I’m going to write a few posts that are mini-composition lessons based on non-classical music. Composers study 18th-century counterpoint, serialism, and lots of other classical forms—but what can we learn from the music that the vast majority of people living today actually listen to?
So to start things off, Daft Punk’s “Technologic,” which is very tightly composed and epitomizes a few key principles.
Start with an Obvious Concept
Listeners need an “in” for any new piece of music they hear, something that allows them to figure out what your artistic project is and whether or not they want to bother paying attention. For that reason, the more obvious you can make your project, the better. That doesn’t mean you have to pick something mundane or clichéd, but you need to pick something that only takes a split second to comprehend.
“Technologic” does this masterfully. It starts straight into the grammatical and thematic concepts that underpin the textual structure of the piece: “[verb] it, [verb] it, [verb] it, [verb] it”, where the verb is some type of computer-related term.
Stick with material when it’s catchy
There’s virtually no other material in “Technologic” other than the spoken “[verb] it” structure and a vamp that plays underneath. It’s enough because the original idea is catchy. Turning to the classical repertoire, a piece like Reich’s Come Out has a similar simplicity.
This is a concept that often gets lost on composers. If the material is intrinsically appealing (a.k.a. catchy), use it a lot. If it’s not that appealing, you need to make the contrast between materials the point of interest. But if it is appealing and you keep moving on to other things, the aural palette gets supersaturated and you’re left with shades of grey. Learning to stick with something good is an important compositional skill. (Probably the living composer that does that best, in my mind, is Andy Hamilton.)
Your don’t get to choose how to develop your material
There’s no real development in “Technologic”, so there’s no introductory material to speak of. That’s the right call. If Daft Punk had set up the song with an extended intro, or really any intro, the “[verb] it” construction would sound like a departure point, and we’d be waiting to find out how they transform it. Because Daft Punk starts right into the hook from the very first sound, we don’t have that expectation and we can just focus on the groove.
Contrasting function is more important than contrasting material
Despite the groove focus of “Technologic,” it’s not entirely without contrast. All successful music has contrast somehow or other (even pieces like Glass’s 4.5-hour Einstein on the Beach), so when it’s time for something new in your piece, you need to figure out what needs to change, and how much. “Technologic” does this by killing the driving beat and creating a more suspended texture. The word “technologic” is spoken once per bar to mark time during these interludes, and after a few bars it’s right back to where we started.
All they did was add a bit of space, enough for people to realize, “Okay, that was a comprehensible span of music,” and then it’s right back into the hook (since it’s catchy and doesn’t need to be developed). That’s all you need, yet so many composers either reinvent the wheel for each contrasting section or rail against the concept of contrast altogether, which gives you undifferentiated noise. Determining the nuance of how much contrast and when is one of the most important skills for a composer to learn.