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Beyond notes and rhythms

What do you think about when you write music? What are you trying to do?

In popular music it usually comes down to notes and rhythms. But there are other things to consider: timbre, articulation, register, density, dynamics. If we take these things into consideration when we write, our writing becomes deeper.



This comes down to awareness.

It doesn’t mean that you have to structure every last thing in a piece. But being aware of when it wants to get loud, where the timbre changes, how many instruments are playing, and what range the notes are in makes your connection to the piece deeper. It gives you more material to work with.

Just notice what you’re doing.



As a simple example, you may want to connect the first minute of the piece with the third minute by using the same timbre. First minute – distorted guitar; second minute – clean guitar; third minute – distorted guitar. This kind of thing forges connections in the mind of the listener.

And of course, this can be used in popular music as easily as in avant-garde music. Just connect verses to verses, choruses to choruses, or verses to choruses by considering things beyond notes and rhythms


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Inventing scales

There are so many scales. Many are useful. But at some point you’ll want sounds that those scales can’t give you. What do you do?

Invent your own. You can do this by coming up with a simple algorithm. For scales you use an interval sequence.


Common sequences

Most scales are made of consecutive major or minor seconds. For example, the major scale is maj2, maj2, min2, maj2, maj2, min2.

The minor pentatonic uses minor 3rds and major 2nds: min3, maj2, maj2, min3, maj2.

Here’s how to make your own.


Interval sequences

Simply make up an interval sequence.

Choose a starting note and two intervals.


Starting note: A.

Interval sequence: repeat maj2, min 3 until you return to the starting note.

Scale: A B D C# E F# A


Play around with that, and see if you like it.


Starting note: C.

Interval sequence: repeat min3, maj3 until you return to the starting note.


C Eb G Bb D F A C


These are repeating scales. Some interval sequences produce non-repeating scales. This means that they don’t repeatedly return to the starting note after a certain number of notes like the scales we’ve seen here.

Try inventing scales using three intervals. Then make a few with four intervals. Or five. Whatever you want. The point is to generate melody that you can’t find in regular scales.

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Rhythm and number

We tend to think about rhythm in terms of number. I’m thinking specifically of the way we break up beats – 1/8 note, 1/16 note, etc.. This can be useful when organizing material.

Think about music is as an unbroken, continuous sound. Then take this sound and break it into pieces in an organized way by imposing a repetitive number sequence on it.

A string of eighths notes can be thought of as our continuous sound.

stream of 1:8


Using the number two in a specific way – by placing a rest after every second eighth note – produces this:


broken 1:8



Alternating two and three gets this:


2 plus 3 on 1:8


Right away you can see how complex this can get. You can alternate any sequence of whole numbers or fractions. Of course the longer the sequence gets, the more difficult it becomes to remember it. This reduces clarity.


Alternating values

You can use this technique with alternating rhythmic values – eighth notes, sixteenths, triplets – and get much richer rhythmic profile. Here I’ve used the number pattern 2-4-1-3 (two eighths (rest), four sixteenths (rest), one triplet (rest), three eighths). Place a rest after the last eighth note, and then repeat the sequence.




It’s not really four sixteenths, as you can see, but it sounds like that. The point is to take an unbroken stream of notes of similar or varying values and break it up in a coherent way.



So you can use a sequence of randomly changing rhythmic values, and place order on it by using a repeating number pattern.

Experiment with the length of your patterns. Longer patterns work best when the rhythmic values aren’t changing much. Shorter patterns are good with rapidly changing values.

The idea, as always, is to find a balance between clarity and complexity.



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