Q&A questions coming in
Q&A questions coming in

On the EDMP discord server today, we held a Q&A session with Asaf Peres of top40theory.com

What follows is the session…

If you have any questions or comments, please comment below! I read every comment and respond to most. No registration is necessary to comment, so don’t be shy.

Contents

Any predictions for the next big trend in melodies? I’ve studied a lot of things like the “millennial whoop” wondering if you have any ideas for something that hasn’t been done that is likely to catch on?

Asaf: From a philosophical standpoint I’m not a fan of predicting trends because the point of time in which a trend can be predicted happens just before it becomes huge and any song that tries to hop on it sounds stale. However, if I had to guess, I would say everyone is going to try (or in reality are already trying) to write melodies like Post Malone, which feel to me like Max Martin on steroids. They are uber repetitive and precise but he uses variation in the production and lyrics to be able to pull it off.

Might as well ask a question: What would you recommend beginner composers should do when trying to compose a song? (Sorry, a complete noob so I’m not even sure if this question is appropiate.)

Asaf: There are a million ways to start a composition and part of the reason a lot of composers get stuck in front of a blank page/screen is because they are too hung up on how to start rather than just starting with something. Two strategies work for me better than others. The first one is when I have an idea pop up into my head I play around with it FOR A VERY LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIME and then start experimenting with various techniques to develop it. For example, if I have a 2-measure melody I’ll try to see how it works in different 8-measure structures. The reason I emphasized the limited time for playing around with it is that spending too much time on the ‘inspiration’ part of the process can easily lead to getting too used to hearing your initial idea as is and as a result any variation or applied technique will start sounding ‘wrong’. More inspiration will come as you apply technique/craft.

The other strategy that works for me is to just sketch out the process ahead of time so I don’t have to waste time and mental capacity figuring out what to do next. The order itself doesn’t matter: Do I start with the drums? Do I start with a chord progression? Do I start with the melody/lyrics? It doesn’t really matter as long as you have the order down. You can change it as you go if, for example, you come up with a cool idea for lyrics and you want to postpone working on the chord progression, but the point is to have a default order of operations to rely on so you don’t get lost in the process.

What’s one trend that you personally don’t really like but has stuck for years on end?

Asaf: I don’t really know. There are songs that I don’t like but I can’t think of a whole trend that bothers me. It might be part of my mindset as a theorist - I try to always keep an open mind in order to recognize new trends and ways of doing things and not write them off as ‘wrong’. I get super hooked on songs but I always try to keep the issues of whether I like a song or not and whether it’s a good song or not separate.

I know a lot of people are bothered by the fact that almost every song has a trap beat, but it doesn’t really bother me tbh. I actually like it even though everyone is doing it.

What are the main things that spark an idea for a song?

Asaf: It can really be anything - I’ve started songs with a beat, a chord progression, a lyric, a concept. I’ve always felt, even as a concert composer before I crossed over to pop, that what you start with usually has very little to do with the quality of the final song/piece. It’s the craft and creativity. Even Beethoven’s famous motif from Symphony #5 is nothing special on its own. It’s how he develops it.

Do you personally agree with the way song structure has evolved into what it is now? Specifically the 3 drop structure with a bridge in the middle

Asaf: I don’t agree or disagree with it. It’s just a framework, like sonata form or 12 bar blues or rhythm changes. There are amazing songs and terrible songs that follow the same exact structure.

Could you take a moment to explain what you think differentiates the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ within that structure

Asaf: For example, and I guess this partially answers one of the later questions, I notice a lot of aspiring producers treating this structure as simply a linear, section-to-section progression. They copy/paste their choruses without thinking about the sonic arc of the song as a whole. Great songs tend to develop on multiple dimensions. The second verse will have less energy than the first chorus but will still push the energy forward and maybe pick up where the prechorus left off, etc.

How do you approach writing songs that feel like they move through various ideas cohesively? Any tips for, say, linking one section of a song to another you’d like to be wildly different?

Asaf: You need to have common elements. In most pop things are pretty cohesive, but if you want an example of music that constantly moves through wildly different ideas while staying coherent, I highly recommend checking out Mr. Bungle. They have 3 albums. In the first these contrasts are extremely blatant, and in the 3rd they are more subtle but still very noticeable and awesome. The 2nd album is fantastic also but for learning this kind of craft I’d recommend the 1st and 3rd.

What’s the best way to go about composing for real instruments? When working in a DAW, you don’t have to worry much about how playable a piece is, you only have to worry about how good it sounds. When working on just the instrument itself, it’s hard to develop technically challenging ideas that still sound good. Is there a happy medium between the two?

Asaf: Are you talking about composing music intended to be performed by live performers? If so, there’s nothing better than just meeting up with a performer and asking them to try out things you write or play around with ideas. That’s what even the most experienced and accomplished composers do.

First off, you’re a beast and love how in depth you take your analysis. I wanted to ask what kind of questions are you usually asking as you analyse piece and is there a structure to your approach? (trying to get better at dissecting songs myself to improve my own work)

Asaf: Thank you! I almost always start by listening and trying to pick up on any moment or element in the song/piece that feels special or moving to me. That’s where I’m most likely going to find the most interesting thing. Just yesterday I posted something about Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” because it came up on the radio and one chord in the prechorus (that I first thought was a V/vi) sounded particularly dreamy/shiny to me. When I relistened I realized it was actually an augmented chord and there were a bunch of other things in the arrangement as well that gave it that quality.

Other than that, of course, I look at usual things like the sonic development, the chord progressions, the melodic structures, etc. and make note as to whether they follow the typical ‘language’ of pop or do something out of the ordinary that is worth exploring further.

What is the most common arrangement mistake mediocre songwriters make in your opinion? Are there any example tracks that you feel include unusual and successful transition tricks to keep energy flowing nicely through the song without relying on cliches (noise risers, simply adding/removing elements, etc.)?

Asaf: Like I said, the most common mistakes I see aspiring producers make is only viewing song structure as a linear, section-to-section structure. They copy-paste sections without ‘sculpting’ them, and don’t pay enough attention to the overall sonic arc or to the small details that make a song stand out.

As for your other questions, I feel like the things you describe as cliches are simply the stylistic foundations of the genre. You can use other ways to do transitions, but it will not sound like pop/EDM/hip-hop. I mean, classical composers used various modulation techniques to transition or different types of cadences. Without those a classical piece wouldn’t sound like a classical piece.

In contrast to the previous question, could it be that the simple transition techniques are fundamental bedrocks of danceable music in your opinion?

Asaf: Yup, I should’ve included you in my previous answer. Every genre has its set of tropes/cliches without which it wouldn’t be a genre.

There’s that joke that in a couple of decades, our teens are gonna ask what we listened to in our youth and we’ll put on EDM. There’s some semblance of truth to that, I think, since we’re seeing a lot of elements of electronic music infusing AT40/pop music these days. On a similar note to that, do you think that there will ever be a formal “electronic music theory” or “theory of electronic music composition” that gets formalized and studied?

Asaf: Well, my entire PhD dissertation was about ‘sonic functions’ in EDM-influenced pop music, which you could describe as a theory of electronic music. I also wrote a blog post about it recently and other posts of mine have relied on this theory. I know that quite a few theory professors use my blog and dissertation as teaching material, and I know that there are other scholars who research EDM and other related genres, though they haven’t crossed over to the public sphere like me. Will it infiltrate the core theory curriculum? I hope so, and I think it’s overdue because it’s ridiculous that academia teaches the same things it taught 70 years ago and ignores all the technological advances and the changing tools and concepts since recording studios became a thing. But I’m not optimistic that it will happen any time soon.

How much potential do you see in monome-type controllers becoming respected as an instrument in the same way as traditional western instruments?

Asaf: Depends on what you mean by ‘respected’. Respected by academia? That’s going to take a long time. Respected by people who actually understand this music and care about it? I think we’re already there, no? In the concert composition world I know several composers who use these types of controllers (mainly Push) with orchestras, but tbh it’s not at the level of real DJs who live this world.

Do you think writer’s block is a real thing? I’ve seen more and more artists are claiming it to be a mind game that you can push through, but I’m skeptical.

Asaf: Writer’s block is a thing but it’s usually a result of bad work habits. Like I said earlier, if you minimize the amount of time you spend in ‘inspiration mode’ and maximize ‘work/craft/technique mode’, if you follow a pre-set work routine, and I’ll add if you have set work hours, you will significantly minimize the possibility of writer’s block.

what’s the most simplistic composition you’ve seen gain worldwide attraction?

Asaf: Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? Though I have to admit I love that song and was obsessed with it for quite a while.

How often should you revise theory and how do you know what to learn next or to get inspiration for what to learn next in theory sorry for late question

Asaf: The most important thing for me as a theorist is to always keep my ears and mind open for new things. Like I said there are usual things I look at like structure, melody, harmony, texture, etc, but the most important thing to me is to identify moments and elements that don’t fall in line with the usual stuff (or even that are different in the context of the song itself and not necessarily the genre). Those are the things worth exploring. And as time goes by you notice that those things that seemed like an anomaly are gradually becoming the norm. A good example of this for me is what I call the ‘postchorus-bridge switcheroo’. I wrote a blog post about it a few months ago because I noticed it in a lot of songs, but it was still relatively an anomaly then. But recently I feel like it’s almost becoming the norm as I’ve seen it in a ton of songs in the last couple of months.

Do you personally think its bad to look up a song you like, and pick a key based on that? Maybe even stealing the chords, but rearranging/designing the chord progression?

Asaf: No. Nothing is conjured out of thin air, and every element of every song - separately - has already been done. The creative part of making a song is to take all these different things and create something new and fresh that will stand out in the massive crowd of songs trying to get noticed.

Asaf: I think pop songs usually have to be simple on a surface level but more complex ‘under the hood’. Which parts are simpler and which parts are more complex shifts a bit over time but the balance stays more or less the same. For example, melodically, things are ‘looser’ than they used to be in the peak of Max Martin’s strict melodic math, but in those songs there’s a bit less complexity in the arrangement.

How do you come up with ideas to keep songs interesting? Often times I find myself starting a track and not finishing it because thinking up new ideas takes forever. It’s not that I can’t come up with them, but the process is pretty slow - how do you get better at it? (Wondering if there any tricks besides just practice haha)

Asaf: I guess I already answered this above. It’s not the initial idea that matters most, it’s what you do with it. Applying your technique/craft to a single idea will usually yield much more creative and satisfying results than constantly trying to come up with new ideas.

That’s not quite what I was saying, but I appreciate the help. What I mean was like how do you get faster at coming up with new ideas (are there any exercises you do etc.)

Asaf: focusing on craft will naturally generate more and better ideas faster. Trying to conjure them up from scratch every time is a much slower process and yields underdeveloped ideas. Though I do recommend reading Edward De Bono’s writing on creative thinking. Even though he says it doesn’t necessarily apply to music, I’ve found his techniques helpful as a composer.

Maybe I could ask a new question for later then, which is where do you generally go to look for samples? I know this is pretty open ended, but maybe you could point out a few sites that you’ve enjoyed before

Asaf: Honestly, I try to avoid looking for new samples unless there is an extremely specific sound that I need that I don’t already own and can’t create. Getting lost in a sea of samples is one of the worst black holes for creativity for me. The samples I have are mostly from Splice, Cymatics, ADSR, the stuff that comes with Ableton Live Suite, and the EastWest subscription. And of course some stuff that I’ve recorded myself. That’s more than enough for a million lifetimes of creating music for me :smiley:

How loud do you usually listen to music??? I know it sounds weird but does listening to loud music all the time hurt ur perception of a song or does it improve it?

Asaf: I don’t listen super loudly. My hearing is very precious to me :smiley:

What do you think of DJ L, more specifically his rise to the top 100

Asaf: Honestly I’ve never heard of him.

How do you go around making a good melody? I often find myself with a good chord progression, but I am unable to make a melody that sounds nice.

Asaf: The biggest mistake people make when writing melodies is thinking that it’s a random process and you just have to somehow come with a magical combination of notes that will be better than any other combination. The truth is that melodies are like every other musical element - they have structure, and more importantly they have energy. Most hooks on their own are nothing to write home about, but they are ‘fueled’ by denser prehooks and/or by production techniques and/or by changes in the chord progression. I mean, the reason the ‘yeah yeah’ part in Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” sounds so satisfying is not because it’s such a genius combination of notes and lyrics. It’s because of the rest-less chorus that comes before it, because of the 808 drop, etc. I’ve done several blurbs about prehooks and fueling a hook on my social media.

Do you mean taking preexisting ideas and building from there, or focusing more specifically on a certain type of sound?

Asaf: Sound design is far from my expertise, but in general I would say that getting a unique sound is rarely the result of one unique element. It’s usually the combination of several things - each likely not very special on its own - that add up to something new and fresh.

Oh by the way. Which part do you think was wrong in Lorde - Greenlight by melodic math that really bothered max martin?

Asaf: I haven’t analyzed “Green Light” so I can’t think of it off the top of my head, but feel free to ask me again sometime on Twitter and I’ll take a look if I can get around to it.

Asaf: I would only be reluctant to tell them to study classical music if they planned to make it their primary learning focus. It’s always good to learn other styles/genres but in order to successfully ‘translate’ the concepts you learn and import them into your own genre you have to know the ins and outs of your ‘home base’ first. It’s like language. I can be the most eloquent French speaker but I can’t translate a French book to German if I don’t also master the German language. I’ve seen a lot of formally trained classical and jazz musicians trying to do pop and it’s usually very cringe worthy. They caricaturize pop instead of understanding that it has its own language.

I would recommend first studying pop and/or EDM melodies and analyzing them to the point where they truly understand the craft behind them, and then they can study classical, jazz, Beatles, or anything else and bring that insight back with them.

What would be your tips for people not doing music full-time? Managing expectations, managing learning, making most of the time you have, avoiding frustrations of not progressing as much as one would like, etc?

Asaf: I would say always be learning and always be doing. Sometimes you have to focus on one more than the other but I would keep the ratio to no further than 75-25 at most. This ensures that you will always feel like you’re gaining ground, though there’s no escaping the times when you feel frustrated and like you’re not making any progress. It’s necessary growing pains, but the biggest breakthroughs for me have come directly after periods of feeling stagnant.

Is your dissertation public? If so, where can we read it?

Asaf: I think ProQuest sells my dissertation (I don’t even own an official copy…) but tbh my blog is much more concise, accessible, and up to date. My dissertation was my initial exploration of the topic but the stuff I’ve done recently is a lot more developed and nuanced.

Since it’s almost Halloween, what are some tips for writing evil or spooky music?

Asaf: hmmm out-of-control LFOs?… I honestly have never given that one much thought.

Thank you very much for your time, is there anything else that you’d like to share? Your social media

Asaf: But anyway, I’m glad I was able to get to all the questions. Feel free to follow top40theory on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook (there’s also a group on FB in addition to the page). You can always ask me questions on those and I try to get to as many as I can. And for more in depth stuff there’s my blog on top40theory.com.

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