One of the things I enjoy about summer break is the opportunity to do musical things I don’t have time for during the school year. Since my high school days I have enjoyed composing. I was encouraged in this by a high school band director who allowed me to try out my band composition on the high school band. It was a fun experience for me and my classmates, and one from which I learned a great deal not only about composing for winds (just because a note is technically in range doesn’t mean it will sound good) and about preparing parts (prefer flats over sharps for winds, and be meticulously clear and neat). I continued to compose during college, and had two clarinet quartets and a piece for wind ensemble played by ensembles there. After that, other works were performed by other school and community ensembles.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am still at it, and enjoying it more than ever this summer. I have never taken a music composition class or studied composition with a composer, as I suspect most of you have not. So I hope my perspective as a music educator and unschooled composer will be of help and encouragement to those of you who would like to try composing, or would like to teach composing but don’t quite know how to go about it.
A good knowledge of harmony, melody and counterpoint is essential. This is not to say that one should compose from music theory. Remember, music theory is a description of past practice, not a prescription for current practice. Nevertheless, one must know how to combine tones to form harmonies, how to use harmonies, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, contour and instrumentation to craft an effective musical work. You don’t need to have an advanced degree in music theory, but you do need to have a working knowledge of it so that you can properly handle the musical elements you’ll be working with.
Given all of that, composing for me is like playing with blocks. With a block set, a child has objects that can be stacked or laid out to form bridges, castles, towers, or whatever one desires. As long as the blocks are stacked in such a way that what is being built is structurally sound, it will stand and not be pulled down by gravity. Likewise, a composer has musical objects, tones that have pitch (blocks that are laid out melodically or stacked harmonically) and rhythm (the space between the blocks that are laid out). The composer lays out and stacks notes in various ways using certain patterns and structures (such as the structure of a castle or the pattern of one less block in each level to form a pyramid), until he or she arrives at a product that pleases and that can be deemed completed. In this context, composing is playing with notes the way a child plays with blocks; arranging them in various combinations until something satisfying is made.
I tend to start with laying out pitches melodically first. I have for a long as I can remember loved to hum melodies to myself, just idly making tunes up. I used to do this on the school bus instead of talking to whoever was sitting next to me. I admire how Richard Rodgers would craft a melody out of just a few notes, frequently returning to one before venturing away once more, so I often start with just two or three pitches, playing with them in different rhythmic patterns. I have learned that I must keep this penchant for rhythmic play in check or else I am apt to ramble on in my music, too rarely stopping for phrase closures or cadences.
I also enjoy counterpoint, so after finding a melody through play, I will more intentionally (less playfully) write a second melody that maintains good voice leading and forms consonant intervals with the first melody, or dissonances that resolve properly. This is where music theory becomes important. I keep in mind to avoid parallel or direct perfect fifths and octaves, and use dissonance for interest but make sure to resolve dissonances as appagiaturas or suspensions. I work in eight measure phrases to keep myself from, as I said before, running on in unending counterpoint. Short stretches of such music is okay, but too much of it suffocates music, making it too busy to be enjoyable. Music must breathe with clear phrasing, so I make sure mine does so.
I also want to make sure I don’t just keep stringing one new idea onto another. It may be easier to think of many ideas than to settle with one or two and develop them, but the best composers develop a little material into an excellent musical architecture. For this, I listen to my melody and select from it one motif that catches my attention. It may be the one that has a catchy rhythm, or one that begins or ends the phrase or theme. It must be something that the listener will have noticed so that when I develop it, the motif will be recognizable. Once I’ve selected that motif, it is time to be creative and inventive. If the motif is rhythmically catchy, then I will play with that rhythm further, displacing it on different beats, or lengthening or shortening it to create new syncopations. Or perhaps I will develop it with elongation or diminution, possibly also writing a new melody to go with it.
Melodic sequences are also a favorite device for development, and using sequences is a convenient way to touch on, explore, or modulate to other keys or tonalities. I also like to pass motifs and melodies around to different instruments, creating a variety of timbres and registers with the same material. As long as the motif being developed remains recognizable, the music will have unity. All of the devices used to develop it provides variety, and the balance between the two creates a work that remains interesting throughout without becoming to demanding or even confusing for the listener. I am not a proponent of writing music that a listener cannot make sense of, or that requires a music degree and score study to understand. As a composer, I want to write music that is intended to be enjoyed through listening only, not that requires study to become accessible.
All of what I have discussed here can be heard in my most recent compositions. If you would like to purchase Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major or Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb Major, both composed this summer, please request your pdf file of score and parts by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org