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Music composition has always been one of those mysterious things to people. In the “olden days” to share your process of composing was looked on as almost a travesty. People felt that no one would be interested or care about how a composer made his or her music. The only thing that mattered was the end product. We’re a little more curious these days and with the internet age it’s awesome to take a peek into an artist’s process of how they work and learn or be inspired by that work.
How it Starts
I’ll begin by saying there is no one size fits all approach to composing music. For me, most of what comes out is through improvisation – noodling around if you will. I’ll sit with the didge or the keyboard or be messing around with a vocal tune and BAM suddenly something catches my ear. I get it down as quickly as I can either on a page or on a recording (my phone is full of these) because I know if I don’t, I will lose it. I probably have hundreds of little snippets of music ideas like these….
As you can hear, these are raw ideas that have come through in moments of inspiration. Most of these ideas sit and wait for me to do something with them. But others find their way into becoming a song. The time it takes to make a song varies. Sometimes, it's a couple of days and sometimes it's a couple of months. I've stopped worrying about trying to finish a song and figure if a song wants to be finished, it will let me know. I do it this way because it's what works best for me. I encourage folks to experiment with different ways of composing and then observe, make notes (if you like). It's a way of learning how you tick when it comes to creating. When you find something that works, go with it.
So what inspires music?
I remember a friend of mine answered this question years ago in a composition class at Cornish College of the Arts. She said “It could be anything, the squeak of a door, the honk of a car horn, anything.” It’s true! I’ve been inspired by many things from train horns to the rhythm of someone walking down the street to bird call, and yep, other people’s music. This world is a symphony of sound and rhythm to me and I’ve found that inspiration means being an open channel to just about anything.
Inspiration can hit anywhere too - in the car, on an elevator, during dinner or even in the bathroom.
Ok, that’s cool but what about developing those ideas
"Where do I start?" is the big question that many people ask when they a beginner composer. Just start where you are. From there you can start gaining the skills just simply by experience. It’s a bit like learning martial arts – you can’t get to a black belt without the practice. Practice though doesn’t have to mean strictly sweating and slaving. I think of it as a balance between knowing what i want to say with music and flowing or being open to where the music leads me, instead of trying to make it where I think it should go. The minute I try to make the music go where I want, is the minute that I start making crappy music. I learned this when I was trying to compose a piece for a national competition in the mid-90’s. I was trying beat the music out to make the deadline and it just wasn’t happening. The result was writing only eight measures of unintelligible music before giving up. The lesson in this? Go with the Flow.
Sometimes, developing ideas into songs comes when I put two contrasting but complimentary ideas together. This happens a lot when I’m composing for didgeridoo. I have a journal and a handheld recorder (Zoom H4n) that I use frequently to either write down or record fragments that I can reference later on. I’ve found that recording is much better than writing simply because I don’t always remember how it sounds when I look back on a written rhythm. Often times, to listen to a fragment later on will inspire something else to come out and if it doesn’t, I don’t sweat it. I just go on to something else. So how do I know when two ideas compliment each other? My tummy tells me. I just listen to what I put together and ask my tummy if it sounds good. If it does, then I just go with it. This alone has been a great tool for putting together rhythms on didgeridoo and songs on the keyboard.
Song structure can be a challenge especially with didgeridoo. How does one make a song without it sounding like a bunch of rhythms strung together or even worse, playing the same rhythm over and over for three minutes? Here’s what one way I think of it when I put a song together for didge.
Chorus – Verse – Chorus- 2nd Verse (variation from 1st)
This isn't by any means the only formula I use but it's been one of the most handy. Again, you can experiment with switching around your different sections to see what works well. One of the best examples I have of using song structure is this song:
There are other tools you can employ into your music too like dynamics (i.e. loud, soft), change of speed (slow to fast or vica versa), texture (smooth or choppy), vocals, pitch (horns or drone) and probably some things I missed. All of these can make a song more interesting and even tell a story (we can get into this a bit later).
The bottom line is, don’t be afraid to experiment. Let yourself dabble, play, explore and see what comes out. Use your judgment in a good way to weed out anything that doesn’t seem to fit or make sense (this takes a bit of practice and patience) and most of all enjoy the process, be patient with yourself and throw perfection out the window. You won’t need it. Aim for excellence instead (again this will take a bit of practice). You can read some books on composition if you wish but the best way to learn is to just do it. This way you get to feel out your own learning style and find your own voice. If you do want a fabulous book for a better understanding of basic music theory, I recommend Practical Theory Complete by Sandy Feldstein. This is an awesome interactive book that is chock full of good material which is put together in a way that is easy to understand. There are other great music theory books out there as well. It's a good idea to just take the time to peruse them and see if they would be a good fit for you.
So what is your process? How do you think of music and putting a song together? What inspires you? What do you get stuck on? When works best for you? Feel free to share here because we can all learn from each other. Many thanks for reading!