what's in my head but I don't have the skill and education for that. Then I tried "let's see where this goes" approach, but most of the time it went nowhere because I got bogged down in minute CC1 changes over the same 16 bars.

So I guess my approach now is to finish the most basic rudimentary building blocks for the whole piece and then to construct the rest from the ground up, step by step, being very conscious of the points above and resisting the piano mindset as much as I can.
 

shawnsingh

Senior Member
- then, when I start orchestration, I have to consciously resist the piano approach (block chords on strong beats and piano-style gaps between left and write hands); and instead to really get my head into the inherent rhythm of the phrase/bars I am orchestrating to find its ebb and flow or spikes, for lack of a better word, so that I can support and enhance them via orchestration with ensemble, accents or mini-phrases and not just constant pads (I find piano is really blocking me here, always);
I guess that way you define orchestration, there are still lots of details about exact notes and rhythms to fill in? Personally I like to define orchestration as strictly assigning notes to instruments, after all notes and rhythms have been decided. That way there would be one additional step before the orchestration step: iteratively resolving more detail in the melodies/harmonies/rhythms/composition until you feel like you have a complete specification of what you want the listener to hear.

That said, it's not as black and white as that in practice. It feels right to play around with chord inversions or slightly different rhythms depending on the orchestration, etc. But at least for the mindset, I feel like that separate step is the key important one, because it's part of the composing process that is most prone to writer's block, and it's helpful (for me at least) to keep that separated from "prototyping how it sounds with a full orchestra"

Nice procedure list, by the way. :)
 

ghandizilla

and .then()
I've always thought of block chords on the piano as an indication of what and where the harmony is, not something to strictly replicate (idem for the melody, I tend to assure myself it's actually singable before validating it).

- that I have an idea of scope/form in mind from the start and flag it with markers in Cubase;
Seems like a good idea. But what if the form doesn't match the musical ideas? For instance, if you have a very long theme or on the contrary a very short one that would be great with a theme and variations form, what would you do? Do you really freeze the form beforehand or do you wait having some insights before doing it?
 

youngpokie

Active Member
I guess that way you define orchestration, there are still lots of details about exact notes and rhythms to fill in?
Yes and no, I'm sorry I was clear about it, but didn't want to write a novel, since I am quite frankly just recently started with this new process.

For me, harmonizing a melody is a big step. What I try to do is start with basic chords (I IV V) and then do bass and voice leading to fill in the gaps. This takes a bit of time, but the end result is not only do I have all the chords in the inversions already set, but also my track with the harmony pad includes transitional tones that I can either convert into full chords or leave as passing tones to support the melody. For example, trying to harmonize the melody with another melody under it can really help enhance the harmony and find the chords that are more dynamic and sound just right in context. I've been studying harmony for a while now and I have to say once I got past I and V and started to apply what I learn, the sheer joy you feel when I see how much better my melodies sound is something else.

As far as orchestration goes, you are of course right - sometimes the melody or the concept is vivid enough that all the ebbs and flows (not sure how to call them) are very clear. In my case, I try to think of orchestration as texture and rhythm that brings something out in the melody either by enhancing it or by contrasting it. That's why I look at it as a kind of a construction process. I'm afraid I am not explaining this very clearly.

But in the end, what I feel is helping me the most is avoiding the piano thinking and starting from something very simple and just building on top of it step by step. So I have bite-size goals, that really helps. I feel much less of a writer's block now, i guess because I'm not overwhelmed by complexity?
 

youngpokie

Active Member
Seems like a good idea. But what if the form doesn't match the musical ideas? For instance, if you have a very long theme or on the contrary a very short one that would be great with a theme and variations form, what would you do? Do you really freeze the form beforehand or do you wait having some insights before doing it?
The way I start is always by improvising. I would sit and play on the piano and something would come to me, most often a melody I find striking. I would then record that melody and try to see where it wants to go. [EDIT: by this I mean the style/genre, not development or variation] Sometimes, I find that this melody was really embryonic and by improvising on it, I can flesh it out more and refine it. But sometimes, the opposite happens, I start with a longer melody and then realize that its simple core is a better solution.

But once I have finally understood what it is, then I put the markers into Cubase and say: ok, no more noodling, the time is now to develop. And so I force myself to work within the parameters my melody gave me (the # of bars, the type of cadence). Then, the form is easy because form is contrast driven and most often symmetrical.
 

Royosho

Member
Regarding dynamics, I'll usually set most instruments to somewhere around mid-low level dynamics and write everything, then add and remove dynamic modulation where needed.

How I approach the actual writing process varies. However generally it's like a painting. Paint the entire image with broad strokes, then add a layer of detail evenly, then more detail etc... rather than focusing on one specific section and getting stuck in a loop.

...and the more detail I add, the more time I spend on each specific detail because it's more precise, just like painting.
 
It really comes down to just focusing on the part of the process thats most important - at the moment. I *finally* stopped trying to compose/record/orchestrate/edit/mix all at the same time. Its just too much to do and its too easy to focus on the more tangible parts; orchestration/mixing, instead of the more abstract composition task. As someone said above, have faith that you’ll be able to fully flesh out the rest of the thought process later.

And of course, there are plenty of instances where composition isn’t the first priority, and sound design is. At least for my own work!