This is a guest post by Zac Citron of www.zenchamusic.com. I recently hooked up with him and quickly realized we share a lot of similar views about music production. This post is about how to express yourself and discover your own sound. Check out his website for more.
YouTube user stefanhyltoft recently responded to one of my videos asking why I made certain compositional decisions.
Why did I use those chords — what was I thinking when I wrote that section. Etc.
I spent some time reflecting on it. While I do remember some of the specific reasons, they don’t underlie the fundamental principle that I was following.
This principle is so obvious. It is so apparent. And unfortunately, this causes people to gloss over it (both deliveree and deliverer).
What’s the tip?
There is no right way to produce
(and compose, and arrange, and everything ).
“Well Zac, of course. It’s art… but I still don’t know what to do in my 2nd verse!”
“Then you don’t really understand.”
I respond, sipping tea.
Let’s explore this a bit.
Music is your expression, right? It’s your personal artistic expression. That’s art.
This means that when you choose chords and melodies — basslines and harmonies — you’re doing so as self-expression. It’s your personal expression. Yours alone.
What’s another way to think of this? Opinions.
The statements you make in your music are your opinions. They are the way that you look at the world. A culmination of your perspectives, experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc.
When you try to figure out why someone made specific choices, they will have reasons. I have reasons for the ones I made.
Sometimes these reasons are legitimate. Other ones are just a result of play and feel. And each persons play and feel will be different, because we come to the table with different perspectives, experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc.
If you gave 3 people a 70 BPM downtempo drum beat and said “here, play with it and make something interesting,” you’d end up with 3 different results. One might do some hip-hop, another dubstep, another chill-out.
In Practice: How To Express Yourself
During my long time spent making progressive house music, I always thought there was some predetermined guidelines I was stuck in. Some sort of narrow world that if I ventured too far out my music wouldn’t be good enough. I felt restricted and often did not know what to do with my music. I had no idea what to do for the second section. Why change the chords if they’re working?
The issue here is that I wasn’t expressing my own opinions. They were being distorted and filtered through the “progressive house” filter.
I was trying to sound like deadmau5… except I’m not deadmau5. I’m a different person. And trying to sound like someone else is a supremely frustrating experience (although, yes, there are some people who do copy-cat music well… but funny enough, those people tend to have problems being original).
So how do we learn to express ourselves?
1). Accept that there’s no right way.
Take a second and meditate on that. Think about it realllllllly hard for 10 seconds.
It’s perfectly fine to ask people what choices they made (I explain it a bit in the video below) to give you perspective. By learning what others do and filtering it through your expression, you’ll come out with something unique and interesting. But this requires you don’t hammer away like a copy-cat.
Example: that super-quick pitch shift down that’s permeating every fucking song since Levels came out. I’ve yet to hear it done in an interesting and unique way that’s not a Levels rip-off (and I’m sure it was done before Levels).
2). Learn to play and vibe.
There’s a handful of things I did in my production process that really amped things up.
One of them was buying a midi keyboard.
I’m a guitarist by nature (born to shred), so I’ve been physically playing instruments all my life.
And then, when I began production, I inserted midi-notes into the Fruity Loops piano roll by hand. Talk about lifeless. My music was gridlocked (by all implications of the word).
Unfortunately, you can’t jam by clicking notes; You can’t vibe with it and discover something you really like.
Note that word — discover. Rarely is it a concsious decision like “I’ll be using a G minor 7th chord followed by a D dominant 9th hoopty shoopty blah blah.”
Let yourself play, vibe, and discover what you like and what works.
Warning: This often results in tasty and delicious musical composition.
3). Stop thinking.
YouTuber stefanhyltoft said in his message to me, “I am wondering what goes through this guys heads when he keeps adding parts.”
In other words, “what is he thinking?”
My answer: He’s not. When someone is vibing on their instrument, playing and jamming, there’s not much literal thinking involved. It’s a pretty instinctual and innate experience.
You ever find yourself at a party, totally locked in your head, stumbling on words and too nervous to talk to people?
Now, what happens when you drink a little bit, “loosen up,” and get “outside of your head?”
See what I mean? You’re social. You’re funny. You’re being yourself. You’re not afraid of what other people think. You’re not deliberating. You’re making decisions. You’re not stalling. You’re acting.
To clarify, you don’t need alcohol to do this. I know somebody is going to take it that way and start drinking heavily before producing. You’re an idiot.
This is simply an extension of point number 2. Playing and vibing is a non-thought based process.
The second part of this is a common held tip for authors — write now, edit later.
Jam. Vibe. Stop thinking and play. Put notes on your DAW. Write way too many parts. Go crazy. Don’t worry about getting it great now. Get it good enough.
Then go back and polish.
Except don’t. This leads me to my last point.
4). Abandon Perfect.
When doing anything art related, it’s hard to let things go when they’re “good enough”. We strive to make the perfect piece.
The perfect piece doesn’t exist. Never has. Never will.
Thinking that you have to make something perfect is the surest way of sucking at it and failing miserably.
You know why most guys are afraid to talk to a girl they find attractive? Because they “don’t know what to say,” as if you had to say the perfect 100 lines in order for her to like you.
What they’re saying is “I have to be perfect. I have to say the perfect things.”
What a joke. Girls aren’t dumb. People aren’t dumb, for that matter. There’s no script. Say hello. Nobody is perfect and they know this. Girls like a guy to be nervous, to stumble over his words a bit — it’s endearing. It’s human. It’s normal.
Vibe and play with the conversation. Discover it. Mess up. Stumble. It’s the same process as writing music.
Yea, how’s that for analogy.
5). Breathe and Smile.
It helps. Trust me.
Ultimately, you’re a different person. Stefanhyltoft is a different person. Speak your opinions. Give us your take. Don’t try to be someone else. You can’t do [insert artist] better than [same artist].
Be yourself, everyone else is taken — Oscar Wilde
Here’s something fun I want you to do
I want you to abandon any preconceived notions of how music should sound.
I want you to open up your DAW, and make the craziest track you’ve ever made.
The challenging part? Try to make it actually good, too. Don’t make it insane for insanities sake. Make it insane for creativities sake.
Let’s keep it simple. Do it at either 73, 92, or 124 BPM (random BPM hell yeah). Start with a drumbeat and vibe from there. Explore and experiment. Play and discover.
When you’re done, go ahead and post it in the comments below so myself and others can take a listen to your wacky, self-expressed self.
Note: Don’t get caught up in trying to sound entirely unique or completely original — that’s impossible and not the point. The point is to abandon any guidelines you normally follow and see what kind of music your inner dialogue wants to speak. The point of this is to let it speak.