Arts & Culture

Test The Divide: Writing for the Instruments

How do you write songs when there are no words to be said?
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Featured image by Lepsy Films

Progressive Metal band in Singapore, Test The Divide (TTD) draws inspiration from modern progressive metal giants in the international circuit to come up with their own intense sound. Though founded only in 2017, they are sought after for various festivals in Singapore. Come 3rd August, and they will be releasing their very first album named Silver at the Esplanade Annexe Studio.

When you think of them, you think about the distortion of guitars, musical technicalities that give professional musicians a run for their money and the complex nature of their compositions. Sometimes, you will find each instrument running on their own beat though coming together for a complete experience.

Most of their music does not have lyrics, writing mainly for the five instruments in this six person band. How does one go about writing music without having lyrics as an anchor?

How long have you been involved with music?

Darren: I touched music after Secondary 4, didn’t go through any “proper” way of learning my instrument till I’m 23 when I went to pursue a music degree. Learning new things about music every single day.  

Tabitha: My mother was a musician, so I was surrounded by a lot of music as a child; but I only really started playing my first instrument, the guitar, when I was 13. It’s been 14 years and I’m still learning new things every day, which is great.

Thomas: I've been doing music since I was five years old - classical piano, violin and flute which I was horrible at. Eventually did classical guitar in 2005 for two to three years before moving to electric. Decided to take it seriously when I was in secondary three in 2009.

Wei Lung: Secondary 1 when I joined my school’s symphonic band.

Dale: Secondary 2 when I first started learning the acoustic guitar. A year in, I tried electric guitar for the first time and was hooked. I had to get my hands on one. In my second year of my music degree in Lasalle, I decided to move from six to seven string guitars. It’s been 15 years of guitar, and I’m still learning so many new things about the instrument.

From when you first started to now, how has your approach towards music evolved?

Darren: I used to think (of) doing music as a serious hobby or job meant being flashy and going nuts with my skills on every song. But, I have slowly come to realise that I should BE impressive, rather than DO impressive things (all the time). Even the simplest single note can be the spice that makes the song amazing, rather than a flurry of notes at the wrong place and time.

Tabitha: I’ve learnt a lot of skills and compositional techniques thanks to my lecturers at Lasalle, but I’ve begun to realise that quality relationships are far more important and influential in the process of creating authentic music.

Thomas: From when I first took guitar seriously, I guess I've always been meticulous about my approach, that hasn't changed much. But my goals have shifted. I used to just want to be the best guitarist, the fastest shredder (playing very fast basically, haha) but now I already have the technical skills, I've since been focusing on the "feel" of playing. That the same three notes can be played and performed a million ways. Rather than playing as many notes as possible, I want to be able to do more with as little notes as possible.

Wei Lung: I studied and learned only from other musicians for the longest time. But in recent years it has evolved to filmmakers, professional gamers, authors, psychologists, athletes and entrepreneurs (in that order). That came about when I had to do research outside of my field because there were questions that I couldn’t answer just by learning from musicians. When I started doing so, it truly opened my mind to music being an art, a science, a state of mind, a sport and a business all at once. I learned and experienced so much more than I ever could inside the field of music, which in turn impacted and evolved my musical development.

Dale: I’ve always been a meticulous and detailed person; concerned about the why and the deeper truths behind our creativity and inspiration. In the early years of my playing, it was mostly about refining technical abilities and learning to improvise, whereas in recent years I’ve gravitated towards writing music with underlying literature and various layers with their own musical integrity.

The shift for me mostly started in Lasalle College of the Arts where I did my Bachelors in Contemporary Pop Music. Being bombarded each week with questions such as ‘Does music need rhythm?’, ‘Is sound music?’ and the likes of that drastically changed my mindsets and what I believed music to be. I also started to get deeply involved with mixing music that started from my demos to now Noivil studios.

Triggered - demo

Share with us your most comfortable approach towards songwriting.

Darren: For TTD, we have Thomas and Dale who are the primary songwriters, giving us a riff or a song idea. Then for Wei Lung, Tabitha and I, we add and expand upon what is given to us, so that each instrument gives off our own special vibe that makes us who we are.

Tabitha: Traditionally, I write everything out physically or digitally first, but organically playing and figuring it out through improvisation is something I’d like to work towards.

Thomas: I've always been focused on the "Movement" of the song. Not just the note choices but even physically on the fretboard, so that it's fun to play. Like a skateboarder chaining his tricks together. The "Flow" so to speak, but more in a blend of techniques, melody and how it looks than just technique alone. It's very much more a collaborative effort within a band like TTD: my approach is still there, but being open to other opinions from different backgrounds really gets a song to places I couldn't myself.

Wei Lung: What Darren said. Though there’s a demo where I came up with a simple 8 bar guitar riff, a drum groove and passed it to the band, and they developed it into a minute and a half demo, I then took that and composed even more sections before taking it back to the band.

Dale: I usually start with a melody, chord or a concept that I deeply feel about. Following which, I tend to expand on it musically. I’m always trying new things - whether it is a new instrument, a new technique or new musical idea/theory. I’m always trying to have fun with ideas and not let my own technical abilities hinder the creation process. After all, with enough practice and proper transcribing, you can play anything you want to.

What is one most misunderstood perception of songwriting?

Darren: That songwriting is throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it’s cooked. No, you actually have to taste it.

Tabitha: THAT IT IS EASY. Also, that it will ever be perfect.

Thomas: There're too many and most of them contradict each other. That it's really hard, or it's too easy, you need theory, or you need feel. I really think the most misunderstood thing is that there is a method to the madness at all. How effective one's songwriting capability is simply attributed to their ability to translate that madness.

Wei Lung: That artists must be inspired to write. Sure, we can get a moment of inspiration for a part of a song but that’s basically it. The rest is up to you to grind it out to finish the song, and then to finish the album. A quote from Neil Gaiman:  “The process of writing can be magical… Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.”

Dale: “I’ll write when I feel inspired.” This couldn’t be further from the truth for me. I’ve written while feeling completely uninspired and the music inspired me in turn. Inspiration isn’t a fleeting random wind. It is a choice to take in everything around you and warping its perspective as you see fit. Sure, there’ll be times where you feel inspired and you write, but those times are few and far between. It doesn’t even guarantee you’ll like the song after listening to it the day after.


How do you gain inspiration?

Darren: Listening to The Final Countdown and think positive thoughts to myself before I start doing anything for the day.

Tabitha: Actively experiencing new things.

Thomas: It's a state of mind, regardless of whether it appears in the moment or being able to prepare yourself to be in that said state. Some people get there in silence, some in noise. I have gotten song ideas from either or, and with everything in between, so I really can't say.

Wei Lung: Same as Tabitha. I play games, watch movies, cook a new dish, read a new book, listen to new music, old music. Watch a TED talk. Most of my inspiration comes from outside music really. I once wrote a song on a Neil Gaiman short story that affected me deeply titled “Sweeper of Dreams”. And I’ve also been wanting to write a series of sci-fi songs to Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”. I have a demo of “Ender’s Theme” on my YouTube that nobody knows about.

Dale: As I have mentioned earlier, inspiration is all around us, we just need to adapt to take it in. Everything we use, eat and make is a creation in itself. What is there not to be inspired by, other than our own uninspired mindset?

What is one key towards honing your songwriting skills?

Darren: Listening to different genres of music, gradually branching out your taste to a wider spectrum of music than before. I believe that the exposure to different types of music helps with the appreciation of different kinds of songwriting.

Tabitha: Transcribing (music) is of vital importance.

Thomas: Do it as often as possible. You need to treat your brain like a muscle, and the more you utilise the neurons to connect your experience and opinions to an instrument or a score, the faster you get at it, than the more intricate it can become. And the better your self-expression realises itself.

Wei Lung: Aside from practice and experience, you have to invite people to criticise you just so that you get to see unique points of view you can never think of on your own. You might not take up their opinions, but now and then, you might actually stumble on someone telling you something and then you go: “Hey… that makes sense.”

Dale: Songwriting is a practice-based-skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it and the easier it gets.

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