Breaks (and I don’t mean break beats) are those little pockets of time during a monotonous work day where one can briefly recharge their batteries. In a musical environment, where monotony is hopefully a redundant word, breaks are also important but for a different reason.
The invigorating experience of a productive workflow in the studio encourages us to continue working whilst the creative ideas bounce around inside our heads. However, and this applies particularly to those working on a laptop with headphones, creating layers or adding part after part to a musical work without a break can sometimes be counterproductive.
Imagine the artistic side of the brain as a hollow sphere in which the creative magic will only spark to life in the middle. The first musical part, whether it be a drum loop, bass line, melody, riff, or a chord sequence, will have space within the sphere to itself – there is no other part to direct attention away from it.
As soon as a second part is added, the two of them vie for attention within the sphere. To create “space” for developing the new part, you subconsciously push the first part to the side of the sphere. You can hear the first part, you are aware of its presence, but you don’t listen to it with the same degree of concentration as your focus is now on the second part.
This is normal as the ear cannot give equal attention to two (or more) parts simultaneously. It will always prioritize one over another.
The more parts you add, the more you keep on pushing the previous parts to the side to create space for the part that you are working on. Without a break, it is difficult to judge exactly how things are “stacking” up. The lack of consideration paid to the smaller details, as the sum of all parts is collated, can result in incoherency – a polite word for a bit of a mess. It may be that incoherency only pops up in places, but how will you know which note(s) of which part(s) is (are) the culprit(s)?
Take A Break
To help combat this scenario, and it is a common scenario, one should think about taking a little break after each new part, or sequence of parts, is added. Even a one minute break will allow your ears to regain a sense of composure and objectivity without disrupting your creative flow. It may be that your creative flow is so powerful that you can’t leave your computer/workstation, so just make sure to say to yourself something like, “Right, I have added a lot of material here, l should take a break before I go too far down a road I might not need to go down…”. You could even set an alarm on your phone to remind you to “Stop, and take a reality check!!”
A break should involve a complete detachment from your environment i.e. walk out of your studio/room to make a cup of tea or pop outside to stretch your legs, have a brief chat with someone, read a short article or send an email etc. etc. – change your head space – at the very least, get up from your chair for a short pause – but the break must not involve listening to music – you need a moment to rest your ears.
By taking short breaks on a regular basis, you will be able to verify the relationship between the new parts or sequences as they are added, and how they relate as a whole to the other parts and sequences within the track.
If you adopt this method from the start, you will be able to successfully “layer” the parts as you can iron out any problems before you add anything else. Incorporating a simple approach like this into your working methods will allow you to have more insight into exactly what is happening as each part is added.