I’m a big believer in self-education. By reading the theory and applying it in practice, you can develop the skills and experience necessary to make amazing music.
But self-education is not simple. In any particular field, there are many different skills that you need to combine in order to get the result you want. For example, composition can be broadly divided into sub-areas such as melody, harmony, instrumentation and structure. Audio engineering might be broken down to topics ranging from acoustics, microphone characteristics, electrical engineering, digital signal processing, dynamics, tone, depth, etc. Production might include everything in composition and engineering and also add project management, relationship management, conflict resolution, emotional coaching, etc.
So how do you tackle all this? How do you choose which areas to focus on?
Actually, I think it’s pretty straightforward (but not easy!) – it’s a process I call ‘iterative refinement’. It’s a bit like what people refer to as ‘Trial and error’, but it’s much better: Iterative refinement is essentially this:
- Step 1: Make a music.
- Step 2: Figure out what happened. What worked? What didn’t work?
- Step 3: Go back to step 1.
Each time you go through the cycle, you get better and better because you’re frequently identifying the areas where you need to improve. In addition, Step 2 combines with the theoretical reading you’re also doing so that each time you get better at identifying what you need to improve.
By comparison, trial and error is an aimless recipe for failure. In iterative refinement, the only failure is the failure to learn from Step 1. It doesn’t matter how disappointed you are in the results of Step 1 – it’s a success if you learn enough to do it better next time.
Iterative refinement, however, isn’t perfect.
It’s common to get stuck – spinning your wheels because you can’t quite get to the next level. You know you’re in this situation if:
- You feel that your music isn’t improving, even after trying to figure it out yourself;
- You don’t know what the next step is – you don’t know how to get the sounds you’re imagining; or
- People are giving you feedback that you’re not as good as you think you are.
If you’re spinning your wheels without getting ahead, you probably need some outside help.
Simply being dissatisfied with your work is – on its own – not a sign that you need outside help. The dissatisfaction is actually a necessary motivator for doing the work yourself. Even continual dissatisfaction is not a problem, so long as your music is improving. If your music isn’t improving, however, then that’s the clue that you might need outside help.
Outside help can take many forms. It can be anything from paying for professional help to asking a knowledgeable friend to posting on forums. No matter which way you do it, it involves making contact with another person. It involves someone listening to your music and giving you some specific guidance that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
Obviously, you need to be careful who you listen to. Not everyone will be able to give you useful advice. Musicians will often give advice that leads you to make your music more like theirs. Beginners might have a lot to say but not realise when their advice is not useful. Forums can make it hard to tell the difference between anonymous jerks and veterans giving tough love.
If you have the choice, seek advice from someone you know and trust.