Sometimes the software gets in the way of the creative process

I have a few more days left allocated to writing the fourth and final song for my project, but I’ve been trying to tie up various loose ends in earlier songs.

When I was working on Track 1, way back in weeks 1 and 2, I used a program called Ignite to record my musical ideas into the computer. I’ve been using Ableton Live 9 (Intro) for the following three songs, so it made sense to me that I should go back and set up Track 1 in Ableton Live. While Ignite provides a really simple, intuitive way to record ideas and arrange songs, it doesn’t offer the mixing and mastering capabilities that Ableton has.

I used the following instruments in the song: some electric guitars, a bass, drums and a keyboard. I’m using MIDI for everything except the guitars – that means I tell the computer what notes to play, and the computer plays them for me using a synthesized MIDI instrument instead of a real-life instrument. Different music programs have different instruments, and there are infinite possibilities to choose from! Now, I really liked the sounds of the instruments I’d chosen in Ignite, so I converted each MIDI file into an audio file, which is easily done in Ignite. The software is designed for musicians, not engineers! I then imported the audio files into Ableton Live. I could have exported the MIDI files instead, but then I would have had to pick one of Ableton’s instruments to play back the sound. I only have the Intro version, and it seems that the best sounds have been reserved for the Standard and Suite versions!

For the next songs in my project I had used Ableton Live straight away. However, I ran into trouble writing the MIDI bass parts: the stripped-down Intro version that I have just doesn’t contain any particularly good bass guitar sounds. So, since Ignite comes with a nice set of instruments, I thought I could export the MIDI files from Ableton Live, import them into Ignite, pick a cool sound, and export the audio files to put them back into Ableton Live. But unfortunately Ignite isn’t able to import MIDI files! Alas, if I want to use Ignite’s instruments I’d need to record the music with my MIDI keyboard from scratch. I’m sure it would take no time at all since everything I’ve written is very simple, but it’s still quite frustrating!

In short, Ignite is great for getting started with creating and recording ideas into the computer. It’s very basic, and has a really good range of MIDI sounds to choose from – especially since it’s all free!! It’s also set up so that it’s easy to export everything into another piece of software (eg Ableton Live) to make more complicated adjustments and do the post-production stuff. Ableton Live is amazing both for recording and everything that comes after, but the Intro version I have is a bit disappointing when it comes to the available sounds.

This has been a bit of a dull blog entry. So, if you made it this far, here is the grand unveiling of the tracklisting for my wee EP!*

old dreams

1. i was an entire instant, all to myself, more than i am now
2. time is nonlinear, it slows when i realise
3. those moments i don’t want to be a part of anything
4. daydreams and denial

Really first and fourth songs are the only ones worth listening to. I’m so tempted to discard the third track because it’s such a non-song. But it still has a chance for redemption…

*Subject to change – coming up with titles for instrumental music isn’t easy.


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!


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!

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.

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!

Ideas and Inspiration for Track 2

I’m one sixth of the way into my project. I’ve written and recorded a song, and now I’m going to forget about it. It’s time to write another song. The nature of the project is such that I can’t take my time with it: there will be no faffing about with “writer’s block” or anything. I need to push forward. I need an action plan. Like writing a story, there are questions to be asked, a structure to plot out, and details to be filled in. For this song, I’m going to start by making decisions, and then I’m going to implement them. This is a top-down approach: I’m starting with a few big questions so that I can then break everything up into little parts.

Question 1: what’s this song going to be about?
I made a spontaneous decision about this. I’m going to write a song based on a poem I wrote about quantum mechanics and being a ghost on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I’m not going to share it here because it’s not particularly good, but I like it, and it’s good inspiration. I wrote it back in my first year at University. I was a dreamy emo kid… I suppose I still am.

Question 2: what’s it going to sound like?
First off, no vocals. I just can’t. Secondly, guitars. Soft guitars building into heavy guitars and slipping away into calmness again. Like post-rock, but maybe not so wispy. I’m too impatient to write like that. To expand on this, here’s some musical influences:

Caspian – Some Are White Light

I saw this band a couple of nights ago in Glasgow. It felt like I was underwater or dreaming. I didn’t know any of their music prior to the gig as they were the support act and I was there primarily to see the headliner, but that didn’t matter, it sounded familiar and warm. This is post-rock music at its finest. Wistful guitars swelling into brilliant intensity. “Tears and hope”.

Russian Circles – Micah

Another instrumental band. These guys are also really intense live, and, unbelievably, they’re a three-piece. The guitarist uses a loop pedal to build up all the different guitar parts over each other when playing gigs. I can’t get over how cool that is.

Gates – A Vague Ambition

My goodness, I could rave about this band for days and days. They played a gig in the tiny Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh back in March or April 2012, and I went to see them with my boyfriend, having never heard any of their songs. It was near the end of my senior honours year, and at that gig I basically had an emotional meltdown about exams. Ach, I don’t even know what happened. Awful timing: my poor boyfriend had been so looking forward to the gig and I pretty much ruined it. Soon after the gig though, I got really into their music, and I still listen to it almost every single day. So much regret about my behaviour at that gig, but I couldn’t help it. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to not like this band – I can’t comprehend it. Gates. Go listen to them. You can even download their music for free But you should give them all your money.

More questions include tempo (fast? slow?), structure (verse-chorus-verse-etc?), time signature (4 beats in a bar, 3 beats in a bar, etc), key (major or minor?)… then more questions for each subsection of the song. The idea was to sketch out a plan and compose the details, so for example I could say “the intro will be 16 bars long; during which the bass will be about the sound and colour of the cobblestones on the Royal Mile; there will be a guitar softly winding into focus while another guitar plays the sound of the overcast sky and the people dressed in dark colours”. You know, something like that. Maybe I’m being too adventurous. Maybe I’m turning into a pretentious artist. Let’s see how this’ll go.