Intuitive Practice And Conventions Of Practice

While running recently I came across some construction spray painted markings on the road that got me thinking about the relationship between intuitions and conventions in artistic practice. I stopped at the edge of the road—I often look for reasons to interrupt a run—and studied the fluorescent markings. I saw a curved line with arrows on each end facing straight lines. I imagined the curved line as representing the intuitive practice that underlies craft, and its arrows pointing in varied directions conveying a sense of open-ended exploration. The two straight lines represented the borders, boundaries, and constraints of conventions. I read the markings like this: the curved lines of practice are hemmed in by the straight lines of convention. I took a few photos and resumed running.

As I thought about the curved intuition paths of practice, I realized how connected and constrained they are by straight-lined conventions of practice. In fact, in music production there’s not a single thing I think about doing that isn’t shaped by what I’ve already done previously in other contexts and my intuitive practice today is constantly shaped by practices that produced results in the past. Put another way: our past practices become our conventions. Here’s some examples relevant to producing music.

Gestures you’ve used before. By gesture I mean those ways of playing an instrument—your idiosyncratic moves—that steer your sound. To paint the picture in broad strokes: if you’re a metal guitar player, you have your ways of getting a heavy sound. If you’re an R&B singer, you have your ways of elaborating a melody. If you’re an EDM producer, you have your ways of making giant composite pulses. Your moves are your unique techniques and facilities, but also your limitations and, for better and worse, adherences to clichés of style. 

Sounds you’ve used before. If you produce music, you likely have a palette of go-to or preferred sounds. This possibilities for this palette are vast—from bespoke sample libraries to saved presets, from software hybrid instruments to vintage hardware ones and cherished acoustic ones. Sounds you’ve used before help you make new music. But paradoxically, using them also disinclines you from seeking out new and unfamiliar sounds. The more experience you have the more necessary it is to seek out novel ways of making music—not because it’s harder to take this path, but because doing so returns you to intuitive practice. Still, sounds you’ve already used subtly accumulate in your mind’s ear as a kind of template for the kinds of sounds you’ll continue to like going forward.

Conventions of production. There are numerous conventions of production you can turn to because they’ve proved themselves useful in practice as evidenced by the fact that others have used them effectively to make music. For example, you can sidechain this sound to that one to duck the former under the latter (e.g. a bass making room for a kick drum), you can layer sounds to create composite timbres, you can add delays to create rhythmic motion, you can process sounds so they morph and shape-shift over time, you can leave rhythms unquantized to create a more human feel, and so on. But just as often our experience-earned intuitions steer us beyond conventions. Instead of sidechaining the bass to the beat, why not remove it altogether? Instead of layering several sounds, how about using just a single sound? Also, how would it sound if the entire mix was processed? And could the piece be closer to mono than stereo? Sometimes conventions of production can be read as a map whose empty spaces show what hasn’t yet been tried. 

Arrangement conventions. Once you have a few parts sounding together, there are conventional ways to arrange them. Foremost among these is to have only one part enter at a time, to give the listener time to register the changing texture of the music. It’s also a convention to fade parts in and out of a mix gradually over time, to have build ups and bass drops at climactic moments of a piece, or to filter sweep to indicate that change is about to happen (or is happening right now!), and so on. But who’s to say a piece can’t begin with every part sounding at once, and then move from there to sparser textures? Or maybe the perfect arrangement is that which feels like a mash-up, achieved by mixing and matching different clips (modular blocks of sound) of the music’s core parts? Sometimes the best arrangement is a performance that went from here to there because that’s what the musician played.

In sum, when the producer creates music, she’s having a dialogue—between moves that have been used before (conventions of practice) and options appearing in the moment (intuitive practice) to discover new sounds–or sounds that feel new. This dialogue reveals production as a game of noticing connections among sounds and a craft of building form out of those connections. Like the painted curved arrows and straight lines encountering one another on the street, the encounter between intuitions and conventions defines production as a game within a craft and craft within a game. 

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