Riding the waves of motivation

Shortly after I started this blog, my friend Adam started one as well, because I said he should. For a while he’d stopped posting frequently and I had to encourage him to write, but now the tables have turned and he’s the one telling me to get blogging again!

Anyway, I might have, kind-of, completely and utterly abandoned the A to Z blogging challenge soon after the half-way point, but I will not look back in sadness! It was super fun and I’m sure that if/when I do it next year, I’ll be better prepared for it.

Instead of blogging, I have, at least, been making music! I’m working on Song 7. You might say,

“I know you started out by writing 4 songs in 12 weeks, but I haven’t heard much since then. How come you’re at Song 7 now? Where did 5 and 6 go?” Where indeed.

“And I still haven’t heard two of the original four yet!” Well, maybe one day.

Song 7 currently has 88 bars of music, which means at a tempo of 130bpm (beats per minute), it’s around 2 minutes 42 seconds long. It has a beginning, a tentative end, and a middle that needs stretched out a bit further. I also – of course – need to write the entire drum accompaniment. Drums make me uneasy. I tend to leave them to the end. Song 7 has a provisional title: “Following Me In The Sunshine”.

I’ve composed the entire thing so far using my MIDI keyboard and my computer. When you write music on the computer, organisation is key. It’s really important to carefully keep track of all the bits and pieces of the song, otherwise things will get lost and mixed-up. I decided to completely reject the notions of “verse-chorus-etc” for this composition, so I had a bit of fun with naming the different sections:

intro
1: wistful daffodils
2: on the wind/below the wind
3: when everything starts to feel see-through
4: coming to light
5: unwinding the space on either side of me
end: wistful daffodils?

I haven’t actually written a fifth part yet but I thought “unwinding the space on either side of me” sounds awesome, and I want to add more to the song anyway. Maybe I should use it as an actual song title instead of the name of a fragment of a song; a mere organisational tool. I also really like “when everything starts to feel see-through”, although the music doesn’t quite capture the essence of that kind of feeling. Well whatever, it hardly matters.

Since I’ve slipped back into meaningless procrastination recently, I’m going to impose a deadline on this song. I’ll give myself a fortnight. Come back on the evening of Sunday 11th May (oh! That’s my friend’s birthday!) and you might just hear a new song!

Fun with Colours, Numbers, Patterns, Rhythms

I’m currently writing Track 4, the final song for my music project. Everything has been going really well with this one! Having set up my overall song structure and chord progressions for the verse and chorus, I got to work writing main melodic parts for those two sections.

Prepare yourself for what might be some incoherent rambling about my thought process!

For the verse, I began by writing a rhythm for the main melody. The track will be instrumental, so instead of using lyrics I constructed a couple of meaningless sentences on-the-spot. I took the natural rhythm of those sentences and based my melody on it, by inputting the rhythm into my music editor as a series of notes with the same musical pitch (F, since the song is in the key of F). After that I just just started jiggling the pitches of the notes around until I had a melody that I was keen on (I also adjusted the volumes of individual notes to make it sounds less mechanical). Sometimes imposing restrictions on your work makes it easier to get creative. I actually ended up discarding that melody, writing another in the same way, and eventually reincarnating the original as a countermelody for the final chorus of the song.

The main idea for the chorus came about really naturally while I was exploring the different sounds that can be used to synthesise notes in Ableton Live, my music software. I didn’t use any fancy techniques to compose it; it was simply a playful wee string of notes that went from my fingers, through my MIDI keyboard and into the computer. However, it’s maybe a little tedious, since the pattern repeats itself four times in the one chorus. I’m thinking I’ll need to replace maybe the third repetition, or the second and fourth, with something new…

As well as writing these “sing-a-long-able” parts for the verse and chorus, I’ve also written the drum and bass parts, as well as a couple of other twiddly bits for the musical accompaniment.

Turning my attention now to the middle 8, I sat back and had a think about where to go. Well, something I haven’t ever really done before in writing music is to insert a key change! That’s because I don’t really know how to. There is the super-cheesy method of simply raising all the music up by a semitone or two – that’s the climactic point where the boyband get up off their stools when they’re performing their slow ballad – but I knew there are other, classier ways to do it, so I did some Googling to get some answers. I found some information about “pivot chords”, where you use a chord common to both keys to bring about the change. Without really knowing what I was doing, I played around with my keyboard until I was happy with a chord progression.

I decided to change the key from F to C, since they have a difference of only one note: while F has a Bb (B flat), C has a B. I ended up with the following: F-Dm-G7-C-Dm9-G13-Cmaj9-Cmaj9. The final four chords are quite sophisticated; they’re beautiful and jazzy! After that section comes the final, triumphant chorus, transposed up to the key of C. I actually changed the final chord of the middle 8 to F to give more of a feeling of movement, since the new chorus starts on a C. Overall, the middle 8 sounds a bit… weird, but it’s not too bad, and I love the transition into the final chorus!

Image

This is how my song looks so far. Ableton Live is an unbelievably cool piece of software! The bottom right corner is the “piano roll” which currently shows the chorus melody. The top section shows the whole song, with a row for each instrument. I haven’t quite figured out a good system for colouring all my little musical blocks but I love the fact that I can do that!

Procrastinating by blogging?

Keeping a blog and pursuing this music project are very similar experiences. It’s easy to fall behind. I find it hard to create and complete things in a timely way. I feel like I could spend hours fleshing out a blog post, swithering over word choice and agonizing over the personal details, tempted to never press the Publish button. It’s the same with writing music! That’s the whole reason I started this project!

I feel the pressure of deadlines really strongly. I’m a big procrastinator, and as a deadline approaches I become more and more conscious of it, getting more and more agitated. With this project, there is the added bonus pressure of documenting everything in a blog! I really enjoy it, and I would write every day if I could, but I’m not very good at keeping myself organised. It can take quite a long time to write one entry, which could be my thoughts on something I spent a relatively short time on. Sometimes I feel like the time would be better spent focussing on writing the music.

Take my last post, for example. I wrote it about how I created a chord sequence that I sketched out in a few minutes, inspired by a photo. I thought it seemed like an interesting process to write about, but I scrapped the actual musical idea a couple of hours after publishing the post. I don’t regret writing about it, though. It’s all part of the process.

Thankfully I finally got the ball properly rolling with my next attempt at starting a song –  I’ve written some cool guitary bits that I’m quite keen on. I’ll stick with this one.

There’s another deadline-type thing coming up that’s been getting me all nervous. I have an interview next week for a PhD in Theoretical Particle Physics! So I need to relearn all the physics and read about potential supervisors’ research and practice explaining why I want to spend the next several years doing ridiculously hard maths (it’s a love-hate love).

With that in mind, I’m considering squeezing a cheeky wee extra week in to finish off the songwriting part of the project. This is because I desperately need to re-record the guitars in songs 1 and 2, as well as finishing the drums in song 2. I’d also like to go home and borrow my sister’s bass guitar instead of relying on MIDI files or a bass simulator. I’d also quite like to borrow that same sister’s flute-playing abilities for one of the songs… Maybe I don’t need an extra week for all that; maybe I’m just getting lazy. Besides, 12 weeks sounds much better than 13 weeks!

False Starts

Writing a song in a fortnight is hard enough, but most of the first week has passed without me achieving much and I’m starting to get a bit worried! Why did I set myself this challenge?!

I have tried to start writing Song #3 in a variety of different ways. First I thought about coming up with a cool drum beat to start things off: this was to try to counter what’s happened with the first two songs I wrote, where I ignored the drums until the absolute last minute. I came up with some pretty sweet rhythms but never actually got round to sitting down with my guitar and writing music to go with it. So that was a bit of a failure.

Next I tried writing lyrics, and then I tried using old poems as a starting point, but gave up on that too quickly as well. Meanwhile there’s the wee voice constantly reminding me to hurry up! Just write something and stick with it!

A while ago, a friend of mine suggested that I pick a photograph with interesting details and strong memories attached to it, and use it for inspiration. In fact, he told me, a number of his own songs had been written in that exact way.

So I had a go. My first attempt at it was a little depressing. I picked a collection of photos that were of, on the face of it, a happy event, but was taken at a time that was fraught with anxiety and illness. I thought that it would be interesting to think about that duality. However, it was a real struggle to coax my feelings out from the photographs. It seemed like the photos were incompatible with the other things that were going on at the time. And that’s nice: it’s good that the photos look normal and happy. It’s almost like it was always that way. But my own memories are unsettling in their sparseness. I feel like I must have erased the details of those sad memories from my mind, taking the happy memories away too. I’m not sure if it’s avoidance, denial, a coping mechanism, or whatever, but it sucks.

My second attempt was a little better. I picked a set of photographs taken on a family holiday in Mexico, where my big sister lived at the time. It was a fair while ago now – five, six years? – but the photos are so colourful and intriguing, with volumes of positive vibes attached to them.

A photo of my parents caught my attention, just for its simplicity and colouring. It shows them relaxing on a green, white and yellow bench in a sunny garden in Cuernavaca, aptly nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”. When I picked up my guitar, the synaesthete in me went straight to the sunshine-yellow and grass-green notes on my guitar. And that’s how I started writing attempt number fifty at song number three. Inspiration is a funny thing.

I missed the deadline, I didn’t finish the second song.

A quick recap: my goal is to write four songs in twelve weeks. I’ve allocated a fortnight to writing and recording each song, and will be devoting the final four weeks to making everything sound amazing (that’s called mixing and mastering).

It’s a good challenge, because I feel like I could spend forever fiddling around with everything, getting tangled up in all the infinite possibilities that creep up at every step of the journey.

Today, Thursday, marks the start of week five and Song 3. My goodness! Time flies.

What Happened With The Second Song

I wrote the guitars using the non-standard tuning DADGAD. It’s good for big, floaty chords. Nice and vague-sounding, but it ended up driving me crazy towards the end of the fortnight. After playing them a million times, my gorgeous, floaty chords started sounding discordant and dull to me, and so I got a fright and stripped a lot of the music back.

In the first part of the song, I ended up with a melody played on the 5th guitar string, alternating with the 4th string played open – the note G. (Edit: I meant the 2nd and 3rd guitar strings. The 1st string is the thinnest, highest-pitched string, which is nearest the floor when you hold a guitar – unless you’re doing something pretty unusual. Tunings are given from the lowest-pitched to the highest-pitched string, so DADGAD labels the strings in the order 654321. Confusing!) I grew to dislike the twanginess of the repetitive G, which seemed to clash with the sweeping chords that my other guitar part was to play, so I got rid of the chords and replaced them with simple octaves. Less potential for clashy notes. I also took the first guitar’s part down an octave to see if that made it sound better, tuning the low A down to G temporarily. Well, the whole section was left sounding rather thin, but I couldn’t afford to spend any more time on it. After that, writing a bass part got tricky. I’d erased any feel of a clear chord progression, so it was kind of hard to figure out which notes would work well. I had so much trouble with this song.

Sigh, forget everything I’ve just said! I’m going to describe that first part of the song as “spacious” and “pure” and pretend it’s exactly how I wanted it to sound.

Coffee and composing.

A post shared by mairi (@mairielise) on

I really like the second part of the song, which I named “hello friend”, since the melody has a cute, nostalgic feel to it. It’s simple but sweet, although I’m not sure how well it works in between the first and third sections of the song. I hoped the drums would play a role in connecting everything, but alas, at half past 11 last night I was still barely a quarter of the way through writing them, so I didn’t do the job very well.

I watched some drum videos on YouTube to try to get a better feel for it. I was amazed by the scope for creativity in drum parts! Ah, I’m such an ignorant guitarist. There are songs I’ve listened to and loved for years but have never really appreciated that vital part that holds the music together. In Song 1 I completely avoided using the crash or ride cymbals, so I went a bit crazy for them in the second song. I might have to tone it down a bit! I’ll definitely need to find some time to finish the drums and re-record a couple of guitar riffs. I promise I’ll be better organised with this fortnight’s song! Speaking of which, I suppose I should get started on that!

There it isn’t/there it is

Last night I was sure that my ideas for Track 2 so far were mediocre and destined to never become anything. I was still dealing with tiny, separate fragments of music that, to me, sounded disjointed and meaningless, regardless of how I permuted them around each other.

I went in a huff. I decided it was all worthless and I would need to start again. Bear in mind that this was Sunday night, three days before the self-imposed deadline for finishing my second song. Like a stroppy child, I cast aside the corners and sides of the jigsaw that I’d started to put together, and went to look for a new puzzle to solve. I thought I would have to give up on writing an instrumental track, since I felt I had failed to create any kind of storyline to be threaded through the music, and so, feeling defiant, I picked up my pen:

there was never a moment in time
when the universe was still.
i remind myself
that i will always be part of something,
i remind myself
that there are consequences to everything,
i remind myself
that a daydream could last for a lifetime
and i should be careful of that.

Then, enough was enough, and I went to bed.

~

I haven’t done much with this music project lately. I’ve been having fun, being lazy, and on Saturday I was horrifically hungover. I’ve also been panicking, trying to learn about string theory and other nonsense in preparation for a short Skype chat with a potential PhD supervisor on Thursday afternoon. It’s overwhelming. I often complain that I feel like my brain’s all scrambled up because I struggle to process information. There’s the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” but I never really understood that. To me, it should be the other way around: I see the massive forest and can’t break it down into trees.

Back to music talk. This evening I decided I should go back to the original plan and pick all my jigsaw pieces back up to smoosh them together into something. Starting from scratch would have been a terrible idea! So I played back the little recordings I’ve made and shuffled them around, drawing little jellyfish-squiggles on a piece of paper to try to organise my thoughts a little better. I tossed aside a few ideas and finally settled on the following structure:

waves/water – hello friend – sweet chords – ascending/fast – hello friend

Naming musical sections is really difficult when you don’t have verses and choruses!

What’s left to do for Track 2?

– Tweak a couple of the guitar parts that I’m not entirely happy with, and then get some good-quality recordings of them. Each little chunk of the song has two or three guitars, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want them to sound like. It’ll probably be mostly a clean, gentle sound, maybe with a little distortion at some points. I considered recording with my old, beloved classical guitar… It sounds lovely in real life but it would probably end up sounding like I was playing a shoebox with elastic bands stretched across it. Recording is hard!

– Write all of the drum and bass parts – oops! I was sure that for this track I would make these instruments really important and valuable to the song – I love a good melodic bassline – but it looks like I’m going to have to rush them.

– I suppose I also need to decide on a title! I was toying with something like “Spaceman Dreams” but I’m not sure that matches the feel of the song. Actually, I’m not sure what the feel of the song even is.

Luckily I have a week off work at the moment, so Tuesday (technically today, but I haven’t gone to bed yet) and Wednesday will be all about music! (And stressing about not being clever enough to go back to uni arghhh)

Track 2: Frustration!

Motivation is a funny thing. On Sunday I was quite productive: after going through to Glasgow to see a couple of friends, I did some PhD application stuff, a wee bit cleaning and made a meal plan for the week ahead. On Monday I sat around after work watching Storage Hunters all night. This morning I skipped the gym for no good reason at all. But when I eventually got out of bed, I headed straight for my guitar.

Writing music is hard. This is how I’ve been doing it:
– make a cup of coffee
– pick up guitar and immediately bust out eight little notes that sound pretty cool together
– spend half an hour painstakingly tweaking said notes until I get a handful of variations and I can’t decide which is best
– wonder how on earth to combine this latest idea with the other tiny little ideas I’ve came up with recently
– …make another cup of coffee

Argh! In my last blog post I wrote that I would carefully construct a plan to set the music to. Almost every song I’ve written before now involved me writing music to be sung over, so it’s quite intimidating to not have a set of lyrics to guide me with things like structure, feel and dynamics. That’s why I thought making a little story to shape the music by would be a good idea. And it might’ve been, if I’d stuck to it! But of course, after a few minutes of planning on Friday night, I was itching to get my guitar out, so the Grand Plan ended up half-written and completely ignored.

I’m kind of freaking out over it, actually. I just don’t have any kind of coherent vision of the end result. I was thinking about when I first started writing music, aged 15/16, and it seemed like everything came together so naturally. Back then I hadn’t listened to a whole lot of music, didn’t know a lot about music theory, and I wasn’t so damn critical of everything.

It’s silly, but I feel like experience, and my time studying physics, might have broken my creativity. I question everything. I worry that there is a right or wrong way to do it. I get angsty about the fact that I don’t have a finished song in front of me. I get frustrated over the fact that the song so far is not rigid or defined – anything is possible – the limit is me, my imagination. It’s like I’m trying to do some big complicated calculation but I’m having to invent mathematical relations out of no-where to get me from one step to the next, so things might work or not, and I have no idea what the answer will come out looking like. It’s almost like my master’s project all over again. Happy memories! 😉

I listened back to some of the songs I wrote and recorded when I was a teenager. I think, if I’d had singing lessons and stopped writing such cringey lyrics, I would’ve been pretty decent! But I did keep everything very simple, slow, and singer-songwriter-y. Now when I’m writing, I’ve been trying to do cool melodic stuff with the guitars, instead of basic chords. As well as that, in the current song I’m working on, I wanted an exciting, fast wee riff to pop up somewhere! But, after chiselling out something that I was happy with, I realised that it would be over in something like 4.7 seconds. How do people write full-length songs with a gazillion notes per minute?!

Anyway, far from being the ghost-story-type song I had planned, somehow the mess I’ve written so far for Track 2 has come out with quite a playful, jangly sound to it, a bit like this:

I’m not complaining, it’s just quite unexpected.

The pieces will come together eventually. They have to!