Finish Tracks in Ableton Live by Borrowing Elements

Escaping the Loop and Finishing Tracks

Today, we're going to go over one of the many music production strategies from the Songwriting and Composition with Ableton Live course which is aimed at helping musicians and producers of all skill levels "escape the loop". This lesson is the text version of one of our free preview lessons from the Seed to Stage "Songwriting and Composition with Ableton Live" course. You can watch the video lesson here.

One of the most common stumbling blocks in the songwriting process is this: When we create a loop that sounds complete or a jam going in Ableton Live, but we feel lost and don't know where to take it from there. How does one turn a cool idea or loop into a finished track? It can be a frustrating thing to create this incredible segment of music, that you are proud of; but feeling lost when it comes to developing it further into a complete song.

How do we nurture this seed of an idea into something more complete? Our Songwriting and Composition with Ableton Live course has an entire chapter dedicated to addressing one of the most frequently asked questions about composition and finishing tracks. "How do I escape the loop?" This chapter of the Songwriting and Composition with Ableton Live course contains a list of potent strategies for developing song structure that you can use to break out of your 16-bar loops and contains over 2 hours of video lessons designed to turn ideas into finished tracks.

Stuck in the Loop

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So here's a classic situation that we've all found ourselves in. You've created a loop in Ableton that you're excited about. You have an awesome starting point that you're having fun with stoked to keep working on, but now what? The first part of a larger idea might feel complete and it wants to keep repeating itself. That's the nature of the loop, isn't it? The idea bears repeating, but now that you've listened to it enough times to develop a singular part of a song, it can be challenging to come up with a second part that feels like it matches and belongs to the original idea. Don't worry, you're not alone. Getting stuck in the loop is an extremely common stumbling block for producers of all skill levels.

Many songwriters, especially at the start of their musical journey, often instinctively reach for a new instrument to develop a new section of their track. It may seem like the obvious answer to go for some new sonic element to keep the track interesting and engaging. However, using this strategy to develop a new part presents a separate challenge. When using fresh sounds to start a new section of the track, you risk coming up with a second idea that's so different from the original that it doesn't feel right going back to the first part. The second loop might also sound great on its own, but it can be challenging to create two sections that fit together easily because they contain different sounds.

Borrowing Elements

One strategy that works wonders when forming a new section of your track is to take some element from your original loop and try to arrange a new section using your existing sounds. Using a segment from your original loop to start a new part of the song can act as an anchor point to keep your new section attached to the previous one.

Let's break this down a little bit. In the video, we start with five channels and a single scene. The loop contains a drum loop, chords, two polymeter melodic elements, and a bassline. It's a simple starting point, that allows us to sketch out new scenes easily without needing to account for too many channels and voices.

What Elements are Good to Borrow?

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In the video example, we start by taking advantage of one of our unique-sounding polymeter melodic elements. In reality, we could have chosen to start with any element from the first section. But the reason that the polymeter works especially well at this task is that it's kind of ambiguous in tone. The riff contains lots of notes, but together these notes aren't committing to or outlining a specific chord. Because of the ambiguous nature of this melodic part, it leaves a lot of different chords that could be played over this melodic element and still sound cohesive.

Another element that makes sense to copy often enough is the drum loop, which we also duplicate to our second section in the video. The drums are frequently one of the more static and consistent elements in the track, especially the main patterns played by the kick drum that make up the core pulse of the song. So unless the new section we're creating is meant to be a sweeping change from the original, it makes sense to orient ourselves around the core beat of the track in our new section.

Reharmonizing Chords

Once we've decided to start working on the second section using our polymeter riff, one thing we can think about trying is reharmonizing new chords over the top of it. Reharmonizing might sound complicated to the uninitiated, but it doesn't take a music theory whiz kid to leverage reharmonization when making music. Especially with Ableton Live 12's new set of amazing MIDI tools to help inform our theory choices.

The chord progression in our original "A" section was B major, C sharp major, and then E flat minor. So, we don't want to repeat that same progression, we can experiment to try to come up with some new chord progression. Something we can aim for at this stage is trying to incorporate some of the chords from the song's key that haven't been played yet to flesh out the composition more.

Reharmonizing Bass

After we've established a new chord pattern, this often presents a more clear pathway forward with composing for the bass element of the track. Whatever note the bass is playing works together with harmonized, chorded elements and solidifies the sound of the chord being played. The bass instrument doesn't have to follow the lowest note of the chords. Whatever the bass is playing provides context to what the overall chord tone is, even if the bass note and chords are coming from two different instruments.

For example, imagine the chords are playing a G major chord (G-B-D), and the bass instrument plays an F note. The F note is not part of the G major chord but is one whole step below the root note (G) of the chord. This creates a dissonance known as a "minor seventh" interval between the bass note (F) and the chord (G major). In this case, the placement of the bass note recontextualizes a major chord into a minor sound.

Whether reharmonizing the bass note or playing the same note as the chord root, the important thing to consider is that we can think of chords and bass notes as two elements that can inform and guide our decision-making when we borrow one or the other to start a new section of a track.

Recontextualizing Song Structure

Once we've started developing a second section of the song, measuring it against the original loop is important. As we continue developing new parts, we want to verify that the parts we already have work together cohesively. The transition between the two sections doesn't need to be perfect at this stage, but it's important that as we continue this process, we repeatedly check back and make sure that the parts we're developing one track at a time sound like they should be part of the same song. Extreme changes in rhythm, groove, instrumentation, chord voicing and other composition elements can work against the different sections of the song feeling like they belong together even if the parts use the same instruments and remain in the same key.

The Hook

In songwriting, the 'hook' is a repeating melodic motif or tune that can act as a common anchor point that we can use to tie together our different song sections. The hook is the part of our song that the listener should be whistling later. We often think of this catchy, memorable little segment of our music as something repeated again and again in a chorus. But a hook can also be used in more subtle ways at various points throughout the track as a callback or commonality. Hooks aren't just for pop music, and utilizing them in a thoughtful, calculated way throughout our composition can tie everything together in a very satisfying way in a finished track.

From Loop to Finished Track

When we're developing our arrangement and song structure, sometimes all it takes is one creative decision in the moment to get the creative juices flowing all over again and help to generate a bunch of fresh new ideas to keep working with. After we've heard our original loop played over and over again, it can feel like a giant challenge to push outward to something new. It can also be easy to focus on our original idea so long that it can be hard to simply listen and hear a path forward. And this can easily become a pattern of behavior in our process that creates extra friction and can make for a difficult time finishing tracks.

We go over many more songwriting and arrangement concepts like this one in the Seed to Stage flagship class "Songwriting and Composition in Ableton Live". Throughout the 20+ hour runtime, we outline several powerful music production strategies like this one that you can utilize to turn your musical ideas into finished tracks, no matter what style of music you're creating.

Whether you're coming to Ableton Live from other DAWS or just beginning your music journey, the Seed to Stage classes cover every facet of music production with Ableton Live from songwriting, to sound design, live performance and developing a polished finalized master track.

We hope to see you there!

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