The Design of Music

Like design methodologies, the creation of music requires specific tools.

There are four elements the musician must abide by when creating music: rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre (or tone). Rhythm creates the pace of a song, melody creates the tune of a song, harmony creates the synchronization of a song, and timbre distinguishes one sound from another. 

Without rhythm and melody the song is broken. Without preparation and incubation, the design process is broken. See where I’m going with this? Ok, good. These elements are set up in place to provide a framework for creativity, not confinement. In design we often forget our fundamental elements and get lost in creativity. We find ourselves stumped, failing to move forward, circling around an idea or thought for extended periods of time.

Every piece of music you have ever heard has had some sort of melodic line (although some of my friends argue that heavy metal has no melody… their ears simply cannot comprehend the musical brilliance). Like the melody of a song, a designer must maintain a certain pace of execution, captivating the client or ‘connoisseur,’ and assuring them of the process.

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In music there is natural conflict, conflict that must occur to produce an intended result — the relationship between harmony and discord. To be pleasing to the ear, a sound may require a different interval or a different direction. Conflict within the design process is no different – it arrives either when someone is in a disagreement or if there are simply too many ideas floating around. These should never be treated as conflict but as opportunities to create something new. This is where… dare I say it…innovation takes place. You have to piss off a few rocks to get some diamonds right? Ok, that was forced…

Getting on the Billboard top 10

Aside from your basic elements, when it comes to creating a great song, a songwriter must meet a few objectives…

One is the uniqueness of the song. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is a sound that hits that familiar note the audience can relate to, giving them something new yet instantly appealing. The second is a sound that the audience has never heard before — it’s captivating. These two have their strengths and weaknesses; the first being too conservative and the second being too risky. So where is the balance? That the million dollar question. Seriously, like multiple millions of dollars.

Design obviously relates to this in more ways than one. This balance is what every company strives for, the ability to maintain their image, and expand to new and growing markets. You have to do both to survive. You have to design conservatively AND unconventionally, mastering both sides of the spectrum will bring success, well it tends to. Time is money and the world is moving too fast to just be passive. By not being proactive, you will hurt your company’s chance to produce a front-runner product, while simultaneously going against your purpose as a designer. Find your balance, but be creative and inspiring.

The second component of writing a great song is repetition and a simple melody. How many songs do you know that have simple melodies and catchy choruses? You know, the ones you sing at the top of your lungs in the car (hoping no one is watching) but you don’t know any of the other words, just the refrain. There is something exciting about the chorus — it’s familiar and it’s often catchy. 

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Relax, we’ve all done it.

Product design is founded along a similar line of reasoning. There are tricks of the trade that designers should pay attention to, that’s why products are often modified, not redesigned… Look at the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy — the core product is already great, but the consumer wants more crap. So they market behind features people won’t need, but somehow encourage them to want it. We are pathetic. Remember the electronic skip protection numbers on your CD player? Good times. I think I had a CD player with a 45 second ESP at one point, baller.

The third component should be a clear message. The politically revolutionary band, Rage Against the Machine, conquered this category by writing unconventional song lyrics, provoking political activism and other public disturbances. Now this is obviously an extreme example, but Rage’s reputation has brought them both positive and negative recognition across several social divisions. On September 2, 2008 just before the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, Rage was scheduled to play outside on the State Capital lawn. Riot police would not let them get on stage and told them they would all be arrested if they did so (this was after Rage produced a legal permit to play, supposedly). This is a pretty good example to illustrate the power of a clear message.

Closing Thoughts

Products should concisely state its purpose and distinguish itself as the better choice among its competition. The message should be clear but with an element of freedom so that the consumer can take ownership of the product as part of their identity. Shouldn’t our corporate marketing teams, advertising agencies, and large design firms be able to deliver the same effectiveness to the consumer with all of the resources and money at their disposal? Clearly a few band members couldn’t have done all that by themselves, laugh…