On The Editing Mindset


I spend more time editing music than I do recording it. As I’ve talked about this topic here and here on this blog, my typical workflow is to work up pieces over a few weeks and then put them aside for about a year. (Isn’t this the aging secret of cheese- and wine-making?) Eventually I open up the files with an uncluttered mindset because now I have some distance from the fraught moments of getting the ideas down. While I may add things here or there, now I edit. 

Editing is the first time I take a look at the MIDI notes. They look cool, almost pretty—like maps of hidden elegances revealed in the sounds’ journey from sound to notation. I notice their designs and symmetries now, how a three-note left hand chord looks like a ledge, above which an ascending right hand melody looks like bricks stacked in a gravity-defying left to right staircase. I see counterpoint to nowhere, themes that stutter, attempts at polyphony, fragments of melodies, and chords I didn’t know my hands knew. In other words, I see a record of how I was trying to think while I was playing. Editing is also the first time I compare what I hear to what I’m seeing. Hearing drives the decision-making, and seeing takes a supporting role: if something sounds awry I listen again (and again and again) while following the shapes on the screen to figure out where the problem could be. Maybe a finger slip on the keyboard led a note to be a smidge late or a tad soft, or maybe when I was playing I thought it was a good expressivo idea. But now it sounds off and needs my help.

On my current project (begun a year ago), I’m trying to do more with less—trying to be less interventionist. One problem editing introduces is that it grants you the power to decimate the very qualities that made the thing you’re editing special in the first place: one has to resist the urge to fix everything and instead leave the work’s poetry intact because it isn’t always clear how a music’s various elements interact to produce enchantment. In this regard, a piece of music is like a natural ecosystem. I might, for example, hear a note that is too loud and my instinct is to tame it—to bring it back in line with the other notes around it. Eight times out of ten this is required when the note is distractingly loud. But in those other two cases, the note’s volume affects how the sounds that come before and after it are heard. The distractingly loud note may in fact be setting up something, or drawing our attention somewhere for a second, which buys the music time to do other things, almost subliminally. I’m not sure how these dynamics work, but it has happened numerous times that I tamed a loud note and then realized that I had also killed three or four other things I couldn’t put my ear on. (Thankfully there is Undo.) Another danger with editing is wanting to try out a bunch of alternative solutions when those may not be necessary. If what you have works, let it work and seek no more. As Jason Fried puts it in the book Rework, aim for efficient ninja solutions.

There’s a lot of similarities between editing music and editing prose. First, the goal in each case is to make what you have—the notes, or the words—sound more musical. It may sound cliché, but a musical piece of music or a musical piece of writing flows with a kind of rhythm, building from one moment or idea to the next with a sense of inevitability. The novelist Haruki Murakami describes how this rhythm “comes from the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, the pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones” (Absolutely On Music, pp. 98-99). Maybe Murakami’s hard/soft, light/heavy, and balance/imbalance pairings explain how a single distractingly loud note can also positively impact how we hear the sounds around it? 

A second similarity between editing music and prose is that they both benefit from undergoing iterations. While the creative moment of improvising (composing on the fly) might have arrived and disappeared in a few minutes, editing takes place over a much longer time span as you patiently visit the work numerous times. Each visit reveals new things you might re-shape so to make what you have clearer and more what it was trying to be the first time around. Editing says to the music or the prose, let’s see what I notice today to help you say what you wanted to say.


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