How to write Ambient Music
Would you like to learn how to create ambient and atmospheric music? Music where the focus is on mood and vibe, rather than melody and rhythm.
Hello Composers! =)
My name is Mike, founder of professionalcomposers.com, music composer and sound designer since 1998, old school nerd, and coffee addict.
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Ambient Music Mindset
The first thing you need, is to get into the ambient music mindset. What is ambient music? How is it different from most other types of music? Well, like all music, ambient music comes in many different flavors. But even so, you should start with some general guidelines.
What is Ambient Music
In most styles of music, you have something that is directing the focus of the listener. Like a melody, riff or hook of some kind. Well, in ambient music, you want to avoid sharp hooks. In fact, you want to avoid anything that is sharp in any aspect at all. Basically ambient music should not have any strong focus.
Ambient music is more about creating a dreamlike world, and dreams have a cloud-like and unfocused aspect to them. As a composer of ambient music, your mission is to create an atmosphere, a landscape of sounds.
Ambient Music Keywords
Here are some general keywords I personally connect with Ambient Music:
Congratulations! You have learned how to get into an ambient music mindset. Let’s continue, right now!
Tempo & Rhythm
Tempo (meaning BPM) as well as the rhythmic patterns in your compositions, is what decides the fundamental energy level of music.
Slow & Dreamy
Ambient music is in the lower range of tempos. I usually start by setting the BPM somewhere in the 50-80 range. If you want a very dreamy soundscape landscape you can go even lower with the tempo. The lower you go, the more ambient and cloudy the music will be.
Rhythm is the very essence of energy and action in music. So by using fewer but longer notes, and minimize the sense of rhythm, you will create a more ambient vibe.
Dynamics & Contrast
Ambient music should not draw too much attention to itself. It should be like a calm and dreamy landscape of sound.
By using mainly soft dynamics you will make the overall vibe have that pleasing, warm and calm vibe. I usually focus most MIDI parts to have a dynamic level in ppp to mp range. This corresponds to about the range from 1 to 64 in velocity values for most software instruments in your DAW.
High contrast in the dynamics, rhythms, changes etc. is what will create a sense of intensity and action. So you should strive for the opposite when composing ambient music. Use minimal contrast, no bold accents, and no sudden changes. Your mindset should focus more on Flat vs Bumpy. Like a smooth ride with a car on an open, calm road.
Chords & Voice Leading
Since ambient music is so slow and dreamy, you should mostly use long sustained chords for your chord progressions.
When using chords that are held for 1, 2 or more full bars, you will rarely use chords that sound dissonant. Basically all chords will be consonant, meaning chords that has a pleasing sound. Major and minor triads, 7th chords, and sometimes suspended chords if you want to add some ambiguity and a longing vibe.
Smooth Voice Leading
To keep the nice flow that you want for ambient music, you should use very smooth voice leading. This means using very short intervals for the voice leading when choosing your chord inversions, as well melodies & harmonies. When you can keep a shared note sustaining in the chord change, really consider doing so.
Instruments & Sounds
What instruments and sounds you use in your ambient music composition is of course very subjective, and up to your creative choices. However, I do have some guidelines you can consider:
I recommend primarily using instruments and sounds with a very soft attack. Very sharp and plucky sounds should generally be avoided. Of course you can make exceptions to this, such as using sparse notes from a plucked acoustic guitar or harp. Especially if you add lots of reverb to them.
Long vs Short
Longer sustained sounds is the norm in ambient music. You rarely use driving synths or ostinato strings, or any instrument articulations or sounds with a rhythmic focus.
Warm & Deep
Very bright sounds with sharp overtones should generally be avoided. Which means that synths often have a high-pass filter to get rid of the brightest frequencies, and acoustic instruments are most often pushed into the room with reverb and microphones choices. This makes the sounds both deeper and warmer.
Transitions & Changes
If you do sudden and big changes in your rhythmic patterns, you will also add a sense of urgency and unease, which will enhance the energy and action level. Basically making your music sound more intense. Which is why you should have the opposite focus for making ambient music: few changes and soft transitions.
You rarely have any build-ups or accented transition points between section in an ambient music composition. Instead you should focus on glueing everything together so that every transition feels smooth like butter.
Every kind of change that happen in music will add to the energy and action level. Which is why you should have very few changes, and definitely not any change that feels sudden.
This applies to basically every aspect of the music composition. The chords, harmonies and melodies, the dynamics, the instrumentation and sounds and so on. Less is more is a common saying, and it is most definitely true for ambient music.
Create an Ambient Music Composition
Congratulations my friend! You have now learned the main foundations and techniques for composing and producing ambient music.
Here is your Final Project
Go ahead and implement your new knowledge right now, by composing and producing an ambient music track from scratch. Because the best way to learn and improve, is by doing things in action.