Constructing a piece of music

Where does a song come from?

Paul McCartney has famously said that he woke up one morning with the melody to “Yesterday” almost fully formed, playing in his head. He went to a piano and worked out the chords that surround the melody — but he was convinced it was a song that was already written by somebody else. So he went around asking friends if they’d heard the song before.  (After realizing it was original, McCartney had no words; in fact, the song lived for a while with the lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oooh baby how I love your legs…”)

Most of the rest of us aren’t quite so fortunate – or, to be sure, so supremely talented as Sir Paul. We have to work at making music.

I thought it would be fun to document the creation of a piece of music, to describe where it came from and how it was built. Before we begin, though, let me be clear: I ain’t no McCartney, and my very best song is infinitely more pedestrian and less creative than the absolute worst thing that man has ever written.

Got that? Good. Now let’s begin.

I set out to compose a piece of music (sans lyrics) to accompany a stunningly beautiful photo slideshow by my friend and colleague Tim Barker. Tim is a reporter and blogger for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’s also a very talented photographer – in fact, he took the photos for my website. Given what little he had to work with in terms of subject, they are pretty amazing.

So here are his photos. As you can see if you clicked the link, they are from some of his travels. In this case, Tim wanted to create the actual slideshow; he wanted the music first, so he could marry the images and the sound together himself.

As I looked at his photos, I was immediately struck by the presence of moving water in many of the frames. The rhythm of murmuring water was what I was hearing. So I sat down and composed what I hoped would be a somewhat hypnotic riff representing the rhythm in my head  (NOTE: Hover over the sample with your cursor, and a new window should appear. Just click on the arrow in the new window to listen):


As you can hear, it’s a very simple pattern – arpeggiations of a D-minor chord played with the right hand, with descending and then ascending bass notes played with the left hand. I played it on my midi keyboard; the sounds are from a software synthesizer called Rapture, by Cakewalk.

While to me, that sound does suggest flowing water, I decided to add something more literal. I used a Roland soft-synth to reproduce a straightforward water sound, which I intended to use at the beginning and ending of the piece:


Note: If this were a straight journalism project, I don’t think I would use this emulation. It violates one of my guidelines for use of audio in journalism projects in that it could make viewers think it was the actual sound of the water pictured in some of the photos. If this were a journalism project, I would go record the actual sound of the water.

Although I had decided that the main riff would be the song’s backbone, I also knew that I needed some variety – some more sounds. The first thing I did is to find a good, dark strings patch:


I decided that the piece would start with the sound of water, then move to the strings and then the main riff.

My thoughts then turned to percussion. Because I wanted the song to build, I decided to initially use a thin, artificial -sounding percussion pattern which would then give way to fuller, more realistic samples of a full drum kit. To make the transition less jarring, I faded out the first, artificial percussion track just as I was introducing the “real-sounding” drums. And finally, I used equalization on the “real” drums to cut the extreme highs and extreme lows – to make them sound a little closer to the obviously fake drums. Here’s how that transition sounded:


And at the song’s dramatic high point, I wanted to add some rock guitar. I set out to play something a bit dirty and sloppy, to counter all the precision of the  other tracks. In fact I might have been too sloppy — I rush some of the notes, which I could go back and fix but haven’t.  I used my Line 6 Variax guitar set to emulate a Les Paul Special, with P-90 pickups, through my Line 6 Toneport interface into a Line 6 software model of a Marshall amp. I added a good bit of delay to the recording afterward:


Finally, after the crescendo of the guitar solo, I wanted everything to drop down quite dramatically, to almost nothing. How to make that transition? I decided to get a sample of a drum “crash” and reverse it, creating the sound of a fast buildup and a sudden silence:


Ok, you’ve heard the major parts of the piece – and if you’ve read this far, you’re probably more than ready to hear the final composition, which I built with Cakewalk’s Sonar Producer Edition multitrack software:


So if you’ve actually made it this far, what do you think? How would you have done it differently?


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4 Responses to “Constructing a piece of music”

  1. matt dietrich Says:

    Chris: That is great! I like how the percussion kind of cycles into the piece.

    Of course, I can’t help but notice the lack of cowbell, but that’s just me.

  2. jon fobes Says:

    Great piece of work, Christopher, and very instructive!

  3. Christopher Ave Says:

    Thanks fellas. I’ll work on that cowbell thing.

  4. Carl Jacobson Says:

    Nice work, thanks for giving our software props in this post.

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