Friday, May 02, 2008

Songwriter Vs. Song Designer

A bit of cursory observation and experience has left me with the impression that in the last ten or fifteen years or so, we’ve heard more ‘Bottom Up’ construction from Music Designers producing non-scored works, than we might have realized, and by that I mean the songwriting process has given way to the Song Designing process.

If you're unfamiliar with the Top Down Bottom Up MUSIC DESIGN processes I've described in earlier posts, click on any of the links that follow this article for the necessary background.

In brief:

Bottom up constructions are marked by the establishment of TIME and RHYTHM before melody.

Likewise, any time a riff, incomplete melodic information ('complete' implies an entire phrase), or a pitch based sample is used as the conceptual seed from which a music production will evolve, we can say the work is being designed Center Out.

In contrast, Top Down composition is marked by melody (combined with lyrics, in the case of songwriting) first. In the Top Down process melody is defined first, after which all the other musical components are conceived in so far as melody defines their natural selection and direction.

Additionally, when music is conceived in the studio, and built from a loop up, with melody and lyric being afterthoughts to production, it strikes me that this music hasn't been composed at all. Rather, it's been designed.

Multiple points in case: Simpy consider the method by which much modern popular music –electronic, hiphop, dance, commercial pop, contemporary rock, etc– is created:

Fire up a graphic interface. Begin with a beat. Layer loops. Add a pad. Slice, dice and connect samples whose origin may be sourced from anything. The melody might not even become cohesive element until the moment the lyrics are written, sung and pitch corrected. –Or until the ‘right’ sample has been found, licensed and dropped into a the perfectly beat matched production. In fact, melody might be an after thought, or even an accident. You might even forgo the license. In fact, you probably will.

Anytime you're building a song up from a GRID, you're engaged in the act of design.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that, –as both Top Forty Hit makers and Garage Band aficionados will rush to tell you. But I still think there is some truth to the suggestion that the described process may as well be the paradigm, and I wonder how long it will serve us? –Or when will a new technology come along that suggests yet another way of working?

There are still those who sit down with their musical instrument and create new musical works, performing melody and harmony –and even original lyrics, too– all at once, as though born whole from divine ether.

But in my daily professional experience –working with ad agencies, game developers, theme parks and other special venues, etc– most commissioned music today is designed rather than composed. That is to say, in the same manner a sound designer collages audio –layering sound bytes on top of other sound bytes, and from the bottom up and center out. How can it be otherwise when –on top of everything else– so much of it is also now informed by a Brand message or mandate; reviewed during its development by a collaborative hierarchy of other creative professionals; filtered through focus groups; and created for intended release to a target demographic?

Which brings to mind another defining point contrasting designed audio from composed music: Notwithstanding the licensing of non-designed compositions, Music Design –including Song Designs, generally imply conception for a functional or Utilitarian purpose. Whether conceived as part of an entertainment or marketing strategy –Use or User centered– is of little difference.

Of course, art springs from many sources and no judgment regarding any given process is implied. The author draws inspiration from all the techniques discussed here.

* * *
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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