Composing music has always been somewhat intimidating for me, or at least the thought of composing for an audience has been. The intimidation is less than it used to be, but I can still fall victim to idealizations about what a composer should do or be. I have a couple tips for fellow composers (and other creative people) that help me go from blank file to full track. Before the tips, though, I need to clear up a misconception.
The Misconception about Inspiration
I believe one of the biggest misconceptions about composing is that every composer has a melody playing in their head — an inspiration — that they simply transcribe to the medium, much like an artist would translate an image from their mind to paper. I’m sure there are artists and musicians who do this (and more power to those that do), but for me it is quite the opposite.
It’s often hard to tell from a finished product exactly how the artist got there. Some of my favorite musicians are those who make me wonder how exactly they achieved a certain sound or how they arrived at a certain melody or rhythm. This sense of awe, which contributes to my love for music, also contributes to a feeling that because I don’t know how it was done, I can’t get there. However, this feeling has also led me to work to find out how I could possibly get there, and it continually drives me to keep learning more. That is another kind of inspiration, that which fuels the need to create. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat listening to an Aphex Twin or Flying Lotus track, only to be struck with a burning desire to go tweak settings in Ableton (my preferred audio software) and plink around on the keyboard — that is, they gave me the inspiration to experiment.
Tip 1: It’s Okay to Be Influenced.
This brings me to my first tip: Don’t be afraid to be influenced. Every artist has influences; some are more obvious than others, but they’re always there. For example, if I’m writing music for a town level in a Japanese role playing game (JRPG), I will find and listen to town music from other games, sometimes even for a day or so, letting it play in the background while I do other things. Doing so gives me a feeling for what a player expects when rolling into a quaint little JRPG town, all before I even sit down at the keyboard to play.
Tip 2: Drop the Worries and Play More!
The next step, which gets at the heart of the issue, is just to relax and play. No seriously, re-freaking-lax. I have always felt creating music was a form of meditation — I literally zone out to the point where the only things in the world are me and the keys. Time, deadlines, and stress about relationships all get left behind me. The repetition of the beat is often so calming that I start nodding off in the middle of playing! This is not a bad thing in my eyes; in fact, quite the opposite.
One of my favorite artists, Salvador Dali, had a somewhat famous technique where he would slouch in a chair holding a key in his hand and a dish right below, and as soon as he fell asleep the key would drop, waking him, and he would get right back to painting. It is in this between-sleep-and-awake state that I feel I am at my most creative.
Tip 3: Share Your Work Early and Take Feedback.
Share your work early and often, and try to view it with cold pragmatism when you share it. Then use the feedback you receive! This tip goes along with one of the pillars of game development, which is to never let what you’re working on become your baby. Never spend so much time and energy on something where you think it’s perfect before you “ask for feedback” while expecting nothing but praise. If you’re part of a team, that’s one of the worst things you can do.
Personally, I never want someone to feel like they can’t tell me something about my game music, especially when it’s part of a team effort, because at that point my pride will have gotten in the way of making the best possible project. I also often get what I call “ear fatigue” when I’ve been listening to the same track for hours and I’m not even sure whether it’s good or bad anymore. That’s why I crave feedback, because sometimes I don’t even know whether a track is good or bad until I’ve shared it.
When the feedback comes, welcome it and incorporate as much of it as you can into your work. The end result will be better-sounding game music, and the process will help you improve as an artist.
Tip 4: Remember That Inspiration is NOT the Be-All-End-All!
Experimentation has always been paramount to my creative process, perhaps the most important part of all. There might be one single time that I’ve transcribed a tune from my head… and I can tell you with confidence it sits in a dark corner of my Ableton folder because I ended up disliking it after all. My best work has always come from just playing around, often being half asleep, and then jolting awake with the thought, “oh snap, this sounds good! Now time to build on this idea.”
So if you’re feeling like writing music might not be your cup of tea because you aren’t already humming the next Beethoven’s 9th symphony in perfect pitch, just remember that most of us can’t either (although that would be rad).
Max Alley is an Audio Engineer for BitLoft and is hard at work experimenting to create new music pieces for The Crystal Core. To find out more about BitLoft multimedia services, Contact Us!