Mike Verta's "break it down" advice

Mike Fox

Button Masher
Been watching some Mike Verta Unleashed lately, and one of his words of advice is to break the orchestration down to just piano to really see if you have something solid and interesting going on.

This makes a ton of sense. It's like stripping all the shielding off to get a good view of just how strong the foundation of the composition is. I couldn't agree more with that!

However, is this recommendation necessary for all types of music? I ask, because It seems like a lot of horror music doesn't always require this type of approach.

Take James Dooley's, "Gotcha" , for example. It incorporates lots of clusters, stabs, and some percussion to achieve that atonal "horror" effect.

Or Jason Graves' Dead Space score,

What would be the point of breaking something like this down to just a piano composition? Is it necessary for this type of music? If so, how would you even do it?

Would love to hear from people who have done horror compostions along the lines of the Graves/Dooley tracks.


If you read this message, I certainly hope you chime in as well! Thanks.
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Probably Dead from Corona Virus
Certain types of music are sort of deliberately structureless - like beds, grooves, ambient... no point in breaking them down, really.

But I don't teach writing in a specific style - I teach control; craft. Because if all we can do are epic loops and beds, we can get some gigs - even some high paying gigs - but we're not going to feed our families for the next 50 years on that. Gigs we can get; a lifelong career is something else entirely, and we're not gonna make it without actual skills and control.

This is why you so commonly see young composers leaning on older craft guys to do the heavy lifting on gigs. It gets them through, but sooner or later the old guys age out, and then the young guys are screwed. Being a professional composer is hard; we need to be able to take any and every kind of opportunity that arises. If we can play, if we can write in virtually any style with legit skill; if we can orchestrate, arrange, notate; if we can do mock-ups, clean up MIDI; if we can manage a room of players and work under pressure, etc.; if we've got all these actual skills, then there's almost always a paycheck somewhere for us.

So my "break it down" advice is to help get real about our ability to create music that I like to call "transportable." It's the essential component in all lasting, cherished music, and its essence is structure. If, when we break it down, we discover our music doesn't actually go anywhere or develop, then beds and loops or epic "trailer music" is all we can do. And that's not enough. Not by a damn sight. Not for 50 years, baby.

This December will be the 6th year we've done Unleashed, and I can already tell you most people will still be struggling with the basics of connection and structure, because it's hard. It's hard to write compelling themes or motifs and make instant, lasting connections with an audience and then take them on journeys which keep them engaged, and which they then carry around with them forever - like we do when we hum the Force Theme to ourselves, 40+ years after it was written. But that's the stuff of careers. That's control. The more control we have over our music, the more control we have over our futures. And that's what I teach.

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Piano or not, I've watched a lot of Mike's videos and a consistent theme is 'take a piece and figure it out'. Most people don't appreciate the significance of that. It's how I learned pop songs as a teenager in the 80s and it's still true now. I spent two days with an orchestral trailer cue trying to replicate it and I figured out more stuff in 48 hours of struggling than in a year of tutorials. Tips help, but nothing beats struggling your way through a piece.

Living Fossil

Senior Member
However, is this recommendation necessary for all types of music?
No, of course not. It's usually valuable for traditional music, for different reasons.
But there is music that can't be translated very well to the piano (musique spectrale for example).
And there is music that sounds good on the piano, but not so good when orchestrated.
And then there are lots of styles (specially modern ones) that simply don't work on the piano.
(this goes from techno to dubstep etc.)

However, when you look at some of the big composers of the 20st century - like Strawinsky, Prokofieff, Bartók etc, etc - they were f*cking good pianists. And without their pianistic abilities it's quite sure they wouldn't have composed a lot of their masterpieces. But that's another story.
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Probably Dead from Corona Virus
Piano or not, I've watched a lot of Mike's videos and a consistent theme is 'take a piece and figure it out'. Most people don't appreciate the significance of that.
It actually capitalizes on the way your brain works. When my little boy asks how to spell a word, I tell him to try, even if it's a wild guess. The process he goes through in the attempt sets up a far more robust pathway for the eventual input, because it already has relational context data to anchor it. Each of us learns differently, and when we attempt on our own, it turns on our specific learning mechanism in a way that merely being given the information doesn't at all. This is part of why transcription is so galactically effective as a learning tool.

Will Blackburn

Senior Member
Finally got On Horner which i've wanted to watch for ages and after some umming and ahhing decided to get Theory 1 as well. Very happy i did. Only halfway through the latter and it's already given me much more clarity on Modes (i've watched tons of youtube videos on the subject and most of them have just muddied the waters). My favourite tutorial videos. Very much appreciated Mike. :emoji_grinning:


Senior Member
I think you need to try doing the piano reduction method and find out if it helps you or not. I think it has slowed me down (slowed down my output) and made me abandon pieces that maybe shouldn’t have been abandoned.

On the other hand, I recently watched a YouTube video by a working composer and music teacher that went right into the DAW after just a 4 bar sketch on the piano and I felt while watching it that he should have first exhausted more options to make the development better. But, as I was saying above, sometimes exhausting the options just leaves me exhausted instead and prolongs the process so much that I can’t move forward as effortlessly (or sometimes at all in a given piece) when compared to starting in the DAW and plowing through without second guessing my instincts quite so much.

Maybe starting on the piano but then switching over to the daw at the exact right moment when things are still in general outline form and still full of “plot holes” is the key, because it lets you have a general idea of where you’re going with the piece and some options to keep or discard but not an over abundance of choices that you can’t fit into one song. And, it still gives you the room to improvise solutions in the daw.

I think the more a person has traditional training (and can play fluidly on the piano), the easier of a time they’ll have working from a complete piano sketch. And that’s where MV’s advice probably is most effective. The advice is right, but it has to fit your skill level and mindset I think. For those without that proper musical background, who need to rely almost exclusively on their ears and the feedback their getting from the virtual instruments, the less intuitive the step of sticking with the piano to figure out your entire song will be and the more likely it could derail you. In my case, I feel only half ready to implement that advice. I think where it really works for me is using the piano to come up with the initial idea but not much else.

So, beyond the question of whether certain musical styles can translate to piano effectively, there’s the question of how that affects your own personal ability to realize the song.

I’m mainly just speaking from my own experience, as we likely all are. So everyone’s mileage with this advice will vary.
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