Those wonderful moments of demystification

Do you ever struggle to understand how a particular musical moment, in piece you admire, actually ‘works’ from a compositional perspective? All too often - at least for artists I’m learning from - it’s not possible to refer to the score.

Through experimentation, I sometimes achieve a breakthrough of understanding. Or occasionally, the artist might reveal some critical fact in an interview. Very often though, the mystery remains unsolved.

This thread is for recording those wonderful ‘breakthrough’ moments, when we have closely studied a musical moment or a whole piece, then finally grasp something about the technique (broadly construed) that produced it.

Let me give an example. I’ve recently been collecting reference tracks for a new project, and in the process have been listening to Markus Floats, Photay, and JOYFULTALK among others. I became fascinated by Photay’s track ‘The Everyday Push’, especially the first couple of minutes, but couldn’t quite fathom what was going on (sampled? quantized? looped? sequenced? how was the slackness of that groove maintained?) My breakthrough came when I discovered that Photay had already released the Ableton Live set for this track. As is often the case - but not always! - the truth is simpler than I expected. I suppose the release of a public set short-circuited some useful detective work on my part, but I found it enormously helpful and the definitive insight let me absorb the lesson and move on.

Please add to the thread if you have experienced similar moments of demystification. I’ve framed the question in terms of understanding musical or compositional technique, but other sorts of musical demystification (around theory, process, motivation) are also welcome.


Two little breakthrough to report:

  1. This is obvious in retrospect, but I’ve discovered that the simple act of closing my eyes - while composing, mixing, or mastering - helps focus maximum attention on the act of listening. Blocking out all the attractive visual input around me (Ableton velocity curves, Morphagene UI) makes is easier to listen actively and critically.

  2. Recently, I have started to keep a composer’s notebook with blank pages on the left, musical staff on the right. It’s interesting what this minimal form of structure helps me to accomplish. Little scraps of all kinds (musical sketches, listening notes, new artist discoveries, to do lists) are recorded, revised, combined, ignored, mined over time.

Simple things, but both impactful in my work.


For Hesitation Marks they intentionally didn’t default to just syncing everything:


Continuing the NIN theme: Alessandro Cortini is consistently forthcoming & generous, sharing insights and demystifying his process.

There are dozens of examples, but for instance


Trent and Alessandro are treasures. But they are also exceptions to what I usually experience when listening to musician interviews. Too often an interview instead of exploring depth ends up removing depth. I dread interviews now. I’d say: avoid them if you can. If you don’t…

It turns out the leitmotif you noticed isn’t there, the author says the songs are random and aren’t connected. Or the clever self-citations are just the author not noticing being repetitive. Or the vague song you loved about the nature of insecurity is just a story from the guy’s childhood where his neighbor went to jail. Or the brilliant chord structure was just a mistake, or the band leader telling the pianist: I want to make a song like this other one you played me. Let’s make a song like this one.

In interviews also the hero gets demystified. And the person beneath might turn out not to be as interesting or cohesive as you’d grow to believe. I will avoid names here because that’s not the point but when you hear a songwriter say provocative things only to contradict himself by the end of that same sentence… let’s just say some magic is gone.

To avoid ending on such bitter tone, let me list things that help me when working on music:

  • recognize that music is pruning; out of the endless possible bad combinations, we are selecting the few that are pleasing to our senses
  • music instruments are different randomness engines that open different doors to the “adjacent possible”, or as people like to call them: “happy accidents”
  • be there when the happy accident happens, pay attention
  • happy accidents can happen to anyone but are much more likely to happen to people with skill
  • gain skill through conscious practice and experience
  • the same piece of music through a different instrument makes you perceive it differently, allowing for different happy accidents
  • transpose, change rhythm and timings, change which senses you use
  • looking at a graphical representation of sound can be illuminating

When stuck:

  • start with the familiar
  • find the thing that bothers you the most and just fix that one for now
  • create arbitrary limitations (of meter, of instrument choice, of duration, and so on)

And whatever you do, don’t read interviews.


This is a great topic!

Given most of my time is spent out side of music, the biggest moment of demystification i can relate to was really grasping Bayesian Inference during my undergrad. It was like wearing a set of prescription glasses for the first time. I get that same feeling sometimes in music, but I also don’t study it as deep as other topics I have before.

My most impactful musical related moment is also perhaps a relatively simple moment of demystification, that is, how to mix well. Things as simple as how to make space for a kick and bass, simple, right? Nothing overly complicated but the basic concepts of a cohesive mix totally changed the way I think about the collection of sounds.

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i agree this is a great topic of discussion! i’ve had a lot of small/gradual breakthroughs recently (i think i finally am starting to understand how to use compressors well lol). one thing i’m coming to terms with in my own writing is how important adding noise/ambience as a layer is to my texture. for a long time, especially in my electronic music, i would get so focused on “notes” and the more explicitly musical aspects of composition that i always overlooked adding ambient sounds to my music. luckily i’ve run into some songs recently that brought the concept into focus for me, like i was listening to the song “Say” by Cat Power, which could’ve been a lot more normal of a song but the inclusion of a rain and thunder in the background made it soooo much more powerful.


@rennerom I’ve had the same experience, over the past year. I was finally able to finally buy Izotope plugins while on sale over the holidays, and that helped a lot. To me, the ML features are much less interesting than the presets. Each Neutron preset is a kind of ‘thesis’ you can understand, analyze, learn from. For example, it’s useful to analyze how each separate preset for acoustic piano changes the sound of a high-quality sample. Doing that has improved my technical & listening skills at the same time.

@wblamkin I’ve been weaving field recordings, sometimes nearly inaudibly, into recent tracks. And I’ve heard other people say the same thing. If you open that Photay Live set I linked to in the first post, there’s a field recording from Crater Lake mixed in at -25dB. Or this highly audible example from a great album (Diamond Mine by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins):


wow yeah i love both of those! i’ll have to check out more of the that King Creosote and John Hopkins record, that was really moving