Compositional Techniques – Part 1

Over the years, I have created quite a few finished compositions. For the most part I can say I’ve been happy with many of them, given that I’m pretty tough on myself on what I consider “a composition”. But it can be hard to find the right idea to start a composition or to simply finish one already started. Perhaps you start getting an idea for something but somewhere along the line the composition just goes down the wrong track and you can’t undo that pathway to nowhere. Or you can’t find the “magic notes” you are looking for. I can only speak for myself in terms of what has worked for me and in terms of the compositional level I believe I have attained. Much as I wish I were Mozart able to write entire movements on a dinner napkin, I am not. It is obviously the ideal to be able to have a fully realized musical imagination that you can take straight to paper, but this ability is truly rare and the best the rest of us can do is aspire and use all the tools available to us to reach our goals, be they modest or ambitious.

So what are some of the the techniques you can use to bring about success? First of all, you should accept that there is no one way to go about composing. Let answer some basic questions most students of composition have expressed at one time or another:

  • Should you compose melody (and or lyrics) and chords after? Or vice-versa

Answer: Either work. This is documented fact from composers interviewed about this- at least if you are not talking about “serious composition” (i.e. symphonic works, etc).

  • Should you plan out what you want to write before hand or just follow your instincts?

Answer: Either work. I have had just as much success with “goal oriented” composition (ie. “I need a fast jazz tune”) as following my imagination. I’ve written out blank bars with change sketches and filled in the gaps.  Basically the only difference is how you start and when/how real inspiration kicks in. It’s better of course to be truly inspired always but that is often impractical. This is also true when improvising. Sometimes you just hear and feel the notes to play but often you have to throw something out there- hopefully something sound structrually – to just get the feedback loop started.

  •  How do I know whether my composing/composition is good enough?

Answer: Damn good question :)

Although value judgements are obviously subjective,nevertheless  these things probably hold true if you are a good or talented composer:

  1. People often like to play your tunes without you asking them if you can play them together.
  2. You have a pretty good repertoire of tunes that you can play by ear. Why is this important? If you know tunes internally, this manifests in your knowledge of structure, melody and harmony for your own compositions. And you can find melodies by ear – this helps not only with someone else’s melodies but yours as well.
  3. Your tunes sound good when you sing them. There are examples of tunes they are too complex to sing it’s true, but you have to have at least a few that can be sung. Remember, Beethoven’s wrote some killer adagios.
  • How much is TOO much editing?

Answer: Another damn good question:)

Again speaking of Beethoven – most people know the story of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony scores being an absolute mess. Ofcourse to us it doesn’t sound that way. Some people edit a lot and some just write straight thru. Sometimes better things can reveal themselves rather than going for the “first thing that sounds good to you”. Especially once you take in a composition in it’s totality(more on this later).

Next time: Part II

6 thoughts on “Compositional Techniques – Part 1

  1. Charles

    Jon, thanks. Its good to know what people that have accomplished music works think and their process. Got a little confused with what you mean by # 1. Also I would like to know what people do to actually “finish”. After all, that’s the key. Even if the composition is because of one’s ability inadequate , to finish even a simplistic tune is an accomplishment.

    I have a lot of great half done compositions and I don’t feel that great about that :)

  2. jon Post author

    #1 Is a just a general observation about what goes down when you get together with people regularly to play. What do they suggest to play? If they go, “hey how about your tune?” That’s a good indicator of its appeal. Or at very least, there is no long pause…. after you suggest you try one of your tunes. :)

    re: Finishing. To finish you actually have to make yourself commit to a publication date. Publishing meaning -“make commitment to be publicly perceived as this thing”. It is really hard to finish something without a deadline or commitment to someone else in some way.

    In terms of the value of finishing something being the barometer of the accomplishment. I generally agree although I have to admit that there are some tunes that are “finished” but there are others that I know on a gut level are better tunes if I could just realize some part. For example, one tune of mine “Loose Ends” I feel is superior to most of my other tunes and it took 5 years of off again on again work. That’s unusual for me but it does happen.

    Overall my definition of finishing (let’s say a jazz composition) is, a decision I’ve come to that, I’ve put a double bar here and I honestly can’t do any better than what I’ve put to paper. I’ve played thru it and it’s reasonable to expect that someone could play thru it and solo on it.

    1. Charles

      k, got it. A very jazz player perspective and understandable. On the rock and pop side you don’t have those scenarios usuallyt. I guess the counterpart would be if one manages / dares put something on CDBaby or TuneCore what kind of play (if any :) ) does one see for a particular tune etc.

  3. jon Post author

    I suppose rock can be more of a group composing as you go kind of thing. Also if it is instrumental music – the idiomatic differences lessen. A groove oriented tune with sophisticated harmony is more likely to be considered “jazz” and also invite soloing. Through-composed type of writing (no solo form per se) is actually more challenging writing.

    Pop music varies. Sometimes one guy does everything or you get different aspects of the production and song writing divided up. I got this semi-humorous email from educator Jamey Aebersold a while back:

    “I was listening to NPR last week (which I do every morning) and they were talking to a song writer about a song that was up for a nomination. They were talking about the TEAM of people that wrote the song. A TEAM…give me a break. Cole Porter wrote dozens of songs and he wrote the melody, harmony AND lyrics all by himself. AND the lyrics made sense and told a story. When you need a team to write a song we’re in BIG trouble”

    1. Charles

      well, what I meant is that Jazz players i.e. pros like you , have situations where they gig and in the middle of a set of standards can ask their guys “hey , do you want to my tune ?”

      Funny story by Jamey. I wonder if they really meant “wrote” the song. In modern production sometimes you have the beat maker , and not everybody can also write lyrics and quite often you get a killer bass player to provide “that” bass line. I think modern production thinks in those terms. Whereas , Jazz players write melodies annotate changes on a lead sheet and just do it. I guess if you are the piano player well harmony is just part of what you do when you write i.e. the actual chords. In general i think its fair to say that there’s more musicianship floating around in Jazz circles and they are more equipped to cranking material without the input of others.

  4. jon Post author

    I think intrinsic in Jamey’s comment is the lowering of the standard of what is considered the composer’s responsibility.

    In terms of what the jazzers do . I was referring more to jam/practice sessions where you pull out material. Jazz performers like everyone else tend to shy away from tunes they don’t know like the back of their hand for performances

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