Scripting the Music
What should an album be and how does one start the creative process? For many bands, the planning isn’t something to worry about. You just get the band together, jam until something sounds good, flesh out the cool riffs into a full song with lyrics, and record. Once you’ve got a handful of songs, you throw them onto a release together, and that’s that. Some artists are able to crank these things out every year, because the process is solid. What if you don’t have a band? If you’re doing everything yourself, as I do, where do you start? Should I write lyrics first or work on the music? If I work on the music first, do I start with drums, guitar, keyboard? How do I determine the tempo, time signature, and key? With so many options, it’s overwhelming just to get started. One bad choice at the beginning of a song will drastically affect the final product. Some would say it’s all just trial and error, but whenever I’ve taken that approach, the results are not satisfying. This time around, I’ve created a detailed project plan before jumping into the songwriting. I want this to be the best music I’ve ever created, not just a collection of random songs.
Now, in my opinion, lyrics should always come first, even if I don’t always follow that rule. Lyrics and the feelings behind them guide the choices of tempo, timing, and key. Aggressive lyrics need an aggressive pace. It always hurts my head when I hear a pop song with sad lyrics, set to an upbeat tempo and a key set to match the vocalist’s range, rather than the feel. It happens most often in pop, because the vocalists are often not the lyricists, and the lyricists are often not the musicians. By the time the song is finished, lyrics, vocals, and music are no longer in sync. Lyrics should come first and guide the rest to create something sincere. The problem I run into when trying to write the lyrics for an album’s worth of songs, is that they all start to sound the same. And when all the lyrics sound the same, it stands to reason that the music will sound too similar as well. That doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad sounding album, but it’s the type of album that people stop listening to halfway through. You get bored and want to hear a different artist with a different sound. Albums need to have drama that rises and falls in variation to keep a listener’s interest. Just like a good movie does…
Although music is what I’ve focused my creative capabilities on, there’s always been an interest in film making as well. I’ve occasionally studied cinematography, editing, and script writing, and I’ve theorized that most of the same strategies involved with making a great film could be applied to creating an album. “Who’s in it, how much does it cost, and how’s the script?” If you want people to watch your film, you’d better have the right answers for at least two out of the three. Arguably, if you don’t have an interesting script, it won’t matter who the actors are or how much money is behind it. A great film always starts with a great script. I think the same principle could be applied to music. So I’ve written a script!
A standard practice for a screenplay is the page-per-minute rule. The end result is 90-120 pages for a 90-120 minute film. On the other hand, a typical music album is 45-55 minutes; about half the length of a movie. Well I’ve never been a fan of short films, so I’m going to stick to 90 minutes and make double album. My personal pick for greatest album of all-time, The Fragile, is a double album. Might as well aim that high. So I’ve written roughly 90 pages of script to guide my lyrics. Another common practice in film is to aim for 40-50 scenes, with each scene being 2-3 pages of the script. I’ve stuck to that rule, and I plan to have each song on the album be based around one scene. No way am I writing 40-50 songs, though! That would take at least two years, and I want to get this done by the end of 2016. So I’m only writing songs about approximately half of the scenes, giving me 20-25 songs to work with. After all, even the best movies have several scenes that don’t move the plot along. I’m editing those out.
At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody questioned whether I’m really just writing a musical. Hell no! I can’t stand them anyway (except maybe Book of Mormon). The big difference in concept is that there’s not going to be direct dialog. I’ve got a full story with characters, three acts, and so on, but if there’s one thing keeping me from becoming a real writer, it’s my inability to create witty dialog. I guarantee that listening to the album once through will not be enough to understand the story. I’m usually vague in my lyric writing, and few people who listen to one of my older songs would be able to guess exactly what it’s about. Relaying the story is not my goal; relaying the tension and feeling of the scene is. Is it a scene with a lot of action? Okay, start with a fast tempo, hard-hitting drums, and go from there. Is it a strange scene where plot twists are revealed and meant to confuse the viewer? Maybe a strange time signature and non-standard tuning to match.
It will be an experiment. Way too early to say whether it’s a good idea or not. I can say that’s it’s already felt refreshing to have a plan, and to have this script acting as my guide. Though, it’s quite possible that end result will not be great and all the people who say I am to analytical, or that this is too systematic of an approach, will be proven correct. Maybe music should just be a group of people getting high and jamming until something cool comes out. Or maybe it will turn out exactly how I plan. Time will tell. I doubt I’m the first musician to use this approach. Wouldn’t surprise me if some of my favorite albums actually have a complete story behind them too…