Learning about Instruments


Learning about Instruments – Tutorial part 4


Here is a concise tutorial, consisting of seven parts and therefore divided over seven individual posts, about the composing, orchestrating, and recording/production process of music. It is intended for beginner composers, orchestrators, sound-engineers, home-studio owners. And it is not intended merely for making electronic music. It is intended as a good place to start with music and to learn a few tricks that will save time and help them along the learning music composition.

Overview individual posts of this tutorial

  1. Introduction making Music
  2. Instruments
  3. Musical Synthesis
  4. Learning about Instruments
  5. Home Studio
  6. Mixing and Editing
  7. Really useful Links


Learning about Drums

  1. In most basic drum beats, the hihat or the ride cymbal plays on every crotchet beat, or every quaver beat.
  2. The snare plays on the 2nd and/or 4th beat of the bar.
  3. The kick plays on the 1st and/or 3rd beat of the bar. You can loop (repeat) the drum beat.

NOTE: the drummer only has 2 hands and 2 feet; what this means is that they can only play 2 drums at a time plus the kick plus the hihat pedal.

Try to avoid writing parts where a real drummer would have to use more than two hands. You can then add in open hihat notes. These create diversity. Diversity is the key to an interesting drum beat.

When composing a drum loop, you should make at least 2, or preferably 4, bars of drum music. This will create the necessary diversity. If you’re stuck with a boring 1 bar loop and don’t know how to jazz it up, try adding percussion (tambourine, shaker, bongos, congas), claps, rim shots (snare), toms, cymbals, or any other percussive sounds that you can record (e.g. shoes brushing through a shoe buffer).

All these things will make the drum beat more interesting. If there is anything rhythmically significant happening in the other instruments, it is sometimes effective to also have the drums mimic that rhythm.


Learning about Bass Guitar

The most common purpose of the bass instrument is to provide HARMONIC FOUNDATION. What this means is that the bass instrument plays the notes which define the harmonic structure of the piece. If you have already planned out the harmonic structure (which chords you are going to use) then as a basic beginning for laying down the bass part, you can record the bass part as just playing the root notes of each chord. This is the most basic bass part. However, in most cases, this will not be enough.

NOTE: As a general rule, if there is a drum kit playing, the bass instrument should play a note at least whenever the kick drum is played. This will fortify the kick drum and the bass instrument making them more powerfully connected. Not doing this is an immediate sign of bad bass writing. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. You will want to add more than just the root notes at the start of each chord.

Here you can try several things.

  1. Try adding passing notes e.g. if you were going from a C chord to an F chord in the overall harmony, the bass guitar might play a C and then D, E, F; the D and the E are passing notes; the C and the F would be slightly accented because they would (probably) be on a strong beat of the bar (beat 1 and 3).
  2. You could add octave notes e.g. C, then C an octave higher, then F, then F an octave higher.
  3. Similarly, you could add 5th notes: alternating between C and G for a Chord and alternating between F and C for an F chord.

You could add slides, where the bass instrument slides from one note to the next.

Try to add dead notes; dead notes are when the bass instrument plays a note which is muted so it has no pitch; this is a purely percussive feature, however, it is good for diversity.

You could add a walking bass line; this is not a particularly easy technique for an inexperienced composer/arranger, however, it is doable.

If you’re writing for a real bass player, just write out the chords and tell them to play a walking bass line.


Learning about Piano and Orchestra

Piano can be considered the most versatile instrument. It is one of the most difficult instruments to write for, for someone who doesn’t play it. The piano should be treated like a mini orchestra. It can play almost as low as the human ear can hear and the highest note is the highest in an orchestra. Moreover, a piano can play at least 10 notes at the same, and with a sustain pedal, the limit is the amount of keys it has.

So, what can you do with a piano?

  1. A piano can play the melody. Simple.
  2. A piano can play chords.
  3. One key rule to keep in mind for chords in general is the lower down the piano you go, the further apart the notes should be.
  4. Below C3, the notes of a chord should be about an octave apart.
  5. Some techniques to consider: glissandos, tremolos, trills, movement in 3rd, movement in 6ths, movement in octaves, ostinatos, repetition, doubling.


Learning about Guitar in Music

The guitar can be considered one of the most versatile instruments in terms of the roles it can play. Sometimes guitar will play a purely rhythmic role, sometimes purely harmonic, sometimes purely melodic, and other times it will be any combination of the three. When writing a guitar part it is vital that you decide what role the guitar will be playing.

There are also three basic types of guitar:

  1. nylon string acoustic guitar (classical),
  2. steel string acoustic guitar,
  3. electric guitar.

Each type has its pros and cons. stereotypically, nylon string acoustics are used for classical guitar, steel acoustics are used for strumming chords, and electrics are used for solos, power chords and grunge, and in jazz.

If you are writing a purely melodic guitar part then it is fairly simple:

  1. Just write out the notation.
  2. Keep in mind that the lowest note on a guitar is E1 (almost 3 octaves below middle C).
  3. The highest note is approximately C6 (depending on the guitar and skill of the musician… 2 octaves above middle C).


Interesting Techniques

Some techniques you might consider in order to make the part more interesting are:

  1. tremolo,
  2. slurs,
  3. glissandos (slides),
  4. pizzicato (muted),
  5. portamento (bends),
  6. vibrato,
  7. use of plectrum (pick).

If you are composing a purely harmonic guitar part then it is also not too hard. Writing for a guitarist to play, unless you want some specific sound, it is better to just compose the harmonic structure of the piece and let them decide how best to play it.

If you are writing a purely rhythmic guitar part, then you need to consider the fact that a guitar has up strokes and down strokes, where down strokes will generally be the stronger ones which land on the strong beats of a bar. If there is anything interesting going on in the piece in terms of rhythm, you may want the guitar to mimic the rhythm using stroke direction.

If writing for a guitarist, write out the rhythm and which chord should be played, and tell them to figure out a strumming pattern using that rhythm.

NOTE: When writing for a guitar you need to keep in mind the tuning of a guitar – it has six strings (low | E A D G B E | high), which means is that it is more difficult for a guitar to play minor seconds within chords than any other interval.

Ross Unger, www.rossunger.com

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