Context, Context, Context... Improving Music-Creation With Contextualisation
In this article, I will discuss how contextualisation has helped steer and direct my music creation and improve my creative output. This discussion is based in large part on my experiences and preferred way of working. I will outline a modus operandi that works for me, but might not be for everyone. Don't consider this article as a direct instruction or how-to, but rather, an option, a suggestion, or a possibility. Cherry pick the things that resonate and that you feel could improve your approach to music creation.
Macro Vs. Micro Contextualisation
Context within music, in its simplest, academic form, refers to:
"the general time period of the work and external influences on the piece of music. E.g. the composer’s life, musical styles of the time, instruments of the period, political happenings, etc"
There is nothing wrong with the above quote, but it is rather crude, and only considers the broader, macro aspects of contextualisation which, once you've studied a small amount of music-history, are somewhat a given (era, politics, musical-trends, etc).
The "etc" part of this quote is where things get interesting (for me) as it's the point at which we ought to stop considering the (common-sense) macros and start looking at the (intricately-interesting) micro-contextualisations (which cross over and become thematic considerations of your music creation).
I believe there is a blurred line between the notions of context and content. A blurred line (or overlap) that form the theme of a musical work. In this article we'll discuss context and theme in tandem, almost as if they're one and the same.
How Contextualisation Improved My Workflow: A Contextual Example
My first (creatively successful) foray into a contextual body of work was a Sonic The Hedgehog themed album called Zoned, which I released in 2016.
The idea stemmed from watching the Red Bull Music documentary series about video game music (Diggin' In The Carts). Inspired by the episode about the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis, I decided to create a body of work that paid homage to some of my favourite pieces of music from one of my most beloved video game franchises Sonic The Hedgehog.
I set myself some overarching parameters/goals (a context of sorts) to work towards:
Recreate the moods and atmospheres of the original music, albeit reimagined through a more contemporary, electronic-music lens
Capture the energy of the original games (not just their music, but their overriding audio/visual/game-play aesthetic: bright, bold, frantic, colourful, dynamic, etc)
Capture the Funk of the original game-music, and where possible expand upon it
Include audio excerpts from TV adverts and documentaries for the purpose of historical/contextual education
Create a story arc that (with the above mentioned TV ad and interview excerpts) takes the listener on a journey of discovery and education from not knowing about the significance of Sonic The Hedgehog music, to appreciating it, and hopefully seeking out the original versions
The above bullet points took very little time to think of (literally a five-minute mind-mapping session), but they instantly framed what I wanted to achieve and therefore strongly directed what I would do. With this basic framework in place, rather than muddling through and making things up as I went along, I was able to approach things more methodically. Most importantly, it gave me a strong idea and vision of what the end product ought to feel like (as at this early stage, it's hard to hear in your mind's ear, what it will sound like, but it is possible to know what you want it to feel like).
I sought out old SEGA adverts and video-interviews with SEGA staff, extracting the appropriate excerpts for sampling. I curated a list of Sonic The Hedgehog tunes to cover/rearrange and plotted their running order on the album to-be. During this process I planned the over-arching macro-dynamic ebbs and flows of the album (what songs would be fast, slow, frantic, chilled, soft, hard, sassy, nostalgic, etc).
The mind-mapping exercising coupled with planning and plotting the musical and thematic arc (along with a few song-specific notes) did not take long. In total I think I spent maybe 2-3 hours listening to bits of Sonic The Hedgehog music, browsing YouTube for interviews and old adverts, and plotting my route-map for the album.
The benefit of this relatively short exercise was very notable. I found that I had unintentionally given myself a very solid footing or foundation; a reference point to always go back to any moment I felt unsure of what to do, or whenever I reached a natural moment of pause and reflection (such as finishing a piece of music - the route-map would direct me onto the next piece of work). It was a contextual route-map that greatly sped up my workflow, but also (and most importantly) ensured that what I was making stayed true to the contextual goals of the project.
Now, whether or not what I created was actually good and/or enjoyable is entirely subjective, but as far as I was concerned, upon completion, I was satisfied that I had met my targets/goals and addressed each of the above bullet-points in a fairly coherent way. Moreover, thanks to the contextual route-map, I believe that what I created was of a stronger quality, than had I not used a contextual route-map.
Zoned, Five Years Later
Judging by BandCamp and YouTube statistics, this release has remains one of my more popular releases and it significantly out-performed my releases that pre-dated it.
This project was a self-indulgent labour of love and homage to the music of Sonic The Hedgehog. I hadn't considered audience response whilst making it. In hindsight however, I think there is a tangible link between the contextual workflow outlined above and the positive response and relative success of this album project.
My Creative Process, Five Years Later
Since creating Zoned, I've used the same approach on all of my EPs and albums; everything undergoes a similar contextual mind-mapping/route-planning exercise. Beginning with a context (e.g. "Girls on Bikes" or "Yume No Machi"), I establish working-titles for the album and tracks, along with plotting a running order and mapping out notes relating to the musical arc, detailing the macro-dynamic flow of the work as a whole (with brief descriptors relating to the feel of each track). All of this is done before recording a single sound or composing anything whatsoever.
I've not only found this workflow to be highly efficient, but also highly effective in improving my expressiveness across a body of work (something I've only been able to do with concerted efforts to remain focussed on best serving a context at all times).
Key Contextual Takeaways
Below are a few takeaways/notions from the above discussion that you could try to apply to your own work:
1 - Keep Context Front & Centre - I'd attempted to make contextual projects prior to Zoned, but they weren't as coherent; weren't planned in as much detail and ultimately, (inferior production value aside) I wasn't putting the context front and centre as much as I should have done. I had indulged in flippant and fickle decision making, which resulted in a lack of coherence, with a mishmash of ideas that detracted from the intended core principle of the project.
2 - The Finer Details Can Wait - As alluded to above, the context does not need to be technically detailed and doesn't not need to include specifics about exactly what the music will sound like (to know what it ought to feel like is more important in my opinion). In my experience, if the basic framework of the project is rooted in the context and decisions are always made with the context in mind, the finer details will likely take care of themselves.
3 - Adhering To The Context Is More Important Than The Context Itself - This is a very important one! Through experience, I've come to believe that the context is less important than the execution of the musical work. I.e. don't give the actual context too much thought, but do give ample thought to how you're going to realise your context.
For example, you could pick a brilliant context, yet the project could fall short because you haven't adhered to the context closely enough, resulting in an artistic direction that feels vague and nebulous.
Then again, you could pick a really vague or abstract context, but if the execution is strong and coherent, the end product will likely bring focus and clarity to your vague or abstract context, thus enabling the work to stand proud.
4.1 - What Context Should You Pick - Well, that's very much for you to decide, but don't fret or sweat the process of choosing a context. Often, for me, my contexts can begin as a vague, abstract, thematic ideas such as a mood, a feeling, a very basic story or scenario, a piece of visual art, and so on. They're more often than not, not musical contexts per se. If I choose a strictly musical context on which to work from, it's likely to still be abstract or only a vague directional context, such as using a particular sound-font or working in a particular genre.
4.2 - A Good Place To Start - If you want to try the contextual thing, but aren't sure where to start, I often find my mind wandering into the musical possibilities of the following contexts:
Imagined, fictional video-games
Imagined, fictional films/TV shows
Fantasy/fictional/science-fiction worlds & characters with a large and diverse universe and lore (e.g. Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, Marvel, DC, Alien, Dune, Harry Potter, Final Fantasy, Philip K Dick stories, Studio Ghibli, etc)
Historical events or imagined future events
The weather or seasons
Sports and/or the culture of sport fandoms and/or sports coverage on mass media
Technology both past and present as well as what the future might hold
It's by no means an exhaustive list, but perhaps it might help you form your own ideas and contexts on which to frame a future project and find new and different ways to approach composition, arrangement and production.
As mentioned in the introduction, this article is by no means telling you what to do or how to do it. It's simply a discussion about a context-based workflow that I've found myself using (most of the time). It's something that works for me (in terms of achieving creative satisfaction, at least), and I'm detailing it here, in the hope that it may prove helpful for anyone struggling with idea-generation and/or writers block. Perhaps your releases have always been a selection of unrelated songs that you've put together as an album, and if so, there's nothing wrong with this. Many great albums have been made in this way. Therefore, take or leave from this article whatever feels right for you. You do you, and contextually or not, keep on making music and pushing yourself into new areas of creativity.