Talking To Beginners

I have been producing dance music for about five years now. In that time I have spent countless solitary hours watching tutorials, throwing ideas at my DAW, and trying to figure out: What works?

What I haven’t done much of is explain to someone else how to do things.

And I don’t mean how to use a compressor. Someone else can explain that.

What I haven’t explained is how Eric Prydz and Lane 8’s slow rise and falls of tension are obviously the result of slow changes in things like reverb, EQ, and volume. It’s obvious to me when I think about it for a minute. Completely.

But I only became conscious of it when I focused my mind on the track (it was something by Lane 8) to figure it out and explain it to someone else.

Of course, I’m sure there’s more to the slow builds of Lane 8 and Prydz. But I bet slow automation curves making small, small adjustments are everywhere in their tracks.

The thing to recognize here is that there are countless other patterns I haven’t yet noticed in dance music — because I’ve never had to. The situation has never come up.

If you’ve ever taken a course on learning, “learning how to learn”, then you might recall that explaining to someone else what you know is a great way to learn it better. You can also reinforce your learning by taking notes. But explaining things to someone else is incredible for learning. Back to this in a moment.

If you’ve been producing music for a few years, there are parts in your brain that literally do not exist in the average person’s. You can focus your hearing on subtle parts of sound that, as far as I can tell, some people literally can’t notice.

Read that again. It’s not that they don’t notice some of the subtleties that an experienced producer could. It’s that they can’t notice because their brains are not wired to hear the differences yet. Crazy, right?

Now what happens when you explain how a track works to somebody else?

In order to understand a track and turn that understanding into words, your brain has to engage parts it wouldn’t use together otherwise. Your language centers have to get involved to translate the parts of the music you are focusing on into words. Then another part has to move your mouth to speak.

If you try this with a friend, you’ll be amazed at what kind of realizations you experience.

This is the importance of talking to beginners.

Part of why this works is that the process of explaining to someone new will raise things you know but don’t usually think about into conscious awareness.

Your musician’s brain has some understanding that it feels “tension” rising before an important change in the track, like the movement from the drop to the breakdown. It isn’t magic. The tension is coming from something changing in the music. The average listener has no idea what that something might be. But you do!

It might be the pitch of something rising in the background.

It might be the low end being filtered out.

It might be the volume of an instrument going up — or it might just be part of the frequencies in the instrument.

I repeat that explaining this to another person will do something for you that replicating the pattern in your DAW will not do.

Try explaining what is happening while the track playing. By directing your friend’s attention from sound to sound, narrating how things work, you’ll make your own subconscious understanding from an ambiguous blob into an explicit, well defined form.

You’ll suddenly understand things differently, and you will remember the understanding because human to human communication heavily engages the brain.

Try that with a friend who likes dance music or with a newer producer.

And if you know someone who is a more experienced producer than you are, you should definitely try this with them. They’ll point out things you never would have noticed.

But to be honest, this is some basic bitch shit so far.

Let’s use this exercise to do something incredible. You won’t believe what you can do with it.

Try to explain the difference between one track and another track, even to yourself. But get a friend involved for best results. (Probably another music producer for this one since it’s more advanced.)

What is the difference between the way Ilan Bluestone sounds and Grum?

What is the difference between the way Grum sounds and Eric Prydz?

Ilan Bluestone and Grum are on the same label. In a way, their tracks are very similar. Certainly Ilan Bluestone and Grum are more similar sonically than Ilan Bluestone and Spor.

If you dig into this challenge, you might notice that Ilan Bluestone’s kicks sound long (like they fill an 1/8th note?), with a big punch, while Grum tends to be shorter with less mid and high end. Grum’s sit further back in the mix, while still being in the front.

This is also a great way to figure out if your producer friends think “Bright” or “Punchy” mean the same thing.

Let me know if you try this out. Talk to some non-musicians and explain a part of the music to them. Try to explain it so well that you see understanding show on their faces. That gives you a challenge while maybe doing something useful for them.

I’ll write about another form of this exercise later, maybe.