Composing music – How to unfocus

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There are times that call for focus.
This is not one one of them.

I suggest having a bit of focus when you drive your car down the highway, or when you operate heavy machinery. Perhaps even when negotiating Christmas dinner social conventions with the inlaws.
It’s really common for us to think that it’s only these times that really matter.
Silly when you think about it but it’s so true.

But there are many other times that call for unfocusing. Seeing the big picture in a big blurry soup of lovelyness. (Yep, I meant to spell that wrong. It just seems to express it better with a ‘Y’)

Music demonstrates this beautifully.
I’ll go into deeper further on in this article but for up here, just be aware of the ability music has to highlight the beauty and individuality of a solo instrument and also express an entire soundscape from an 80 piece orchestra as one expressive and emotive sound, where every instrument plays an equal role and there is no focus on any particular instrument.

First, because music always relates to life and our experiences, lets look at how this unfocussing principle plays out in, well, life.

Composing Music with meaning - Unfocused

What are some situations where we should unfocus?

You might have a bunch of situations come to mind straight away. Good on you. That’s really healthy.
But you might be used to thinking focussed and have trouble thinking of these situations.

So let me give you a few that I can think of:

1 – Mealtimes

composing music with meaning - meal time
Mealtimes are great for sitting back and relaxing either on your own or with people you love. They’re times of refuelling. Times of re-energising. Times of letting go of what happened before and allowing space for what’s about to happen.
Mealtimes are a punctuation of our day, separating it into bite size (haha) chapters rather than having to attack the whole thing at once.
If we don’t stop focussing during mealtimes, we remove the meaning of that break, that punctuation, and essentially merge our day into one big mass of activity and focussed thinking.

Not so good. That sounds horrible when I think about it, actually. Why would you want to do that to yourself.

2 – When you see something beautiful

Composing music with meaning - beautiful
(I say that because as people, our dominant sense is sight, but it might just as well be when you hear or feel or smell or taste something beautiful.)

Think of a situation where you saw something beautiful. It might have been a sunset, a great work of art, your partner dressed up for a date, or even a beautiful act like a person helping a stranger with carrying something to their car.
Whatever the situation might be, you were attracted to it for a reason.

You see, as people, we actually have a great habit of trying to make ourselves better. Beautiful things inspire us because we want to be like that, be able to create that, have that as part of our lives, be affiliated with that and as a result seem beautiful to others. We can then pass that inspiration on.
See, it’s built in. We love beauty. But lets dive deeper.

Each of these situations was also surrounded by its environment. Now think to when you saw that beautiful thing, what were the sounds there? Where was the sun or moon? Was it hot or cold? Were there other people? What were they doing? What colours dominated the situation? What music was playing?

Lets just say the beauty you saw might have been your partner dressed up for a date. If you were to see them in a photo and it was just your partner on a plain white background, that wouldn’t be the same, would it. They might still be beautiful, but you wouldn’t be able to smell their perfume or aftershave, feel the soft fabric, feel the warmth of their touch, hear the sound of their voice. Lets extend it further. You wouldn’t be able to see that your partner is waiting for you by the front door. You wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of the crickets outside as their chirping spills subtly through the crack in the slightly opened door. You wouldn’t be able to anticipate the chill of the night air as you feel the warmth of the house on your back. You wouldn’t be able to hear the music gently playing from your phone, which is actually a ringtone your friends asking where the hell you are already.

3 – Bed Time

Composing music with meaning - meal time
I know you’ve experienced this entirely stupid situation …

Eyes are stinging.
Conversations are beginning to get sparse and not make as much sense.
You’re feeling really heavy and are almost not even bothered getting up off your chair to go to bed.
But you finally do. You get ready, flop forwards onto the bed, crawl under the covers, cradle your head in your pillow and shut your eyes but …
Something pops into your head and you start thinking about it. Then you keep thinking about it. Different scenarios surrounding that thing also begin going through your head. Things you should have said and done, things that other person should have said and done. Planning for next time. What you’ll do then. How it will be better. How that other person will learn from your excellence and wisdom … and it goes around and around.

This is a great example of a tired logic centre no longer able to connect with the emotional centre of our brains and we become a neurological government department; disconnected and unable to balance function with reality.

It’s actually here that you’ll find it the most difficult to unfocus. All your brain wants to do is fixate and find brilliant solutions to stupid and mostly non existent issues.

Here’s why.

Unfocusing is a skill, just as much as focusing is.

You’re fixating because that is the path of least resistance in your mind at that particular point in time. To unfocus means to employ a consciously controlled skill set; the last thing your brain wants to do before drifting off into blissful, uninterrupted unconsciousness.
It’s like having to pack up your toys before you go outside to play.
It’s like having to wash the dishes after dinner before collapsing in front of telly.
It’s like having to create and submit a flight plan before you take to the skies.

It’s hard to do.
It seems a bit like a task and something that gets in the way of fun but it’s part of the discipline of a healthy daily ritual.

This is one way to do it:
Once you’re in bed, lie there and start to take notice of your surroundings with all of your senses, but first focus on each one individually, then afterwards, let them meld together.

1 – Sight

Even though your eyes are closed, you’ll still see things:
The blackness of your closed eyelids, the patterns created from the residual images you saw when the lights were on just a minute ago, little inconsistencies of light and dark that your eyes naturally have all the time anyway but hardly ever notice.

2 – Sound

Name 5 things that you can hear:
Traffic, Machinery, Crickets, wind in the trees, internal pulsing in your ears, maybe even a bit of tinnitus. (ringing or other self induced noise in your ears produced by degrading aural nerves)

3 – Touch

Name 5 things that you can feel:
Sheets on your skin, heat or cold on your face, weight of yourself on the mattress, slightly aching back, slight breeze across your face.

4 – Smell

Name 2 – 3 things that you can smell:
The aroma of dinner still delicately hanging in the air, the subtle fragrance of fresh sheets, the familiar scent of your home.

5 – Taste

Name at least one thing that you can taste:
Actually, for a lot of people this will probably just be toothpaste but see what you come up with.

This whole process should only take around 5 minutes.
Then it’s time to blur the edges.

After reflecting on everything you’ve just experienced, just let yourself drift into the soup of the whole evening environmental experience. When you feel yourself starting to fixate on one particular aspect, go back to reflecting on all of them and drift back into the soup.

This works. I can vouch for it.

Ok, so how does this all apply to composing music?

It’s pretty simple really.
Lets look at how it unfocused music sounds first.

When you have a solo instrument, that becomes the focus of the piece. You don’t really notice the other instruments and what they’re particularly doing. Sometimes it extends to a couple of instruments sharing the spotlight, such as a flute and an oboe playing in harmony.

What happens, though, if there are no solo instruments?
If all of the instruments combine equally in importance and expression?

Think of a string quartet.
Think of an african drumming ensemble.
Think of hard core.

It’s actually really common for multiple instruments to combine and become one unified musical soundscape.
This is the art of unfocussing.
Complexity in combinations and iterations to create simplicity in sound.

So when you go to compose music that’s designed for listening to as a unified soundscape, take heart. It’s not that hard:

1 – Start with determining your desired expression

Do you want to express bliss, depression, fear, excitement, etc?
Do you want it to be hard hitting and impacting or subtle and underscore?
Ensure you have a solid direction. Focus in this is important. Ironic isn’t it.

2 – Determine your desired timbre

Sharp or dull
Sweet or savoury
Light or heavy
Organic or synthetic
New or old (production quality)
Timbre can elicit an emotion and more specifically a memory very effectively so it goes without saying that it’s imperative to get this right. Once again, focus.

3 – Determine your instrument palette

Now you know what timbre you want you can work on what instruments can combine to create such a timbre. eg:
Sharp – Combine high strings with small sharp metallic percussion.
Dull – Soft french horns, Marimba and a touch of gentle piano.
Synthetic – Most synths using triangle, sawtooth or square waves lend themselves to an obvious and unabashedly synthesized feel.
etc

3 – Determine your gait

By this, I mean speed. It’s just good to relate it to an everyday action so we can make it relatable to others much easier.
Slow
relaxed, cautious, tired, old, large, physically slow …
Medium
Alert, present, happy, moving, average, viscous

Fast
busy, fearful, ecape, young, excited, small, physically fast

4 – Start layering, but only one instrument at a time

Carefully, gently and intentionally move the dynamics of each instrument up and down together so as not to leave any particular instrument in the aural spotlight at any point in time.
Weave rhythmic elements in with long pad like elements so that they compliment each other well and not clash.
As you follow a melodic structure or chord progression, either allow the instruments to support the melody with rich and full harmonies or simply create a bed of appropriate unisons and fifths for the melody to sit against. My preference is full and rich evolving harmonies.
Gradually work the piece up and down harmonically and dynamically to express the appropriate emotions at the intended times.
You can never have too many instruments with a couple of caveats:
Ensure they add to the desired timbre, not take away from it.
Use EQ on each individual instrument to shape the spectral flavour of the entire texture. You can EQ the finished result, however slight variations in eq control allow a much richer texture to be created.

5 – Listen back to your music

Do it a few times as you compose, then leave it for an hour or so before listening again. With such strong timbre layering it’s easy to flood your aural judgement. You become equalised and can’t decide whether it sounds good or not anymore. Cleanse the aural Palette and come back to it. You’ll be amazed at the difference in how it sounds even with a small break. Overnight is even better. I do this at least three times when I’m working with a lot of instruments.

This sounds like a whole bunch of focussed energy to create something that people can unfocus to.
Don’t despair.

It’s simple to create complexity but it takes complexity to create simplicity