Notes On Structure And Sound Design 

One production/compositional strategy that I find perpetually useful is to keep different components of my workflow distinct. For example, rather than create a unique sound first and then play something using that sound, I play using a generic sound (e.g. a piano) and then later change the sound into something more interesting (or not). In other words, I work on structure first, and then sound design.

Both approaches have their merits. The first approach puts structure and sound design on equal footing. When you begin with an interesting sound, the sound shapes your playing. A violin sound, for example, might push you towards thinking (or trying to think) like a string player. The sound might lead you towards solo melodic gestures and bowed long tones, for instance. Or a marimba sound might lead you to think about what the marimbist can and cannot do with no more than one or two mallets in each hand. Or a lush pad sound might inspire you play sustained chords (which are pad sounds’ raison d’être). When you begin with a distinctive sound, the sound suggests ergonomics of playing and parameters of the possible. I am reminded of quote by Brian Eno, who explains his collaborations with the pianist Harold Budd. Eno’s effect “treatments’ would add ambiance to Budd’s piano sound. This in turn shaped how Budd played:

“I used to set up quite complicated treatments and then he would go out and play the piano. And you would hear him discovering, as he played, how to manipulate this treatment. How to make it ring and resonant. Which notes work particularly well on it. Which register of the piano.”

For me, the second approach of putting structure before sound design focuses the producer/composer’s attention on harmony, melody, rhythm, and pacing. When I work with a piano sound, I sort of hear past it: I hear the consonances and dissonances of its notes, not the instrument’s timbre per se. It is as if the piano’s sound is so familiar that I’m forced to come up with something interesting to transcend that familiarity. The way this usually plays out is that I avoid small-form structures such as 4-bar loops or alternating, verse-chorus forms. We can do better than that! Instead of 4-bars, 23 or 61 bars. Instead of playing to a click to keep everything tidy and lined up, how about we free-form it and vary the music’s pace? My goal is to make the plain piano sound somehow signify more, and most importantly, to create a springboard for going somewhere completely different with sound design. 

There is also a third scenario, which is that sometimes structure and sound design are one and the same. It is not uncommon for a producer/composer to create a sound so enchanting that musical structures seem to emerge from it, as if the music is inherent in the sound design. A classic example of this structure/sound fusion is producers’ use of filtering and EQing on otherwise static parts (e.g. a chord, a rhythm, a TB-303 bass line) to create a sense of change over time. The opening and closing of a filter can be enough to hold our attention the same way a string of beguiling chords do. 

In sum, by choosing to begin with either structure or sound design (or both), the producer/composer follows a path forward. I’m comfortable at the keyboard, but other musicians design structures by click and dragging samples, or by recording acoustic instruments and using that as base material. One can finesse some chords or beats to make them interesting, use sound design to spur something new, or do a bit of both at once. Whichever method we use, our goal is to discover what might yet be done with what we already have.    

Resonant Thoughts: Milan Kundera On Composing, Writing, And Automatism

“Today one can compose music with a computer, but the computer always existed in composers’ heads—if they had to, composers could write sonatas without a single original idea, just by ‘cybernetically’ expanding on the rules of composition. Janáček’s purpose was to destroy this computer … My purpose is like Janáček’s: to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic word-spinning.”

Milan Kundera (1984)