On Musical Transitions


I’ve been thinking about transitions—that is, how the music gets from one place to another. One of the pros of DAW music software that is simultaneously a con is that in your arrangement page view you can juxtapose a bunch of discrete sections of music and have them seamlessly play in sequence as if that makes for a piece. It’s so easy to line up this to follow that to be followed by that that you overlook the importance of connecting all of your sections meaningfully. In many cases, mere collage-like juxtaposition of one section against another isn’t—to my ear, at least—enough for creating a rich listening experience because as listeners we always hear the shortcuts. 

Some tried and true music production techniques come by way of the DJ heritage, and foremost among these is the fade in/fade out. Back in the day (and still today), DJs would slowly bring up the volume fader of one turntable to blend the incoming record with what was currently playing, and then fade out the currently playing one. With a little pre-mix beat-matching and some careful adjustments of the volume faders, the DJ could make one song disappear while a new one emerged and hence keep the dance floor poppin’. A related technique to the volume fade is the EQ filter, whereby the DJ momentarily filters out low, mid, or high frequencies from the mix. Filtering is a way to play with the overall timbral profile of the music and create drama. For instance, boosting the bass while cutting the mids and highs can make the music sound like it’s muffled, as if heard, suggestively, from behind a closed door. DJs still use these volume and filtering techniques (as well as many others) to dramatic effect, except now they “spin” digital files on digital record decks using touch dials the size of CDs that are stand-ins for the long playing records of old. Talk about skeuomorphisms!

If you’re not a DJ, as I’m not, you have other ways to address musical transitions. From the composer’s heritage comes the reliable technique of identifying a common tone between two separate sections and using that to glue them together. A common tone could be a pitch that is a part of two different chords (e.g. the E-flat in C-minor and E-flat major), or it could be a “leftover” non-pitched sound that connects by hanging around long enough (e.g. the resonance of a reverb tail). Another technique is sharing a melody, chord progression, bass line, or rhythm from different sections among different parts. A transition from one section to another can sound smoother (i.e. more sensible) when a musical element is carried over the transition point to create continuity for the listener. An example of such a carrying over could be say, a clave rhythm that magically becomes a pitched bass line.

At a certain point in my process, when the music is beginning to assume a form that I like (which I know because I start recalling in my mind’s ear during the day), I begin scrutinizing my transitions more closely. In part this is because I’m finished with playing and recording individual parts and devising a rough arrangement. I could keep adding sounds, but that’s not what’s needed. What’s needed is for me to step up the acuteness of my listening game. 

As I listen, I use my eyes as well as my ears, looking at the shape of the arrangement on the screen. The various sections of the piece are easy to spot, and now it’s clear that I don’t want these sections to sound easy to spot. To illustrate, recall the structure of so much pop, where you hear clearly demarcated verses and choruses, and if there’s any doubt about when the big moments are arriving you get a big drum fill or cymbal crash or bass drop or some other overly obvious device of transition to let you know. This structural situation is exactly what I don’t want.

The challenge then, is figuring out ways for the music to make its transitions without being so obvious about it. If I have a secret production goal it’s to transform the music into a single, large-scale, and continuous transformation. Those discreet sections I see on the screen are merely the result of assembling the piece in stages. But in my ideal production world, the music wouldn’t have perceptible seams and would instead sound like a ever-changing, inevitable flow. 

Now, how can I do that?   


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