Music and the creative process

Cabel Sasser (co-founder of software house Panic) also makes music. In Stagehand: The Music, he discusses the process of writing the main theme for Stagehand, a game produced by Panic colleague Neven Mrgan and friend Matt Comi.

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Sasser’s piece shows it goes from humming/scatting a few seconds’ worth of a tune into Apple’s Music Memos app:

Through the arrangement and recording:

To the final piece, which you can buy.

It’s a fascinating story of how to nurture a germ of an idea all the way to completion, not least because of Sasser’s acknowledged inability to do it all himself:

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

I was also fascinated by the methodology (there’s no other word to use) used by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to build songs. It involves semi-plagiarism of chord progressions, anagrams, morning pages, syllable counts, databases and democratic band arrangements.

Not necessarily what I would have expected from the writer of Pinkerton, an album that soundtracked my late teenage years, which I rather hoped had arrived fully-formed in his head. Perhaps it did and his process has changed since then. Or perhaps that’s overly romanticising the idea of creativity.

In any case, Cuomo’s approach is an interesting example of using a process and a structure to foster the creative process, and there’s something to learn from it. (I’m somewhat reminded of Frank Chimero’s How to have an idea, which he seems to have removed from his site, so here’s a copy.)

Lastly, an anecdote about where the “where do we go?” breakdown in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine came from:

In his autobiography, Slash tells us the true history of the “where do we go” breakdown — credit goes to Spencer Proffer, a music producer that the band was considering for their album. Proffer was the one who thought that the song needed a breakdown after that guitar solo — the only question was what it would sound like. And then, Axl started thinking out loud, as recounted by Slash:

[Proffer] was right . . .  but we had no idea what we wanted to do there. All of us sat around the control room, listening to it over and over, devoid of a clue.

“Where do we go” Axl said, more to himself than the rest of us. “Where do we go now? . . . Where do we go?”

“Hey,” Spencer said, turning the music down. “Why don’t you just try singing that?”

And so became that dramatic breakdown.

My musical activities these days mostly consist of trying to find 10 minutes in the day to spend with a guitar: half-remembering songs I’ve learned before and playing around with whatever else pops into my head. It’s disjointed, unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. An approach like Sasser’s or Cuomo’s might yield more interesting and enjoyable results.