Music composition; development and process

I recently had a listener ask how I come up with such a variety of works, from solos for the piano to rich orchestral works. I have a conscious grasp on much of what I do to compose music. But, some of it is elusive and difficult to express. I can’t write your music for you. However, concerning the aspects I have control of, I share a few tips for the method:

English: The main melody of Saint-Saëns's seco...

So, you have a song or a melody in mind , and you’re wondering what to do with it. First thing is to get it down on paper (assuming you’re a music reader). Or, first thing is to record your riff or melody (if you’re not musically literate) before it’s lost amid daily activities. This provides a basis from which to work. Writers and poets always carry pad and pen. They take assiduous notes. Every idea and phrase is a kernel from which a greater piece/article/work may be grown. Sometimes, a spontaneous idea isn’t worth the effort while other times it can be. But, if it isn’t documented in some way you’ll never know if it was an idea worthy of the effort, the shaping, and the discipline to develop it into a full or complete work.

Songwriters are probably most familiar with getting an idea down on paper, while it’s fresh. Instrumental compositions can be harder to document as, frequently, the composer has large structural and harmonic ideas in mind alongside the melody or theme. My best piece of advise is to get the melody down as simply and clearly as possible (before inclusion of other ‘strata’ of thought and orchestration). A clear melody is something the listener can follow easily. The enrichment of the piece should follow that clarity. Remember, you can always edit or restructure later. Patience is a must for those of us who aren’t rapid geniuses. The formulation of the complete work can, even if I am in disagreement with Schoenberg, take place over time. The modes of epression can be gradually developed as developmental and creative ideas make themselves known to you over a period of time.

To help with structure or form on a larger scale (pardon the pun) I suggest using shorthand notes. That will help to pare away superfluous harmonic and structural concepts that interrupt your initial flow of thought. If you’re a complex thinker, you need to always work to present the melody in its most accessible form. Assuming you are a music reader, start with a melodic line, on a single staff. Leave a stave clear below your initial note-writing. You can use that bottom stave to trace out rhythm notes, direction for phrasing, write chord diagrams, and or written notes regarding which instruments might serve to varying effect(s) later. The melody will stand on its own using this method and you, the composer, can utilise the open staff in many different ways to shape and develop the piece. I sometimes write directional lines, swoops, or shaped curves, floating accent marks, any manner of visual reference that helps me to recall what I’d originally had in mind for support voicing. I don’t give my short-hand away, simply because I make it up as I go. It is my own invention and no one other than me would know what the squiggles and curved lines mean. I’m not even sure my shorthand forms a system. I only suggest that you grant yourself the freedom to create your own short-hand method to document the shape and texture you will later look to create. In this way you may keep the seed idea intact and then later embellish (or simplify) to develop the piece to its fullest potential. 

I sometimes try out the budding melody at different tempos. I test it in this way to see if I have imagined it in too rapid or slow a pace. I once set out to compose an allegro, which turned out to be one of the most expressive andante pieces when slowed. The point is, whatever your first conception of the new piece is, experiment with its best possible mode of expression. You may well find that by changing one or two aspects, you’ve improved the piece to maximise potential and emotional content.

If you’ve come up with an idea that merely repeats itself (like dance club music often does) consider shifts in the orchestration. That may be accomplished by passing the melody along to different instruments throughout the arrangement. The composer has to take a bit of care with the transition as one instrument (or group of instruments) drops to support or fade completely, to ‘hand over’ to the new instrument (group). However, without some kind of variation to the sound(s) produced, a repeating theme will not carry listener interest. The overall effect in such a case requires skills in arranging, more than skills in music composition. Frequently, we have to do both if we are to tease out the melodic line to its full extent. Sometimes, a little time spent at this provides alternative directions for the melody to ‘travel’ to and you will have enriched the melodic content!

I can add to this article if there is sufficient interest. Only so much time in a day, so that’s all for the moment! K.H.



One thought on “Music composition; development and process

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