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Planning out compositions

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Whenever I start composing something, I've got a really bad habit of exhausting all of my good ideas really quickly. All of those great melodies, effects, transitions, etc. wind up getting crammed close together and the piece turns out to be WAY to short. In general, writing any one piece that is over 3 minutes long is difficult for me. For a while now I've had a great idea for a project, or more accurately, a set of projects, that will require me to break this habit once and for all. Does anyone have some tips on how to plan out a composition? Diagrams, plots, charts, what is the best way to go about this?

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One of my teachers recommended starting a composition by drawing a line graph with time on the x-axis and loudness or textural density on the y-axis. Then he would mark off where he wanted important structural moments. Form came first to him, but that doesn't work for everyone. For me form usually unfolds from the source material; I work very linearly. There's no best way to plan a composition, and I think most composers don't even have a method. For me, at least, each composition comes differently.

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I don't usually really plan. If I try to write a piece a certain way, I struggle. I just write as ideas come to me. Usually I can work with just a few motifs and make a piece out of that.

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A good rule of thumb is generally the *less* ideas you have in a composition, the longer you can sustain interest and creativity.

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A good rule of thumb is generally the *less* ideas you have in a composition, the longer you can sustain interest and creativity.

Who came up with that silly one?

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Start small. Unless you have a lot of experience you won't be able to compose longer pieces that are of satisfactory quality for yourself. You have to write lots of smaller pieces and make each of them as perfect as you can to develop. Small binary and ternary forms are ideal for this.

Find a theme or a melody, just one, then develop it into a small minuet or something - Baroque dance forms are ideal for that. Try setting yourself strict limits, eg. 8 bar/16 bar binary form (A A B A B A). So you have to come up with 16 bars of material derived from your theme. Then, do this a couple of times; depending on your taste you might want to compose a keyboard suite or something similar. Slowly expand from that - a new suite with a modulation to the dominant in each piece (just for exercise) to make it more authentic. Double the length of your pieces. A whole suite of 6 pieces developing just one theme. The less thematic material, the more you'll learn to use it and the more coherent your piece will usually be. That's why entire large-scale works can be built from one theme or tone row.

That will teach you how to use your ideas to the fullest. You can write the pieces in any style you want, you don't have to learn counterpoint or other techniques (although they might be useful). Soon you'll be able to write one of these miniatures without thinking and move onto larger things, depending on what you like. It's a brilliant daily exercise for any composer.

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Who came up with that silly one?

I dunno. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, a great majority of composers once the 20th century started and tonality dissolved as a primary (and convenient) means of structural articulation and cohesion(though that arguably happened in the late 19th century but w/e.) Perhaps you've heard of some of them? They wrote some cool stuff.

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or you can compose according to mood like me...

for example, when u're happy, u compose the happy theme right and then when u're sad u can transform the happy theme into a "sad" kind of feeling. then u can further expand on your theme and ideas more in different moods and different variations, etc. that way u wont't cramp all your ideas into a short piece.

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or you can compose according to mood like me...

for example, when u're happy, u compose the happy theme right and then when u're sad u can transform the happy theme into a "sad" kind of feeling. then u can further expand on your theme and ideas more in different moods and different variations, etc. that way u wont't cramp all your ideas into a short piece.

With respect, this isn't terribly helpful. If I have a deadline, I don't wait for a mood swing to finish the piece, because I won't get paid, and then I will have a mood swing...

Think about contour. Loads and loads of music from all of history (and films, books and other temporal media) use the 'mountain range' method - a series of progressively more exciting 'peaks' in the work. Think about how to make the tension in your piece rise and subside, then rise further to the next peak and so on. Chords, rhythms and the register and direction of melodic gestures create the ascending or descending motion. That way you can structure your piece according to an emotive framework that is solid but not restricting to the material. Also think about how to spin out small ideas a really long way.

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Whenever I start composing something, I've got a really bad habit of exhausting all of my good ideas really quickly. All of those great melodies, effects, transitions, etc. wind up getting crammed close together and the piece turns out to be WAY to short. In general, writing any one piece that is over 3 minutes long is difficult for me.

I often have the same difficulty, sometimes even for just one minute of music. I find tertAnt's comments (post #9) very insightful--I should try such a method more often! Some things that I've found helpful in my process: 1. Deciding on a general form before I begin writing (e.g., AB, ABA, etc.), as detailed as needed--this helps me keep the goal in focus and make better decisions about how the material should develop. For example, if I know that the last section will be a restatement of the first, I might decide that the penultimate section should contain aspects that are in contrast to the first;

2. Deciding on a general direction of change. For example, I might decide that the most prominent pitch interval will gradually increase/decrease as time goes on or that the rhythm should become more or less complex. Once I have the beginning and ending parameters, I try to fill the middle with intermediate or meandering parameters that tell the story of how the music progressed from point A to point B;

3. Deciding on the duration of each section. This is a little more arbitrary, but sometimes I'll time each section and further develop one or another if I find that the section is too short (according to the larger plan).

I'll often have these parameters/plans written down (either graphically or in words) and frequently reference them as I compose. I find that sometimes an unforseen trend of change will emerge while composing and I incorporate these into the larger plan as I see fit.

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Something that my composition teacher told me once that helped me create longer piece was to think about your piece in an audience members point of view.

For example:

Your writing your piece and you think this section with melody "A" is long enough and gets your point across. However, you know exactly what the piece is doing and where it is going.

Maybe to an audience member listening for the first time they have not really had enough time to enjoy melody "A" and by the time they understand and begin to enjoy melody "A" melody "B" has already begun.

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