A Piece Is Born

When students see my name at the top of a piece of music, we often have a conversation that goes a little like this:

Student: “Sir, did you write this piece?”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (somewhat in disbelief) “Really?”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (clearly traumatized by this seismic worldview shift) “So you like, wrote this whole piece…”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (in a desperate effort to restore balance to the force) “Did you copy it out from a book?”

Me: “No, I wrote it”

Student: (flailing helplessly in a whirlpool of despair) “like, all of it, or just like, umm, like, the trumpet part?”

This can sometimes continue for quite a while as students wrestle with the concept of a composer who isn’t dead. After the student has exhausted themselves trying to grapple with reality, they ask two other questions:

  1. Student: “Do you make lots of money?” Me: “I make so much money writing music, I can afford to keep teaching you.” (student looks puzzled)
  2.  Student: “How did you write it?” or “How long did it take to write?”

To answer the last two questions, I thought I’d post about a piece as I write it.

So far this (as yet untitled) piece has taken 3 months, and all I’ve got is 5 bars! (Wow, that’s slow progress Tim!) Here’s what’s happened so far.

Three months ago I was taking a composition class at a music camp. The first activity I get students to do is to write a 4 or 8 bar melody in C major using only basic note values. I usually set a fast deadline (i.e. 10mins) to encourage them to just write something and not try to turn it into their great masterwork. The plan is then to see what they come up with and start from there for the rest of the class. As the students were writing their melody, I thought I’d write a few melodies of my own. Here’s what I came up with. 3 Basic Melodies

In order to write a bunch of melodies quickly, I made a choice about tempo, feel, and time signature before starting (C major was a given). Then I wrote the first thing that occurred to me, with my only pitch reference being my own voice. This is a bit like musical brain storming and it can be a useful way to generate some ideas. Most might be rubbish, but something might just be the seed for something really good. These melodies made such an impact  on me that I forgot about them for 3 months! The piece of manuscript ended up in my laptop bag, forgotten – until yesterday when I packed up my laptop to go away. I glanced at the piece of paper enough to be able to sing the first two bars of one of the third melody. Since then I’ve been singing those two bars around in my head and thinking about how to expand them into a piece.

When starting a piece you should think about the level you are targeting. It’s very difficult once you’ve written a piece to make it easier, or harder. Once that is decided, you should think about other main structural/starting point questions around choice of key, tempo, form and length.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about so far:

  • Level: I’d like to try and keep this piece at about Gr 0.5
  • Tempo: I’ve been singing it at approximately 116bpm. This works as a march/fanfare type tempo.
  • Key: Initally it was in C major because that was the starting point for my class, but this doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. So, how to choose a good key? Trumpets make an obvious choice to play the opening two bars. So what key suits the trumpets best? The obvious choices are concert Bb major or maybe concert Eb major. I’m leaning towards Eb major as the higher key makes the trumpets a little brighter and I haven’t written much in Eb.That second one isn’t the world’s greatest reason, except that often choosing a different key or tempo or time signature can help you write something different to what you’ve written before.
  • I am conscious of not going too high or else it will take the trumpets out of a reasonable register for this level piece. I’d like to try and keep the highest note for the trumpets to be a written Bb, with maybe one or two written C’s at the climax. Written D is a no-no.
  • I would like to “tweak” the melody or harmony in some way to try and avoid a straight up, inside, Eb major vibe.
  • In bed this morning I came up with this: Opening 5 bars - sketch, Eb
  •  It’s an Apollo 13 soundtrack (or this) kind of vibe. I like the fact that it’s a 5 bar phrase (3+2) and that’s it’s not a straight major tonality. But, I would rather avoid having the trombones playing such a prominent note in 5th position (Db). So back to thinking about key. Is there a better choice?
    • Eb major – has trombones playing Db in a significant way, early on in the piece. Not a great percentage move.
    • Bb major – it’s getting a bit low. What’s in-between? You can eliminate B, Db and D major straightaway. No-one plays that many sharps and flats at this level. This only leaves:
    • C major – this isn’t a great key signature at this easy level. But,wait a minute, my opening phrase is really a mixolydian phrase! This means I can use a key signature of C mixolydian (=1 flat, aka F major) – way less scary for students at this level.This also makes the low brass and woodwinds enter on a concert C, and then a concert Bb. High percentage moves at any level! Opening 5 bars - sketch, C mixo

So, some take away points from what I’ve done so far are: ·

  • Always write down your ideas – good, bad or ugly. You never know when you might rediscover them. ·
  • If you are stuck, just write something! BUT, make some choices before you start – it will be in G minor, 3/4, a ballad, and I’m going to start on the 5th degree of the scale. Then start writing. See what you can come up with in 10mins.
  • Edit yourself! You must edit yourself! Assume you are not as talented as Mozart and that your first idea won’t be absolutely perfect.
  • Know the capabilities of students at the grade level you are writing for. Try and choose keys and registers that will give your piece the best chance of success.

So get writing and we’ll meet back here in year or so with the next 8 bars 🙂

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Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A Piece Is Born – Update | Composing for Band - October 18, 2013
  2. Odyssey – The Coda | Composing for Band - January 30, 2014

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