Things to look for while composing

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A few suggestions for technical details involved in composition, by Michel R. Edward (Qccowboy)

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.
  • If there is a brief chord progression that appears to move a set distance (for example, it seems to modulate a 4th), then can you use that to further elaborate your harmonic backbone?

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? Appoggiatura? Other sorts of non-chord tones present? Is there a particular rhythmic 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 rhythmic or melodic elements get used! Nothing is more frustrating to the ear as hearing one single shocking motif that forever disappears, never to be heard from again. The auditory memory will latch 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...

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 your melody and your bass line coincide too often, 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 unisons 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. This is basically an expansion of the concept of the parallel octave which we hear about so often in counterpoint discussions. While your harmony may change a number of times between the first beats of each measure, thus not technically actual parallel octaves, in the long run, the effect remains the same - the impression of a unison between the soprano and the bass and a weakening of the sense of harmony and independence between the soprano and bass.

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.

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.

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. Through experimentation, you will come to an innate sense of balance between common tones and completely unique harmonic material.

If you are exploring more non-tonal harmony, examine the possibilities of transposing your harmony on itself. For example, a dissonant 4-note chord can be transposed once on each chord of itself. You create 3 additional chords this way, however, they are intimately linked to each other through their structure.

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 that the subdominant and dominant are thus the most important chords in the tonal relationship?

The emphasis on experimentation and learning balance is particularly important, because the inverse is that if you too often use chords with MANY common tones, then you completely lose the sense of harmonic independence - 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. Therefore, the necessity to balance out common tones with "harmonic surprises".

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 a melody that will suit the violin. Likewise, a melody composed for the flute will not 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 will try to cover at a later time as I expand on this lecture - resonance, foreground/background layer, timbre.

I hope some of this will be of use to a few of you.