Six Seconds

It was a simple enough request at first; write some music to be used as an intro to a client’s YouTube videos.

First things first. Like any commissioned work, it’s important to understand what the client wants. Typically, most clients don’t know what they want, and that’s OK. It’s my job as composer to extrapolate what they want from the vague descriptions they give me. In this case, the client was an organizing company with a high-end clientele. That was all I had to go on. A quick visit to their website gave me some idea of what their image was.

I began thinking in abstract terms, not musical ones. The words that came to mind were, “neat”, “tidy” and (obviously) “organized”. With that, I started to think about instrumentation that might communicate those concepts; glockenspiel, vibraphone, castanets and acoustic upright bass. Easy enough, right?

Here’s where things got funny. In any given piece of music, there’s an intro, that kind of sets the tone for the piece, a middle, which is the main melody and an “outro” (ending) which generally sums up the whole thing. Sometimes there’s a “bridge” which is a part towards the middle with that usually has an entirely different melody. Then there’s the arrangement, how the instruments fit together and where they come in. Often the intro is one or two instruments and then more are added, until they all come together at some point in the work. That’s all fine and dandy for a piece that’s a few minutes long.

This client needed six seconds.

Once I sat down at the keyboard to write, it became abundantly clear that this would be no mean feat. I mean, the melody was simple enough- just a perky little phrase. But how do you build your instrumentation? How do you convey your client’s concepts in such a short amount of time?

Eight notes, that’s how. The first four notes were just short single notes on the glockenspiel (accentuated by the castanets), followed by three longer notes with the rest of the instruments. The final statement was one high note on the vibraphone. Here’s what it sounded like.

The next day I got an email from the client: “That sounded great!  It is a bit mellow, and jazzy but I liked the notes!”

Well, that’s encouraging, and helpful. Now I had an idea of what the client didn’t want; something mellow and jazzy. This gave me the opportunity to ask, “Does that mean that you’re looking for something more aggressive, upbeat? Rock, orchestral?”

The client replied, “Yes, perhaps a bit more upbeat and can I hear it as rock and orchestral and perhaps as just acoustical guitar?”

Rock and  orchestral. In six seconds. Something told me it was time to try another route:

“Let’s try a different approach to narrowing down your idea. When I put together the piece I sent you, I wasn’t thinking melody or instrumentation so much as I was thinking “neat” and “tidy”, “organized”. Do you have any other keywords that have nothing to do with music?”

The client replied with a list:
energetic (but not “perky'”)

“Not Perky”, was my second clue regarding what the client didn’t like about the first piece; the melody was too cutesy. “Energetic”, coupled with the earlier comment about wanting something “Rock”, told me that there needed to be drums, not just light percussion. “Clean” told me that this should comprise acoustic instruments, as electric ones can often be thought of as less pure, somehow. “Un-fussy” meant that there should only be simple chords in the piece, not the Major 7th I’d resolved to in the first one. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with “Rich” and “Creative”, but they did give me a vague idea about texture.

Back at the keyboard, I worked up another short melody that was a little less, in the clients words, “perky”. The intro is piano and bass, followed by drums, acoustic guitar chords and Hammond organ. Here’s what I came up with.

The next day, I got this email from the client: “I like it! I think we have a winner.”

Well alright, that was pretty simple. I was feeling pleased with myself. Until I got another email from the client:

“Okay, everyone likes the first one you did better!  It is “cleaner” and simpler and that is what appealed to them. More of a signature tune that you can recognize.  Someone did say it was a bit slow.  Is the second one a bit faster?  I personally like that the second one is more of a guitar sound and less like a bell.  Can you do number 2 with a pure guitar or piano sound but with no drums in the background?”

Back to the keyboard. At least this time I didn’t have to come up with a melody, just a new arrangement. Fortunately, I had been working entirely in samples (sounds stored in the computer, that can be played on a keyboard, as opposed to recording the actual instruments). That afforded me the ability to simply plug in new instruments in place of what was already there. I could mute the drums, bass and organ and have an acoustic guitar play the melody line. Same with the piano. I gave the client two more versions of each piece, along with this note:

“I’ve attached a few versions of each piece. There really isn’t much of a difference in tempo between the two pieces, but in the second one the drums give it a little more energy. The first one “ritards” at the end, meaning it slows down for effect. Remember that any tempo changes will effect the length of the music and we’re looking at 6 seconds here.

A couple of days later, I heard from the client:

“And we have a clear winner!  Solo A #1 with the clean piano is everyone’s favorite!”

So what’s the point behind this story? Simply this. Yes, it is a mere six seconds of music, but it took 18 emails over the course of 13 days and 6 versions to come up with a final product that the client was happy with. When I’m contacted to compose, and I give the client a quote, they often will say something like, “But it’s only a minute long…”.

It’s never just a minute long.

By the way, what was the final piece? It was this…

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