On Musical Synergy


When I’m working on a piece I begin with a clear statement of its main part. This serves to introduce both the key and overall mood of the piece, as well the timbre of the part. The main part is always the part that sparked the piece. On my current project, which I’ve been talking about on this blog for a while now, the main part is a series of marimba chords. It’s reassuring to proceed knowing that at least I have these chords and I can begin there. Also, beginning this way is simpler than attempting anything else.

(Advice on how not to get stuck: Proceed based on what you already know.) 

With the main marimba part up front, the second step is figure out what to do with it and what other sounds might go with it. I try out sounds and try out parts to play with those sounds and listen to the results. If something sounds okay, I leave it for now and keep working. Each added part changes the sound of the other parts, and so I keep going back to make compensations so that the whole begins gelling better. Over time, a form emerges.

For some reason, I often find sections later on in the piece that suggest new starting points. Even though I began with what I thought was the main part, my layers of added parts and compensations have generated new forms that could be new beginnings. I often find that sections later on the piece become my favorites. (Maybe I always take a while to warm up?) 

I loop one of these sections and then right-click the loop. The software offers me the option of “consolidating” all of the parts within this section into a new loop. 

I decline the offer since I never work with loops (unless I play the loop myself—looping myself). But—I do like the idea of consolidating a moment in musical time. Maybe I should try it sometime. 


With enough additions and subtractions, adjustments and compensations, the piece begins to coalesce by finding its form, its identity, its sound, and the ways it wants to move. I would describe this coalescing with the term synergy. Synergy is an energy sum or composite or by-product that I could not have predicted while tinkering with the individual parts, yet it’s a direct by-product of this work and these parts. 

Synergy is the most exciting quality in music because it’s an unpredictable composite sensation that arises as if by magic—as if the music’s effects have transcended their materials.  

Now that I’ve encountered synergy in music production, I work in anticipation of finding it again. I don’t know when it might appear, but it’s almost a certainly if I can align my materials just so. By align I don’t mean lining everything up in a straight line but rather in its social sense—coming together in agreement or alliance.

How do you know when you’re hearing synergistic music? For me, the music has a feeling to it that’s a by-product of the sounds cohering to a substantial degree and conjuring and playing with my perception. When synergy is happening the music feels inevitable.




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