Do you always look at scales when composing?

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Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by firesoundwave »

Hi there. So I have been writing and producing music in many genres on and off for many years professionally and as a hobby. I generally never looked at scales when writing a song, unless a client requested something specific or I wanted to use an authentic Egyptian scale or something like that, but most of the time I just mess around with the notes and see what sounds "right" and of course it will end up in some sort of scale which is in tune, but I never think at the start OK I am going to use this specific key and scale. I just play notes and see what feels good. It seems to work. I wonder if other people are the same as me or not? Or do you like to choose a scale at the very start of your songs?
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by IAA »

Or do you like to choose a scale at the very start of your songs?

Never. The only consideration I give is where I’m linking two compositions and I deliberately want a particular feel between. Even then I would first look at chord voicing on the preceding piece first if I can’t get where I need it I’ll consider a particular key.
Mind you I’ve lately being playing more guitar (being a pianist by training) and struggled with some of my compositions. :D
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by The Elf »

If you are working with other musicians then scale can be critically important. Vocalists will need a chosen scale that suits their vocal range, and some instruments are restricted to (or are difficult to play in) certain scales.

But if you're working on your own, then you just choose what works for you.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by IAA »

But if you're working on your own, then you just choose what works for you.

I should have added that to my post. I do work on my own. :headbang:
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Arpangel »

I can only play in a limited number of scales, so my choice is almost always made for me, at other times, I put together in real time, chords based on the diatonic scale, I haven't a clue what I'm doing, but it sounds good to me.
I tend to feel my way around, and at least I know what notes, and combinations of notes, sound like before I play them.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by RichardT »

No, virtually never.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Arpangel »

I tend to think, is it going to be major or minor? that's about it.
Is it going to be happy, or sad, basically.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Folderol »

Usually I just start noodling around on the keyboard and have no idea about key/scale at all. I only need to know what key it's in when I start to add accompanying tracks!
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Drew Stephenson »

Not having any musical theory I wouldn't know what scale I was working in even when I'd finished.

But then I'd generally call myself a song-writer rather than a musician and definitely not a composer. :)
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by BigRedX »

No. I work on the principle that if it sounds good, then it is good.

Having said that I have changed the tuning of B string on my Bass VI to C which works better for two note chords and drone parts on the songs that are in Am
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Tomás Mulcahy »

IAA wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 9:09 am
Or do you like to choose a scale at the very start of your songs?

Never. The only consideration I give is where I’m linking two compositions and I deliberately want a particular feel between. Even then I would first look at chord voicing on the preceding piece first if I can’t get where I need it I’ll consider a particular key.
Mind you I’ve lately being playing more guitar (being a pianist by training) and struggled with some of my compositions. :D

Same here. I'll either spend some time at the keyboard working on voicings, or changing the keys to get a nice transition, or try all 12 keys by transposing in the DAW and hear what they sound like. Then some further massaging by living with the resulting topline for a while. Maybe some regret at ever trying to shove two different ideas together and be like Don Music for a while... So it's about voicing, scale, key, or mode... or all of them!
The Elf wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 9:13 am If you are working with other musicians then scale can be critically important. Vocalists will need a chosen scale that suits their vocal range, and some instruments are restricted to (or are difficult to play in) certain scales.

For a vocalist it's purely the key that pertains to vocal range. I assume most good vocalists won't have a difficulty with any scale (unless they're untrained and are bad at certain intervals, which is unusual IME) unlike as you say, certain scales are physically difficult on different instruments. My wife was practicing B minor on the violin today, or "Bitch minor" as she calls it :)
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by BJG145 »

Ditto, never. Knowledge is power and all that, but I want to write what's in my head, unconstrained by any consideration of scales or theory.

** wanders off to write another three-chord song in Am **
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by MarkOne »

I'm a noodle and see what happens kind of guy too.

I actually more often than not start with a chord progression and work a melody into that later.

But I always strive for 'singability' for want of a better word, even if I'm working on an instrumental, I want to be able to hum it.

But thinking about a scale or mode first? No, I'm not that good a musician to even know.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by OneWorld »

Well music is an art not a science so it allows flexibility, that said it is the most scientific of the arts, for good reason, it can be a solitary or collective endeavour, so there has to be a universally agreed set of rules which everyone is bound by, otherwise it isn't music, it is noise.

What is beguiling about scales and keys is how the nature of a piece of music can change quite radically if played in another key, and by that I don't mean changing from major to minor, but one major key to another.

Additionally, what I do is I always avoid the 'always' paradox, one day you do this, and another day you do that - do you always not do something always? Seems a bit too restrictive to me, yes music is prescriptive by nature, but the rules are merely the compass we use when on our journey to the finished. Sometimes we might know our destination and sometimes, like Christopher Colombus, just set off and see where we end up
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Tomás Mulcahy »

OneWorld wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:47 pm What is beguiling about scales and keys is how the nature of a piece of music can change quite radically if played in another key, and by that I don't mean changing from major to minor, but one major key to another.

I think this is because of Equal Temperament. That causes the intervals to change, not the key as such. If we were Just Intoned the intervals would not change, But then we could not do key changes so easily. In other cultures, key is not such an issue. The singer decides, in Indian Classical music (North and South). I once tried printing the Moonlight Sonata in an easier to read key, and it sounded trite. When working with a singer and changing the range it's best when you have just a melody and chords. When it's a pre-produced arrangement it gets very messy.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by merlyn »

The way I would look at it is : take a major third. It sounds different high up the keyboard from in the bass. In fact it sounds pretty terrible in the bass, and you could find your own lower limit for how low a major third can be used harmonically.

I think that would be similar in just intonation, although not quite as bad in the bass. Small intervals are going to sound bad in the bass.

I agree about transposing an arrangement, as some intervals could go below their lower limit.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by OneWorld »

Tomás Mulcahy wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:53 pm
OneWorld wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:47 pm What is beguiling about scales and keys is how the nature of a piece of music can change quite radically if played in another key, and by that I don't mean changing from major to minor, but one major key to another.

I think this is because of Equal Temperament. That causes the intervals to change, not the key as such. If we were Just Intoned the intervals would not change, But then we could not do key changes so easily. In other cultures, key is not such an issue. The singer decides, in Indian Classical music (North and South). I once tried printing the Moonlight Sonata in an easier to read key, and it sounded trite. When working with a singer and changing the range it's best when you have just a melody and chords. When it's a pre-produced arrangement it gets very messy.

Yes but the melody and chords have to be in cahoots with one another.

As for the experiment, changing Moonlight Sonata to an easier key, I would have thought that to be futile, there is that unknown/undefined dimension in music that means the juxtaposition of notes is a critical component of it, that this note(s) played with other note(s) just sounds 'right'

A pal of mine who is a highly regarded performer round these parts and we have had this very discussion many a time over a pint, and he speaks of his frustration with other band members, the 2 guitarists in this case, and who are quite accomplished players, but sometimes leave out notes when playing a tune, because they are 'awkward' they play the painting by numbers version of a tune and it just don't land on the ears as convincingly. As you say, sounds trite.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by OneWorld »

I remember a documentary on TV some years and the subject matter was this - could a rap artist and a classical choir/ensemble 'gel'? could there be cross-over?

Goldie, the rap artist, played to the camera, trotted out all the cliches "I play from the heart and soul, not a piece of f*cking paper with scribbles on it.......etc etc etc"

The choir and ensemble weren't that fazed by his tantrums, in fact they were a tad amused by it, but they sort of said "We turn up at work, we know our job, we do our job, then go home, we don't make a big deal about it, but ever let anyone say we don't enjoy our music" And they were quite happy to suffer Goldie's tantrums - who at one point walked off set in a rage so to speak - though I expect this was playing to the camera, he had to come across as the rebel. Basically he was saying he didn't want his music constrained by the conventions of established musical norms. Hard to avoid convention when there was only 2 chords in it!

So the choir/ensemble said "Oh dear what a shame never mind, there's nowt as queer as folk, but, we've started so we'll finish"

And they went on to work on the music (of Goldie) doing new arrangements, stretching the music so to speak, seeking melodic and harmonic opportunities. And unsurprisingly, they excelled. Goldie was encouraged to play his part, listen to the finished object, and involve himself. On hearing the new arrangements, to his credit, Goldie paid homage to the classical player and singers, he was "blown away" and basically said "I get it now, all this chords and scales and inversions and such, I'm a convert and these guys(and gals) have got 'soul'

There was also another program on Channel 4 - Faking It. In one episode 3 people played the part of a DJ and the panel of 3 top professionals, DJs, Producers et al had to guess which of the 3 contestants was a pro Ibiza DJ. The contestants were a Pro DJ, and amateur and a young woman from the RNCM who was studying cello. She had never been near any decks in her life.

The contestants had a few days to put a set together. The young woman excelled, the panel of judges said it's clear who's the pro, by a country mile, it's the young lass, she's a natural - the judges were dumbstruck when they found out in fact the young woman was a classical cello player, asking how she managed it and she simply said, "Well I know my scales, I know my keys, I have a sense of rhythm, so can easily drop in on the right beat - it's no big deal, I am a musician"

In fact she was offered a job, though despite her really enjoying the challenge, she said thanks but no thanks, I'll stick with the cello
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Folderol »

@ OneWorld

I just love stories like this!
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by BJG145 »

Tomás Mulcahy wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:53 pm
OneWorld wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:47 pm What is beguiling about scales and keys is how the nature of a piece of music can change quite radically if played in another key

I think this is because of Equal Temperament. That causes the intervals to change

...right...I don't think I'd really made that connection. Huge difference then.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Tomás Mulcahy »

OneWorld wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 6:11 pm ...there is that unknown/undefined dimension in music that means the juxtaposition of notes is a critical component of it, that this note(s) played with other note(s) just sounds 'right'

But it's not unknown. ET is a compromise. It's designed to minimise changes when you change key. It doesn't eliminate them, but it's better than what happens if you stayed with JT.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by BJG145 »

I just remembered something called Hermode tuning...have you come across that Tomás...?

http://www.hermode.com/index_en.html
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by RichardT »

OneWorld wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 5:47 pm Well music is an art not a science so it allows flexibility, that said it is the most scientific of the arts, for good reason, it can be a solitary or collective endeavour, so there has to be a universally agreed set of rules which everyone is bound by, otherwise it isn't music, it is noise.

What is beguiling about scales and keys is how the nature of a piece of music can change quite radically if played in another key, and by that I don't mean changing from major to minor, but one major key to another.

Additionally, what I do is I always avoid the 'always' paradox, one day you do this, and another day you do that - do you always not do something always? Seems a bit too restrictive to me, yes music is prescriptive by nature, but the rules are merely the compass we use when on our journey to the finished. Sometimes we might know our destination and sometimes, like Christopher Colombus, just set off and see where we end up

Even transposing a piece one semitone can make a huge difference.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by MOF »

I tend to start composing with a melody that I’ll sing into a recorder or DAW while the ideas are still there.
I don’t worry about what key it’s in, I just work out what chords work best for the supporting instruments and backing voices and don’t even think about if they’re using the scale notes of that key (assuming I did check what key it’s in).
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by Tomás Mulcahy »

BJG145 wrote: Thu Dec 08, 2022 10:11 pm I just remembered something called Hermode tuning...have you come across that Tomás...?

http://www.hermode.com/index_en.html

I have not. Looks interesting. In return I'll refer you to "Beauty in the Beast" by Wendy Carlos. Incredible experiments in temperament using the Crumar GDS and a couple of Synergy synths. Changing temperament on the fly, and inventing some of her own, while also developing appropriate timbres in FM and additive synthesis. Harmonic harmonies! It's own sound world, nothing like it, I think it is quite beautiful and under-rated.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by adrian_k »

And then there’s the Jacob Collier trick of modulating into a whole new tuning by a quarter tone :

https://youtu.be/HUGoUHKAGAE
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by merlyn »

Going down the keys route things get narrowed down pretty quickly.

Take one note. Let's say C. There are five keys C is not in. We've already narrowed it down to seven keys. Now take two notes. The number of keys any two notes can be in depends on the interval. If there is a tone between the two notes, that could be five keys. If the interval is a semitone then we've narrowed it down to two keys.

"Aww, dude, that's like so restrictive," you might say. You could look at it that way, or you could look at it that music theory is extremely easy.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by RichardT »

adrian_k wrote: Sat Dec 10, 2022 9:58 am And then there’s the Jacob Collier trick of modulating into a whole new tuning by a quarter tone :

https://youtu.be/HUGoUHKAGAE

I really wish he wouldn’t - it makes me feel a bit queasy.
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by adrian_k »

:D
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Re: Do you always look at scales when composing?

Post by ScottNL »

Same as you, FSW. Presently I am always starting from an already developed chord progression.. so I just pick which of the twelve notes I like for each (usually two) section(s). But then I will also check those 'same' notes using the fifth degree of the original scale as the root. And maybe use both sets.

Good topic. 👍
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