On the Agile Nature of Music Composition – Part One

When I’m not working as a Scrum Master, and when I’m not doing my dad duties, or decorating my house, or the myriad other things life throws at us all, I try my best to write music. How I go about doing this warrants a couple of posts in which I’ll share my methods and maybe you’ll end up understanding why I think there’s an essence of agility to music composition. I’m also delivering a presentation at the Brighton Lean and Agile Group where I’ll be attempting to demonstrate, live, how I go about composing a track.

Part One: Something From Nothing

cassette-tapeElectronic music has been a passion of mine since the early 80s; aged 11, my teacher thrust a cassette tape into my hand and said, “Listen to this!” – it was a recording of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene and Magnetic Fields albums – and it blew my mind. It sounded like the sounds of the Universe. Of course, back in the 80s synthesisers and sequencers and drum machines were not only prohibitively expensive (particularly for an 11 year old) but large and clunky. I could only dream of being able to create the stuff I was listening to on vinyl and on the radio..

Fast forward a few decades and making music has become something far more accessible to the masses. Of course, one needs the determination and time to navigate round the multitude of software synths, DAWs (digital audio workstations), drum machines, sequencers, effects, samplers, loop and sample libraries. But that said, music composition is now a pastime that anyone has access to. I even know artists that have released commercially successful albums created entirely on their iPhones!

Mixer view from a Digital Audio Workstation or DAW (in this case, Apple’s Logic Pro X)

However, all of this technology means diddly squat if you’re lacking creativity.

Creativity Defined

Wikipedia has an entry for creativity saying it can be defined as, “the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile.” It goes on to talk about some of the empirical studies into creativity and how it may arise in the mind. I’m truly fascinated by all of this, but on an everyday level, I am more taken aback by the apparent ability of the mind to create something from nothing.

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties” – Erich Fromm

Is Composition Agile?

Being an agility practioner, it dawned on me last year that the process I go through while writing a track seems to reflect many things that are spoken about in agile software development and the greater agile community. But before I try to answer the question, “Is it agile?”, let me share with you how I start attempting to write a piece of music.

I Don’t Know What I Want

When I sit down at my Mac of an evening, I’m normally in the mood for creating something. But, I don’t know what. I have a rough idea of tempo, or sometimes genre (such as ambient electronica, a remix, banging techno or just a noise-fest), but that’s it. Unlike other more traditional composers, I don’t have a tune in my head. Nada. And this is where the intrigue starts.

It Begins With A Sound

Some composers have a melody in their minds before they sit down and start writing. They may find themselves whistling a tune, or humming a chorus and have a eureka moment, immediately putting their ideas down on paper if they can read and write music, or audio recorder or other tool. Sadly, I’m not one of these gifted people. When it comes to a new piece of music, my mind is a blank canvas. For me, a new composition emerges from a sound.

A Wave!
An audio wave

Sitting in a folder on my Mac are gigabytes of audio samples. Some are from purchased libraries, others are freebies given away on the cover of magazines, some are my own recordings taken ‘in the field’ so to speak. Their source is irrelevant. What’s important is their potential to be distorted, mangled, reversed, looped and chopped and therefore turned into something which barely resembles their original form. Like software developers, music producers have a seemingly never-ending choice of tools at their whim. And like developers, we all have our own favourites and preferences. I use Apple’s Logic Pro X; a pro-grade DAW used in bedrooms and professional studios across the world. But the tools aren’t important for this story. I take a piece of audio and within an hour, I’ve put it through an LFO-driven low-pass filter, routed it to a stereo delay effect, taken the signal and applied a little bit of plate reverb, then a bit-crusher, a channel EQ and finally a smattering of compression.

Another source may be a synthesizer loaded into Logic. Almost every synth works on the basis that you have an oscillator, a filter and an amplifier. With just these three basic building blocks, I can create a sound (or ‘patch’ because in the old days synths literally had patch cables that allowed you to route the signal output by one oscillator into the input of another) that is truly unique.

The end result of this experiment is normally a sound with a rhythmic aspect to it. This provides me with the backbone of whatever comes next. Listen to the Before and After sounds, below, for an example of how I took a sample from NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, and turned it into something ever-so-slightly more musical.


In my next post: Happy accidents and serendipity..

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