Reed Gratz ~ Professor, Pianist, Composer

Reed Gratz ~ pianist/keyboardist/composer/professor

Reed's Blog

Composition ~ getting started

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 1:10 PM

To compose music is to create an atmosphere of sound, a moodor series of moods established through the organization of sound andsilence.  Creating an atmosphere of anykind – aural, visual, aromatic, through the sense of touch, taste, or acombination of these – requires technique, craft, and intellect, anunderstanding of emotion, inspiration, hard work, and sometimes, luck. 

Like preparing a wonderful dinner (creating an atmosphereinvolving many parameters - aroma, taste, visual presentation of color andshape, proportion and balance of courses, and more), music composition requiresgreat planning.  Like the drawing of anarchitectural plan and blueprint, music composition requires the techniquesnecessary to put into written symbols the sometimes indefinite, fleeting, andoftentimes non-verbal aural (in music, visual in architecture) ideas that comefrom either an intellectual or a visceral (most often, some sort of combinationof the two) part of us.

So how does one begin to compose music?  Of course, it must be assumed that there is acertain technique and musicianship before beginning (we won’t “turn the stoveon” until we understand certain principles of cooking?).  I like to compare the development of a compositionidea with developing an architectural blueprint.  Before any notes are written on the stafflines, there is much preparation to do. 

If one sets out to develop a blueprint for, let’s say forthe moment, a house in Northern Arizona, situated on some desert rocks,overlooking an enormous view, there are many things to consider in order tocreate the most beautiful (whatever that might mean to each of us), intelligentand perhaps functional home, one that has balance of rooms, practicality, isinviting, with the best use of resources, and able to withstand intensive heatand desert cold.  Perhaps one would beginwith the general layout – continually asking questions like:

-       howbig is the house

-       howmany rooms are there

-       howlarge is each room

-       howmany bedrooms/bathrooms

-       whatwill the kitchen be like

-       whichdirection will the house face

-       whatsort of energy will heat and cool the house

-       onand on and on

Then the detailing begins. Eventually, one gets down to deciding on the carpet, the color of thepaint, the kitchen appliances, the handles on the cabinets, the tile, thewindow coverings, the sound of the doorbell. 

The end result is the creation of a living environment, anatmosphere of space, color, design.

A composer can use some of the same elements in creating asonic atmosphere.  What are the mostimportant contributing factors to creating a musical mood?  Certainly tempo and rhythm arevery important to establishing the emotional content/mood/atmosphere of a pieceof music.  What are the othercontributing musical parameters to the building of the musical atmosphere?

Rhythm and Tempo – related but individualparameters; changing, repetitive

Harmony – definable,non-definable, tonal, modal, vertical, horizontal

Melody – ingoing,outgoing, intervallic, serial

Form and Proportion – the relativelengths/importance/atmosphere of the          

            differentsections of the composition

Register – relativehighs and lows 

Dynamics –relativelouds and softs

Texture – notonly density of sound, but homophony/monophony/counterpoint

Timbre – relatedto orchestration; tradition orchestral non-traditional orchestral,    electronic, noise

Orchestration – choiceof sound, texture, timbre, dynamics, register

Tonal Gravity – apart of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept; vertical or horizontalmotion, described both harmonically and melodically.

Medium wise is a hard question for me I guess as far as working goes I let thecomposition dictate where it goes.  I like and listen to a lot ofdifferent styles just about everything but rap and country and there are even afew compositions in these styles I like.  I'm a big fan of Pat Metheny,Ottmar Liebert, Elvis, The Beatles, Bach, Fernando Sor,  Paco de Lucia andmy latest addiction is Badin Powell if that helps.  As far as what I'vealways wanted to compose  I'm a big fan of trying to combined traditionalwestern theory, with the sounds and styles of world music and then usingtechnology to enhance the material.  I must admit since meeting you, I'vebeen really pushing to improve my skill set as far as Jazz goes and wouldn'tmind working along those lines.  I just don't know that my abilities areat a level to write the kind of Jazz I would like to? Not sure if this helps togive you an idea of where I want to go with composition or not?  Iremember having a theory teacher list the below as the principles ofcomposition and variation a long time ago, I very glad to have that list againit will help me a lot when working with an idea to develop it.  I thinknowadays lyric content should probably be added to that list with pop musicbeing what it is, what do you think?

Let me set some structure for you.  You'lldo it for the next one.  Let’s skip thelyrics for now.  We’ll get to settingtext.

Piece 1…

No category/genre - don't think "jazz"or "latin" or newageworldfunkreggaebluesheavymetal; just music - thatwill come afterwards if you like.  You have a band - you playing yourfavorite guitar; don't think about amplification, acoustic/electric - we'llstart with form; keyboard(s), bass, percussion (lets say congas - maybe drumset by the time you're done).

AABA - eight measures for each section. You'll need an introduction and a coda.  This form will be repeatedfor improvisation.

Medium slow tempo (quarter = 88 to about 96 beatsper minute) with an even eighth note (as opposed to a swing/jazz eighth).

Harmony - definable chords, mostly vertical (thatis, chord successions rather than being in one particular key with the chordsresolving in a traditional way - ex. Emaj9 - Cmaj9| Gmin7 - Dbmaj9) 

Harmonic rhythm (how fast the chords change) - 2chords per measure in the A section (doesn't have to be every measure), 1 chordper measure in the B.

Write the chords first - we'll let them 'dictate'the melody.

Texture - thick chords, with a slow movingmelody, bass-line will be mainly chord roots and the P5th above playing dottedquarter-eighth repeated pattern.

Register - A (harmony and melody in themiddle-lower register) A (melody, an octave higher; harmony, voicings stretchedover wider register) B (same register) A (similar to second A).

Dynamics - let's see where the piece goes, butstart with a quite introduction, soft A, mezzopiano A, mf to f in the Bsection, mp for the final A.

Timbre will become more apparent as you put thechords and melody together - the sort of guitar sound you want, keyboards -piano alone, with synth pads, bass - electric/acoustic, percussion - subtle ormore prominent, hand drums or set with cymbals, etc.

Orchestration - we've been dealing with it above.

Start with the 'groove' that you want to hear,then write out the rhythm of that groove.  This is the predominant rhythmin the drums and bass.  Steady eighths - where do you want accents (1, andof 2, 3, 4; 1, and of 2, 3, and of 4 for example).

Then the harmony.  A section with predominantlyminor chords; B with more major; or vice versa...

The melody will come from the harmony using'common tones' from the chord succession.  Remember to consider how thepeople you mentioned below wrote melody - use of motive (three note motives basedon a particular repeated rhythm are 'perfect'), repetition, sequence,inversion, more repetition of the melody with slight variation.

B section - slightly different motive based onthe A section melodic motive.

Lay out at least three sheets of music paper,several sharp pencils, an eraser, a straight edge (the perfect ones are plasticcredit card-size cards), guitar in hand, keyboard near if possible, cup ofcoffee (so that you can leave the 'required' coffee cup stain on yourmanuscript).

Begin.

 

 

 

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