My Approach To Composing

Version 2One 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 Feed Your Brain Musicremember 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 mramusicplace@gmail.com

Iconic Notation and Music Literacy

Version 2Honestly, for years I considered iconic notation a cheap substitute for “real” music notation. I thought it was something music teachers used as a last resort when they had thrown in the towel at successfully teaching their students to read and write in standard music notation. Because of this view of iconic notation, I avoided it, thinking that I was somehow taking the higher ground. Of course, this was faulty thinking on my part. Iconic notation has been employed by respected composers for decades when standard notation was inadequate for representing what they wanted performers of their music to do, and far from being a poor substitute, iconic notation is an excellent way of teaching the concept of notation in general; that is, the written representation of a specific sound and specific direction for producing that sound. Music is written down, in whatever form, so that it can be shared with other musicians who can use it to perform a musical work, thereby sharing it aurally with an audience. It does not have to be done through written notation, but notation is a sufficiently important media to warrant its teaching in music education. The key is getting music passed from creator to performer. For a musically literate person, learning music from notation is an efficient method.

As with any written system, the key is to first have a sound in mind, then to associate that sound with a particular written symbol. When many different sounds are involved as they are in music, it helps to have a verbal name for each sound which then is attached to the written symbol along with the actual sound. In iconic notation, I might want to write down a symbol that will tell the performer to oscillate between two tones, so I make the sound of my voice going back and forth between two pitches that are approximately a minor third apart. I call this sound a squiggle. My students then perform a squiggle, so they all know what it sounds like, and they all know what it is called. Once that is in place, I draw a squiggle on the board, and tell them that is what a squiggle looks like. Whenever they see that symbol, they are to sing a squiggle. I can control the rhythm of the squiggle by making the drawn squiggle tighter or more drawn out for faster or slower, respectively, and I can control the distance between the tones by the height of the squiggle. All of this is somewhat subjective, because I cannot indicate precisely what tones to produce, or how quickly to move between them, but I am leaving iconic directions on what and how to produce my sound; how to perform my music.  If I were to publish this work, I would not be able to teach about my squiggle to a class, so I would do what many composers have done–I would include written directions in the first pages of the score. This is necessary because, unlike standard music notation, iconic notation is not necessarily universal. In other words, my written squiggle might not mean the same thing to as many musicians as say an E-flat on a treble clef would.

Now back the the music classroom. Once I have taught my class about the squiggle and allowed them to practice performing a short musical work made out of squiggles of various speeds and sizes, I will have them create their own sounds and symbols, and teach them to each other. This can be done first in a whole-class setting, where one student at a time creates a sound and symbol and teaches it to the class, and then later in small groups, where the students create sounds and symbols, compose a work using them, and then performs the work for the class from their iconic notation. A variant of that is for each group to teach the class how to use their iconic notation, or to write clear directions, and then have another groups perform the work from the iconic notation. In this case, the composing groups can see how clear their directions are, and how closely others will capture their intent by reading their iconic score. This opens the possibility for valuable dialog between composers and performers, and makes the composers aware of their responsibility to make every effort to realize other composers’ intent when they perform other music.

Here is an example of a music composing project using iconic notation. In it, pitch is indicated by the vertical placement of the symbols, while duration is indicated by the size of the symbol–larger shapes are longer, while smaller shapes are shorter. There are also instances where beaming is borrowed from standard notation to group tones together that are to be performed in especially fast succession. Rests are notated with double vertical squiggles. Though it is unclear without speaking to the composers, the faces drawn on the larger symbols introduces the possibility of notating a desired emotion to individual tones, where some tones would be “happy notes” while others would be “sad notes.” Happy and sad might then be worked out by the performer by manipulating the tone to be darker or brighter depending on the desired emotion.

Here is an ingenious musical work that is written in iconic notation. Different instrument timbres are represented by different shapes, and durations are represented by relative distances between symbols. The timing of each sound onset is controlled by the dial which rotates through the performance. Dynamics are indicated by the size and color of the symbols. While this method lends itself to the computerized presentation shown here, it could also be used by live performers, where a “conductor” moved the dial and the performers played “notes” when the dial passed over the symbol associated with their instrument.

It is worth mentioning that this particular work is much better suited for iconic notation than standard music notation. Imagine trying to notate and then read the rhythm of all those dotes.

There is no doubt that iconic notation is useful in introducing music notation to young or novice music students, and it is sure to be of value in early music education. Its use should not be abandoned with older students. Iconic notation can release students to compose creatively without being restricted by what they can notate using standard music notation. In some cases, composing in iconic notation will be a gateway to discussing how to notate the same work using standard music notation. In other instances, as in the example above, it will be best to leave the work in iconic notation. Either way, iconic notation is a valuable tool in teaching our students music literacy.