Experiments in Writing and Recording Music: Using Limits, pt. 1

As noted in the intro to this series, there are a plethora of ways to tackle an impasse in the writing and recording process. I tend to advocate for an experimental solution rather than a ‘standard’ (read: boring and safe) solution. Try something that you or your band haven’t tried; not for the sake of novelty, but for the things you can run into during the discovery process.

The benefit of thinking outside the box is exactly just that; you learn to approach problems and solutions from a different angle. And with the pace of today’s technological advancements, there seem to be an infinite number of options at your fingertips. Getting used to considering all the possibilities on how to finish that song or find that one neat sound that makes the record come to life can help you overcome musical impasses more quickly in the future the more you get used to doing it.

Once you’ve allowed yourself to be open to all the directions that that song or sound search could go in though, there also arises the conundrum of sifting through the myriad of choices you’ve dutifully considered. How do you select the best idea out of a hundred? It can be overwhelming if you’ve really done your homework and truly considered all the options available. So my first rule of action when confronting these kinds of problems has always been the one that almost seems counter-intuitive (at first): use limits.

Yup. Try placing limits (restrictions) on where that song can go or how that wild sound you’re looking for can be made or recorded. How can you make do with less while still fulfilling your artistic inclinations to expand or further your sound? Let’s take a look at how creative types in other disciplines might approach this less-is-more aesthetic.

Although it’s just words and paper, one of the least restrictive art forms is writing: novels, poetry, prose, etc. You can abandon or experiment with the rules of grammar, meaning and punctuation like e.e. cummings, you can ignore rhyming schemes and structure, you can make it improbably long on a single giant 120′ scroll of paper like Kerouac did with “On the Road”.

And yet writing offers just as many opportunities to limit oneself and still hit the mark. The novelist can refresh his/her approach by trying to write a short story instead. The long-form poetess can rejuvenate herself through the process of just sticking with the compact 17 syllable Japanese haiku. The playwright can limit himself to conjuring a story with a limited number of characters and settings, as several ‘one room’ and bare stage productions can attest.

In the world of painting, painters can find fresh ground by employing micro-sized canvasses or monochromatic color schemes. I once had a high school art teacher who had us do a white-on-white painting; everything had to be texture via mixed media because we were going to slather them with a single shade of white paint after we constructed them. It made us appreciate color all the more when we got to go on to the next project.

So what are some of the ways we could employ limits in music, whether trying to complete a piece or overcoming a writing or recording block?

There turns out to be all kinds of neat ways actually. If you’ve recorded the basic tracks of a song and are trying to figure out how to flesh out the arrangement, you could limit yourself to just one overdub, for example. I used that method once when I recorded a cover of “Love In Vain”.

      Love In Vain (cover)

The drums, electric guitar and vocal tracks were done quickly and I wanted to overdub just one more track to fill out the sound. I came across the solution of recording a single acoustic guitar track which approximated all my listening needs. It served as the sole intro instrument (I turned down the electric guitar basic track during mixing), then it just played a bass line during the verses to add some bottom end after the drums et al came in, then it played a mandolin-esque part at the song’s climax, and finished the track with five seconds of slide guitar at the end. It worked really well and gave the illusion of a song populated by a lot more instruments than just a Strat, drums and one acoustic.

Another option to consider when using limits in music to find a breakthrough or experiment is to stick to just one chord. Think about it; you could just play that ‘G’ chord over and over, but you could play it in any time signature, speed or voicing you want, and the other instruments and voices could play any note they wanted to on top of it!

You could limit yourself to just one microphone or one take; you could limit the song to under two or three minutes in length or even two or three words; you could even abruptly stop the song right at the point where you’re stuck. You could limit the melody to just three notes, limit the song to just one section (i.e. no chorus, bridge or alternate ending). You could allow only X number of signals or instruments at a time or limit the number of tracks that make up the song.

So as you go through the processes of overcoming musical hurdles or trying to expand your musical sounds and horizons, before you jump into the myriad of cutting edge or safe possibilities to try, always remember: give limits, restrictions and minimalism a quick look first. You might be surprised at how successful the results are. In next month’s Part Two installment of this series, I’ll go over how I used limits in my creative endeavors to come up with a whole new aesthetic of writing/recording/defining music; which, in turn took a lot of the internal pressures off of my ‘standard’ writing, playing and recording processes.


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