In a marathon video session, broken into 2 parts lasting over 15.5 hours, (Yes that’s right. Part one is over 11 hours) Mike Verta critiques works of music submitted by various amateur composers (like us) and offers tips on how to improve them. Over the course of the long video, the same problems are found in many of the musical pieces. I recommend watching the video, (yes the entire 15.5+ hours but not all in one sitting) to really drive home the tips he offers. The tips that stand out the most to me, have been summarized below:
- Don’t expect the listener to focus on more than 2 things at a time. If your music is too busy, the listener will be lost.
- Establish a pattern that the listener can lock on to. This requires something to be played at least twice.
- Don’t abandon an idea too soon. Develop an idea. Change the accompaniment, change the harmonization, change the instruments (often referred to as changing the colour).
- At the same time, be wary of too much vertical development or horizontal development. Both are important but in the right proportion. Vertical development refers to changing/adding instruments to the same melody. Horizontal development refers to modifying a melody/rhythm, or changing and developing an idea.
- When moving forward with developing an idea, only change one thing at a time. Change just the rhythm or just the melody or just the accompaniment or just the colour.
- When transitioning from one section to another (from an A section to a B section or verse to chorus) keep a common thread between the two so it’s clear they are related otherwise is will sound like a completely unrelated piece of music.
- If you start your introduction with the focus on what will become the accompaniment, perhaps you start with just chords or an ostinato pattern, when the melody is laid over top of the accompaniment, decrease the volume of the accompaniment. The listener will still hear it because they are familiar with it and they will know that their focus should be shifted to the new music that was just added.
- Don’t use more instruments than you truly need. To paraphrase Mike Verta “no colour is as clear as a solo instrument”.
- Beware of the trap of over orchestration. You will have listened to your music for hours while working on it and what has become a boring 8 bars that needs more instruments to keep it sounding fresh to you, is new and fresh to a first time listener without any extra instruments and will sound muddy and confusing to a new listener if too many instruments are added.
- Keep your melody and accompaniment in different registers (or at least very different tone colours). If your melody is focused around middle C, keep your accompaniment an octave higher or lower, especially if the accompaniment is similar in colour to the melody.
- Never forget that your MIDI mockup is supposed to sound like real people are playing real instruments. Real brass and woodwind players need to breathe. Real string players can’t play really fast ostinato patterns forever.
- Be aware of the relative power of each instrument. A solo flute will not be heard over a loud brass chord. Sure, you can turn up the fader to make the flute louder but it won’t sound realistic.
Well, that’s what I remember at the moment from watching the video below (and other videos from Mike Verta). Take your time, watch the whole video and it could make your music better.