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Points I Keep In Mind While Composing


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These are some things that I like to keep in mind while composing. I would like to get feedback on them. What do you think of them? Do you think they are good to keep in mind? Do you think there are problems with them? Is there something else that you think is good to think about? (I know it's long. Sorry about that.)

There are three parts: big picture points, "small picture" (for lack of a better term) points, and creativity points.

The big picture points have mainly to do with structure. I think of a piece like a play with act I, act 2, and act 3. The first act introduces the material which I think of as the characters. The second act "goes on an adventure." The characters do things. There are conflicts (tension) and they get resolved (released tension). The whole of act 2 has to have one general conflict that is bigger than all of the others and is introduced at the beginning of act 2 and resolved at the end of act 2. When that main conflict gets resolved, the piece goes into act 3 which is the conclusion. It should be climatic and "euphoric." It wraps up the piece by summarizing the material (all of the characters come together). It ends by leaving a sense of the entire essence of the piece in the listeners ear.

We can represent the characters in the music with motifs. And we can represent their actions with melodies. The essence of the characters (the motifs) are moved by melodies (the bodies of the character). The melodies can move the motifs around in different ways to make the characters to do different things. Every character has a personality. They can share their general personality with something like a motto, or an action that tries to express their general essence. This is done with themes. A theme would be a melody that moves the motifs in a way that best bring them out. (I use motif loosely here: it can be more than just a simple melodic or rhythmic pattern, but it could be any small recognizable idea.)

The introduction to the piece can best introduce the material by simply stating the themes (show off the characters' personalities to get the listener familiar with them before they go adventuring in act 2). In act 2, the characters do many different things. But just because the characters do different things doesn't make them different characters. Fundamentally they are the same character. The melodies can do all kinds of things while still containing the fundamental motifs. Act 3 is kind of like act 1. All of the characters get together and express their essence with themes. The themes pick at the listener's previous experiences with the characters in act 2 and sum them up. One thing I like to do in the ending of a piece is to find a way to harmonize all of the characters and have the melodies play on top of each other without changing them so much that it strays too far from the theme (sometimes I just compose the themes in the first place to be counterpoint-compatible with each other). It really unites them and gives that "euphoric" effect if done well.

I like to imagine the structure of a piece in two dimensions: horizontally being time and vertically being counterpoint (in a generic use of the term). The three acts are ordered horizontally. A majority of the time will (probably) be spent on act 2. Vertically is all the different parts that are happening at a given time in the piece. It would be more abstract then real counterpoint, because counterpoint has to do with melodies. The different parts can be anything, whether it serves a melodic purpose, a rhythmic purpose, a texture purpose, a harmonic purpose, etc.. When these parts are layered, the listener's ear should be guided to a certain level. The parts can be anywhere on the line from being in the background to being in the foreground. The foreground is what the listener pays attention to at any given time (leads, etc.). The background still influences the listener, but is not necessarily in the conscious attention of the listener. The foreground is where the action should take place (the characters interacting and the story being told). The background is where the setting is established. That would include emotion (guided by harmonic progressions), intensity or energy level (guided by rhythm), and general feel of the setting (texture, timbre, etc.).

Now, background elements aren't necessarily characters. For example, harmony doesn't exist on it's own, it is just a property that comes from the relationship of different parts playing simultaneously. So you could create harmony with simple absolute bass notes and the setting would get the emotional feel. But you can also have motifs in the background elements. This gives the setting more personality. Not all motifs have to represent foreground characters. They can represent settings as well. On the other hand, characters themselves can give personality to a setting by going into the background. If you have several melodies playing, you can phase different ones in and out of focus. The ones that aren't in focus contribute to the setting.

There are three small picture points. They have to do with the content that goes into the framework provided by the big picture points. They are harmony, balance, and simplicity. Harmony is simply keeping in mind the harmony that is going on at the moment. Pretty much a no-brainer, but I like to keep it in mind.

Balance has two parts: unity and diversity. You can say something is balanced when it has unity and an interesting amount of diversity. Imagine a bare white plane. This is unity without diversity. Every part of it is the same: unity. Now if we add a little dot in one corner, we have something different. Now we have a little diversity but no unity. We don't have unity because something strange has interrupted the perfect white plane. To fix it, we have to add a counter to the little dot. Perhaps, on the opposite side. This cancels out the disruption in unity, and unity is restored. That's how you get both unity and diversity and thus balance. Balance can apply in many ways on many levels. Structurally there needs to be balance. You don't want too much or too little excitement near the start or the end of the piece because it will sound out of place. This happens in the details as well. Rhythm should feel even overall (unity) but with interesting things happening in the gaps (diversity).

The last one is simplicity. Don't put anything in that doesn't adequately accomplish a meaningful task. It can also mean elegance. Try to do do things efficiently. Music theory really helps with this kind of thing. That way you don't scrape your brain out trying to find the sound that has the purpose you are looking for.

All of the above is an intellectual framework that lacks actual creative content. I find that to get the actual content, you have to do the opposite: not think. Creativity seems to diminish when you try to intellectualize it but seems to come out when you let it speak for itself. It's as if it's a different person than your self and you have to be quiet and let it talk. Just think about when you dream. You are asleep and not thinking. Nothing makes sense, but it is extremely creative. I often wake up and write down my dreams so that I can possibly incorporate the dream content into some kind of project of mine. The project puts an orderly framework around the creative chaos.

To get the creative juices flowing, I usually listen to lots of music. Especially music that I haven't heard before, and I really pay attention to it. This puts a lot of new ideas on your mind. But because it's new and you only heard it once, you can't remember the pieces as the were. So it's hard to remember it the right way but easy to remember the wrong way. Remembering it the wrong way gives you your own creative ideas that are the result of chaotically trying to synthesize the small chunks that your brain was able to catch. All you have to do at this point is listen to the noise in your head. If you can't hear anything, then try to recall something and try to get it flowing. Once you get it flowing, you can start jotting down ideas that come to you. Once your piece gets started, and structures start appearing, the creative process becomes even easier because you aren't totally building music out of silence. You are now building it off of real music.

These are the main points that I like to think about when I am composing. Comments? Thanks if you read all of this. It's long, I know. Sorry. :P

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Well, everything you said is basically true. Things I do feel like I do without thinking about them at this point. Depending on what I feel like writing or need to write I do try to deviate from that, but that concept is what I grew up in music writing on, for a lack of better words. Mainly, what you've done is classify and explain the logic behind the structure of most pieces in a way that is understandable to the average person.That is my opinion at least.

I like the way you explained unity and diversity; the metaphorical explaination of the concept.

All and all, a well written explaination of the basic concepts that are put into the writing of progressive compositions.

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  • 7 months later...

I really want to second the listening part, in particular listening to something new only once. I posted elsewhere that pieces I know well and want to imitate tend to "infect" what I write, so that it sounds a little too much like the original piece. I've learned to deal with that by just going with it and continuing to revise as I work. However, I've recently started doing what you mentioned: listening to a new piece just once (maybe twice) and then writing. I know the general flavor of the piece but don't remember the details (even the themes!) well enough to reproduce them, even accidentally. I've also found it can help to take a few notes (in words, not music) while listening, so that my ideas aren't lost to the same fuzzy memory.

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  • 8 months later...

Excellent description..  I find myself, working with one idea, developing it as piece goes along..  Then I add a '2nd character', 3rd.  etc.  I am going to try your idea on next piece.


I too also find, that when i spend too much time, 'refining' the piece, I sometimes take away the raw original idea, and turn it into blandness.  Then I have to go back to an earlier version (writing on computer, saving all versions).  Sometimes I'll take elements from the different versions, and merge them together, which sometimes works out fine.. 


I also 'live' with the piece for several days or longer.. I'll put it aside and work on something else, or just try to 'forget' the piece.. Then when I come back, I have a fresh perspective.. I read the Beatles did this a lot, sometimes having quite a few in various stages of development.. On their last album, they used song fragments, they had recorded ten years earlier. On the Anthology albums, you heard a few songs with completely different arrangements and orchestrations, even time signatures..  They were of course focusing on pop music, not orchestral symphonies. But the creative process is quite similar.


Thanx.. You have given me some things to think about..

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