I often begin a project by playing chords. The instrument sound doesn’t matter so much, although I default to the piano because it’s a sound and way of playing I’m familiar with. What’s useful about chords on a keyboard is their limits: they’re a limited expressive world inside a limited spatial world of 12 pitches per octave. There are only tones and semitones to work with, plus the limitations of ten fingers and the limitations of what I can realistically play on a tiny MIDI keyboard. I love all of these limitations though, because they spur me to focus on what’s important, which is to somehow come up with a sequence of chords or a melody that I haven’t quite heard before. The reason I begin with chords is that, to my ear, chords are the most powerful index of a piece’s tonal-compositional structure. Thinking compositionally is thinking in chords and chords say so much! Chords set an emotional mood, map out where a piece goes over time, and bring intrigue and repose to the journey by building the music up, and then letting it come down again. When I have some chords in place whose sequence is pleasing, I have something robust to build upon. The right chords sound good no matter what sound is playing them.
But as much as I’m chord oriented, in electronic music production especially there are two other equally important considerations to think through. The first is thinking texturally. The texture or timbre of a sound conveys almost as much information and affect as a chord does. Think of the difference between the same pitch played by an oboe, a violin, and a tuned gong. The oboe has a nasal, pinched timbre that feels plaintive. The violin has a voice-like, searing timbre that feels tactile. And the gong timbre has an underwater, slightly mysterious, and non-human quality about it. In electronic music production, one repeatedly encounters the problem of: What sound should be triggered by this melody, bass, or chord? The problem is not simply that most producers have hundreds or thousands of timbres to choose from, but also that each timbre signifies or communicates slightly differently. (It’s a sort of mind-boggling excess of sonic signifiers.) And it’s not just instrumental sounds. Effects are another source of texture and affect (read my post about effects here). Knowing what’s the right sound involves trying out a lot of sounds and effects, feeling how each one feels, and then trying to remember where everything is–a subject for another essay.
Trying out different sounds and noticing their varied textures and timbres leads us to thinking vibely. As one tries out different sounds, the same chords can take on drastically different emotional hues, or what musicians commonly refer to as vibes. As a noun, a vibe is a distinctive feeling or quality felt or discerned. As a verb, vibing with a music means to feel in harmony with it. I often come around to vibes only after I’ve been fiddling with compositional and textural possibilities. What happens is that I’ll try out a sound–usually by accident–that completely alters the vibe of the music. This happened recently when I was working with what I thought was a floaty, ambient-style piece. I sent the piece’s main chords through an effects send track on which I had a delay chain I had made for another project. I didn’t anticipate that the effects would conjure a dub-style, bubbling rhythm on top of the chords. Suddenly the music was less floaty and more pulse-y–a sound that was unexpected and delightful to the point that I reconsidered the chords I had spent most of my time figuring out. The bubbling rhythm was creating a vibe I didn’t know the piece could have, and now that it had it, I reflected on my process. I love chords, but thinking compositionally isn’t limited to music’s tonal qualities. Composing texturally and vibely are equally powerful ways of organizing a piece of music.