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How To Speak Music (Chapter 1)

Communication between composer and client can be fraught with misunderstanding. Get your lexicon refined and work together faster with better results.

Everybody knows the old saw, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."  (For future reference, Martin Mull didn't say this first... the first published version of this truism precedes him by many decades.)  And yes, it can certainly seem that way... the designer or audio manager says one thing, the composer hears another, the demo comes back dead wrong and a few days of creative work gets flushed.  The composer feels his or her best work has been rejected, the developers think you're not listening; it's the definition of "major fail."

In my career I've run into dozens of brick walls thanks to these kinds of communication breakdowns.  A client once told me he really liked the track but felt it was "too jazzy."  Now, when I hear "jazzy," I think, "upbeat, jumpy or flashy."  So I slowed the tune down, played a less busy bass part, and so on, but kept all my favorite parts, including the cool, Motown horn section.  When the client heard the new version he said, "No, not like that!  I meant take out the horns!  It sounds like an old-timey jazz band!"  When HE said jazzy, he meant "with a horn section."

In our eagerness to please, we often take away from client conversation what we (as composers) would mean if we said those words, but we don't take the time to ask the questions that would clarify a client's needs. (And since we're the experts in music and sound, the onus is on us to nail it down.)

So, to that end, I'm writing (still!) a brochure to send to advertising and game developer clients called "How To Talk Music."  It's going to be a tongue-in-cheek glossary of the kinds of terms we all use to describe music, with some suggestions on what questions we can ask when a client uses them.  My next couple of blog spots will feature excerpts (and maybe writing these posts will help get it done!).

Aggro: (also aggressive, edgy) When I use the term aggressive, I'm usually talking about tempo, velocity, hard and fast percussion, grind-y guitars.  But a client may not.  They may be asking you o literally put more edge on the sounds:  more high-end dirt, synth patches with more squared-off waveforms.  If a client asked me "makes this more aggressive," my first question would be, "Do you mean faster?  Or do you mean uglier?"  If the request is for "edgy," the questions should help remove the vagueness of the term:  do you mean daring, or modern, or just plain hard to listen to?

Big:  This descriptor is quicksand.  Are you looking for more depth, more dynamic range and stereo space?  More lows?  More going on in the arrangement?  Melodic elements more in your face?

Contemporary: easily the most misused, misunderstood term in the entire dancing-about-architecture lexicon.  Not only does it mean something like 20 different things, those 20 are constantly changing from year to year (or month to month, in this culture).  Don't assume you know what this means when it gets said:  make them tell you what it means.  Contemporary like Jack White or Beyoncé?  Like Daft Punk or Pomplamoose?  A seasoned producer or audio lead may provide you with scratch track that they've been listening to as the game was developed, but more often than not, you're working on pure description. I've worked with clients who thought Phil Collins was contemporary, so.... yeah.  

Next week:  more How To Speak Music.

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