As a teacher and longtime rock ‘n’ roll musician, I have studied music in many different places, including the music theory dungeon* at MSU, to freezing my balls off trying to shred guitar in Piss Alley** during winter.
Before all that, I was a teenager holed up in my room with a Tascam four-track cassette recorder and an Alesis SR-16 Drum machine. One of the most enlightening things I did alone in my room (this was before Al Gore invented internet porn, mind you), was to explore the construction and performance of music through the art of recording, using both electronic and acoustic/electric instruments. I didn’t know I was doing that, of course, because teenagers are dumb. But I was solving puzzles. Not much has changed – I am still a silly person solving puzzles. And now I get paid for it.
You can spend many years taking classes or trying to teach yourself music theory. But in the modern age, that is truly impractical for most amateur musicians. Recording your own music, specifically programming electronic instruments, is probably the most hands-on way to start understanding how music is constructed – the nuts and bolts of how notes work together to form melodies and chords, and how percussive events work together to make rhythms.
It starts off by simply programming a drum machine.
There are generally four beats to every measure of music. Listen to the radio and count “one-two-three-four” over and over with the pulse of the song, and you will see. As far as drums are concerned, some of those beats have kick drums playing on them, some have snare drums, most have hi-hats.
Then you divide those beats in half, and half again, making four equal divisions*** of four beats; in other words, 16 possible steps on which to place a drum hit. As your machine plays along its one-measure timeline, it hits whatever drum you tell it to, whenever you told it to do so.
It doesn’t really get much more complicated than that.**** Every drum pattern you hear from Bossa Nova to AC/DC will fit within that structure.
More than anything, programming drums helps you start thinking like a drummer. The best thing I ever did to further my songwriting and my playing was to take the songs of the day and program the drum part into my SR-16. Specifically Dave Grohl parts*****. From there I started to be able to hear what shitty drummers were doing wrong, and began to recognize when I was not quite on time with the rest of the band.
This concept, with the introduction of digital recording/software instruments, has made it completely possible to work with music visually, and learn how things sound in a real-time environment. Like a drum machine helps you to think like a drummer, a music creation program will help you to think like a composer.
And just like learning Dave Grohl patterns on a drum machine, you can take your favorite songs and break them down into easily programmable parts. The idea being, when you’ve done enough songs, you should be pretty good at knowing how to write one of your own.
To help you get started, just hunt around for MIDI versions of popular songs. Nobody knows who makes them, but you can download performance data from Beck’s “loser” or anything by J.S. Bach, and dump it right into your favorite software instrument workstation. Work with them, manipulate them, and see what Fur Elise sounds like played on steel drums.
The internet is your toy box. If you have a computer, you just need to do a small search and you’ll find people trying to hawk all kinds of music software to you by offering you free trials. Nowadays, you can find drum machine apps on your smartphone, and Apple even puts its consumer level recording program, Garage Band, on there for free. FOR FREE. I mean, you know… if you bought the iPhone.
Your musicianship will improve drastically once you have your songs laid out in front of you and can interact with them. Every false idea you have about how music works will have to fall away for you just to get through the instruction manual. Your brain will hurt after your first four-hour session trying to get familiar with your chosen program, but it will be well worth it, even if you just end up better able to write AC/DC songs.
* Music Building, Room 102, if memory serves
** The 15’ x 20’ concrete room behind Dodd’s music in Grand Rapids, between where he used to park his car and the dumpster; also a popular bum toilet
*** Eighth and sixteenth notes, divide the beats into three for triplets
**** I’m totally lying. But don’t worry about it
***** You know, the Foo Fighters singer. Used to play drums in some band