A useful skill in songwriting is the subtle deployment of the unexpected. When there’s a sudden chord change out of nowhere, a melody that rises when you think it should fall, a strange production effect that changes the tone of the song — these surprises generate listener goosebumps. My favorite: when the bass line in The Feelies’ “Slow Down,” which is a constant single note for most of the song, changes to a second note at 2:19. There’s nothing to this — it’s so simple — but it gets me every time.
The trick is that these surprises can’t be too surprising. Sure, in compositions aiming to unmoor the listener (often in experimental music) the surprises are abrupt and heavy. But I think there’s a higher art in subtlety — sonic and compositional changes that are unexpected but not necessarily out of place. Sometimes these sound like accidents, but tiny ones.
Occasionally these surprises or imperfections are genuinely accidental. Think about a singer whose voice cracks mid-phrase, or a botched note in a guitar riff, or a tape delay echo tail that gets a little too out of control. In the podcast series and accompanying book Ways of Hearing, Damon Krukowski mentions his imperfect drumming in recordings by the band Galaxie 500. “We played as steadily as we could,” he says. “But this was a performance. We were nervous and excited. And we sped up at the chorus.”
Sometimes these flaws are unwelcome and distracting. In Galaxie 500’s day, an inexcusable mistake would mean recording a new take of the song. Other times these unplanned incidents are at the edge of unacceptable — such as speeding up in the chorus — and it’s more trouble than it’s worth to re-record. So they get left alone. And, a lot of times, these strange little errors grow to become favorite song moments for both the listeners and the artists.
Now, instead of re-recording, one can ‘fix it in the mix.’ A quantization or manual shifting of beats in the DAW can correct that excited drummer. A singer can choose from multiple takes of a vocal line to replace that bit where her voice cracked for a second. The tape delay is an automated plug-in, so there’s no chance of that echo getting distorted and out-of-bounds.
By nature (or un-nature), digital production provides fewer opportunities for accidents. If a musician or producer wants to incorporate the unexpected in a song, she must program the error into the digital tool. There are now plug-ins and scripts that feature options to randomize settings. One can get carried away — check out the lengths Brian Eno goes to in randomizing Logic Pro:
We commonly refer to these fortunate misfortunes as ‘happy accidents.’ And, outside of software, one can encourage these detours in the analog world. Artists often purposefully set up loose creative environments to inspire a moment of chance. Musicians jam or improvise to see what happens, hoping for a phrase of synergy to develop into a previously unimagined song. Guitarists might try alternate tunings, or drummers might play on unfamiliar percussion set-ups. Even recording in strange surroundings could inspire different outcomes.
There are also creative games. I mentioned Gysin and Burroughs’ The Third Mind in an episode of my email newsletter. The cut-up method detailed in that book is used by a number of artists to summon unforeseen creative options. Here’s a video of David Bowie using the cut-up method. Other examples of creative games are Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s well-known Oblique Strategies cards (even used by country music superstars) or John Cage composing “Music For Changes” using the I Ching.
At the beginning of last year, I tried my own creative game project. Before starting a song, I set up a bunch of rules to output random results. These rules covered the sounds I’d use, the tempo, the audio plug-ins, even the song’s title. The project was short-lived but inspired the process of creating the ‘theme songs’ for my newsletter. And I had a name for that project, which I also use to describe the ‘unexpected but not out-of-place’: Tiny Accidents.
In my experience, these accidents are valuable creative exercises. They allow artists to step outside of their heads and develop works that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Each throw of the dice is a chance to learn new techniques by outwitting artistic obstacles. The process is incredibly satisfying. So, I’m resuming my Tiny Accidents practice. And I challenge you to start one.
This post was adapted from Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a weekly newsletter loosely about music-making, music-listening, and how technology changes the culture around those things. Click here to check out the latest issue and subscribe.