I’ve come to have a new respect for those musicians who say to “keep it simple” when it comes to compositions, melodies, and instruments in songs. Here’s why.
People cannot handle long songs. By that, I mean that they get bored (at least I do) reasonably quickly.
If a song is long or short, it has to be just repetitive enough to be familiar, but at the same time, it must have enough variation to keep it interesting. This is not a revelation but rather a well-known rule practiced by the masters of pop music. One such master is Max Martin whom I read about in “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” by Derek Thompson, that is a beautiful book on the entertainment industry including music, movies, and more. I highly recommend reading it if you are at all serious about making music, movies, or have a desire to know what makes a hit.
How long is too long? That varies, of course, but in general, a pop song is somewhere in the 3-minute range. Seven minutes and I believe you’ve lost the average listener. That is not to say that long songs are not good, as they can be perfectly suited for the composition at hand. Take for example ambient music. That music can go on for long periods and be extremely successful in that genre. It won’t make radio airplay at that length, but that genre generally doesn’t anyway.
Joel Zimmerman (deadmau5) in his Masterclass says that 7 minutes is the maximum for him. He makes electronic music similar to EDM but beyond EDM. That is kind of a guideline that I like and will follow.
A sound itself wouldn’t sound like anything if there weren’t silence interspersed within it. Think about it. There are intervals in any tone that give it its pitch.
“Music is the silence between the notes.” – Claude Debussy
Pulling back a bit and looking at a larger scale, there’s also spaces and gaps in any music that gives a song its melody. If all the notes were played run-on style, it could hardly be called a tune. But when time signatures and beats are added, it becomes something. This is the sprinkling of silent gaps where there is no sound being played.
We tend to think of the sounds being played as more critical than the silent portions. But I’ve come to realize that the gaps are where the expression of the music actually lies. Those pauses that the performer makes for dramatic effect are the drama-making moments of a song.
Just as a net is a collection of holes held together by string, so is a song a collection of silent moments held together by notes.
The gaps between the notes are also significant. I make this distinction from silence, but it is indeed a similar thing only in this case applied on a note-by-note basis.
I’ve been playing on pianos recently, and this gap treatment becomes critical. When a note lingers in time too long, it will run into the next. If the reverberation is too long, it smears over into the following note’s starting point. Sometimes this is desired, but to articulate each note, it is not.
I find I am “playing the tails” so-to-speak – the tails of the notes as their reverberations collapse. I wait for this collapse (silencing of the note) before playing the next note. When I adjust the reverb effect in my DAW, I find the melody changes entirely in expression. If I increase the reverb time, it smooths out, and if I decrease it, it becomes staccato.
So in each note played, it is critical for me to set the reverb first before playing. Or, as is usually the case, many iterations of reverb adjustment and re-playing the notes or adjusting their velocities to match the reverb.
Number of Instruments
I started out putting a lot of instruments into my DAW and getting them all playing at the same or various times throughout a song. This made my song sound like so many others, and I found it quite bland. Sure, there were a lot of things going on in it, but it just wasn’t exciting.
Then, I tried the same song with just one instrument – a piano for example. It sounded so much more “real.” It was a genuine expression at that point and exactly what I wanted to get across. It was what was in my head, and it was spilled out onto the instrument.
I think of it like an artist who has a lot of colored pencils let’s say. The inclination is to use all of these pencils in some way to make a really colorful picture. So maybe he does, and it is like a lot of other colored pencil types of images, but not really interesting or expressive. But then let’s say you give that same artist only one plain grey pencil. Now he will have to use it in a different way. Maybe he applies more or less pressure to make light and dark parts of the monochromatic image. Perhaps he cross-hatches to give texture instead of relying on variations in color that he does not have in this case. It forces him or her to get “out of the box” and make something with what they have at hand. This is the same in music. I find that if I limit myself to only one instrument or a handful at most, then I am far more creative in what I do with those instruments.
This, I believe, is why some artists sound really good on their first few releases – it is a time when they worked with what they had.
I find now that I am always subtracting from my songs. What I mean is that I get the thing to a state where I think it is done and then I’m like “well you really can’t hear this instrument, and it is muddying up the mix so let’s take it out.” Or some notes just seem superfluous and, voila, when I remove them it is a cleaner more polished tune. It’s the same thing with effects in my chains – if I can’t hear them or they aren’t doing anything notable then I take them out and my music becomes so much better.
In an interview with the members of Boards of Canada, I remember them saying that they were “always subtracting” in their music. Now I know what they were talking about.
It is said that making something complex is not the difficult thing – it’s simplification where genius lies.