Arrows Of Attention: 100 Ideas For Action In (Electronic) Music


1. Compose for that sensation whereby you forget that it’s the sounds you’re listening to that are creating this experience of forgetting in the first place.

2. Be guided by the effects of the musical thing, not the thing itself.

3. Starting with something harmonically simple, tweak it to make it harmonically complex.

4. What principles does the music exemplify?

5. Bass drones are always an expressive cop-out.

6. Compose with timbre. Reverb and other effects aren’t cheating. They’re timbral composing.

7. Follow a musical process to bring yourself out of yourself and into the larger frame.

8. Perform with delay and EQ.

9. (Re)Design the relationship between groove and harmony.

10. Don’t resist the Grid.

11. Is your theme sustainable?

12. Resist the Grid.

13. Compose to escape the past and the tyranny of remembering; compose to start fresh and imagine everything anew.

14. Turn melodies into memory traces.

15. Design the music so that it unravels.

16. Try to figure out what makes a music sound “relaxing” as opposed to “disturbing” and then toe that line.

17. Find the cheapest MIDI controller and use that.

18. Think of other ways besides chords of building intensity, interest, and drama.

19. Not all music is dance music.

20. But if you can’t dance to it, what is your music’s raison d’être?

21. Hear a very old sound as new.

22. Realism in music production a trap.

23. Remember that the feelings generated by the music can be incommensurate with its notes.

24. Assume you are and always will be this music’s closest listener. So: fix the details.

25. Compare the flawed sound of your headphone mix with the flawed sound of monitor mix and find the perfect compromise point between them.

26. Are there other, less obvious ways of marking musical time?

27. Would a different sound affect this chord’s feeling?

28. How would you use this music?

29. Is a composer’s voice dependent on his or her sound palette?

30. Think about how a non-musician might put all this together, let alone listen.

31. What’s the easiest thing to do with these elements? Do the opposite of that.

32. Alternately, take the short-cut.

33. Cut and paste to multiply, intensify, densify.

34. The best part will arrive at the end.

35. Does the frequency spectrum of the music tell its own story?

36. Think like a composer who is without pencil and staff paper.

37. Think like a producer who is without computer and software.

38. Technology poor, ideas rich.

39. Derive a theory based on your listening to ancient music, or to unfamiliar music.

40. Imagine you’re a soloist. Now how would you like your accompaniment? Make that music.

41. Once you get to know an effect, compose variations for one of them to maximize its output.

42. Apply Nassim Taleb’s notion of tinkering in your work by using trial and error to make a series of small mistakes that yield information and set the stage for finding “something rather significant.”

43. Build contrast through design, not timbre.

44. Make it sound as real and natural as possible.

45. Theory poor, exuberance rich.

46. Start with the hook, go somewhere else, then return.

47. No one is listening anyways. Sometimes not even you.

48. Is it affecting, or just irritating?

49. Link the music to those things you can’t talk about or even bear thinking about.

50. That old file isn’t old if you begin working on it again.

51. What is the flip side of being systematic? (Hint: It isn’t being chaotic.)

52. The theory of “uncanny valley” suggests that replicas that are almost but not exactly like real humans elicit feelings of revulsion. Take note of this gap in your music.

53. Can you do this in a series of pieces?

54. What would electronic music programming look like if it didn’t involve code?

55. Why do the kids not like it?

56. How can you move it forward without a chord progression?

57. How would Bach have used a sequencer if he had one? (What about Debussy?)

58. Does the music presume its ideal listening environment?

59. Is there a common thread among the parts or sections?

60. Make the music impossible to remix.

61. What can you do with knobs instead of keyboard keys?

62. Does the music require desire as a co-conspirator to generate its affective power?

63. Keep playing along to your initial idea to create branches from a root.

64. Dynamics also tell a story. Shhh…

65. One chord’s beauty depends on what comes before and after it.

66. Music creates “a now whose content changes ceaselessly” (says musicologist David Burrows) so make each moment more than passing relevance.

67. Can you make the rhythm more…slippery?

68. Must you put backbeats on 2 and 4? It makes everything so obvious.

69. Does the music depend on volume? (Test: Does it sound better when you turn it up?)

70. The listener wants to struggle, only he/she won’t admit it.

71. If you could only use a single sound, what sound would you use?

72. The music is for a film that hasn’t yet been made.

73. Do the minimum required to create maximum syncopation.

74. Avoid unisons because they’re redundancies.

75. Thinking in terms of counterpoint, no matter what the musical style.

76. A sense of rigor is like glue: without rigor the music’s relationships won’t cohere.

77. First and foremost, the music needs to enchant you.

78. “Follow the line” (says percussionist Alan Abel).

79. If the music can have the same effect while being half as long, shorten it.

80. No idea is too small because you can multiply, copy, and transpose to generate other ideas from it.

81. Keep in mind that “playing” a musical instrument is not what it used to be.

82. On the other hand, the most deeply sensible music comes from the body-playing-an-instrument, so keep that in mind too.

83. Consider: Is using music software composing, or just a goose chase keeping you from a more essential act?

84. Losing oneself and reverie are useful markers of the music’s communicative power, but not the only ones.

85. Musical analysis arrives from a different direction that musical practice. Practice moves outbound, away from the city center towards new suburbs of feeling, while analysis drives inbound, eager to make sense of what practice left behind in its search for new things.

86. Cross-sensory inspiration—from the weather, from art, literature, cooking—is key because music is so stubbornly abstract.

87. Don’t worry about fitting into pre-set interpretive frames. It’s possible that the purpose of your music will be generated only once a public hears it. (And a public can be one person.)

88. Does that piece you did last year still sound good? If not, can you discern the reasons besides your own changing tastes and abilities?

89. A diamond-shaped musical structure—gradual build, apex, gradual denouement—has wide applicability because we like to ease in and out of things.

90. Is your music transferable to other instrument sounds? Could, say, a wind quartet play the music?

91. Does your music require you to perform it? Or can it thrive on the interpretation of others?

92. The history of musical innovation appears to be linear, a this-music-leading-to-that-music. But art as practice is nonlinear. Tomorrow’s left-turn may not follow from or relate to today’s straight line.

93. How to turn knob-turning, button-pushing, and fader-sliding into a performance?

94. Remember how the sound of the breeze through the trees you heard on your walk last night felt? Aim for that state in your music.

95. Tension in music is compelling, a suspension of disbelief. Tension among rhythms, among timbres, and among parts vying for our attention.

96. Listen to it again, but this time without the main part that started it. Interesting right?

97. Your family and friends are not your music’s public. It needs to find its community on its own.

98. Did you learn anything from working on this piece?

99. Creativity, in music or anything else, is, before anything else, a simple accumulation. Keep working and adding to what you have.

100. Always give the file a name and date it.

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