Overcoming “loopitis”

It seems that many computer music composers have a problem with developing songs[1]. There is a tendency to create elaborate multilayered loops of two or four or eight bars, but a resistence to being able to put together a whole song.

At risk of oversimplification, this is caused by vertical thinking, where a section of music is developed by adding additional layers (and also getting lost in mixing – balancing and processing). What is needed is horizontal thinking – where a section of music is developed by adding and developing sections.[2]

There are a number of ways of going about this, but all of them revolve around thinking horizontally – working with sections that contrast and develop, rather than simply stacking sounds onto a single section. The way the sections of a song are organised is called structure or form. Looking at it this way, there are really two ways to approach this:

  1. Know your structure before you fill it. A good example of this is if you know you want to do something roughly mainstream: verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. You know when you start that you’ll need three sections (verse, chorus, bridge) and that one section (verse) will need two variations (verse1 and verse2). You can develop these sections independently in your sequencer. Once you’ve got them developed to a certain level (maybe drums, bass and main supporting parts) you can arrange them into place by moving and copying the sections. Once the sections are in place you can then make the transitions work and apply the finishing touches. There are other structures and forms you can try using – you can use this approach even if you don’t want to compose mainstream music! I’ll discuss some structures in future blog posts.
  2. See where the music takes you. Using this approach you would develop several sections independently and think about how they fit together later in the composition process. You might use them in a standard mainstream structure (with verses and choruses, as above), or you might do something more complex, or more abstract. This is a more dangerous approach because it’s easier to come up with an incoherent song – one that sounds like a “bunch of stuff”. You’ll recognise this because the sound will sound sprawling, and not feel like it’s going anywhere or making sense. It’s also easy to fall into this approach as a result of being too lazy (or too self-righteous) to commit to a structure early on.

Whichever approach you take, you have to force yourself to break out of the two or four or eight bar loop. You have to start thinking in sections, start thinking about organising these sections to form a song.

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can then start thinking about suspense, excitement, contrast, expectation, etc…

-Kim.

[1] For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll use the term ‘song’ as an umbrella term for songs, tracks, works, pieces, etc. This is regardless of whether it has a melody, lyrics, or lead vocal.

[2] I’ve got some more detailed ideas about the causes of this, but they’re beyond the scope of this blog post.

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    • MOK
    • May 8th, 2009

    Solid words, Kim. Your outline here is well conceptualized and described, and even pretty succinct for a topic as abstract as structure and form… It took me quite a while to realize these concepts, and it was a very frustrating stretch.
    Hopefully this post will reach the eyes of other people who managed to get trapped, as I had.

    Bravo, and keep it coming with these composition notes. You’ve done a great job on the more technical-oriented concepts too!

  1. Pretty much everything I do starts with these 2/4/8 bars of multilayered loops. Many will never become more than that, some will flesh out to complete songs almost instantly, while others slumber on my harddrive for months/years before revisit them and turn them into complete tracks, or use them as part of new stuff.

    Works for me.

  2. Firstly, I’ll say that looping is a fundamental part of developing as a producer. It allows the producer to explore different combinations of notes and listen to how they relate to the other elements in the song. I think your observation is correct in that many producers become stuck there, not having enough familiarity or discipline to push past that point, but, being that most songs, from classical to Jazz to RnB to et al, have some form of Leit Motif which repeats throughout, be it at a macro level as in 2 to 8 bars, or otherwise, looping is part of the essential building blocks it takes to become a composer.

    Your criticism seems to be well aimed at what I call, when I am critiquing a composition, a lack of progression. I think a lot of producer’s I have heard are guilty of what you call vertical thinking which basically translates into building a pattern in which progression is “simulated” by un-muting existing tracks.

    Tracks which are successful, however, use evolution in each individual track in order to obtain progression. A loop, which started as a simple hi-hat cadence with one pedal-hat followed by three closed-hats on each quarter notes for four measures, will therefore evolve in to more contrapuntal variations as the song progresses.

    While it’s fine, however, to adhere to a traditional Verse, Bridge, Chorus MO, many styles of music from Early Jazz (circa D. Ellington – M. Davis + their contemporaries and acolytes) to Classical, ranging up to contemporary electronic dance music (EDM often rightfully associated with loopitus) do not consistently follow those structures.

    The traditional Verse, Bridge, Chorus progression is used in EDM for songs with vocals, especially when remixing a song composed in that format, but, more often than not, in the interest of creating and maintaining a danceable groove, songs take on a diagonal attack (so far as the relational equivalent of your axis), in terms of starting with a relatively low density pattern and moving towards one or more peaks in intensity. This is also done out of practicality, since DJ’s are essentially to be able to cross-fade between two different songs. While it’s possible to create some interesting combinations by cross-fading at high-density, such an approach is a peak-time rarity.

    For my own compositions, for instance, I will stagger my loops so that – just for hypothesis sake – I might start with an eight bar loop of kick drums with a two bar loop of hi-hats accompanying it. When I progress the kick drums, however, the hi-hats will stay the same, initially, and then change as I add more parts. Conversely, I might just let the hi-hats play for four bars, use a different loop for the next four, in order to build to a change in my kick pattern.

    Sometimes I utilize call-and-response so that when one part comes in, other parts make changes in “response” in order to accommodate that part in the sonic architecture of the song. I like using runs for leading parts which almost invariably just improvisationally explore the architecture of a song. If they follow a pattern it is always a pattern in evolution and not simply unmuting and remuting individual tracks to synthesize progression.

    In this regard, I tend to be the “Type 2” composer in your essay.

  3. Thanks for that detailed response, Eddie! I agree with you that simply muting and unmuting parts is a very basic way to build the contour of the song. Indeed, each part – whether it be a background percussion pattern or a lead melody – has some expressive potential. Why keep each part static when you can support the contour of the song by using variation?

    -Kim.

  4. Just a quick note – I often use pop song structure[1] as an example because it’s easily recognisable and understandable. The principals I write about, however, apply to any structure or genre. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing pop songs, classical sonatas, long evolving dance music, or even experimental ambient noise. The general approach is the important part. The specifics are up to you.

    -Kim.

    [1] Roughly: intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-outro.

    • Dangerrat
    • June 7th, 2010

    How’s your workflow, when you create the different sections in your daw? Do you make them in the same project window and spread them horizontally or do you start different projects and put them together afterwards?

  5. @Dangerrat
    I work on the different sections of a song all in the one project file. It helps keep things together and maintain a consistent instrumentation. Working on a single song across multiple project files would be far too cumbersome when it comes time to stitch everything together.

    -Kim.

    • At.
    • March 17th, 2011

    Treasure post!
    And that’s true for also Eddie’s one.
    Thanks and keep them coming!

  6. @At.
    Cheers! There’s plenty more coming in the future, no worries about that!

    -Kim.

    • Anton
    • May 23rd, 2011

    Hi! Not so long ago I learned that most part of my demos looks like typical loopitis.
    After reading this post I thought a lot.
    Recently I watched video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdiPSv8JHZw&feature=related and find out that demos (actually 4 or 8 bar loops) isn’t problem, problem is that I don’t see progression of the track.
    And thanks for blog, I found a lot interesting here!

  7. @Anton
    Looks like a funny video – wish I could understand what they’re saying!

    -Kim.

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