This article was originally posted 2015/08/14 on my personal website and has been culled from the ever-awesome wayback machine and a recent cache of images found on a recovered harddrive. Enjoy!
Sometimes you just find yourself in a musical rut. You’re playing the same chords in the same way and while you might do it with different tones and intent, as a writer you can feel a bit burned out. Being human, we are attracted to new experiences and generally do bore easily. Not long ago I was planning a beach trip where I was only taking a travel guitar and I started thinking about new places and the musical mind… part improvisational, part structured. On this trip would I just be in a new place but still doing old things? Will the new place create new ideas? How does one write differently when all that really exists as our base foundation is the knowledge in our heads? How do we grow beyond what can become boundaries in our creative process? Is our work a product of gained knowledge or forward thinking intellect? Is inspiration magical or is it just one thing we know tripping into the mud of the other thing we already know because we weren’t looking where we were going for a brief moment in time? This post won’t answer all of that. Sorry.
I personally think that we’re hardwired (somewhat genetically, mostly socially) to gravitate towards basic chord progressions, 4/4 common time, and can-you-dance-to-it tempos. As much as we like adventure, we are also pretty lazy creatures of habit. Through exploration and happy accidents we can grow as a musicians but I don’t think we make this a fundamental part of our daily practice. Sure you can read everything ever written on the hows and whys of chord number one connecting to chord number two because of boring, snore, snore, and numerous people will show you the supposed value of reconstituted progressions, but until you actually try to manifest these things as sound it means nothing. Then it’s awesome, or you flub it up and find something alternatively awesome, or it’s awful and you toss it. Only then can you consider such things as part of your “musical spice rack”.
With this in mind, I decided to find try and find a way to short-circuit my preferences and practices by utilizing a randomized composition system. These things are nothing new. Mozart had his dice game which was more like a grab-bag copy & paste approach of what he knew more than anything else. Others have followed similar paths for decades now. John Cage comes to mind as one point of reference.
My primary goal for this project was to have something that would quickly sketch out a song framework. I had a few basic rules:
- It had to be tactile… I can, and have, written these things with computers but I wanted something you could hold in your hand and manipulate
- It had to be easily understandable as a musician
- There needed to be options to gravitate towards some musically common ground if desired
- The result should be somewhat structurally ambiguous… it should lean towards asking the composer to make what they see out of the results.
- It had to foster growth
- Things that were just flat out wonky were not going to be included (I’m looking at you VII chord)
This was the first pass result of this idea. A key, tempo, time signature, measure count, and chord progression die.
The second pass after added in a few modifiers for sharp/flat, number of chords, tempo alterations…
The third (and probably not final because I know me) pass providing a host of additional options and where we begin…
With this system I can construct a ‘musical sentence’ describing a composition framework, then with additional rolls of specific dice, flesh out governing rules for the composition. This might be a little overwhelming at first because there are so many dice, but it’s actually quite simple because you don’t always use them all, and the bulk of the lot are discarded immediately after the first roll. Let’s look at the dice in detail and their function.
TEMPO – The tempo die is labeled from 60 to 160 in 20 bpm increments. So rolling this provides you with a base tempo for the composition. The modifier is labeled with two 0’s, (P)lus 5, (P)lus 10, (M)inus 5, and (M)inus 10. Rolling both dice together gives you a randomized tempo of anywhere from 50 to 170 bpm.
CHORDS, NOTES, & KEYS – The root die is labeled A, B, C, D, E, F and combined with sharp/flat labeled (S)harp,(F)lat,(N)atural,(S)harp,(F)lat,(N)atural will give you the key of the composition. Yes, there are seven roots. As I only had 6 sided die I cheated. My standing rule was that anything like a C flat, F flat, B sharp, or E sharp which technically existed in the musical world but didn’t show up on my piano was a G and I would roll the sharp/flat again to determine G natural, sharp, or flat. This is the only part of the system I dislike and will correct at some point with a seven sided die. It’s just not that important to me at the moment. We’ll come back to the mode die later.
TIME SIGNATURES & DIVISIONS – The common die is labeled 2(/4), 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. The eighth is labeled 3(/8), 5, 6, 7, 9, 11 and the sixteenth 3(/16), 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13. You can skip using these all together if you want to do something in a known signature, or specifically pick 4, 8, 16 time. Using the selector die (labeled 4, 8, 16, 4, 8, 16) you roll all four dice at once and the selector then tells you of the three (/4, /8, /16) which to use. We’ll come back to the divisions die later as an advanced device used for rhythm.
DEGREE – This die is used when creating the next chord in a sequence. We’ll come back to that.
MEASURES & DENSITY – The measures die is labeled 2, 4, 8, 2, 4, 8 and tells you the number of measures you’ll be creating. The density die tells you the number of chords you’ll be using to fill that measure space.
Whew… ok let’s show how all that gibberish puts you on the road to writing a song in a few short steps:
Remove the degree, divisions, and mode dice.
Roll what’s left.
Now, just for illustrative purposes I’ll sort the dice by function and the cool factor will jump off the screen.
We’re writing a 60 bpm piece in A (no modifier and we decide major or minor.. I’m saying minor) in 7/8 time lasting 2 measures using 3 chords. Layout wise, that roughly equates to this:
Now we set those dice aside and snag the degree die. We roll it 3 (the density die value) times.
I, VI, and IV. In A Minor (C Major positioning) this equates to Cmaj, Amin, and Fmaj. Which, given our 2 measures in which to place the chords could be any number of things like this:
or anything else you want to come up with that fits in the space. That’s the point. It’s just saying “try this” and you make something out of it. It’s that simple. To go further, you can then re-roll the 2 red measure dice followed by the position die as many times as the density die states to generate the next section of music. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Now what you’ll quickly notice is that we aren’t really breaking out of too many comfort zones with our example. If you play the standard fare of music the most uncomfortable part of that was probably the 7/8 time. That’s part of the point. You could have skipped the green signature dice completely and used this to write a 4/4 song. Using any combination of the dice you can discard some elements based on level of comfort and interject what you want to randomize… you also can use the additional dice we previously left out to quickly get pretty uncomfortable.
The Mode Die for Key/Scale Challenges – The mode die, which was previously set aside, is labeled (MIN)or, (MAJ)or, (AUG)mented, (SUS)pended(4th), (SUS)pended(2nd), and (DIM)inished. It was intended for chords but I also stumbled upon a more diabolical way to use it. Now I’m knowingly about to break hundreds of years of music lectures and theory by saying things in wildly inaccurate ways… but that’s the point of this system, to push us in different directions. We’re trying to short circuit what’s known and challenge our minds to think in a different way.
Roll the three orange dice together (root, mode, sharp/flat). The result for me was A, (F)lat, (SUS)pended(2)nd. Well what does that really mean in relation to key? Theory wise it’s jibberish as a key and at best could be considered an AbSus2 chord but how about this concept…
Remember all those years of learning that A flat major scale? Don’t you just love the 3rd (C) holding down what makes it Ab Major? Well now you can no longer use the C. We killed it in favor of the Bb. Instead of treating that die like a sus2 chord where we drop the C to the Bb, we’re going to just rule out C completely. So continuing with the positional rolls if you hit a III (Cmin), too bad, roll again. Rolled a VI division? Now you need to figure out a way around not having a 5th in your F chord. Welcome to a whole new world where A flat is lacking the one thing that makes it A flat. Your job is to explore that world.
What if we did this the same way and we rolled D (N)atural (MAJ)or? Well you’re safe playing in D Major. Rolled a E (MIN)or (AUG)mented? Now your have all the makings of a middle eastern/gypsy vibe at your disposal by pushing the 5th degree of G major from a D to a D sharp.
Or we could have interpreted that result literally and applied the augmentation to the E (MIN)or chord where raising the B creates a duplicate C … effectively discarding B to end up here with a pretty noticeable harmonic hole we aren’t allowed to fill:
The Mode Die for Chord Modification – Another use for the mode die is with the position die when developing the chord progression. This will can ultimately take you down some very strange paths but essentially just roll the mode die with the position die and use the chord as requested. You’ll frequently get knocked out of key by this but it can make for some very interesting and challenging progressions to navigate. The below I’d never dream up on my own (and the A Maj is particularly out of place) but slowed down with some arpeggios, it would work really well for a mysterious/disturbing transitional section. The system is mean to challenge you after all.
Another use of the mode die would be to accept the position die as the native chord… i.e. VI on G Major is an A min, then use the mode die to stack the next triad on top for a complex chord. For example given VI on G Major is A min and we roll a (AUG)mented then the 1,3,#5 degrees are applied at the next interval step as 7,9,#11 thus creating an AMin11(#11) chord of A, C, E, G, B, D#.
The Divisions Die – Finally, the divisions die. If you think back to our time signature dice you’ll recall we had a host of signatures available to us… 3/4, 7/8, 13/16, etc. To add another layer of influence to the piece, we can use the divisions die to determine our musical phrasing or pulse. This can help you work through some of the more eccentric time signatures (or make it even more challenging!) Early on in my blog I had a post regarding odd time signatures.
Part of understanding odd time signatures involves using divisions. Any time signature can be filled using the numbers 2 and/or 3, which is exactly what is on the divisions die (2,3,2,3,2,3). The pulse of a piece is simply how you subdivide the measure by counts of 2’s and 3’s. After obtaining the time signature you roll the die numerous times, subtracting the value from the number of beats until the last number is a 2 or a 3. If the result is 1, you discard the last number.
For instance a roll of 9/8 followed by the divisions die…
- Roll of 3, 9-3 = 6
- Roll of 3, 6-3 = 3
The last value is a 3 so our rhythmic pulse for the 9/8 piece is 3, 3 and 3 or…
We could have just as easily rolled 2, 3, 2, 2 for a result of…
This process can be used once for the overall basic pulse of the piece or for each measure to obtain the rhythmic structure for a series of bars. Again, only pulling what is needed, I will often use only the time signature dice followed by the division die to create an initial kick drum loop from which I’ll place the snare and start working on a rhythm guitar track.
Hopefully you’ll find some useful ideas from this post and it will foster ways for you to explore new musical avenues.