Friday, February 01, 2008

Top Down, Center Out and Bottoms Up

This article identifies Top-down and Bottom-up design approaches in modern music design, production and composition.

Persons engaged with the software development are no doubt familiar with the related, albeit contrasting, concepts of Top-down and Bottom-up development.

If you've never heard these terms before, Wikipedia combines the contrasting approaches as a single philosophy, described as follows:

Top-down and Bottom-up Design: "Strategies of information processing and knowledge ordering, mostly involving software, but also other humanistic and scientific theories...In practice, they can be seen as a style of thinking and teaching. In many cases top-down is used as a synonym of analysis or decomposition, and bottom-up of synthesis.".

As a producer of music, sound design and sonic branding for various media, it occurred to me that these two contrasting approaches could also be applied to the music composition process.

In this regard, I think of traditional composition as Top Down Composition, and contemporary composition using digital tools as Bottom Up Audio Design

I arrived at this concept as soon as I realized that my own process for music composition changed depending on whether I was beginning with a melody and writing a song (Top Down), or starting with a pulse and scoring picture (Bottom Up).

For songs, I generally do begin with melody –usually words married to a linear series of pitches. With melody in place, I can easily rock out a rhythmic accompaniment using the natural harmony implied by the melodic information.

My song (Top Down) composition process develops in the following order:

Resulting from Inspiration
: Melody (with or without Lyric), Rhythm/Harmony, Drums/Bass, Ear Candy (and inner voices, if any), –ending with a performance (and possibly recording and mix thereof).

The other approach –Bottom Up Design– is born of the evolved combination of electronic studio shortcuts, sound design, pop production and film scoring, all of which seem to dovetail each other when I sit down with the intent of providing moving picture with a music treatment.

For scores, I typically begin with a pulse or a loop, lay down a ‘pad’ and then build musical content upon this foundation, ending eventually with a theme (if any).

My Bottom Up Audio Design process typically looks like this:

Reacting to Visual Cues: Click, Loop, Pad, Bass, Inner Voices/Ear Candy, Licks/Riffs/Motif, Thematic Melody, Mix.

Of course, you can use either methodology to create music of any genre. And practically speaking, in a given production both methods are oft combined (and in no particular order).

If I begin with a riff, a lick or otherwise ornamental gesture and then expand outward from there, it may help me to think of the process as 'Center Out'. But Center Out is more dabble and experiment than focused, planned design or composition.

Center Out might also be conceived as those activities one generally associates with orchestration.

Anytime I get stuck I often discover it's because I'm writing Center Out, that is, orchestrating before the essential musical idea is fully fleshed out. Center Out is like a conceptual seed that can sprout in any direction, and as a result can cause creative paralysis by virtue of the number of choices available to the writer.

For instance, say you start with a series of chords. If the the act of conceiving those chords arrives as a result of an inspired pulse, then the chords are born of a Bottom Up process. Alternatively, if the act of conceiving those chords arrives as a result of supporting a melody, then their creation is more closely aligned with a Top Down process. However, once once begins substituting block chords and their associated voicing with passing tones, counter melodies, rests, runs, ostinatos and arpeggios, or riffs and hooks in popular music, then one is clearly in the domain of Center Out composition.

Still speaking theoretically, I find Top Down a more natural approach for composing music that is meant to be performed in real time by human beings and experienced live. Although, in practice we often hear improvisational musicians reworking a Top Down composition from the Bottom Up.

Bottom Up Design is experienced best as a recorded statement, media composition, and often synchronized to picture or movement in the service of enhancing a story, third party content, a brand message, ride experience or game play. Any time TIME is organized before MELODY,  and voices are first born from a primordial pulse, the process is Bottom Up.

Which method to pursue if creating an audio experience for a specific ENVIRONMENT? My guess is it would have to do with whether one was reacting to visual information or navigational concerns (Bottom Up), or branding a volume of space (Top Down, Center Out –or just hire a smart DJ with curatorial sensibilities).

Of course, all of us who straddle both traditional composition and contemporary music design should strive for an integrated Bottom-up and Top-down skill set.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the six-part series detailing the changing relationship between Traditional Music Composition and Modern Music Production:


Part 1: Top Down, Center Out and Bottoms Up
Part 2: Top Down Music Composition
Part 3: Bottom Up Audio Production
Part 4: Film Composer, Sound Maker or Music Designer?
Part 5: Songwriter Vs. Song Designer
Part 6: Music By Design

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