Thursday, December 22, 2016

Makin' Music in Bosca Ceoil

Lots of folks feel in their heart of hearts that making art is a magical and innate talent. They feel that there's some spectral force inhabiting an elite few, blessing them with the capacity to make true art.

This is total nonsense. Making any particular kind of art is just a skill, one with concrete rules and logic that can be taught and studied. It's a variety of crafts you learn through repetition, listening, and a whole lot of effort. Pretending that it's purely intuitive just makes it seem more intimidating than it actually is. 

This is something I say a lot with regards to game design, 'cause I hate seeing brilliant creative people say "there's no way I could ever do that." Of course you can! Just try. Experiment. Fumble. Create. Didn't y'all see Ratatouille? Go download Twine, load up Puzzlescript or Scratch or Game Maker Studio, cut some board game pieces out of construction paper. You can do it! I believe in you! 

But I'm a hypocrite. You see, this is how I've always felt about composing music. I've always looked at it as a magical talent I can't ever hope to claim for myself.

It's not like I don't have the formal knowledge. I've had more explicit instruction in the craft behind music than I've ever had with game design. I played bassoon in school bands and local orchestras for seven years. I aced several college classes in music theory, listening to multi-part harmonic pieces and notating them by ear. But somehow, the idea of actually buckling down and making music felt impossible.

Part of this is that none of the classes I took asked students to compose original music. Which feels like a major oversight to me! But really it's that I never actually tried. I'd load up FL Studio, get intimidated by the interface, and I'd give up before putting down a single note.

That's how it's always gone for me -- until earlier this year that is. I finally got over that block and made some damn music. And I have Terry Cavanagh to thank (not for the first time), because it was his excellent composition program Bosca Ceoil that helped me get started.

(Important note: CTRL+left-click the bottom of an arrangement column to delete it, SHIFT+left-click to add a blank column. Knowing that would've saved me a lot of time.)

Bosca Ceoil is a stripped-down zero-bullshit music tracker designed for maximum possible accessibility. It gave me what I needed: an easy tool that offered as few barriers to creation as possible. Among electronic music programs, Bosca Ceoil is the closest thing I've found to a palette and a blank canvas. It lets you put notes down, fiddle with them until they sound good, then add more notes, and so on. Because that's what making music is. You try, experiment, fumble, create. 

I do have a bit of a head-start thanks to my extensive formal knowledge! And that helped tremendously. But if you want a free crash course in that stuff just check out the incredible 12tone series of music theory and compositional instruction videos. I've been watching them religiously; follow the exercises and you'll learn the same things I paid hundreds of tuition dollars to study.

Anyway, here's what I've put together so far:

Cute Short Loop - Bouncy and sweet. I like how the two melodies converge in the end. Someone told me it reminded them of Phantasy Star, which still makes me glow. The bassline trichords feel a little muddy to me, I moved away from them as time went on.

Short Gentle Loop - Experimenting with different textures. Discovered how much I like harmonizing to repeated arpeggios. Drums feel a little busy, and this is the other one with the muddy trichords.

Short Eerie Loop - Trying out some creepier textures, also using a minor key for the first time. More arpeggios. This one's all about the rhthym nonsense in the back half, which is the part that really makes me smile. 

Winsome Loop - Back to bouncy and sweet! I like this one, but it feels like it's missing some kind of culmination in the back half. More rhythm nonsense, albeit not as overt (or successful).

Spooky Loop - Menace in minor! This is the first piece with accidentals, meaning the "melody" steps out of its home key briefly. Don't know if it's obvious that the second melody is just the first one sped way up. This is the one I can most see sticking in a game at some point.

That's what I've got so far! Excited to make more music, and maybe incorporate it into my other work. I've got lots of avenues forward; finding more musical tools to experiment with is as easy as looking down a list of 12tone videos. I definitely want to try some more experimental harmonies and mid-piece key changes. What's modulation again? Let me rewatch the video, maybe that's something I should try...

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