In the TV series Classic Albums (now available on DVD), Roger Waters talks about the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them.” He says, “I find myself very very often, in my capacity as a producer, having to say to people, ‘No, leave a hole. Just play for half a bar and leave a bar-and-a-half empty.'” I love this quote, and think of it often while I’m writing. It reminds me that I don’t need to fill up every moment with notes. Sometimes music needs space to breathe, silence to give form and beauty to the sound.
As Daniel Levitin wrote in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Miles Davis “described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the ‘air’ that he placed between one note and the next. Knowing precisely when to hit the next note, and allowing the listener the time to anticipate it, is a hallmark of Davis’s genius.”
When I first started writing orchestral music, I was a bit overwhelmed. There are so many instruments! How was I supposed to know what to do with all of them? I would write for the whole orchestra at once, in my sequencer, and gradually build a complicated mess. It turns out I was making things a lot harder for myself than they needed to be. The secret? Start with a sketch.
These days when I write an orchestral piece, I always write on piano first, and create a three-line sketch. The melody goes on top (you are writing a melody, right?), and the accompaniment goes on the other two staves. Using this method, it’s much easier to tell if you’re writing good music because you’re not distracted by all of the bells and whistles of a full orchestra. Writing on piano—using just melody and accompaniment—lets you hear your music for what it really is. You can instantly tell if its good or not, and you’re not overwhelmed by choices.