Adventures in Chiptunes (Part 5) – Compositions Methods, Flow and Squircles

Lion-ManRecap: For over a year, I’ve been investigating chiptune music.  I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about myself, my music, my creative process and more.  I hope some of this is relevant to you.  Thanks for reading.

Here’s one of my own chip tunes.  From Myriad3‘s album, Tell, it’s my composition Mr. Awkward.

Learning Classical Theory

I remember taking classical theory lessons as a kid – Specifically, 4-part harmony, where you’re given melodies and chord progression to fill in while adhering to very strict rules (no parallel octaves, 5ths etc.).

It occurred to me that I was never required or encouraged to complete these exercises using the piano.  If anything, it was discouraged.  Exercises were to be completed with a pencil, at a desk, with no sonic or visual aids.

Is this how classical theory is normally taught?

I retaught myself classical harmony in university and was able to do so because I forced myself to play and hear these exercises at the piano.  After all, I’m a pianist.  My relationship with music is mostly expressed through the piano.  It makes sense to learn new music ideas and theories by building on that foundation.

I’m not aware of every method of teaching classical theory, but my instincts tell me that the tradition emphasizes those who practice theory using only a pencil and paper.  My counterpoint exam for example, consisted of me writing a fugue in the Bach style, in class, with only a pencil and manuscript.  Lessons in textbooks are phrased “the leading tone resolves to the tonic,” rather than “Do you hear how the leading tone wants to resolve to the tonic?”

My favourite example comes from Piston:


Of course, these methods work for some people. We all know someone who could memorize this in a few minutes.  But I don’t learn this way, and I suspect most people don’t.

Composition Methods Reflect Capabilities and Limitations

There’s a certain “seriousness” associated with musicologists and composers who excel in this.  It’s definitely an admirable skill.  But, in keeping with one of the themes of these posts, such skills reflect limitations just as much as they reflect capabilities.

For example, compositions composed in this way are more likely to neglect the physical dimension of playing musical instruments, making them more difficult to perform.  Nikolai Kapustin’s piano music is an exception.  I don’t know how he writes his music, but he’s clearly a pianist and probably composes at the piano.  Although tremendously difficult, his pieces fit nicely under the shape of a pianist’s hand.

Music composed at the piano will have certain characteristics (shapes, chords, progressions, melodies etc.) that are unique to playing the piano.  These characteristics can be difficult to identify because there are always other forces at work shaping compositions besides a composer’s instrument (style and theory for example).  But a composer’s method will still have an important part in shaping how his compositions are conceived.

It’s interesting to think that there are hundreds and hundreds of years worth of music that was composed using the pencil and paper method.  I’m no academic on the subject, but I’d be willing to bet that with the emergence, affordability and accessibility of keyboard instruments, compositions began to sound and feel differently.  In fact, in classical theory, there’s a distinction between voicing a chord in “open” style and “keyboard” style.

An example of keyboard style

An example of keyboard style. From

These differences may be subtle now, but considering the difference between a keyboard style and a contrapuntal style, such a distinction over the long term probably had a drastic impact on the evolution of the music.

What’s My Point?

My message here is twofold.  First, the “seriousness” associated with composers who use only pencils and paper is no more “serious” than a composer who uses sequencing software.  One isn’t better than the other.  Their differences are in their capabilities, limitations, how a composer finds flow, and how that composer connects.

I struggled with this point for many years, trying to strive for a “seriousness” that’s contrary to the conditions I require to attain flow.  Thanks to my adventures in chiptunes, I’ve realigned myself.

My second point is similar to what I wrote in the previous post.  I encourage everyone to constantly reexamine, realign and update your skills, biases, instruments and environments.  If you’re unfamiliar with sequencing software, give it a try!  I challenge you to create something beautiful.

In the end, you may find that you’re unsuited to using sequencing software.  But, you may be surprised!

What do Word Processing and Music Sequencing Have in Common?

I used to compose music by hand, sitting at the piano.  I was never satisfied with this setup, but I persisted because I thought it was more natural and that this is a how a “serious” composer writes music.  Experimenting with chiptunes and sequencing software was liberating.  I no longer had to spend mental capital on playing the piano.  With sequencing software, I could think more compositionally.

The difference could be likened to using word processing versus hand-writing.  I’m a horrible speller.  But thanks to word processing, my spelling and grammar are (mostly) correct.  My mind, instead of being preoccupied with spelling, can focus more on developing an idea.  Perhaps, most importantly, writing and expressing thoughts with words isn’t exclusive to people with good spelling and neat handwriting.

There are more benefits:  I can write faster.  I can copy and paste. I can easily move words, sentences, phrases and paragraphs around the document.  Not to mention the thesaurus, font and formatting options.  There are more benefits than I can think of right now, most of which I take for granted.

Music sequencing has similar features, including copying, pasting and moving notes, phrases and sections wherever you want, within seconds.  Most notable is their ability to give instant feedback.

I have pages and pages of handwritten musical themes that eventually evolve into a composition.  This is because my compositions rarely flow out in their final form.  They usually flow out in bits and pieces and require crafting.  Crafting is simple with sequencing software.  The artist in the video above was actively crafting a drumbeat as it was being heard.  Rather than having pages and pages of written themes, you have something that virtually resembles an improvisation.

These interfaces are designed to inspire creative work.  When you achieve an optimal workflow, there can be elements of play, spontaneity and improvisation just as in any creative activity.

There are hundreds and hundreds of years of music that was composed using the pencil and paper method. There’s a new generation of music being produced that has its origins in this kind of spontaneous workflow.

Squircles and the Feedback Loop

When I sit down to write words or music, my ideas flow based on the assumption that I will have certain capabilities.  Circle ideas will flow into circle holes.  If however, you find yourself with a square hole, you may eventually find yourself with ideas and holes that more closely resemble squircles.

My point is that your instruments will shape your flow, just as you shape the output from those instruments.  You’re in a relationship.  It’s a push and pull.  It’s a feedback loop.

This is similar to what I mentioned above.  If you compose at the piano, your music will be influenced by the visualizations, shapes and physical interactions that are unique to the piano.  Likewise, if you compose using Ableton, your music will likely have a sound and feel that is unique to Ableton and sequencing software.

But these feedback loops don’t stop at influencing your Ableton workflow.  They can have many far-reaching, positive influences on your music and creative work.

A pianist’s optimal workflow while using MIDI instruments and sequencing software will depend on his ability to play accurately.  There may be a new generation of pianists who are practicing and composing using sequencing software.  How might this influence the sound and style of future pianists?

Case in point, below is a short video of Shanabubula playing a passage on the piano.  I’m rarely stumped by a piano performance.  I can usually figure out what’s happening pianistically in any piano recording.  But he plays this passage in a way that mimics a delay effect (a common effect in chiptune music).  Even after watching this multiple times, I’m still not sure how he’s doing it.  This excites me.  Check it out:


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