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5 Steps of Pre-Composition

How do you start a composition? It's easy to feel like Spongebob Squarepants writing an essay, and have trouble coming up with even the first note.

Some might answer, "Just sit down, mess around, and eventually, something cool will happen." I call this the "throw-the-mud-at-the-wall" technique. The results are highly unpredictable, but occasionally, you might come up with something good. Others fall into the "tried-and-true" method, which results in a large output, but limits artistic freedom and can become stale and repetitive.

Is there a simple way to compose efficiently, to sound fresh, to maintain high output, and to keep improving your compositional skillset?

Yes! Here's how.


1. Develop a purpose. Think backwards for a moment. When you choose to play a piece, or when you choose to assign a piece to a student, why do you choose that piece? When composing, start with something similar to that "why." Having a "why" cuts down the options you have from an overwhelming amount to a manageable amount. Who are you writing for? What do they need? What do they like?

2. Don't try to be original. Even the most famous composers weren't. "Hot Cross Buns" is three changes away from from the theme to Beethoven's 5th Symphony. How many composers wrote an Etude in C minor? How many composers wrote a piece about the sea? Have you seen "Pachelbel Rant"?

Here's the big secret: Truly original compositions are very rare. Music sounds original when elements have been combined differently than before. A composition is like a meal; many different meals can be made, using the same ingredients in different ways. Whether or not composers admit it, they've been mostly gathering ingredients their whole lives, not inventing them.

Here are the musical elements, and my overly simplified "definitions":

a. Melody: The parts that are most singable.

b. *Rhythm: Anything that makes you tap your foot.

c. Harmony: The "extra," less singable notes. The more there are, the fuller you feel.

d. Texture: How many notes at a time? What range is being covered? Any noticeable patterns?

e. Timbre: (for any instrument) The character and quality of the sound. Trumpet or flute? Dull or bright? (for piano) How deep is the pedal being held, and which pedal is being used? (for piano; abstract) What instruments are being imitated? What is the performer's character-aggressive, sweet, pensive, etc.?

f. Form: A template, canvas, or outline for a composition. (see next step)

g. *Dynamics: Volume.

*Articulations belong to both of these categories.

3. Pick a form. You will probably have to tweak this during step 4 and 5, but now's a good time to start thinking about it. Popular forms are popular because they feel well-balanced. It's okay to use these forms; you won't be breaking any laws by doing so.

Pick a form that best suits your purpose. If you are writing a piece about an angry toad, you might use form to tell a story. Take the form ABA', for example. In the A section, your toad might be throwing a tantrum. In the B section, your toad might relax, and consider an alternative, happier lifestyle. In the A' section, your toad might remember why it's angry, and throw a larger tantrum to make it's feelings extra clear. This idea can apply to smaller phrase structures, too.

4. Do your "research." Many experienced composers do this subconsciously; new composers should do this with careful intent. Listen to recordings, read scores, and sight-play some music that relates to your purpose and form, even if only a little. Take notes on elements (see step 2) from each piece that made it seem relatable.

For example, let's say your angry toad piece is for a piano student currently playing pieces from Piano Adventures Level 2A. For the A section, you might investigate more Piano Adventures Level 2A pieces, an angry sounding piece like Mozart's Dies Irae, or a character piece collection like Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals? From these, you might take notes on the fortissimo dynamics and minor harmonies in Dies Irae, the rhythmic simplicity and thin textures in PA 2A pieces, and the quirky use of range in Carnival of the Animals.

5. Mess around. Now you can throw high-quality sticky mud at the wall. After you've taken notes, you likely have a bit better of an idea what you'd like each section of the form to sound like. Experiment by picking a few of these notes, combining them, and using them as a framework for improvisation. You'll quickly find a few sounds which peak your interest; these can be sounds that last for only a moment or entire phrases. Write them down immediately, so you don't forget.

For example, here's what might come out, based on the few angry toad notes from above:

Short phrase, made with fortissimo + minor harmonies + simple rhythms + thin texture + jumpy (like a toad) range

After developing a few sounds, you are well on your way to writing a brilliant composition. Completing your composition is cause for another blog post, but here's my short answer: let form write the rest of the piece for you. Reuse, recycle, and repeat material often, and make little single-element changes along the way for contrast.

Have fun implementing these ideas into your composing and your teaching!


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