Concrete Music Brief
Matthew Lovett, CSM
You are going to compose a piece of music lasting between 3 and 4 minutes. The piece
must be structured and demonstrate that you have an understanding of dynamics, speed,
tone and texture.
The key thing to bear in mind when composing music this way is that the sounds that
your using are the basic building blocks: let the sounds dictate the musical decisions you
make. Don’t use set rhythm patterns or try to use your sounds to make beats as such,
this project is about listening to the raw materials you’ve got and making musical
choices based on what you hear, not how they can fit into some kind of rhythmic
Again, don’t try to write melodies as such with your raw material, what you have may
be suggestive of melody or even harmony, but let the sounds decide the tonal structure
Work through the following exercises using the techniques and skills delivered during
the Music Tech/Pro Tools induction sessions. If you have any questions or need
clarification, please book a tutorial as soon as possible.
Collecting Source Material
Step 1: Collect at least 10 sounds from the environment. There is no limit to
the type of sounds you can collect: indoor/outdoor, short/long, loud/quiet, bright/dull,
pitched/unpitched. What you must remember is that you are going to be using these
sounds as raw material for your compositions, so make sure you get clean recordings
and think about how you are going to use them. For example, the sounds of a crowded
room, a busy train station or a motorway might be interesting but it will be very difficult
to manipulate these sounds. Focus on capturing individual sounds – you can combine
Step 2: For this project, you will be using Pro Tools with an M-Box, so you can
easily record direct to computer. If you have recorded your sounds using a mobile or a
minidisc recorder, then you must now transfer your recordings onto a computer.
Step 3: Your first task is to make 45 seconds of sound/music using only one
sample. Pro Tools has a number audio processing effects, but start by making
adjustments to pitch, direction (using reverse), EQ (to alter the timbre) and time
stretching (altering the duration of your sample).
At this point you must start to think musically:
A) How will the piece start? Gradually? (will the sound fade in) Abruptly? (will the
sound start immediately with the element of surprise)
B) What will happen next? Will the sound get louder? Change pitch? Repeat? Any
C) Repeat step (B) until you’ve reached 35 seconds
D) Now you need to end the piece. Think about how it began – will you end in a
similar or different way. Again, apply some simple rules of composition – is the
piece cyclical (coming back to the same place), linear (travelling from point A to
point B) or explorative (letting one step move to the next sequentially with no
overall plan). You may find your first attempts falling into the last category – but
is this how you want your music to sound?
Step 4: Now you can experiment with layering your sounds. You’ve worked out
how to use one sound, now combine two together to create another 45 seconds of
music. What relationships can you generate? Antiphony/Question and Answer? (one
sound responds to another sound using imitation) Polyphony? (more than one sound
happening at once) Cacophony? (two sounds working against each other to create an
Step 5: Now you’ve experimented with sound effects and combinations of
sounds, the final step is to think about spatial positioning. Sounds complex, but basically
you’re now going to use the panning function to decide whether your sounds are on the
left or right of the stereo image, or in the middle or somewhere in between. In Pro
Tools it’s very easy to move sounds from left to right – if you’re working with
headphones on (highly recommended) then you’ll quickly realise how effective
experimenting with stereo can be. Make a 45 second piece that just makes use of the
left and right balance – use any of the techniques you’ve already acquired in order to
Step 6: You’ve now explored composition using a number of simple parameters
and techniques. You can now begin to use more complex plug-ins such as reverb, delay
• Reverb digitally simulates the effect of hearing sounds within certain spaces, e.g. a
small room or a large concert hall. We call the echoes that we hear bouncing
back at us from the walls, floor and ceiling in a room, ‘reflections’ and it’s these
reflections that give a space its particular sonic character.
• Delay literally copies the sound and plays it back. You can adjust how many
copies are made and how quickly they repeat. The more copies that are made,
the more they ‘feedback’ into the original sound, which causes the system to
overload – sometimes you may want to use this feedback effect, but you must
• Compression is a way of controlling the dynamic level of a particular sound. It
has two main parameters ‘Threshold’ and ‘Ratio’ that allow you to determine
how much sound is released from the compressor. The threshold sets the
maximum volume that the compressor will output. Very basically, this means
that if you have a sound that has both very quiet and very loud sections, you can
decrease the dynamic range between them – i.e. so that the loud sections don’t
sound so loud. ‘Ratio’ controls the amount of compression – a high ratio (e.g.
10:1) greatly increases the amount of compression and therefore greatly reduces
the volume above the threshold, whilst a lower ratio (down towards 1:1)
reduces the volume more gently. A ratio of 10:1 at a particular amplitude
literally stops anything going over that threshold immediately and therefore acts
like a noise gate or limiter. However, you’ll usually want your compression to
work much more gently and therefore you’ll need to adjust your threshold and
ratio accordingly – experiment with a number of different settings to get used to
what compression sounds like. Once you’ve started to control the dynamic
range of your sounds, you can then ‘make up’ the volume of the overall track.
This is how many radio stations work: reduce the difference between the quiet
and loud bits in a track then make the whole track as loud as possible. Usually
you’ll want to avoid hearing the effect itself – you’ll only want to hear the
improvements it can make to the sound quality of your music. However, in
some situations, hearing the compressor working is actually the effect we’re
after – but you need to be absolutely sure that this won’t be interpreted as bad
Step 7: Now you’re ready to put together your final piece. Try combining all of
the techniques you’ve explored, although don’t feel that you have to use everything.
The basic rules of composition still apply:
• Think about structure: how will the piece start/continue/end?
• Think about dynamics/tone/speed/texture/pitch in order to create variation.
• Very basically, composition is about tension and release – how can you make use
of these two concepts in your work, how can you move between these two
• As with Improv, avoid falling into the trap of using clichés: don’t try and make
beats, riffs or conventional melodies. This project is about exploring sounds,
creating sounds and combining sounds to make new textures. It is NOT about
using abstract sounds to make dance music, so don’t think about key signatures
or time signatures.
• Don’t forget to use space – it’s one of the most powerful compositional devices.
Silence can say so much more than an overload of sound, and understanding and
using the relationship between sound and silence is basically what composition is