I’m my most productive when I find a theme, goal or larger scale concept. This concept might be a principle by which you work as a musician, a theme for an album, a goal for a track etc. These elements provide me with a framework around which to build. This stands in contrast to making a series of things I like, then trying to figure out how they all come together into a coherent whole.
The second step for me is planning. This often means filling a whiteboard with thoughts related to my chosen concept. These thoughts might be specifically musical but often they aren’t. They are word associations, short thoughts, synonyms, antonyms, little sketches and anything else.
Often this leads to a third step which is also planning: curating this list of thoughts into something more specific. Here is where I try and make something that could be described as art. To me art is about intent; a piece of art is made with the intent of eliciting a certain thought, or feeling in the consumer. The more specific I can be about what I’m trying to convey, the easier it’ll be going forward. In the best case I can write a sentence which represents my artistic intent, e.g I want the listener to feel a sense of dread which is slowly replaced by optimizm reflecting the experience of 2020, and the early deployment of Corona virus vaccine. This ‘tag line’ sentence is joined by several key (clarified) bullet point items from the prior list.
The fourth step is the first one that really pertains to music (note this might have been at the granularity of a multi albums, an album, an EP, or just one track). I try and imagine and define a structure that I feel best conveys my main artistic goal. The main tag line becomes a touch stone I use to test ideas. I dig back through my “thought heirachy” to try and find inspiration. I try and describe the sound, mood and purpose of each part (be that parts playing together or section). I might draw diagrams, make tables, write bullet points but in the end I aim to write down enough detail for me to finish what I’m working on. I also try and indicate certain elements that are key to the concept (usually by circling them); This helps when there are compromises to make. I try and also choose “number 1” among the concepts to keep in strongest focus. This might include things like key, time signature, mode, tempo etc but often not.
At this stage I usually have enough clarity to start to imagine what the parts sound like: translating emotive descriptions into technical ones. I try and imagine what the parts might sound like and how that would be realised. I might make decide on an instrument, try and write a chord progression of Melody, make sound design notes etc. This is done without getting my hands on the final instrument (I test melodic and harmonic ideas on the piano usually) or whatever source material. In the best case the output I have at this stage would be enough for another musician to make my piece of music. Not specific enough for it to sound like I imagine but at least enough that they’d feel like they could take a stab at it.
At this stage I’m finally ready to start working on the material that will end up in the finished work. This might be taking samples, recording melodies, designing sounds, patching the modular, breadboarding a circuit or whatever else I had in mind; the key point is that I already have (to a greater or lesser extent) the sounds and movements I want in many head. At this point, then, I could say I was trying to implement my design. For each element I can compare to me planning material. In the best case I start with what I consider the most important element so I can use it as musical context around which to build. Obviously I allow myself artistic license and deviate/allow inspiration to shape things, but I try and make sure it works towards my one sentence summary. On the relatively infrequent occasion that I hit on something I like that I’m not going to use I make a note for myself to try and develop it; I occasionally record the part to refer back to, but my expectation is never to use that material in another project, just to use it to drive another thought process.
So why does this work? I think it works because I front load the process with the hard decisions. In a sense I leave myself with the fun part when I get to actually recording. This stands in contrast to making a lot of material which I then have to craft a story around. I find I end up with a pile of things I like but an onerous job in trying to stitch it all together into something coherent. The result is that I can compare each element to my concept and know if it aligns; specifically this allows me to know when something I’m doing doesn’t work in which case I remove it (pull the patch, init the preset, delete the sample).
How does this apply to other people? First of all note that I didn’t mention genre at all: is about what you want to say and your musical voice in saying it. Why would you take such a methodical approach to an artistic endeavour? I guess it works because it’s easy to lose focus when you get the feeling the fun part is over. You’ve hit on a core idea but you aren’t happy with anything else, or you have a peripheral part the end up trying to make a central element fit. When music is meant to fun, and you do the fun part first it can be hard to feel motivated to finish things up. You are almost always the most energetic when you first hit on a concept. I try and capitalise on that energy by doing the hard part first. That’s to say you know your focus will decline so you make sure the parts that need that focus are already done.
Anyway, this is a fairly specific story about how I work and approach things, but I hope it resonates with some people. I rarely set deadlines for these things but I do like to get things done quickly. For me, planning helps me do that.