Getting Started with Music Creation
alternative title: I don't know what I'm doing

Music is something I've been interested in for a long time. Not only in the sense of listening to it and tasting new genres, but also creating it for myself.

Like starting out anything, it can be very intimidating—it is very intimidating. I've played my fair share of instruments, but playing has a large emphasis in getting a handle of the instrument and its technicalities. Music composition goes the other direction and really goes into structure, theory, atmosphere, mood, etc.—things I'm not particularly familiar with. This is the first time I've created music of my own.

This post goes over thoughts I've had after recently creating and compiling a small album. I'll promptly cover that at the end (or you can just skip to it if you want).

Knowledge of Theory

Going into this, I don't have much knowledge about music theory and its intricacies. I can read sheet music, I know some information about keys, scales, and chords, but that's the extent of what I know.

What I'm mainly riding on at the moment is listening to pieces of music that I like and trying to analyze them. Sometimes the piece has accompanying sheet music, which is great because I can simply read it and get some ideas for a melody, chord structure, or at the very least what key evokes the mood for that particular piece. If there's no sheet music, then the only other option is to learn it by ear, which to me involves a lot of trial and error.

Luckily, the type of music that I'm into (some derivative of ambient/drone music) doesn't need much music theory. Any amount of it helps, of course, but it isn't as complex as composing a classical or neoclassical piece of music. And plus, repetition and simplicity is a characteristic of ambient music which makes it a lot easier to approach.

Ambient Music

The main challenge with ambient music is making said repetition interesting. A quote that many people cite about ambient music is one from Mr. Ambient himself:

"Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

~ Brian Eno (emphasis mine)

Many artists approach this in different ways, which creates different subsets of ambient music. There are people like Tim Hecker who is very experimental and is on the side of noise ambient (with his album Virgins being a favourite of mine). Then you've got others like 36 and Steve Roach who have a more space-like (as in outer space) feel to their music. Some people like using beats, others don't. It's truly up to personal taste, which is so interesting for a genre who dons a seemingly simplistic structure, with little artists who occupy the space.

For myself, I can't say for certain simply because I haven't made enough music for a discernable pattern to crop up. Though it seems that I'm gravitating towards using a very simple melody with a simple rhythm. Some ambient artists use no rhythm or melody whatsoever. They typically manipulate and only use what are called field recordings, which is also something I've been dabbling with.

Capturing Everyday Noise

Field recordings are essentially audio snippets from the real world. It could be literally anything: streams of water, chirping of birds, chatter of people, etc.

Apparently there are devices that are specifically made for taking field recordings (aptly named "field recorders"), but I don't have a good justification to buy one at the moment. Instead, I'm using Voice Memos on my phone to record whatever I find to be interesting. It's also less conspicuous than lugging around what looks like a device used by journalists to hound on some hapless chap out in the streets.

Since I haven't been going out of the house too much since the end of the recent semester, I've been recording random stuff that I never paid attention to at first, but now I find could be used for music. From my room, I've recorded the audio of neighbours pressure washing their driveways, mowing their lawn, and other stuff that would constitute as some form of noise pollution. Heck, at one point I even recorded my air conditioner. I've found multiple ways to integrate them into some music, though with a lot of audio manipulation so that people aren't listening to some audio of a lawnmower and being told that it's music.

It's interesting because now I'm a lot more attentive to my surroundings, thinking of possible sounds that I could incorporate into my work. It's certainly a different way of interacting with the world, but I've gained an appreciation for all sorts of sounds—even sounds that people may find downright disruptive.

On Equipment

Music production can cost a lot of money. You see these people with hardware whose sheer visual clutter exceeds that of an airplane dashboard, using software that costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, all of which could probably buy you a new car at the local dealership.

Then there's the complete opposite side of music production: bordering on broke. Or at least, not shelling out extra expenses for music-related gear. GarageBand on your phone is probably good enough for starting out. Costs as much as your phone does, which may or may not be extortionately expensive.

I guess I fall into the camp of "broke, but not that broke". I bought a MIDI keyboard recently as a way to get started. It's a lot easier for me to grasp music when I can see what notes and chords I'm making on the piano instead of looking at a representation of it on the screen. It's not very big (only spanning two octaves), but it gets the job done. I don't have any space for a bigger one, anyway.

a cluttered mess

In terms of software, I don't have very many options since I'm using Linux. I opted for LMMS since it's free and open-source, but there's also Ardour which I personally haven't tried but it's open-source as well. I use Audacity to edit my field recordings and also do some processing of the audio that I export from LMMS. The total cost of this setup was basically the MIDI keyboard, which isn't nothing, but it's more than enough to get started.

Of course, you can get by with very little. Some people only use Audacity and they can make some great stuff with just that. I guess it really depends on the type of music you want to make, and to what extent you want to take it.

Performance and Composition

I found that the frame of mind between music composition and music performance is significantly different.

I have performed in front of people before, and it's always a battle of nerves—a battle between the physiological response to run for the hills and trying to eke out something that vaguely resembles music. It's incredibly stressful, and I don't like it. Composing music, on the other hand, I found to be much more fun and relaxing.

I think it's because it gives me that same room to breathe as art and writing does. I don't have to get everything right in one try and one try only. I can sit comfortably in my room and create something to my own standard, and let that stand on its own, instead of having to rely on practice and hoping that I can stand on my own when the time comes.

This is likely why I gravitate towards solitary activities like writing and art, instead of more performance-based activities like sports, music performance, or speaking. I tend to become dysfunctional when I'm creating with people in proximity. In a way, having people around makes me feel like I'm performing instead of creating, which makes me uncomfortable.

Since I'm more likely to do something that is solitary in nature, those are the skills which I tend to build a lot faster. It's why I'm much better at writing than speaking, drawing than dance, and it's also a sign that I'll probably get better at music composition than playing an instrument.

I made this? I made this.

Now for the part no one is waiting for: the actual music. The genre? I guess you could call it ambient, or drone. I'm not entirely sure myself, but ambient music is such a broad term anyway. All I know for sure is that it isn't pop music.

clicking on the image sends you to the album

I treat these more like musical "sketches" than fully fledged pieces of work. They're not overly short, but since I'm just starting out it doesn't feel like I have the capabilities to create something substantial yet.

I posted the tracks on Bandcamp, fully knowing that I may have to jump ship after its recent acquisition by Epic Games. I have it there while I possibly make a music page for it on my site. I don't have anything to lose with it being there at the moment. It's free to download, for any of you masochistic folks out there who want to listen to it on repeat.

Honestly, I was more excited to create the album cover than posting the actual music. It's like I'm commissioning myself to create some album art. It was pretty low-effort, though: I found a stock photo of a beach, messed around with the curves tool, slapped on a gradient map, drew a sail boat, done deal.

I didn't use the 𝕓𝕚𝕜𝕠𝕓𝕒𝕥𝕒𝕟𝕒𝕣𝕚 moniker for my music, though it's a clear derivative. I basically removed all of the vowels, and I removed the 'r' at the end so all that's left is BKBTN, pronounced as "back button". It's nice that I didn't have to think too hard to create a different alias for myself.

Concluding Thoughts

It was a fun week getting acquainted with all of the software and theory that comes along with music production. It's a different approach compared to learning pieces for performance, but if anything I think I enjoyed composing music far more than playing it.

I'll probably be composing more music in the future. Maybe learn some more music theory along the way; it's something that I've always wanted to grasp. I can't say I'll be taking this as seriously compared to the other things that I do, but I'll be sure to compose music for the fun of it.

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