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Philosophy of Composition
and Midi Performances

INTRODUCTION

I was one of the reviewers of midi compositions at a wonderful monthly midi contest called The Other Side. It was a great contest because, not only did midi entries receive a numerical score from a panel of reviewers, but they received constructive criticism as well. This should help the midi musician diagnose what works and what doesn't, and generally help him improve his compositions.

From time to time I get questions about how to improve composition skills and midi performance. So, here are some general guidelines concerning construction of midi compositions. Much of what I know, I picked up from The Guide to Midi Orchestration by Paul Gilreath. I highly recommend this book. (You can supplement it with a CD by Gilreath if you want).

On the web, there is an awesome site called Sequencing Tips by John Bloise. His tips go far beyond the usual set of trivial tricks--they are organized by classes of instruments, and they are truly excellent. Also, the essay Add Realism to Your Synthesized Sequences by Ethan Winer is a very good introduction to giving your midi files the gift of realism.

I believe that a superior midi file should be good in two areas; in COMPOSITION and in PERFORMANCE. Here are some general guidelines about these two areas. They apply equally well to all styles of music; classical, jazz, popular, new age, country--whatever.

COMPOSITION

Composition is that aspect of music that one can judge even if the music were not performed, but simply written down on music paper. The following aspects of composition are important to me:

Structure: No matter how long or short, a good piece of music should have structure. Simple repetition of a neat riff or melody is boring. Likewise, directionless meandering will lose the listener. Structure guides the listener to see how each portion of a piece relates to the whole. It also tells the listener what he should "expect" in anticipation--and then a good piece will violate that expectation as a way to grab the listener's interest. You cannot violate a structure, if the structure doesn't exist! One way to give a piece of music structure is to have the music tell a story. Each section of the piece can describe a different scene. The music can later return back to an earlier scene, but the second time around should show it in a different light than the first showing. Please don't take the words "story" and "scene" too literally--a scene can be like a scene in a play, or it might simply be an emotion or a mood.

Melody: This is a very basic component of music. A melody should sing. That doesn't mean that every melody has to be singable by a human voice. After all, musical instruments and synthesizers can create some pretty amazing melodies. However, a good melody should remind the listener of a song-like quality. A great melody should be memorable--this means that it should be neither too simple nor too complex.

Rhythm: This is another very basic component of music. A good rhythm goes very far in making a melody distinctive. A good rhythm should not be too repetitive--it should take on small (or large) variations in order to keep the listener's interest. Occasional changes in tempo can help maintain interest.

Harmony: Popular music styles often have simple harmonic progressions. The most interesting harmonic progressions are the ones that are not anticipated. Changes in key can help to give a sense of forward motion to a composition.

Counterpoint: Multiple melodies playing simultaneously--often with different rhythms--helps to give music deeper meaning, and helps to keep a piece enjoyable even after repeated hearings.

Instrumentation: A good choice of each instrument or section of instruments should be made for each part. When multiple instruments or sections are playing, they should not step on each others' toes, though each need not be heard distinctly separately. Special consideration should be given to changing the instrumental textures, to give contrast to different sections of a piece.

Dynamics: The dynamics should vary during a piece, so as to heighten interest, increase the drama, and emphasize contrasting sections of a piece. Midi velocities should change often. Look at a musical score; there are crescendos and decrescendos everywhere. This means that velocities need to constantly change. A musical phrase often gets louder or softer. Sometimes individual instruments change volume as they fade in or out, while at other times groups of instruments (or all of them) change volume together. Change the velocity levels so that the result sounds good to your ears. If you don't, then the midi file can sound computerized and boring to other people.

Development: Once a musical idea or melody is stated, the listener's interest in it is enhanced though development. Take the musical idea and vary it, elucidate it, simplify it, complicate it. Demonstrate that this idea--even one that initially sounds simple--has different aspects that can be admired from different angles with different "lights".

Contrast and Coherence: A piece without contrasts may start to sound boring or repetitive. Contrasts can be set up by varying just about anything; the melody, harmony, instrumentation, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, articulations, phrasing, the key, or modality. At the same time, a piece should be coherent--it should not just go wandering off into unrelated places that have no connections. I personally find this to be the most challenging aspect of composition; how to give a piece enough contrast, but at the same time make it all "hold together".

Phrasing: A related aspect is phrasing of individual melody voices. Phrases are groups of notes that--to make an analogy to singing--would be sung with a single breath. The notes in a phrase need to sound like they belong together. One way is to vary the lengths of the notes in a rhythmic way--make some notes legato and others staccato. Another way is block phrases up so that they are slightly detached from the preceding and following phrases. Yet another way is to shape the dynamics of phrases in a natural way; give them crescendos, give them decrescendos, give them a crescendo followed by a decrescendo, etc.

To summarize the points about composition: An important goal in composition is to set up certain expectations that the listener can anticipate--and then to violate those expectations.

PERFORMANCE

Sing: If one makes a midi composition using "real" instruments, then one should make them sound as realistic as possible. Make each instrument "sing" like a real one would in a real band.

Controllers: In a performance with "real" acoustic instruments, a musician plays each note with a different volume, with a different intensity. Sustained notes are never played with a constant volume--they either crescendo or de-crescendo continuously. Midi can do this using expression and volume controllers. Notes cannot be played exactly on the beat with exactly the right duration. Each note is a little different. By the way, remember that percussion, keyboard, and plucked instruments (piano, drums, organ, guitar, harp, pizzicato strings, and so on) should not have volume changes in the middle of notes. Other controllers can also be used for good effects--such as modulation and maybe reverb. Use your ears to judge.

Breaths: A musician playing a wind instrument has to take breaths. He cannot play forever without taking a breath, like a super-human synthesizer or computer.

Guitar: A musician playing a guitar can strum the strings fast, but not infinitely so. Think of how a guitar pick (or finger) plays across the strings in succession.

Real Instruments: Each instrument has its own limitations. Each instrument can only play within a certain limited range--and the range of each instrument is different. A piano has a very broad range of playable notes. The range of a recorder is much more limited. It's not all that difficult for a good piano player to play lots of notes rapidly all over the keyboard. But a tuba player can't play complicated melodies anywhere near as rapidly. And some things are impossible to play even for an excellent piano player.

Pitch Bending: Many instruments are capable of "pitch bending"--the pitch can glide from one frequency to another. Trombones and timpanis are famous for this capability, but many other instruments also have amazing capabilities. Judicious use of pitch bending can sometimes be used to make an electronically synthesized midi file sound realistic. Why is this? Because the human voice has the most fantastic ability of all to do pitch bending--and techniques that help to make an instrument sing like a human voice are sometimes the most effective.

Strings: String instruments are by far the most difficult to make realistic. A violinist can play many different ways, with different attacks, different degrees of vibrato, and so on. A string section in an orchestra contains many instruments, each played slightly differently. During lush orchestral passages, the net effect is to smooth out the edges. The key point here is to make the quality of the strings change continuously.

Rubato: While a band is playing, a featured soloist can play with a judicious amount of rubato--this can add a great deal of feeling and realism to a piece.

Expression: Of course, in midi, one can synthesize new electronic instruments that simply aren't played by live musicians. For this case, the word "realism" doesn't make much sense--who is to say what is real and what is not real, for such synthetic instruments? So for electronic instruments, I would pretend that they are real acoustic instruments that could, potentially, be played with "expression" by live musicians.

Balance: It is important to balance the relative volume levels for the individual instruments. It sounds unrealistic to hear a flute playing in a lower register, above a loud orchestral tutti. If some instrument is too weak to hear at all, why include it? Paul Gilreath makes an interesting comment: You don't have to be able to hear every note of every instrument.

In summary, try to phrase musical passages so that the instruments sing in a realistic manner. Put yourself in the shoes of the musician who is playing the instrument!

THERE IS MORE TO LIFE THAN GENERAL MIDI

Paul Gilreath's book spends a lot of pages on the use of alternative samples for different notes, especially for strings. (This means branching off into the non-GM world!) For example a string instrument playing a single phrase might require the use of four different patches. Each patch has a different attack and a different degree of warmth and modulation. Of course, choosing the best patch for individual notes takes a lot of experience, but Gilreath writes that it doesn't much matter WHICH patches you use for particular notes. He says that what matters the most is that you alternate patches simply for the contrast, which will then make the music sound more realistic.

Paul Gilreath also reiterates this as a basic principle for all aspects of midi composing; Contrasts in sounds, dynamics, controllers are important in adding realism and expression. Just the mere fact that there are contrasts is just as important to the realism, as what the actual contrasts are.

A WORD ABOUT TOOLS

Beginners often start off with an entry-level notation program like Noteworthy Composer or Mozart. The problem is, notation programs do not do a good job at achieving good sounds--that's not their purpose. Their primary purpose is to make sheet music printouts that look good. They make sounds, but they don't usually sound very good.

To add midi controller messages to enhance performance, it is really necessary to use a sequencing program. Popular sequencing programs include Cakewalk, Voyetra, Cubase, and Logic. For example, I often compose using the Sibelius notation program, and produce a midi file which I then import into Cakewalk for lots of additional tweaking.

You don't really need a high-end sequencing program for this purpose. Many of the high-end programs have lots of digital audio capabilities that are not really necessary for midi compositions. So, if you are just starting out, you may want to try an entry-level sequencing program like Cakewalk Express or Midi Orchestrator Plus. There are many other excellent entry-level sequencing programs for under $30, and often demos are available for download.

MORE GUIDES TO THE ART OF COMPOSITION

As a final note, if you are seriously interested in composition, let me recommend a few high-quality online resources. A Practical Guide to Musical Composition by Alan Belkin is a complete online book, a veritable treasure-trove of ideas to get one thinking about issues related to composition. Another very interesting online resource, Gems of Music Composition by Matthew Fields, is a wonderful set of essays about selected topics in composition. Counterpointers by Yves Guillemete is a set of lessons on the basics of counterpoint, with midi examples.

Well, I will get off my soapbox now. Go and compose a masterpiece!