How To: Demystify Composition

Part of a new series where we ask Pakistani musicians about their process of making music, from writing to distribution.

Imagine the biggest umbrella you’ve ever seen. Now make it bigger. Now make it even bigger than that. Pretty big, huh? That, my friends, is how big of an umbrella term the word ‘composition’ is within the world of music. You might think you know what it means, but chances are, you’re probably not looking at the whole picture. The most general understanding of composition is that it refers to how music is composed, and while this may be true for classical composers of ye old age, when talking about music in the current context, it’s far more nuanced. The nuances of composition probably don’t matter to the average consumer of music, but if you’re a musician who plans on actually making their own music, this is a concept you need to understand. I caught up with Asfandyar Khan, the musician behind electronic music act TMPST, to learn what the hell composition really is.

Originally starting out as an ambient musician, Asfandyar has been making music since 2010. His initial releases were all ambient music, and although making such music was something he really enjoyed, it would at times feel somewhat constraining. “The thing is, it’s a very less is more approach to creation, when making ambient music. Which is great, but I wanted to step out of that also” he said. What he eventually stepped out into, was electronic music, and the moniker TMPST was birthed. And although it has been more than ten years since he started making music, in some ways it still feels to him like he’s just starting out.

The reason I asked Asfandyar to talk about composition is actually because of something he tweeted, which immediately caught my interest.

I laughed, and then I thought back to the ending sentences of the last ‘How to Write a Song’ piece, and then I cried 🙂 But no worries, we’re all here to learn, and I was ready to demystify the elusive composition and everything it entailed.

Asfandyar explained his gripe with people using the word composition. “It’s just it’s not a word you would use when talking about structure or arrangement in music, you know?” he said. “People will listen to a basic song be like ‘amazing composition’. My brain will always be like, okay what’s the composition here? Is that the melody? Is it the structure? Or is it the arrangement?” He draws the analogy of a photography exhibition where people are praising the photographer’s composition. If you were to ask them what they meant by that term, they would tell you that it refers to how the shot was framed. With music, Asfandyar feels like people can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that they mean by composition. It serves as a catch all for anything really.

“Music doesn’t need to be critiqued technically” he says. “There’s this idea that if you’re critiquing a song, you need to know music technically. You really don’t. You need to know a lot of music, but you don’t need to know how it’s made.” He makes a good point. Not many people particularly care about technical details like that, unless they’re musicians themselves. The usage of the word composition, without going into specifics about what is meant by it, is a way of signaling that you know a lot about music. “There’s an element of ‘I know what I’m talking about’, but it’s like no dude. Nobody knows what you’re talking about because there’s so many things you can chuck under composition” he says.  

Composition, he explains, just isn’t a word you hear anymore, in the context of music, because it’s very dated, the same way the word ‘concert’ might feel slightly antiquated, or out of place when referring to a small gig. And also, there are far better, more specific words to use instead of it now. I told him that I always understood composition to mean structure and arrangement, which he said wasn’t entirely wrong. But, he added, if you’re willing to be an ass and get technical, (which I am always game to do), you will see that structure and arrangement are also two very different things that just happen to come under the big, supermassive umbrella of the nebulous term that is composition.

Visual description of Asfandyar standing under the supermassive umbrella of composition.

So then what is structure? Asfandyar describes it as all the individual parts that constitute your track, from the hi-hats to the snare to the synth lines to the vocals. “Structure is kind of how you layer them on top of each other, sort of vertically. Like, okay, the kick drum is playing, and the hi-hats are playing, and the clap is playing at the same time, and then 16 bars later, something else comes in.” he says. Visually, it would help to imagine structure as this vertical thing which determines what comes on top of what, and how everything is layered, he explains.

Arrangement on the other hand, is more horizontal, and it moves forward, from left to right. “It’s more like okay, when do things pull out? When do I speed things up? When do I add more energy into the track? When do I build up to the track? ” he says. There are two aspects to arrangement as well (I know, it’s like an umbrella within an umbrella within an umbrella). Arrangement can be very technical (“16 bars, uss ke baad drum loop change ho raha hai, phir 16 bars ke baad bass aa raha hai, phir 16 bars ke baad synth line aa rahi hai”) but it can also be this intangible thing that’s kinda difficult to explain. Nevertheless, Asfandyar tries to explain. “It’s like, I want to increase energy here, right? So, there’s a thousand ways to increase the energy of a track of like a separate genre, and how you want to do that, and arrangement kind of adds to that also”.

Photo by: Omar Bashir

For him personally, structure is a very music oriented technical approach. There’s a lot of EQ-ing involved, a lot of making sure frequencies of different parts don’t clash. When it comes to arrangement, he likes to take a step back and look at the various moments in his track. What does the intro look like, should it be light and airy? Does he want the energy to slowly build up and then immediately drop back down? Where does the drop come in? This is how he distinguishes between structure and arrangement in terms of his own music, and he acknowledges that it can be different for everyone since music gives you so much room to mess around and do your own thing.

How you learn to do both things is a matter of trial and error and repeated efforts. YouTube is a great resource, and there is so much information available online that he says it almost feels like someone is throwing a hard copy of an encyclopedia at you. In addition to YouTube, attentively listening to music you like is also a great way to pick up the subtle changes and details within it. He says that when it comes to electronic music, the general advice is to use a reference track that’s very similar to the kind of stuff you want to make, and really observe it. “You kind of just study it, you break it down, you make notes about where he stopped singing? Where did he start playing the guitar up in octaves? It’s kind of learning how other people do it. And then building up your skill set that way, and then applying it yourself” he says.

The more you do this, the more you pay attention to what others are doing in their music, the more you learn about your own preferences. “So for instance, when it comes to techno, I like a lot of stuff that’s really sort of melodic and interesting. But I don’t want to make music like that. Because when I try making music like that, I don’t enjoy it. I enjoy making a completely different kind of techno that I don’t listen to that much” he says, which is a great point to remember when you’re starting out on your musical journey. You might want to make the kind of music you listen to, but you might find out that you’re much better at making a completely different sort of sound, which is completely alright and nothing to worry about.

When it comes to how a TMPST track is made, it all starts with a single loop. Because techno tracks are relatively simple, this is what makes them tough to get right. Because there are so few elements already, you really need to make sure that each element in the mix sounds as close to perfection as possible. This is why Asfandyar makes a ten second loop and works on that, trying to figure out which sounds work well with each other. Once the basic ten second loop is down, he then approaches it one of two ways. First, he turns the loop into a bigger, seven-minute loop. With this longer loop, he asses where are the places where he can speed things up, or slow things down, or add variety through lulls or drops. The second way he approaches it is when he already has an idea of what he wants to do. This way there is no need for experimentation or tinkering or assessment of any sort, he can just get started on bringing his vision to life.

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Photo by: Azka Shahid

Artists who Asfandyar thinks are really good at structuring and arranging (and ‘composing’) their music include Mekaal Hassan, Tollcrane, Alien Panda Jury and Rudoh. He says they’re really good at understanding dynamics of loud and soft, and when to switch things up. “You listen to their songs, and your brain is going one way. You’re like, okay I’m vibing to this beat, and then suddenly they’ll just change it up completely. And the moment your brain registers the change, you start vibing to this new part, instead of being annoyed at the change” he says. He also really likes Abdullah Siddique’s take on structuring and dynamics, and he feels that what makes Siddique’s songs stand out from other pop music is the fact that it has so many textures and moods that have been arranged and structured really well.

The reason, he feels, for the Pakistani tendency to use dated words like composition is that the music industry here has always been four or five years behind where music was globally. He gives the example of grunge bands, which were still popular in Pakistan by 2008, even though grunge is essentially a product of the 90s. This also applies, he says, to terms like producer, and according to him, people don’t usually understand the difference between producers and audio engineers. But that’s a conversation for another day. For now, as we stand under the gigantic umbrella of composition, let’s be grateful about having made some sense of this music jargon. You can find Asfandyar’s music on Spotify, and then you can pull it up in Ableton and have your own listening and splicing party as you embark on your newly acquired structuring knowledge.

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