How to Express Yourself

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.

how to express yourselfYouTube 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!”

You say.

“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.

No, really.

Accept it.

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.

Zencha MusicZac Citron aka Zencha is the author of www.zenchamusic.com, a music production site that explores “beyond the technical” — mindset, workflow, arrangement, marketing, and more. He also drinks way too much tea.

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  • Rhys

    Great article as usual. Where do you draw the line between being original and fitting somewhat loosely into a genre. I know this doesn’t really matter at the end of the day but part of me wants to create something that myself and other people can at least relate too.

    I’m currently working on a remix and it so happens that this particular sound I’m using has been sitting in the bottom of my preset collection for months but its a sound I made based on a lead bass sound from another artist (if I hear a sound I like to emulate it as a challenge).

    Now some might say this is unoriginal or whatever I don’t really care but the point is, due to this sound I may have implemented it in a way that was somewhat lead by the context I’m used to hearing it in I.E the original track I “stole” it from.

    How much are we lead by others music? Maybe freeing ourself completely isn’t as easy as we think. Even when we think we are being completely original we are bound to take influence from another artist or the genre we are working in.

    This is the bit I struggle with….

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      I have a couple thoughts on this.

      First, compare music to a recipe.

      At the end of the day, listeners don’t care if you used a similar sounding synth (ingredient) if your entire song (recipe) ends up being original and unique.

      The second point is that it is literally impossible to “free” yourself from the influence of others. That’s not how our brains work — that’s not what creativity is.

      Creativity is building an interesting recipe based on your individual tastes, and these tastes are a result of your influences (from everything including food and music).

      My advice? Stop struggling. If you end up copying something closely, so be it. If that’s truly how you wanted it to sound then rock it man.

      Nobody is going to call you out on it.

      Nobody is going to shut off your tune because it sounds like something else they like.

      In fact, they’re more likely to listen to it if it’s similar to something they like!

      • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

        I think that is great advice.

        Just try to learn to not worry about it. Just like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets.

        When I was younger I used to practice by trying to copy different artists styles on purpose. Just take something I like as a starting point and try to make something similar. Just to see if I could, and to learn new techniques.

        It was interesting to find out that nearly every time these copycat-tunes eventually took a course of their own, and started to sound like my own. I would have to push myself really hard in order to not have that happen.

  • Nate

    I was just reading some interviews with Richard D James and he was talking about filling in the gaps that other music doesn’t fill. I think that kind of fits with what you’re saying about letting go. I also have wrestled with genres and where I fit and what’s correct. I am beginning to understand that I don’t “fit” anywhere but I’m just myself and I love creating music. Dave Grohl’s keynote at SXSW really made that clear to me. I think its good to go out and do things people haven’t heard or won’t get or like. Most people aren’t really THAT into music and just want to hear things with lyrics so they can be told how to feel. I don’t mean that in a bitter unsuccessful way, I think its true, and I have no problem being thought of as a screwball or weird because I don’t have lyrics. I grew up on a healthy diet of free jazz, punk, and aphex twin, I pretty much have to accept that anything I create is going to be out there. The upside of this is that I get amazing kicks out of things that is very personal and all my own.

    Thanks for reminding me of this, I need to be reminded of it often. Living where I live the tendency is to be desperate and try to “win” or be popular anyway that you can.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Yeah, agreed – I’ve thought about that a lot too.

      Obviously different people also do music for different reasons, and that’s perfectly fine.

      For me it’s always been about exploring new things. The idea of making new kinds of music that has never been heard before is what drives me.

      Sounds like you have things figured out Nate, just keep on going and remember to not worry about it too much either.

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      There’s nothing wrong with being the screwball.

      In fact, there’s this really insane screwball with a weird haircut blowing up. Heard of Skrillex?

      Weird wins! Don’t follow the crowd :).

  • https://soundcloud.com/maecenas Jacob wagner

    https://soundcloud.com/maecenas/redchip

    HERE’S MY WEIRD SHIT. ENJOY.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Nice one Jacob, thanks for contributing!

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      Hah this is great. The melody is so rhythmically happy and excited but the actual notes you chose are dark and menacing. Dig it! Thanks for posting :).

  • https://soundcloud.com/tonnyxofficial Max

    I was about to post a question to a forum on how I should learn to finish my tracks and other similar questions. I saw this article first and it answered my question pretty clearly. Great stuff.

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      Awesome, glad you got something from it!

  • James

    I am always trying to make that perfect song. Need to let go. I have learnt that you just gotta get the keys in place so that everything fits together then edit the sounds later.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      I feel ya. Whenever perfectionism strikes… Just think there is no such thing as perfect. Really, how could there be? Good is good enough.

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      Definitely agree. Editing after the creative juices have run out is invaluable. Good advice.

  • https://soundcloud.com/olivier-3 Evan

    Took the challenge.
    https://soundcloud.com/olivier-3/title
    Any feedback at all would greatly appreciated. Inspiring article too.

    • http://www.zenchamusic.com zencha

      Love the minimal vibe. Nice job!

  • will

    Amazing article, really inspiring
    Thanks man

  • jreads

    this is the best post on making music ive ever read. kept it 100 and left the music topic to show that sometimes you have to take care of your noggin to better yourself and production, tight work :)

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Glad to hear!