Jump to content

Balancing Melody and Timbre in Electronic Music


Recommended Posts

So I have a track that I'm writing now where I can't seem to get the melody right. Then I started thinking there's just too much melody. Then I started thinking that a huge part electronic music, and sometimes the dominant part any more is the timbre of certain parts, or sonic events for lack of a better word.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone had specific philosophies they follow for balancing melody and timbre?

Any thoughts are appreciated.

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

imo the more complex the melodies are the harder it is to get them to work with a complex sound. Notice how pads are often the most sonically rich element in a track (not always), and just as often they're just a single (or very slowly shifting) note/harmonic. i'm not sure why this is, it just feels psychologically valid to me. maybe it's similar to how the more elements & variations you add to a rhythm, the more skill it requires to maintain a consistent sense of flow?

i do think when somone manages to pull off complex melody + complex sound design, it's *chef kissing fingers emoji* . VHS Head & OPN at their best pull this off very well. R+7 is basically a symphony of what at first seem to be completely-unrelated/random sounds (of course, to many listeners that album actually does just sound like a bunch of random sounds, based on the lengthy watmm thread dedicated to it)

i've noticed a trend in my own music over the last few years of increasingly simple melodies (sometimes songs will only have a single note) and increasingly complex rhythmic design. And when a good melody does come around it's usually the result of in-the-moment improvisation rather than conscious attempt at composition (which is how I tended to work 7 or 8 years ago)

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

don't worry, i won't derail this thread with my usual bullshit. it might be just me but i'm not sure what you mean exactly. could you give us an example? 

Link to post
Share on other sites
55 minutes ago, eassae said:

So I have a track that I'm writing now where I can't seem to get the melody right. Then I started thinking there's just too much melody. 

personally, i tweak the melodies (and/or chords/harmonies/whatever) to fit the timbre, and the timbre to fit the melodies (+ etc.). and the rest of the song's components to fit those things (or vice versa). sometimes a lots of notes is great, but you need to tweak the timbre/mix/other components/etc. to compensate for that waterfall of melodics happening. 

1 hour ago, eassae said:

sometimes the dominant part any more is the timbre of certain parts, or sonic events for lack of a better word.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone had specific philosophies they follow for balancing melody and timbre?

i think you're on the right track with your thinking, you may be just overthinking it. imo, always trust your ears and your guts...and if possible, save it and come back to it later, approach it with fresh ears and trust your instincts. without hearing specifics, it's hard to say much more really.

but xox's video is pretty relevant actually, sometimes there are just too many notes, even if you're Mozart.

9 minutes ago, Cryptowen said:

i've noticed a trend in my own music over the last few years of increasingly simple melodies (sometimes songs will only have a single note) and increasingly complex rhythmic design. 

it is often a trade off, yeah. but you can layer complexities, if you're careful. 

(to anyone, not at you specificaly Crypt) listen to some good Meshuggah or something. they can layer all sorta shit but that's because they're fucking masterful with exactly how it's being done. i'm sure there's plenty of examples of them or others doing similarly complex arrangements and failing miserably.

  • Like 5
Link to post
Share on other sites
29 minutes ago, auxien said:

listen to some good Meshuggah or something. they can layer all sorta shit but that's because they're fucking masterful with exactly how it's being done

i haven't listened to a lot of metal but this is one thing i've been consistently impressed by with the genre as a whole: how it oftens presents these dense, chaotic walls of sound that are actually quite compositionally tight once you start paying attention. Whereas in many popular electronic genres the tendency is to go in the opposite direction, towards musical structures which are more sparse & repetitive

  • Like 1
  • Thanks 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

i'm just speculating based on what i think you meant here, but maybe your problem has to do with arrangement (or orchestration or whatever it's called) and conflicting elements that play in the same register?

by that i mean assigning specific tasks to specific instruments or elements at specific times, and making sure the textures (by that i mean the combination of timbres at any given moment) are balanced in a way that guarantees the musical message is clear and impactful. 

is this relevant to your problem?

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Neither melody nor timbre is intrinsically more important, regardless of genre. It's entirely down to the individual piece. I'm mostly a sucker for melody when it comes to any type of music, but there are plenty of occasions (and, indeed, artists) where texture comes first, and an atmosphere I love can be created entirely by sound design alone. There are no hard and fast rules.

That said, if you feel it's the melody that's the issue, then change the melody. A huge number of Aphex fans will agree that Rhubarb is one of his best tracks, and it's basically five notes with some harmonies, repeated for seven minutes. So simplify, play around with it. Hell, delete the melody and start again from the same root, going in a different direction. As long as you keep backups of old versions along the way, it's good to experiment. If, at the end of it, you're still not satisfied, then go down the timbre route. I worked on a piece last year that I liked but didn't love, all based on FM synths. I eventually exported it as a MIDI file to send over for a collab piece because I wasn't totally happy, and in doing so I heard it just as a generic piano sound, and suddenly it all fell into place. I threw it on to a piano VST and it was a thousand times better.

So yeah, just follow your instinct. If you think the melody is the problem, change the melody. If it doesn't help, change the timbre. If that doesn't help, think outside the box and restructure the whole arrangement and structure of the track (Would the main melody work as a counter-melody coming in at the climax of the track rather than the main theme? Is it better suited being a background element to a more rhythm-oriented piece? Have you tried halving the speed of the melody to give it a different impact? Changing the key or the note spacing and lengths?)

I know this is basically just me saying "just experiment", but I think it's sometimes an important thing to read or hear. And, as mentioned upthread, if none of this works, close your DAW and come back to it in days / weeks / months time for a new perspective. Some of my best tracks have come from rearranging old failed pieces. 

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

some of my favorite parts of AE_LIVE are those segments near the middle where it's the almost-same note over and over with varying timbre

28:40

 

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

i forgot to mention that dynamics also play a huge role when it comes to sonic clarity. it's one problem if too many elements play in the same register at the same time, it's yet another if they all compete for loudness.

one thing you could do is bring out certain elements by making others quieter (the same way sidechain compression works). a good example of this is how pianists (good pianists), when they play chord progressions, will control the dynamics of each voice, that is to say of each melodic line, in order to bring out certain lines. and they generally achieve that by making other voices quieter. i saw lang lang demonstrate this to a young student during a master class. you can also apply this principle to any other aspect of music: for example, a great way to create dissonance is by contrast with consonance. 

but other than that, i guess it's safe to speculate that your problem has a lot to do with too many elements competing in the same register. which could be fixed in various ways, an obvious one being by removing a few things. less is more baby. 

also other than that, what toad said. at the end of the day, if you want to gain in clarity and impact, study the art of combining and organizing notes. 

i said i wouldn't bring my usual bullshit in this discussion and here we are. bad habits die hard.

Edited by brian trageskin
  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

If you think there's too much melody you're probably trying too hard to write one. You probably just need to take a break. When you least expect it, a better idea will pop into your head.

Then you can play around to find the right timbre for it, but if it is a really good melody you'll want people to notice it and this will inform your choices.

My own two cents is that melody is important in any type of music. Or at least that's how I like to work. Give the listener something to focus on and to remember and they will be so much more receptive to everything else you're doing.

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow! Thanks everyone for your thoughts. Lots of good advice and things to think about here. Need to sleep on it. Been up for 22 hours. Need to pass out now.

Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, brian trageskin said:

i saw lang lang demonstrate this to a young student during a master class.

This reminded me of this masterclass in which Lang Lang was a student and Barenboim was the bigger spoon. Not about production/composition but still ive leant a lot about strategy in composition, melody, tempo and accentuation:

also, Andras Schiff is a great teacher, and funny too

 

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

It's all about prioritizing ideas and creating perspectives IMO : the bolder a musical idea, the more room it'll need to breath and shine. Compeling ideas will stand out even more if the rest of the tune is simpler and serves a clear driving force.

As a listener, I admire opinionated artists who can set a firm focus on this or that part of a piece.

As a musician, I want and plan to explore identifying / picking one strong, compelling idea per track and to consequently use everything else at my disposal to serve that idea (that also includes creating contrast deliberately).

If you want something to sound big, have something else tiny to create perspective...
 

  • Like 3
  • Thanks 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)
15 hours ago, purlieu said:

That said, if you feel it's the melody that's the issue, then change the melody. A huge number of Aphex fans will agree that Rhubarb is one of his best tracks, and it's basically five notes with some harmonies, repeated for seven minutes. So simplify, play around with it. Hell, delete the melody and start again from the same root, going in a different direction. As long as you keep backups of old versions along the way, it's good to experiment. If, at the end of it, you're still not satisfied, then go down the timbre route. I worked on a piece last year that I liked but didn't love, all based on FM synths. I eventually exported it as a MIDI file to send over for a collab piece because I wasn't totally happy, and in doing so I heard it just as a generic piano sound, and suddenly it all fell into place. I threw it on to a piano VST and it was a thousand times better.

This makes perfect sense. It was basically my day yesterday. Rewrote the melody 3 times, saving each version. At the end of the day I just threw in a arpeggiated closed voice triad, with a few notes here and there to modify the harmony a bit, and then changed from the piano sound I was using to a synth, which sounded better than any of the other things I had tried. 

I think what I'm running into is a bit of a what do I do, where do I go from here, crisis. I've been making art in some form most of my life—music for around 16 or 17 years—so I'm familiar with the good days and the bad days. Yesterday for some reason I had one of those days, where I was working in my usual patterns, and was just like why am I doing things this way, should I try a different approach.

16 hours ago, brian trageskin said:

don't worry, i won't derail this thread with my usual bullshit. it might be just me but i'm not sure what you mean exactly. could you give us an example? 

sn_73.mp3 This is one iteration of what I was working on yesterday. I always start songs with 4 to 16 bars building up all the elements and doing sound design before I start arranging. Maybe that is part of the problem. I'm listening to everything at once. Eventually it gets to full and I have to mute tracks to continue working.

16 hours ago, Cryptowen said:

i haven't listened to a lot of metal but this is one thing i've been consistently impressed by with the genre as a whole: how it oftens presents these dense, chaotic walls of sound that are actually quite compositionally tight once you start paying attention. Whereas in many popular electronic genres the tendency is to go in the opposite direction, towards musical structures which are more sparse & repetitive

This is an interesting comparison. I listen to some metal, not a ton, but so far I've drifted toward that direction with my music making. I listen to more electronic, and really love the stuff where everything has it's own space and there is a lot of dimension. Iglooghost is a master of this IMO. I think I like him so much because even though there is that space for each element, his songs are still very intricate, and the sound design fantastic.

16 hours ago, auxien said:

i think you're on the right track with your thinking, you may be just overthinking it. imo, always trust your ears and your guts...and if possible, save it and come back to it later, approach it with fresh ears and trust your instincts. without hearing specifics, it's hard to say much more really.

but xox's video is pretty relevant actually, sometimes there are just too many notes, even if you're Mozart.

Yeah, maybe I am just overthinking it. Something I'm not accused of often:) Play to find your way.

13 hours ago, brian trageskin said:

one thing you could do is bring out certain elements by making others quieter (the same way sidechain compression works). a good example of this is how pianists (good pianists), when they play chord progressions, will control the dynamics of each voice, that is to say of each melodic line, in order to bring out certain lines. and they generally achieve that by making other voices quieter.

Great advice, I often don't get to dynamics till much later in the arranging process. Maybe I'm becoming more sensitive to it, so my current way to start writing(described above), isn't serving me.

12 hours ago, ArtificialDisco said:

If you think there's too much melody you're probably trying too hard to write one. You probably just need to take a break. When you least expect it, a better idea will pop into your head.

This also make perfect sense.

4 hours ago, Nil said:

As a musician, I want and plan to explore identifying / picking one strong, compelling idea per track and to consequently use everything else at my disposal to serve that idea (that also includes creating contrast deliberately).

Also makes perfect sense. I usually don't have a central focus in each track. I'll try this going forward and see how it serves me.

Edited by eassae
  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, eassae said:

Yesterday for some reason I had one of those days, where I was working in my usual patterns, and was just like why am I doing things this way, should I try a different approach.

Yeah, this is always a nasty path to go down, and I do it myself quite often when I'm unhappy with my music. A lot of the time there are other issues in my life, mental health stuff, etc. that are affecting the way I think about what I'm making, but I'll project it on to the music and start overthinking, wondering whether I should change my creative approach and so on. This never actually works, because it ends up feeling forced, and then I end up hating what I make, leaving me with a feeling of being stuck in a rut with no way out. I've successfully changed approach numerous times over the years, but only when I'm genuinely inspired, like the two years where I just really wanted to play guitars and pianos and made a load of ambient acoustic music. It was a totally natural, and gradual, change of sound and worked out well; when I've forced myself to do something different because I felt like I should be doing something different, it's always ended up not sounding like me, and thus I'm just uncomfortable with it.

In these situations, there's always the other possibility, and that is: the track's actually a bit shit. And learning to recognise that is very important, because we all make crap. And one bad track doesn't suddenly mean everything's gone wrong. It's totally fine to abandon a piece of music, either to come back to it later, or even for good. I have gigabytes of unreleased stuff (and I already release too much), and it's mostly not very good. I have to remind myself of this every time I'm working on a piece of music and not liking it. 

  • Thanks 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Well- this is just in some general relation to what’s been discussed in this thread but- with restrictions on melody and creative output and the whole “less is more” thing I disagree. I know that I am over ambitious when it comes to melody (probably not in a good way), and groups I play in tend to over do harmony shit in a “maximal” way, so maybe my views on this are skewed. I still look at art sometimes like throwing a bunch of shit at a ceiling fan and seeing what sticks to the walls.

My best work has been done sandwiched in between other stuff. Trying to write music everyday, and every time someone came over to my house, etc., but still trying to get the perfect track made. Most of the best tracks we made were done in one night. Retrospectively looking at old music that we’ve written, I personally see it as good thing that we made so much and threw caution to the wind. If we wrote 100-200 tracks a year (which we did between 2003-2009) and 10 percent were good, that’s pretty cool with me. But I think our “good” percentage was higher.

One of my best friends disagrees with me on this and looks at this more like “something is only worth doing if it’s the best” and I am confident in music that I consider my best. His view, in my mind, causes creative blocks. It doesn’t allow for creative growth, and it normally results in people working on a track for a long time and never finishing it or growing to hate it.

However- if I was working for someone else (film/advertising audio stuff/scoring) all that changes. Then I feel ok working on shit over and over again because there is almost always a deadline. 

This same concept I use for anything deemed “too much” if you know what I’m saying. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, Himelstein said:

Well- this is just in some general relation to what’s been discussed in this thread but- with restrictions on melody and creative output and the whole “less is more” thing I disagree. I know that I am over ambitious when it comes to melody (probably not in a good way), and groups I play in tend to over do harmony shit in a “maximal” way, so maybe my views on this are skewed. I still look at art sometimes like throwing a bunch of shit at a ceiling fan and seeing what sticks to the walls.

My best work has been done sandwiched in between other stuff. Trying to write music everyday, and every time someone came over to my house, etc., but still trying to get the perfect track made. Most of the best tracks we made were done in one night. Retrospectively looking at old music that we’ve written, I personally see it as good thing that we made so much and threw caution to the wind. If we wrote 100-200 tracks a year (which we did between 2003-2009) and 10 percent were good, that’s pretty cool with me. But I think our “good” percentage was higher.

One of my best friends disagrees with me on this and looks at this more like “something is only worth doing if it’s the best” and I am confident in music that I consider my best. His view, in my mind, causes creative blocks. It doesn’t allow for creative growth, and it normally results in people working on a track for a long time and never finishing it or growing to hate it.

However- if I was working for someone else (film/advertising audio stuff/scoring) all that changes. Then I feel ok working on shit over and over again because there is almost always a deadline. 

This same concept I use for anything deemed “too much” if you know what I’m saying. 

I like the ceiling fan analogy a lot.

I tend to be more in your friends camp by nature in terms of working, but I appreciate the other. I usually will only keep developing a track past 16 bars if it show promise to me, then I go full out. When people say they have hundreds of tracks that never see the light of day, I say I have hundreds of loops that never see the light of day. That said, more is more in terms of the final product, is my general M.O.

I've been in a super productive mode for a few months now, and I think part of my frustration is that I've been learning new stuff about writing and mixing and sound design, and I want to throw everything in at once and have everything work out just like it sounds in my head.

I know, it's a recipe for disappointment, and this isn't my first rodeo, but it's still hard not to fall into that trap sometimes.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, eassae said:

I like the ceiling fan analogy a lot.

I tend to be more in your friends camp by nature in terms of working, but I appreciate the other. I usually will only keep developing a track past 16 bars if it show promise to me, then I go full out. When people say they have hundreds of tracks that never see the light of day, I say I have hundreds of loops that never see the light of day. That said, more is more in terms of the final product, is my general M.O.

I've been in a super productive mode for a few months now, and I think part of my frustration is that I've been learning new stuff about writing and mixing and sound design, and I want to throw everything in at once and have everything work out just like it sounds in my head.

I know, it's a recipe for disappointment, and this isn't my first rodeo, but it's still hard not to fall into that trap sometimes.

Agreed. Part of my maximal logic is this kind of Isaac Asimov type “grasping it as a whole” concept. Seeing minimalism (both in style and creative output) as something I really love as much as any other concept in art. Most of my favorite bands don’t release a shit load. And while I love Mr. Bungle, I also like plastikman. Honestly I want to make stuff like both of them! Any conflicting ideas are what make up part of your musical style and character.

Once my wife and I were listening to some interview on a podcast or npr with John Waters, and he was describing how sometimes it made him depressed when he woke up in the the morning with so many ideas and things he wanted to make. Like creativity was exploding out of his brain and he knew he wouldn’t be able to do half of what he wanted to.

As for learning new stuff- my most recent thing in the past couple years has been eurorack. I think it was out of boredom (with electronic music) It’s not at all the same as making music tho- it’s more like learning music theory tidbits, or the techniques for a new instrument. I started playing bass and banjo in my late 20s, also because I was getting bored with music. So I think I only really like learning if I have used up whatever creative power I have stored, or something, haha

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
1 minute ago, Himelstein said:

As for learning new stuff- my most recent thing in the past couple years has been eurorack. 

I was thinking about getting into eurorack stuff as well. I had a friend that said it was the financial equivalent of a minor cocaine habit. When my wife saw me perusing modules on Sweetwater she just rolled her eyes:)

  • Haha 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
21 hours ago, Cryptowen said:

Notice how pads are often the most sonically rich element in a track (not always), and just as often they're just a single (or very slowly shifting) note/harmonic. i'm not sure why this is, it just feels psychologically valid to me. maybe it's similar to how the more elements & variations you add to a rhythm, the more skill it requires to maintain a consistent sense of flow?

 

I'm a theory newb, so forgive me if I'm talking nonsense, but I think this has to do with overtones as well. You probably know this, but it's nice to point out: The reverb and other fx create extra overtones, and as such a single note sounds pretty rich already. Basically because you hear some kind of harmony / other (consonant) notes.

I think I read somewhere on Wikipedia that there are rumours/theories that the singers in gregorian chant music listened to the overtones caused by the combination of the notes they were singing and the reverb in the cathedral, and that they based they're next notes/melody on that. 

^^Which is indeed a great way to add harmonics to your melodies.

 

Great thread btw!

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

I notice that the quicker I put a track together, it usually ends up a bit messy melodically. It starts to sound like melodies being stacked on top of each other rather than multiple timbres working in unison for the betterment of the whole. During the production process, the producer is the most hyper aware of the track, so what may look like an empty project file may sound fine to someone who wasn't actually there to see it. But, whenever there's a little check mark to be filled in so to speak, I feel the need to fill it even if later, I realize it to be a detriment to the atmosphere of the track. When you listen to the same piece of audio over and over again ad nauseum, you're going to want to mix it up just for the sake of sanity in most cases - but this can easily end in a track that's far too short with too many transitions. 

 

Recently whenever I've started really digging a track, I'll shut it off for a few hours and get my mind off of it. I'll come back to the track refreshed, and hopefully will have kind of forgotten what it sounded like at that point. I've found I've been a lot less impulsive when it comes to shoehorning in as much as possible.

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, mngosx said:

Recently whenever I've started really digging a track, I'll shut it off for a few hours and get my mind off of it. I'll come back to the track refreshed, and hopefully will have kind of forgotten what it sounded like at that point. I've found I've been a lot less impulsive when it comes to shoehorning in as much as possible.

I've been doing the same thing.  For me, making a track is a little like walking around in a zoo.  If you spend too much time in it, the smell disappears.  This works both ways, though, so I guess it's also like working in a....good smell factory.  At least I'm not a writer. 

  • Like 1
  • Haha 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...