Electronic music of all genres is plagued by group-mind-driven adherence to boundaries and rules: the tempos and meters deemed acceptable by the genre, its particular flavor of groove fascism and rudimentary melody/harmony, a limited sonic palette, the standard half-dozen or so effects, over-the-top hypersparkle mastering, and so on. Trembling before rules stifles compositional risk-taking, which causes the dreaded ‘same old, same old’ effect. It's rare these days to listen to a new piece and think, ‘I've never heard anything like this before.’

That's because e-musical creators have become too proper and boundary-kowtowing. Don't fall into the ‘well-behaved composer’ trap. You and your listeners deserve better! Cultivate, instead, a healthy disrespect for boundaries.

1. Identify your musical boundaries to know thine enemy.

2. Cosy up to your boundaries. Tease them, experiment with the place of great mystery and power that exists at the interface between what's acceptable and not.

3. Make forays into the taboo realm that's just beyond your boundaries. See how it feels, what musical treasures it offers.

4. Dare to go deeper and deeper into this forbidden realm. Remain patient and open-eared; the further you go, the greater the treasures, but the harder they are to find. The ultimate goal is attaining a boundary-less approach to music. Most boundaries don't really exist anyway; they’re just conventions, like borders between countries, that limit style and taste. Far more exciting is to think in terms of constant exploration of new, uncharted, unbounded territory.


I’m a great believer in growth by challenge: taking on tasks that force you to reach beyond your personal comfort zones and clichés. And so I present you with the following six compositional challenges. Take them seriously and I guarantee they will nudge you forward in your personal musical evolution!

1. Create a piece of free groove. A piece with great rhythmic vitality and interest, but whose rhythms do not adhere to a meter or BPM grid. Think: extraterrestrial IDM.

2. Create a piece for your own solo voice. Song, narration, mouth percussion, whatever. But no effects, no overdubbing, no accompaniment; just you, in all your vocal glory.

3. Create a piece with (at least) 50% silence. Regard the silence as a presence rather than an absence. Strive to make the piece breathe ... rather than choke and gasp.

4. Create a piece that uses only sounds you have never heard before. A two-parter: Create an arsenal of never-before-heard sounds, then deploy them in an expressive piece.

5. Create a piece in your least favorite genre. Can’t stand hardcore? Write a piece of death metal. No fair trashing or satirizing; the goal is to compose something competent in a genre you despise.

6. Create a piece that no one (except you) will ever hear. Observe carefully how your composition process and results differ from pieces you write for an audience.

Cliché Free

All composers have a bag of tricks we dip into when creating music: our favourite tried-and-true forms, sounds, grooves, chord changes, turns of phrase, etc. This means we rely to a large extent on the old when composing the new.

There is nothing wrong with this: we are, after all, the totality of our experiences, and everything we create is filtered through them. There is, however, a problem that arises when our personal tricks become personal clichés. A cliché, by definition, is a “trite expression whose behaviour is predictable or superficial.” A composition full of personal clichés runs the risk, therefore, of sounding trite, predictable, superficial – without significance.

The only way to transcend your clichés, to break new ground, is to become aware of them. This requires scrupulous self-examination.

Listen to your existing pieces with an ear to routing out your personal clichés. Get to know them intimately, like you know your reflection in the mirror. Pause before composing a passage and ask yourself if you’re about to commit a personal cliché. If so, force yourself to do something else, something different to anything you’ve done before. Deny yourself the comfort of relying on what you know. Do whatever it takes to venture outside of your box, your cosy (and stultifying) prison.

Avoiding personal clichés does not guarantee success. In fact, you’re bound to fail at times because you’ll be exploring uncharted territory. What it does guarantee, though, is personal compositional growth and a glimpse of the musical horizons that lie beyond your current limits. And, most excitingly, a chance to put something truly new into the world. What could be better than that?

Compose Your Self

With group-mind-driven electronic music production becoming more and more the default mode of musicmaking – a track is only as good as its hypercompressed RMS amplitude – it’s high time you master the art of composing your self.

Do you have a deep love of 50s sci-fi soundtracks? Reach for the sine-wave generators and plate reverb. Are you a classic pop-song afficionado? Sprinkle your tracks with singable hooks. Did you cut your musical teeth listening to the Sex Pistols? Make machine-gun drum tracks and raging vocals. Is your iPod an encyclopedia of hip-hop? Gate everything and compress like mad.

Is Henry Mancini a guilty pleasure? Weave catchy movie melodies into your pieces. Do marching-band drum grooves set your heart a flutter? Build your drum parts around paradiddles. Heavy metal? Bring on the power chords! Ragtime? (I know, it’s a stretch.) Incorporate Scott Joplin tunes into your latest IDM tracks. Noise? Turn up the feedback. Silence? Leave gaping holes in your grooves.

Spending years (a lifetime, perhaps) learning how to create clones of what tens of thousands of others are creating is a profound waste of individual human spirit. I would go so far as to call it tragic, a snuffing out of the precious spark of unique personal vision. Don’t let this happen to you and your music! Instead, identify and celebrate the one-of-a-kind hodgepodge of musical proclivities, quirks, and talents that is you ... and no one else. Learn how to compose your self.

Dangerous Music

I’ve never been one for extreme sports – when it comes to my physical well-being, I always err on the side of caution. But when it comes to music I’m a daredevil – the more extreme, the more at stake, the more dangerous the music, the better!

Dangerous music seeks to break new ground – to push the boundaries of convention and taste. In doing so, it often thwarts listener expectations. Being out of fashion is a risk dangerous composers are willing to take. In fact, they detest fashion, because it hinders growth.

Don’t confuse dangerous music with abrasive, in-your-face music. What danger is there in assaulting a hardcore e-rocker with hardcore e-rock? The very hardcore-ness of the music is safe for the e-rocker, it reinforces his musical status quo.

Chances are you already have a taste for danger in your music or you wouldn’t be reading this. I’d like to encourage you to cultivate your joie de musical risk, to become an aficionado of dangerous music.

If you are a composer, this means embracing the path of constant growth and self-questioning. It means not dwelling very long in any one compositional realm and always moving on. If you are a listener, it means daring to wander outside your radius of musical comfort.

Dangerous music puts you in touch with your truest, most powerful self – the only goal really worth pursuing. So, join me – take a walk on the wild side.


When taking in a sensory experience (listening to music, watching a movie, etc.), we tend to assign levels of importance to the various strands of sensory input. We relegate, consciously or not, some strands to the background, some to the foreground, and the rest to the middle. Contemporary electronic composers are very adept with back- and middle grounds; this is where most groove-centric music lives. But not many can (or want to) produce inspired foreground material: layers that don’t just dovetail with the groove but stand out above it as a soaring melodic line stands out above a sequence of chords.

When music serves as an accompaniment to another medium (film, TV, dance, etc.), this other medium usually occupies the foreground. Thus dance music doesn’t have to worry about filling the foreground; the dancers take care of this. Likewise for TV and movie music. It’s in standalone pieces that one hungers for foreground. How many times have you heard a piece on a CD and thought: “That would make a great soundtrack for a suspense movie.” If the piece had a commanding foreground layer, you wouldn’t have thought of it as accompaniment, but as sufficient in itself.

The moral: If you write standalone music, you need to think about investing your pieces with compelling foregrounds. If you don’t, you risk having listeners perceive them as soundtracks in search of a movie.

Form und Funktion

While studying composition in Germany, I fell in love with musical forms. Theme and variation, sonata, canon, fugue, spiral, recursive, Fibonacci, fractal. I took them all in, like divine templates. Unfortunately, my love of form ended up trumping my love of sound, and my pieces grew ever more impressive on paper and dull in performance – a sorry state for a composer to end up in.

My road to recovery began with a quote from an ancient Japanese treatise on aesthetics: “Form is a cage in which to trap meaning.” This quote changed my life; rather than approaching form as an end in itself I began to see it as a means to an end – a vehicle for expression; a way to communicate thought, emotion and self. Form, for me, became functional, not merely ‘formal’.

The forms you use can make or break your pieces. A meterless improv ramble is fine for experimental music, but disastrous for trance. A loopy 4/4 ABA is good for house, but utterly wrong for glitch. Locking a panther in a sterile 10x6 metre cage will drain its power and beauty and eventually kill it. The same panther might thrive in a 100x60 meter cage, or even better in the sprawling cage of the Serengeti.

Every composition calls for its own unique form, its own lovingly crafted and custom-fitted cage. As the composer, you need to discover this form for each of your pieces and have the courage to use it, even if it violates musical expectation and fashion. The alternative is a 10x6 killing jar.

Free Groove

Rhythm is everywhere. Just close your eyes and listen. Sounds succeed one another, sometimes separated, sometimes overlapping. A honk of a horn, children’s voices, a hammer blow, church bells, all underlaid by the drone of traffic. This is rhythm: a procession of sonic events in time.

Groove, defined conventionally, is a rhythm whose notes conform time-wise to a periodic pulse grid that specifies which beats are permitted and which are verboten. You can tease the grid, play ahead of it, play behind it, speed it up, slow it down, syncopate. But you must respect it and, ultimately, adhere to it. This is particularly true in dance music, where stepping outside the grid is like breaking a sacred contract between composer and audience.

I would like to expand the definition of groove to include any rhythm that “swings” – that has vitality, complexity, intelligence, musicality, beauty. For example: the rhythm of spoken language (conversation and recitation), the rhythm of abstract electronic soundscapes (think: Kontakte), the rhythm of freeform improvisation (Phil Durrant), the rhythm of aperiodic natural phenomena (a forest, thunderstorm, city street), and so on.

I would like to propose that rhythms which obey a periodic grid (pulse, meter, etc.) be called groove, and that rhythms that don’t be called free groove. And, finally, I would like to ask all of you to (please!) view these two approaches as points on a temporal continuum, rather than two opposing camps.

Daß es Funktioniert

Way back when there were two Deutschlands, my composition class in Freiburg was visited by an East German composer of some renown. A wild-eyed student asked the composer what the most important thing was for him in his music. The composer thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and said “daß es funktioniert” – “that it works.”

This has always stuck with me: the notion that a composition is successful when it works. When it fulfils its promises, achieves its goals, remains true to itself and does what it has to do: nothing more, nothing less.

One of the toughest challenges composers face is the ability to regard their own work with the right amount of self-critique. Too little and weak phrases, passages – even entire pieces – will slip through the cracks. Too much and you’ll be paralysed by self-doubt.

To help you attain the kind of self-critique that will nudge you forward in your compositional evolution, I offer this pair of questions, courtesy of our East German friend: What, in your music, works, and what doesn’t work? You need to engage your entire being to answer these questions: head and heart. And you need courage: it’s painful to look critically at your artistic children.

Try this approach. Ease into an expectation-free state, then listen to your pieces as if they had been written by a friend or colleague. Do they work? If not, why not? How might you fix whatever it is that needs fixing?

Every great artist is a great self-critiquer and self-editor. I encourage you to develop these skills as much as you would any other musical technique.

Groove Fascism

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” A great quote from a great man … but one that electronica composers seem to have taken all too narrowly. For the Duke, swing was not simply drums or the rhythm section. It was the way that beat, meter, tempo, melody, harmony, phrasing, and silence played off one another. Its power derived not from exact repetition or quantisation, but from organic flow, musical breathing.

These days, downtown, grass-roots electronica is beset with ‘groove fascism.’ It’s groove über alles, baby… a sorry state of e-musical affairs.

Abandoning groove is not the solution. Stepping out from under the yoke of groove fascism is! There are lots of ways to get started. Dare to thwart the ‘thou shalt write in 4/4’ commandment by throwing in some odd meters, unexpected accents and missed or extra beats. Develop your melodic and harmonic skills and feature them in your pieces, instead of just using them as foils to the almighty groove. Push your beats beyond their (and your) comfortable borders by using unconventional percussion sounds, varying tempo, layering polymetres. Listen to Autechre, Murcof, Devine, Twerk, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, (early) Stockhausen.

Or, take the truly dangerous leap from the metronomic to the linguistic. Model your rhythmic flow after the subtle, non-quantised, and very expressive rhythms of spoken language. Zappa said it best: make your music speak.


Music albums were originally the sonic equivalent of photo albums: Bound collections of individual objects (78-rpm vinyl records) which, taken as a whole, constituted a single group object (an opera, symphony, song cycle, etc.). As technology advanced, the term album evolved to mean different things: A single vinyl record containing about a dozen songs with a total duration of 30-40 minutes, a CD containing about the same amount of music, and most recently a collection of downloadable MP3s.

The notion of what an album is (or isn't) has become hazy in our iTunes singles-centric times. To help clear things up, I offer this working definition: An album is a set of tracks in which the whole is intentionally more than the sum of its parts. This definition is inspired by the Gestalt theorists, who applied it first to the human psyche and later to visual phenomena. Let's take a closer look at its components.

By 'set of tracks' I mean anywhere from 1 to N tracks, where N is an arbitrarily high number. Thus an album might consist of 1 single track, 2 tracks, 3, 6, 12, 20, 50, 100, and so on. Since there is no physical CD-ish medium to set an upper limit to duration, it is possible (if impractical) to create an album of 1,000 tracks with a total playtime of 1 year. The conventional range would probably be something like 3 to 20 tracks.

By 'whole is intentionally more than the sum of its parts' I mean that the album (whole) must possess some overarching presence that does not arise from the mere succession of its constituent tracks (parts). This is an alchemical process in which a collection of parts acquires an enveloping aura that arises from the interaction (obvious and subtle) of these parts.

Note that I included the word 'intentionally' in the definition. The human brain is an engine of association. When presented with any collection of parts, it will always find ways to connect them, thus creating the enveloping aura mentioned above. Choose a set of 12 random songs, from all genres, eras, bands, etc., listen to the set a few times, and your brain will discover (create) associations, a higher order. So, without 'intentionally' in the definition, any set of 1 to N tracks could be called an album, which effective nullifies the term 'album' itself. By including 'intentionally' a burden is placed on the album creator to imbue the set of constituent tracks with a sense of overarching purpose.

How can you do this? In any one of a number of ways. You can use the same 'ensemble' for all songs in the set; the same six band members and instruments, the same synthesizer and patches, the same mixing/mastering plugins, etc. You can choose songs that you created during a specific period of time; a six-hour recording session in your living room, a one-week band retreat, a three-month phase in which you were obsessed with finding a hybrid between folk song and classical Indian music, etc. You can create a concept album, whose songs are held together by: storyline, lyrics, affect, structure, and so on.

Or, you can trust your intuition to imbue the album with a presence above and beyond its individual tracks. Pick tracks by feeling, a sense that they somehow belong together, complete each other. This is an especially fruitful approach for songwriters whose music can suffer from over intellectualization. I am in this camp. Sure I spend a fair amount of time thinking and writing analytically about music. But when it comes to composing, I let go of all that analysis and grope my way towards what sounds and feels 'right' in my gut.

Things to Consider

There are many things to consider when creating an album. How many tracks does the album need to accomplish its intended goal? How long does the album need to be? What order should the tracks be placed in? Should tracks be discrete? If so, how much silence should appear between them? Should tracks flow into one another? If so, at what point should the flowed-into track begin? Should there be bridges between tracks? If so, should the bridges lead smoothly from one track to the next, or should they be interruptive, short non-sequitur interludes between tracks? (Zappa was very fond of doing this, especially in his early days.)

A key question for virtual (online, downloadable) albums: Should the album have cover art? What about individual tracks; should they have associated images? Should these images be static (snapshots) or dynamic (animations, movies)? Should they be user interactive? Should the album as a whole and/or individual tracks have liner notes? If so, how detailed, how long? What type of notes: descriptive, analytical, suggestive, poetic? Should the notes be clearly secondary to the music, like little explanatory cards next to paintings? Or should they be works of art themselves, text compositions standing side by side with their sound-composition partners?

Experimenters Corner: Creating the 'New' Album

No doubt some of you find the notion of creating an album distasteful, a throwback to a bygone era. 'The album is dead!' you cry. 'Good riddance!' Well, friends, instead of giving up, I challenge you to explore the possibility of creating radically 'new' albums that are in keeping with the times. Here are some starting-point ideas.

Single album: An album consisting of one track. Manifold album: An album consisting of many (20, 200, 2000, etc.) tracks. Miniature album: An album whose total duration is 5 minutes or less. Gargantuan album: An album whose duration is several hours (days, weeks, months, years). Hybridizing these, how about an album of one track that lasts for three days? Or an album of 40 tracks that lasts for three minutes? (That's an average of just under 5 seconds per track.)

Shuffle album: N tracks to be played back in random order. Enhanced album: music tracks with accompanying slideshows, animations, movies, games, etc. Homogeneous album: N variants of the same song. Heterogeneous album: N utterly different (genre, instrumentation, duration, mood, etc.) tracks. Interstitial album: between-track (interstitial) material is as important as the tracks themselves. Kamikaze album: destroys itself after playback. Plastic album: tracks change (subtly, moderately, dramatically) each time they are played back.