Author Topic: Mini Guide: some hints on things to look at when starting  (Read 7400 times)

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Mini Guide: some hints on things to look at when starting
« on: April 06, 2011, 04:01:47 PM »
This is a mini guide I had posted elsewhere. It covers, very briefly, a few "things to watch out for" for beginner composers. Of course, NOTHING beats having a teacher at your side.

If any other forum members have things to add, I'll be happy to come back and modify as we go.

1. build harmony
while it's a lot easier to plunk along and record the first idea that comes to your head, it's a far better idea to build your harmonic progressions. regardless of what musical language you use. this lets you give a clear direction to your musical phrases.
for example: you doodled out a brief beginning, 1 or 2 measures that you particularly like. examine them. find out WHAT it is that you like about them. now try to apply that to how you will continue this brief phrase. Is there a particularly characteristic chord progression? are there decorative notes that are creating a particular effect?

build on these discoveries. you can try and transpose them. modify one note in a chord. alter the chord inversion (remember, a chord inverted is NOT a "new" chord"). change the mode (major/minor) of one element of a chord progression, or all elements.

2. work on melody
it's pretty easy to just doodle along at full speed and improvise your thematic material as you go. however this doesn't make for a satisfying listen in the long run. Again, from your initial idea, find the elements that attracted you to this idea. are there suspensions? appogiaturas? other sorts of non-chord tones present? is there a particular rythmic motif to your theme?

build your melody, note by note. create the high points and the low points. build tension and release. make sure that characteristic rythmic or melodic elements get used! nothing is more frustrating to the ear as hearing one single time a brief shocking motif that forever disappears, never to be heard from again. The auditory memory will catch on to it, and wait for it to return, and no matter what follows, that expectation will remain, creating a strong sense of dissatisfaction and unresolvedness..

Developing melody:
- look for repeated/repeatable motifs. too many repetitions get boring, too few can feel "scattered". for example a 4 note motif with a leap at the end might be repeated with that leap gaining a half step every time it's repeated, or the first 3 notes might slowly rise while the target leap might remain the same!

- try to balance your use of conjunct and disjunct movement. a melody that is all conjunct (scalar) CAN be pretty boring.

- remember that chord tones in a melody help create disjunct movement but that movement to non-chord tones in disjunct movement will not have the same effect. The ear will not process a short melodic leap to a chord tone the same way it will one to a note foreign to your harmony.

- look for places to change register within the melody. remember: a 3rd up is a 6th down, a 4th up is a 5th down, etc... use this to your advantage.

3. examine the relationship between the soprano and the bass
this is a very fundamental relationship and it is often overlooked by beginner composers. it is actually a fundamental concept of counterpoint, and is applicable to atonal as well as strictly tonal music.

when the notes of your melody and of your bassline coincide too often (are the "same note"), you remove the effect of "harmony" between those two fundamental voices. the more satisfying the relationship you create between soprano and bass, the easier and richer the possibilities for what comes in between the two voices.

watch for excessive unison between soprano and bass. examine the first beat of a measure and the first beat of the following measure and the relationship between the soprano and bass. are they playing unison on both of those important beats? This weakens the sense of harmonic movement. Examine the strong beats within each measure  or phrase. Are the soprano (melody) and bass in unison on these important beats as well?

I your melody is playing on beats 1 and 3, but your bass is in syncopation and playing only on beats 2 and 4, the "octave relationship" will still exist if the two parts are playing the same notes, regardless of the fact that they are not attacking those unisons simultaneously.

4. consider your harmonic choices carefully
heavily chromatic harmony is difficult to deal with. it requires knowledge of the resolution of dissonant tones, and the natural harmonic movement of modal tones. Don't forget to include some "non-chromatic" chords as well! a high point in a melody can be a perfect major chord, despite the heavily chromatic material leading up to it. the entire concept relies on the relationship between tension and release.

5. consider each line as a melody
each inner part of a piece is a melody. these "counterpoints" create interest. take the time to explore how each inner voice can be made more interesting, more melodic. use echoes of the main theme in the inner voices, search for places to create contrapuntal imitation. you need only echo a few notes of a main motif to create interest, a full-blown fugue is not an absolute necessity. this applies to the bass part as well.

nothing is more frustrating to a musician (or singer) playing in the alto register than to know that you will be playing/singing that same note over and over and over and...

as a matter of fact, the inner voices is a good place to start looking for potential "colour" effects in your harmony. would a suspension work? how about anticipating a note of the upcoming harmony?

6. search for harmonic common tones
a good way to create smooth harmony is to look for common tones in your chord progressions. you can build from a common tone, gradually moving away from and back to your tonal center.

if you are exploring non-traditional tonal harmony, examine the possibilities of transposing your harmony on itself. for example, a dissonant 4-note chord can be transposed once on each note of itself. you create 3 additional chords this way.

explore how far you can go with common tones linking your harmony before you jump to more distant harmony.

a simple example - in common practice harmony, the dominant and subdominant both have a common tone with the tonic: in C, the V chord (G major) shares the note G, while the IV chord (F) shares the note C. is it surprising then that the subdominant and dominant are thus the most important chords in the tonal relationship?

the inverse is that if you too often use chords with MANY common tones, then you completely lose the sense of harmonic independance - for example, a common modal practice in contemporary music is chord movement in 3rds. eg. C - A - F - D. each chord shares two common tones with its predecessor. if this movement continues without respite however, one loses the sense that there is actual harmonic movement.

7. principles of orchestration
orchestration is NOT the assigning of instruments to lines to fill out an orchestral part. orchestration is a fundamental process of composition.

a melody composed for trombone is not necessarily a melody that will suit the violin. likewise, a melody composed specifically for the flute will not absolutely be advantageous on the oboe. the two instruments are markedly different despite having similar ranges.

when you compose for instruments, consider the capabilities of each instrument for which you will be writing. a piano part written consistantly within the two middle octaves of the piano is a boring piano part.

consider relative tone weight of instruments when composing. an orchestra has 2 or 3 of each woodwind, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, usually a tuba, and a string section.
two flutes are NOT twice as loud as one.
one single flute playing the C 2 octaves above middle C will readily drown out 4 flutes playing middle C.
a good book on instrumentation and orchestration is a MUST for any student composer.

there are many more considerations when one is writing for orchestra, which I would be unable to cover briefly here - resonance, foreground/background layer, timbre.

For a more in-depth examination of orchestration, please see our orchestration masterclass.

« Last Edit: May 29, 2011, 09:01:25 AM by Michel.R.E »
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

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Re: Mini Guide: some hints on things to look at when starting
« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2011, 02:46:35 PM »
Please permit me to quote a beautifully worded comment by one of our forum members, J.M. Suijkerbuijk:

Quote from: J.M.Suijkerbuijk
About movements.
There is no theory of deciding when a composition warrants further treatment in extended movements. You and you only can and will decide whether a composition needs one or more movements. Note that “need” is the operative word. Never add movements for the sake of addition.
In fact, whether a composition is going to be a single movement or will consist of multiple movements is usually a decision made when writing begins, not after completion of one of the movements. After all, there has to be some connection between the movements to justify the collection and order of these movements into one composition. That connection can be motivic (cyclic principle), thematic (different chapters of a story to tell), balance (the right amount of contrast), etc.
Typically one starts with the overall structure, which already determines the number of movements in a composition. It is generally a bad idea to first build a house and then add extra rooms, halls and stairways to that building. Of course, some forms are stricter than others.
A symphony, sonata or string quartet (in general all three comparable) definitely need a strong overall concept and should be constructed beforehand, written as one preconceived concept. A suite, for instance, on the other hand, is a collection of pieces with a much looser connection. One can add pieces to a suite until the whole is an attractive mix of contrast while still holding the listener’s attention.
You are, of course, free to invent your own forms. And, none of the previous mentioned standard forms are written in stone. There are numerous brilliant symphonies, sonatas and quartets written with an other number of movements than the ‘standard’ four. Think of a diner: the number of courses depends on whether the guests will have had a nutricious, well balanced meal, with enough variety to feel satisfied, will not have overeaten or gone hungry.

About development.
Development is everything. One could write a melody, say “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. You would have written a song, a tune, not a composition. When you develop that melody, say in a series of variations, you have composed a piece of music. See Mozart’s KV 265,
A composition is not the melody that you write, but what you do with that melody. Butter, sugar, flour and eggs (four melodies) don’t make a cake. It’s the processing of these ingredients that will end up as a cake and the better you are at processing the ingredients, the better the cake will be.
What one can do with melodic material in terms of development depends on the material itself. Not all material will result in something meaningful or pleasant when written e.g. as a canon, in inversion, in augmentation, etc. Experiment with a theme or motive what you can do with it before you even start writing. If you can't do with it what you wanted to do with it, it's the wrong melody for that composition. No reason to throw it away, save it in a notebook for some other project.

In general.
The composer is always right. What he wrote is what he intended to write. Whether he succeeded at voicing his intentions is only for him to judge, so when he considers a composition to be completed, his intensions were conveyed to satisfaction.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter. In the end it is the listener who decides whether the music is any good. And, only when the number of listeners who decided positively is large enough or the listener is authoritative enough, your composition will be considered a success.
One could write utter nonsense (“to be played with both hands in pockets”, “to be repeated 840 times”, etc.), but when the listener (John Cage in one of the examples) accepts this nonsense to be meaningful, then your compositions (or Satie’s in these examples) are all of a sudden meaningful.

It help to become the listener yourself. Especially when you have little experience with writing: take distance. Turn your back on what you wrote for a couple of weeks or perhaps months and start on something completely new. After a while, return to that first piece and listen, listen, listen and listen. You'll have a fresh look on it, because of the distance created in time, and you'll easily find the good and the less good parts. If needed, repeat the process. When the composition the still pleases you when heard for the hundredth time, it is finished.
When listening to it while you're still working on it, you will probably hear what you were aiming for rather than what you actually wrote. Hence the need for distance.

One becomes a good athlete by practice, lots of practice. It is not different for a musician or a composer.
« Last Edit: July 02, 2012, 06:21:20 AM by Michel.R.E »
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"


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Re: Mini Guide: some hints on things to look at when starting
« Reply #2 on: July 02, 2012, 06:19:46 AM »
Again, Please permit me to quote a beautifully worded comment by one of our forum members, J.M. Suijkerbuijk:

Quote from: J.N.Suijkerbuijk
I am here referring to the line of development of the material used.
If you use an item A at or near the beginning of your composition and that item is still the same A at the end, there is no line (unless it did change/develop somewhere in between and then changed back, which makes a full circle) and if there is no line (or circle), the composition is shallow, flat, has no direction or relief. Like a children's song: you can't tell the end from the beginning, because it's all the same verse over and over again.
As stunningly beautiful as that verse may be, by the time it comes around for the fifth time, you start to grow sick of it. It's not the material itself that makes or breaks a composition, but what you do with it, how you develop it.
And, when you have a vision of that line, you'll never end up with patchwork. Your line will be something like A-B-A'-B', not A-B-C-D; and as a result, you will automatically end up with structure, form in your composition.
« Last Edit: July 02, 2012, 06:22:06 AM by Michel.R.E »
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"