Friday, 12 April 2013

Modal Iteration - A Simple Idea for Escaping Musical Ruts

Musicians and composers eventually reach a point where we feel like we’ve done everything. In a late ‘90’s interview with Guitar World, Billy Corgan and James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins stated that they were done with the guitar; every riff had been written, every chord progression had been adequately explored. (They eventually re-embraced this wonderful instrument.) But within every great, memorable song lies a simple melody.

To compensate for this feeling, sometimes we add layer upon layer of things to augment (read: distract from) the core riff or melody.

Abandoning simplicity can create amazing, layered music. But this can also lead to creating compositions which are overly complex, as we seek 100% originality and novelty in our work. When you’re done with this article, you’ll have a concrete plan to get you out of that rut and tease some new music out of yourself.

Setting Constraints

When you’re writing a studio album, you might have some principles to help guide decisions in the songwriting process, which are usually driven by the sound, image, and message you want to convey to your listeners. To fulfill those principles, you might use every tool you can think of. Even home studios these days have plenty of space, tracks, storage, etc. to get you in a situation where you are never ultimately happy with the music; maybe there are imperfections or not enough detail.

But here, we are going to talk about constraints. Dave Grohl in “Sound City Movie” states that great music usually has some kind of constraint. In the case of Sound City, that was the Neve console’s 24 tracks and tape machine. “When you came to work at Sound City, you knew what you were getting,” says Nick Raskulinecz when describing the studio experience. "It was a tape-based studio."

So, as part of the assignment, we’ll strip back and move away from many of the distracting tools available to us and set some very real limitations on what exactly we’re going to do.

What You’ll Need

  1. A means of recording.
  2. A melodic instrument. For this, I actually used a Maschine Mikro by Native Instruments, because it can only play sixteen notes in pad mode. This is a great constraint. It also has a lot of great samples to choose from. If you don’t have something like this, then a piano or keyboard is also a great choice.
  3. An instrument to create ambience. Again, Maschine would work great here, but so would a keyboard on a string setting or an organic instrument.

The Assignment

A lot of guitar players and songwriters will get into a situation where they use the same set of chords over and over. Often, this is not a product of knowing too few chords. You may be stuck on one or two musical modes and just not hearing other possibilities.
So here, we’ll remedy that situation. We’re going to call this assignment a modal iteration, because we’ll see all the basic modes.
The assignment is to create seven brand new songs. Whoa! Write an album, you say? Exactly. And you should be able to do this in 2-3 days if you devote a couple of hours to it every day and you stick to your constraints. Plus, there is a plan for each song. Song #1 must be in the first mode of a major scale, Ionian. Just the notes of a regular major scale. Song #2 must be in the second mode of a major scale, Dorian. All the way up to Locrian. Locrian is not optional, by the way. By the time you get to Locrian, your creative juices will be flowing, you’ll be free of your rut, and you’ll probably surprise yourself with the things you can do in that mode. I also changed the key for each song, writing in A Major, B Dorian, C Phrygian etc.
Okay, so this sounds daunting, but remember we talked about setting constraints above. Here are the constraints I’ve set for the assignment:
  • Seven songs, one per mode.
  • Only two instruments. I chose a really pretty ambient, soft piano and some string pad.
  • Be okay with making “ambient” music. No percussion! We are focusing on melody here.
  • Every song must be around 3 minutes long.
  • Each song may only contain up to 3 distinct melodic patterns which are repeated for the duration of the 3 minutes. You can add small fills and transitions as you see fit.
  • You may not spend more than 1 hour on each song. The goal here is to be productive. In FL Studio you can see the Working Time under Project Info.
  • Don’t worry about mixing and mastering too much; it’s ambient. If you make every song the same way with the same instruments, they should all come out sounding the same.
Once you get started, you’ll begin to see how each mode works and exploring them becomes more fun!
Here’s a video of what it looks like using a Maschine Mikro.


Our Results

The result of our experiment is a new album called Idlewild. You can listen to the whole set below, or buy it here for royalty-free use.

A Few Tips for Success

  • Try to keep the main melodies really simple.
  • Use the notes from the mode that make the mode distinctive. Lydian and Ionian, your standard major scale, can sound really similar. Try to differentiate them by working in those intervals unique to the mode. For example, in Phrygian, the root and minor second, only a half step apart, sound very distinctive.
  • Try to make the song sound like it is truly centered around the root note of the mode so the listener gets the true feel of the mode.
  • Using an interface like the Maschine is great for this exercise because it has sixteen pads arranged in a 4x4 grid. When you look at that, you don’t see any white or black keys, only boxes. This removes any preconceived feelings about keys in whatever instrument you’re used to. But if you don’t have access to something like that, you can make this work with anything.
  • Since all these songs sound similar, you could consider releasing an album with CDBaby or contacting us about releasing it as royalty-free music.
  • Now you have a whole handful of new melodies to apply to your usual genre of rock, pop, etc! Hooray, new material.


Did you try this experiment?

Share what you’ve made, and let us know what you think! Post it on SoundCloud and follow us there, too. Leave a link in the comments.
Happy melodymaking!

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