Composing is not what you think it is

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Let me talk a little while about my take on the reason we compose music.

Why compose?

Composing music is something that people have used throughout all of history to communicate.

What are we communicating?

It’s emotions.
Its feelings.
Its ideas without words.

Words can be very clunky and cumbersome to get our ideas around, but with music we can express feelings and emotions freely, completely bypassing the frontal cortex of our minds and going directly to the heart.
This is a privilege that we have been given and something that is so often missed.

Why is it missed?

Let me fill you in …

We are in a world of data and we absolutely love gathering as much information as we can get our hands on. It doesn’t matter what the information is we just love getting it. As a culture, we’re addicted to information collection. We’ve lost the art of combining this information to emotions, so much so that emotion has become a real mystery to us, and one that we need counsellors and psychologists to help us work out. Our obsession with information and disconnection with emotions has resulted in massive misunderstanding of how our minds work and has caused huge numbers of mental disorders, depression and suicides globally.

Here’s the thing;

Information without emotion is simply    data.
Of course, conversely, emotions without information are just feelings.

Let me give you a bit of neuroscience for a minute


Patience here. I am going somewhere musical with this:

We have two sections in our brain to deal with information (or thoughts) and emotions (or feelings) separately, the hippocampus and the amygdala. Every fact and every thought that goes into our head goes through the hippocampus and down into the archives via the amygdala. As a thought goes through the amygdala, it has a specific emotion attached to it, a bit like a label, and then it drops down into the depths of our memory. Later, when we recall this thought it comes up through the amygdala again and into the hippocampus where we can consciously think about it, but as it journeys through the amygdala again the emotion label that was originally attached to it is removed and either reinforced or changed depending on whether we decide to consciously change the way we feel about that thought or not. Then a new label is attached to that thought which reflects either that reinforcement or change of feeling.

We constantly have our feelings attached to our thoughts through this process all day every day of our lives.

For every thought, there is a feeling. No exceptions.

Look up Dr Caroline Leaf, at a neuroscientist with amazing insight into how our mind works. She’ll explain this better for you.

Why is it so important that we attach emotions to thoughts?

The answer is simply … meaning.

Music composing gives meaning

Thoughts without emotions are simply data. Emotions without thoughts are simply feelings. But when you combine the two you have a very powerful combination that creates meaning in our life.

As composers, we can use this great collaboration of thoughts and feelings to freely communicate directly to the heart of our listeners.
Sure, we can recognise the different instruments such as French horn or the strings or crazy screaming synth but that is simply the means to and end. When we compose music effectively those things can be easily ignored. They become irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the feeling that the music expresses.


Music is creation!

When we sit down and write a piece of music we’re participating in one of the most incredible forms of expression possible. We create.
This is not to be taken lightly.

The earth is so old and I’m sure the universe is possibly even older. Now imagine how many things are been created in that time from the vast expanses of dark matter in the outer reaches of the universe to the tiniest little feet of a money spider, from the primal shouts of our ancient ancestors to the most refined and beautiful orchestral masterpieces, and yet we’re here in 2014 still creating!

Some say that everything’s already been created, every note has been played, every instrument has been expressed in as many possible ways as it can be and we’re simply expressing those old notes and expressions in our own personal way.

I don’t believe that.
I believe that we are still creating.

When you listen to a new piece of music that you’ve never heard before and it punches you in the heart, it’s pretty hard to say that isn’t creative.

It is.
It’s new to us.
It’s a new piece of work.
It’s a new communication.
It’s a new emotional expression.

And as technology increases and becomes more and more transparent so that our creation can simply flow, then creation becomes more are more prevalent.


How does music communicate?

communicating by composing music

Lets look at how nature communicates musically.

I’m walking around here on the macadamia farm where we live in the very early hours of the morning listening to the morning chorus of the birds. As I’m doing this I’m finding that nature is a very great inspiration. Bird calls are so complex; they sing multiples of notes using very complex rhythms and repetitions, using very wide of dynamics, massive amounts of pitch and creating beautiful melodies that are incredibly beautiful to us and have real practical meaning to them. Even some of the little squeaks and squawks them make are musical when we slow them down enough for us to hear properly. We have a lake right in front our house and at nighttime all you can hear is frogs & crickets. The noised they make aren’t just noise, they’re musical.

They have pitch.
They have rhythm.
They are music.

Even the cicadas during the heat of the day are communicating using rhythm, dynamics and timbre as they swirl in and out of their crazy annoying sounds. (They’re mongrels for getting in recordings) They can be so annoying but they are communicating musically.

Take a walk in your neighbourhood and start pulling apart the musicalities of nature.

Now lets look at how we use music in our speech.

We use music every day as we talk. I ask a question and the end of my sentence has an upward inflection doesn’t it? I express something sad and the end of my sentences will curve down. I get angry and the dynamics of my voice increasing and the speed and rhythm of my voice increase dramatically. Listen to a baby’s cooing. We use music from day one without even realising it.

It is communication.
It is communication that bypasses words.

After mulling over the prevalence of music in our everyday world, it’s easy enough to see that musical instruments are simply an extension of this communication. Tool that are used to replicate the emotional communication that we already do without even thinking about it.


What instrumentation works best for communication?

communication by composing music

Stupid question really but it’s worth asking. Any instrument works for it’s own specific need. It’s really something that should be experimented with because it’s so subjective. It’s held by most people that a real, authentic instrument can express emotions so much more effectively than samples or virtual instruments (VI’s). If you’ve ever listened to a virtuoso violinist or a master Oud player live, (an oud is an Egyptian plucked instrument), you will probably understand this. On the other hand, this generally uses up a lot in the way of either money, beer or brownie points.

In my studio, I use VI’s quite alot. With high quality if VI’s and the infinite synth world, we can express anything we like. Because of technology, we have the privilege people like Mozart, Beethoven and the like never had. That is to experiment with a plethora of sounds, combine them, tear them apart, manipulate them, multitrack them and mix them until we have a full musical work, before we’ve even written a note. (It can be argued that this can be good and bad, but we won’t go into that right now.)

Having all of these sounds and abilities now gives us a very big responsibility. We now have at our fingertips the means to bring to the world different cultures, different times in history or even the future, different geographical locations, whether it be a flyover of a mountain range or following a mouse running through a wall, different seasons, even different colours or elements. (Once again it can be argued that a traditional orchestra in the right hands can do the same, but we have so many more tools at our fingertips so there’s no excuses for us.)

That is the point of music for film, TV, games, online, etc. – To create meaning. Not just stand alone and be nice isolated work of art (which they still are) but to create meaning in a person’s life. It’s nice that you can create music that is great for you and you can be proud of, but isn’t it nicer to be able to affect somebody else’s life in a good way.

I believe that we are given the gift of communicating emotion through music for a very good reason. All things in our life should lead to the betterment of everyone else around us and music is one of the most effective ways that we can bring joy and meaning into another person’s life.