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Electropolis: Improvisational Songwriting


Okay, so you’re at your digital audio workstation (DAW) ready to make a killer tune. You’ve been playing around with your setup and put together an awesome loop or two, but now you’re wondering (or maybe even confused about) the direction the song is heading in. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there before, and have even said, “F*** it”, thus leaving a perfectly awesome loop useless for public display. Unfortunately, these dry spells can be difficult to overcome without prior conceptualization. However, there are a couple of simple techniques from that boring thing we call “music theory” that are pretty helpful for improvisational song-writing—in fact, these ideas can be applied to any genre, style or whatever ‘word’ music’s typically categorized under.

Musical dynamics and phrasing are two essential aspects of composing that all musicians take into consideration either consciously or not. Dynamics simply refers to the volume of sound, as well as its the stylistic execution over an entire composition. A “phrase” consists merely of a single loop and the term “phrasing” refers to the organization of two or more loops. For the most part, both of these “theories” require a macro perspective verses a micro. To simply put it, whenever you create a loop, you’re engaging in a detailed micro process of song-writing. When you organize a series of loops, you’re viewing the production from a macro standpoint. The problem we’re referring to regards the initial creation of a direction to “phrase” your loops. Therefore, if you’re experiencing this common dilemma, try experimenting with “dynamics” to inspire new ideas for musical direction. Hey, it may be your bus ticket to somewhere other than the sixteenth repeat of a single loop.

For example, lets say you made a loop and want to accomplish one the following: a) create another verse, b) transition a loop into a rhythm change, c) go for a key change, d) create a break down or build up, e) increase the emotional impact of the chorus. The easiest way to trigger inspiration for all this stuff is by channeling your instruments/devices through a mixer to experiment with muting and soloing particular tracks. Another way is by making a minute’s worth of copies and mapping your MIDI controller to your synth or device’s Filter, LFO, Mod Envelope, Filter Envelope or any other parameters your wish to test out.

From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Simply play the track and see what comes out. Essentially, alternating these parameters effects the dynamics of the song, as well as the tonation of the instrument. You can really get complex with this stuff and create some radical changes, however it’s not aways necessary. Remember, music is meant to be listened to so use your own judgement about the appropriate time to get wild. Plus, the unexpected is what creates that sought after emotional punch in the face. The point of these experiments are to inspire your compositional direction and if you come across another way of essentially playing the same thing, simply record the loop with the desired alternation.

Once you’ve created a couple different versions of the loop/s using dynamic and parameter alterations, try to become aware of too much repetition. As stated earlier, experiment with muting tracks and devices via mixer to break any repetition. However, don’t be afraid to completely change up various musical aspects such as the bass line, melody, chord progression or rhythm. Just make sure a radical change is reasonably spaced apart and is used as a new section within the song’s form. (e.g. a bridge or breakdown.) Phrasing these newly created loops shouldn’t be super difficult after you’ve played around and automated dynamic alterations and articulations via synth parameters.

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