Making Music: The Challenge of Minimalism

First of all, let me be frank: I haven’t had much formal training in music. I rarely know which terms to use when, or how to technically describe some of the tactics I use while composing. But I grew up surrounded by musicians, started churning out my own music in middle school, took a couple college courses in composition, and kept churning more out. I’ve recorded about 19 full CDs of music altogether. So I’d like to think I have a decent amount of experience.

I’ve also allowed myself to develop some bad habits.

I’ve always composed with keyboard synthesizers using a wide array of digital instruments. I use software like Cakewalk or Ableton Live to record each instrument on separate channels. For me, the process of picking out the right sounds can take up at least half–if not much more–of the full time required to complete the song. Even once I’m done recording, I go back and keep changing the sounds–or adding new ones–until I’m satisfied.

It’s fantastic that the digital platforms for composing gives me that freedom. But as a result, I’ve noticed that almost all my songs tend to accumulate more and more instruments as they go from start to finish. In the beginning of the song there may only be two instruments; by the end there are ten, all playing at once in a mad dramatic frenzy.

After spending time with some other local musicians in Game Jams or panels, I’ve realized that my instrumental tendencies are not necessarily good ones. While I’m proud of my ear for instruments, I shouldn’t let the arrangement overwhelm the the structure of the song itself–or in many cases, keep me from thinking about the overall structure in general.

Here’s a version of the main theme for my upcoming visual novel, Echoes of the Fey. It is more or less a normal composition of mine in terms of number of instruments.


The overall feel of the soundtrack was very inspired by the “Legend” soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. But it was after I saw the movie “It Follows,” composed by Disasterpeace, that I started considering how many instruments I used. I was in awe of how a few simple digital sounds could create such compelling music, without complex instrumentation (that’s not to say, of course, that Disasterpeace didn’t work some brilliant technical wizardry to stretch those sounds the way they did).

I started limiting my songs to two or three instruments.

This forced me to think more deeply about the notes I was playing rather than obsessing over adding more instruments, drums, or sound effects to amp the drama as the song played. It also made me spend more time with the one or two instruments I did select, adding reverb, flangers, or other effects until they sounded just right. Here’s the result for Magic Energy:


I haven’t adhered faithfully to this rule all the time, I confess. But I’m trying to at least break my old habits. So far, I’ve learned that less can be more, even when it comes to increasing the drama of a song. I even made a song that only uses one instrument, and I’m damn proud of it. I can only hope that my music sounds as good as what inspired it!

Which version do you like better?