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How to Sequence without Boring Everyone

Apr 20, 2024
I love a great sequence.
Lucky for me, a lot of electronic music heavily relies on sequencing. And like anything that's used a lot, sequences can start to feel stagnant, predictable, and cliché.
Today, we'll talk about some ways I've found to make my own sequences less predictable and more interesting.
(you'll most definitely see a video on this in the near future...)
How Does the Sequence Function?
I'm not talking about a music theory-based dissection of the sequence. Instead, just ask "what's the purpose of this sequence?" It can clarify all later decisions.
Is the sequence serving as the focal point of the track? Almost like a melody would function?
Or is the sequence serving a supportive role? Maybe more like a rhythmic element, ostinato, or background element. Maybe it's panned off to one side while more important stuff comes right up the middle of the mix.
If we can determine whether the sequence will be the leader or a follower within the context of our track, that can help us make more specific choices.
The Sequence as a Focal Point
If the sequence is the main thing in our track, these common problems can arise:
1. The sequence has no sense of direction (centering)
2. The sequence is too predictable
3. The sequence is monotonous and gets boring quickly
If you recall, we've talked about some similar issues in melody writing.
Like melodies, the SHAPE of the sequence is most important. It makes it feel like it goes somewhere (or doesn't). Even before we figure out all the notes, we can think about the general shape of the sequence.
Will it start low and gradually work its way up?
What if we included a larger leap for emphasis? (just like we talked about in melody writing)
One common issue with melodies is "centering". This happens when we repeat one or two notes too frequently so that it feels too circular. There may be times when this is what we want, but often it kills any sense of forward momentum or linear movement.
This is a common issue with sequencing too. Too much repetition can be effective if you are not using the sequence like a melodic element (we'll discuss that later). But it can make a melodic sequence feel too predictable.
I don't want my music to be too predictable, I'd much rather it feel INEVITABLE - like it was effortless, but not cliche.
Another way I like to break up the predictability of sequences is using odd lengths. Synth sequences can be rigid. Most sequencers are set up in rows of 8 or 16 steps, so it's easy to get stuck thinking in those set groupings.
I learned from all those years playing Prokofiev that I love melodies that go across the bar line. The phrase is extended or shortened in an unexpected way that breaks up the monotony. But a skilled composer still makes it feel natural, like "of course that's how it should be." That's part of the craft.
The Sequence in a Supportive Role
If your sequences are not the main thing in your track, we need a different approach.
In fact, often we need to do the opposite of what we just talked about with melodic sequences.
If our sequence is supportive and there's busier harmonic movement happening in the chord progression underneath it, we can't afford to be as harmonically ambitious with our sequence.
The sequence's shape is still very important. But, putting too much harmonic information in the sequence itself limits what we can do around it.
In this case I like to think of the sequence as implying the harmony, rather than dictating it.
Here's what I mean.
If we're in a certain key or mode, we know we have set values for each scale degree. The easiest example would be: in a major key we have a Major 3rd, but in a minor key, the third scale degree is lowered to a minor 3rd. Easy enough.
I might avoid the 3rd altogether in the sequence unless I want to lock myself into major or minor (or intentionally create dissonance). It keeps things ambiguous and my options open when I'm improvising with chords underneath.
Sequence Layering
This harmonic ambiguity or more conservative approach to harmony within the sequence also helps if I want to layer sequences.... which... I usually do.
Back to the odd sequence length concept from earlier, this is where I find synth sequences intriguing. When you have a 5 step pattern against an 8 step pattern, you never know how things will line up.
Suddenly what were two harmonically ambiguous sequences interact to become something new.
Key takeaway: the purpose of the videos I make and newsletters I write are to give you some new ideas or ways to think about things.
But the most important thing I can convey is to try things. Don’t wait for a perfect formula. Don’t spend so much time planning that you never start.
You’ll learn a lot more from taking a couple concepts and then trying things out for yourself. So, as always, get outta here and play with some sequences.
Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.