Freestyle: On Musical Clichés

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Make beat 1 or the downbeats obvious.

There needs to be a hook.

Write a great melody.

Don’t repeat too much.

Disguise your effects processing.

Make it sound like music that is already out there.

Make it danceable.

Make the drums “punchy.”

Make sure everything is in tune.

There’s an achievable “pro sound.”

Make it relaxing and easy to listen to.

The groove needs to swing.

Presets are bad.

Less is more.

More is less.

You should like your own music.

The musical tastes of your audience matters.

Your audience cares about what you do.

Some sounds date more easily than others.

Software sounds worse than hardware.

Hardware sounds better than software.

Real music is music you make with others.

Music performed in real time sounds better than programmed/sequenced music.

Music production isn’t composing.

Musical structure is the only way to musical rigor.

A chord progression needs to progress.

Resonant Thoughts: Mark Fisher’s “K-Punk” (2018)

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“If the Nineties were defined by the loop (the ‘good’ infinity of the seamlessly looped breakbeat, Goldie’s ‘Timeless’), then the twenty-first century is perhaps best captured in the ‘bad’ infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a timetrap.

This frustrated, angular time–and the enjoyment of it–is at the heart of footwork. The genre can sound like an impenetrable thicket of rhythms if the thing you lock onto first is the most distinctive thing about footwork: the coiling spasms of super-dry snares. Lock into the floaty synth pads and the vocals, however, and footwork comes on as strangely mellow.”

Mark Fisher, K-Punk (2018)

Make It Exquisite

exquisite—beautiful, lovely, elegant, fine, magnificent, superb, well-crafted

Make it exquisite. This phrase pops up from time to time as an end-goal for whatever I’m working on, a reminder that the made thing should be as well-crafted as I can make it and have some kind of attractiveness (at least for me, and hopefully for you). In writing, there’s exquisite word choice, exquisite sentences or paragraphs, exquisite form, and exquisite conception. In music, there’s exquisite chords and melodies, and an exquisite sense of rhythm or pacing. The via negativa art of leaving material out of a work is another kind of making something exquisite. Even one’s workflow can be exquisite— like when an effortless moment turns into something significant.

I thought about the idea of exquisiteness recently while watching an electronic music instructional tutorial on YouTube. I watch these videos in part to prod myself towards technical stuff I don’t know, and in part to get a sense of what other musicians (apparently) like. The producer in this video was friendly, unabashedly geeky, self-deprecating, and skilled in knowing his way around his software. But about eight minutes into the sixteen minute tutorial I was convinced that he had no taste, and it was clear to me that without taste it was doubtful he would make anything exquisite-sounding. I couldn’t stand his music, but I kept watching as he lead us through numerous “cool features” and “cool tricks” of the software, showing us how they could be mobilized to make “cool sounds.” I thought about the limits of cool: cool only means something if it sounds exquisite, right? No one ever says that’s a nifty piece of music. They say that’s a beautiful piece of music. Nifty and beautiful inhabit different strata of accomplishment: nifty can mean skilled, while the beautiful is something aesthetically pleasing to the senses.

As I watched I thought about the interactions between the producer, his software, and his music. I could see and hear a connection between the parameters on the screen and his musical choices. He tweaked a knob and the sound changed: this cool feature allows me to create this sound. I wondered why he thought the sound was cool in the first place and wished he had talked about that more. How did he come by his knowing? Rather than chase after the exquisite, the producer seemed content to simply make a cool sound and let that be its own kind of accomplishment.

One general criticism of music instructional videos—and certainly ones about electronic music posted in the Wilds of YouTube—is that they propose shortcuts and quick-fixes to hack a creative process. With electronic music videos, the unstated assumption is that if one knows how to make enough cool sounds somehow these sounds will coalesce to produce exquisite music. But so far I have never heard exquisite music in these videos. Like musical instrument stores, the videos are far removed from wherever it is that exquisite music lives. It’s as if the producers are performing music production without producing its most valuable good. Whatever its relationship to technique, taste, style, or cool sounds, how to make exquisite music remains unexplained.  

Sounding Like A Pro

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I run into versions of this phrase a lot as I coast over music websites and catalogs, surveying the gear. Ads for equipment and instruction promise that if you have this or that piece of pro gear or if you play this or that way you’ll be one step closer to sounding like a pro. Sounding like a pro–which is short for sounding like a professional–is the ultimate goal because it signifies that you’ve arrived at the rarefied altitude at which the pros work. Sounding like a pro means that people will admire what you do and you’ll make money from that transaction. And sounding like a pro means something because, well, not everyone gets to be a pro.

One way of considering a music pro is someone who can play things you can’t and never will be able to. He or she may also have access to techniques and repertoire that will be forever beyond your grasp for reasons physical, cognitive, and social. This means that, over time, a pro comes to inhabit a different world from that of you, the non-pro amateur. Pros make recordings that circulate on a mass scale, they are sought after as teachers of their craft, they concertize around the world, and they have public respect and admiring fans. A pro is also anyone who makes a living from their craft–regardless of whether or not they sound very pro. Yet another perspective is that pros care about their craft to an extreme degree while also being highly reliable. In music, this sense of caring and reliability lead pros to bestowing a lazer-like quality of attention on their work consistently over time, making particular compositional choices regarding how they use what they have and ignore what they don’t have, or how they decide what stays in and what doesn’t, and finally, understanding how their work relates to what is already out there in their field. All this to say that a pro has a perspective which, unlike a piece of “pro” gear, isn’t bought right now, but rather earned over time.