BASIC PRINCIPLES: The Layers - Foreground, Middleground and Background

Layers of your arrangement.png

Layers Of Your Track

Another common problem I see among a lot of beginning composers is that they add too many elements to their compositions without structuring them properly. The result sounds unfocused, messy and rather chaotic. This is something we talked about in the counter melody chapter, but the same principles apply to any new element you want to add to your track, including harmonies, background textures and so on.

When you’re creating your track, I want you to create it with very specific layers in mind. We can separate this into the foreground, middle-ground, and background. Sometimes there can be only foreground and background, for example, if you have a single melody with chords under. Sometimes the middle-ground can be a counter melody or a rhythmic ostinato.

Something that I personally think separates skilled composers from amateur ones, is their ability to clearly structure their composition into balanced layers that are working together.

Let's check out a video where I talk about the importance of keeping things simple, and keeping your orchestration nice and tidy.

Keep It Simple

For this chapter, I want you to clearly put ANY new element you add to your composition in one of these categories that we explored earlier:

Melody
Countermelody
Harmony
Rhythm/Texture

The first thing we want to look at is how to create a defined separation between the elements. We want all the layers to be clearly audible and possible to separate from the others while we listen.

This can be done by using one or more of these characteristics:

Range:
Separate the layers by pitch. For example having a melody one octave above the chords.

Rhythm:
Separating by rhythm. Ex: Having a quicker melody over longer, sustained chords.

Articulation:
Separating by articulation. For example legato melody over pizzicato or staccato harmonies.

Tone Color:
Separating by tone color. For example by having the melody played by a solo oboe over a string section.

Now, again you don’t have to use ALL of these, but using one, two or three can give a very nice result. Listen to these examples:

Example 1:

In the example above, there are 3 elements. The chords, the melody, and a little ostinato pattern in the violas. However, they are melting together into a mess, especially at the ending. This is because there is no separation between the layers. They are playing almost the same rhythm, it's all similar tone colors (strings), and they are in the exact same range (as you can see on the image below).

However, listen to this example:

Example 2:

In this example, the separation is much better. This will make everything way easier to mix, and the track itself will sound a lot better. Here I have separated the three layers using both range, tone color and rhythm. Look at the image above, and see how the bass notes, the ostinato and the melody is in its own octave and own rhythm.

Keep these things in mind when orchestrating and recording your track.


Foreground, Middleground and Background

Now that we have separated the layers, let’s look at how you can structure these layers into the foreground, middleground, and background. You don’t want all your elements to be the center of attention. Maybe your chords will be the background element, supporting your main melody. Or you have an ostinato that you want to be playing in the background, with other elements being in focus.

But how do we create focus, and how to we push elements to the back?

Here are three ways to achieve this.

Volume
This is the most obvious one. The loudest elements will always sound closer than very quiet ones. So to push something to the front, you can use volume as one tool to achieve this. If you have a loud horn melody soaring about a softer string ensemble, the horn will naturally become the center of the attention.

Rhythm
This is also a very effective way of altering focus. Very rhythmically active parts will usually draw more attention from the listener than long, slow elements. One example is a melody line over a pedal note. The pedal note will naturally fall to the background due to its inactivity, while the moving melody will be the main focus. At the same time, a moving melody over slower string chords will also become the center of attention due to its movement.

However, sometimes we want quickly moving background elements like ostinatos, runs, and similar effects. How do we maintain a clear focus on the foreground element?

Variation and Repetition
Something that tends to push an element to the background, is repetition. If you have a quick string ostinato, it’s repetitive nature will naturally push it to the back. However, if something is changing, the variation will attract the attention of the listener. Therefore, repetition and variation can be used to successfully push elements forward or backward.

Check out these two examples. Write which elements you perceive as the foreground, middle ground and background element.