Quick Tracks Monthly Challenge Roundup: June

Quick Tracks is Soundfly’s monthly series of creative musical challenges. To get your right brain bubbling with creative ideas, we love thinking up short production and songwriting challenges, aimed at helping you solve fun musical conundrums.

1. Pull a James Blake on ’em!

James Blake’s new single, “Don’t Miss It,” floats in and out of different keys, and includes some beautiful dissonances and production effects. It starts with a big E major piano chord, followed by an A minor sixth chord — an unusual progression that’s uplifting, but with a subtle darkness to it that’s almost sinister.

But it’s the bridge (around 1:00) that caught our attention for its disorienting effect. It has a Lydian modal feel to it, reminiscent of an early 20th century Debussy piece, which is compounded by a slightly stilted rhythm and a wobbly tape-warble, leaving the listener off balance and not sure what to expect. It’s songs like this, that use theory as a launching point to go to surprising places, that make us want to keep learning forever.

Creative Challenge: Create a short groove using the chord progression of E major (E, G#, B) and A minor sixth (A, C, E, and F#).

2. Create a track inspired by an image

Bruno Vieira replied to a recent Quick Tracks to show off his newest project called “And Still I Hear It.” Each week, he’s challenged himself to capture the mood of a different Instagram photo in music. He’s published the music and photos on Instagram and on SoundCloud. We always talk about the importance of constraints in learning. Bruno’s project is a wonderfully creative example of that idea in practice!

Creative Challenge (inspired by Bruno): Compose a piece of music that captures the mood of an image of yours! 

4. Humanize your drum machine

Our friends over at Vox recently launched a video exploring how J Dilla used his MPC3000 to make incredibly “human-sounding” beats using samples and tracks. We’ve talked about Dilla a lot, even from the perspective of an admiring bass player, but it was surely his superpower to take his electronic tools and create drum beats that were “off the grid” and ultimately alive and human. Dilla’s wide range of techniques made him a master of this machine in the studio, but don’t sleep on this video of AraabMuzik killing it on the MPC live, with fingers as nimble as a concert violinist. Perhaps it’s pertinent here to bring up that Roger Linn’s introduction to the Operator’s Manual for this sampler instructs the user to:

“…think of the MPC3000 as the piano or violin of our time, and of you as an MPC3000ist.”

Creative Challenge: Drum machines are obviously great for keeping your music in time and on the grid. Can you make a track with an electronic drum beat that sounds definitively human? 

4. Write a short piece in a style you’ve never tried before

This challenge came from Quick Tracks Nº3, and was issued by the good folks over at ASCAP. We brought it back because of all the inspirational examples coming out recently of artists crossing over into other genres and widening the borders of their own style to include influences from wherever!

It’s so easy, as a musician, to get stuck in a genre and spend the rest of your career just hanging out there in the safe zone. It’s comfortable. But it’s also very limited. So much of the best music of all time has come about as a result of musicians adopting sounds and processes from other styles.

Creative Challenge: We challenge you to write a song or a groove in a style you’ve never used before. It doesn’t have to be a polished product, but should clearly demonstrate some elements of the style you chose and be at least one-minute long. You can go as granular as you’d like with it — gypsy jazz8-bit chipcore, hardcore avant-garde folk rap — whatever you come up with!

Take one of the challenges, create a track that responds to the creative prompt, and share your work with us via email or on social media with the hashtag #quicktracks (and by tagging us @learntosoundfly). We’re excited to see what you come up with! Don’t hold back.

Ready to reach your musical goals?

Our one-on-one mentorship program is built on our belief that accountability and guidance can have a huge impact on students reaching their goals and developing their musical identities. Soundfly’s community of mentors will help you set the right goals, pave the right path toward success, and stick to schedules and routines that you develop together, so you improve every step of the way.

Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor or course for you!

Elijah Fox at the piano

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