Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (3)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

3. Getting a Better Understanding of your Musical Ideas

Inexperienced composers often don't realize the potential of their musical ideas, finding it easier to come up with a series of unrelated musical ideas rather than work out the implications of existing ones.

There are several things you can do to help gain a better understanding of your musical idea(s). These include:

3.1. Live with it for a while; play it repeatedly both in actuality and in your mind.

3.2. What's it about? Or, put another way, what is its musical character (dreamy, angry, intense, scary, peaceful, hopeful, sad, despairing, naïve, humorous, dance-like (this has numerous sub-categories; slow dance, fast dance, graceful, stomp, etc.), sneaky, playful, etc.)?

3.3. Does it change character? If so, is this okay? Why? If not okay, then fix it.

3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece (i.e. to start with a "bang," a slow amorphous introduction to-set up what is to follow, to create a sense of timelessness, etc.)?

3.5. Structural Analysis: Does your musical idea break into phrases? If so, how many? If not, are you sure, and why not? How long are the phrases? How are the phrases related? Are they balanced? Is there a non-tonal equivalent to question/answer structure, or to authentic, half, or deceptive cadences? Are there pitch centers? If so, what are they, and how are they related?

3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis: Since we are probably not dealing with functional harmony, classifying the harmony can be a challenge. Consider using Set Theory; look for vertical and linear sets, see how they relate to one another, try interval vectors. What does all this tell you? What intervals seem most prominent? In general terms, are your materials related to one another, or are they quite different? Are you using non-traditional modes or scales?


Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I wish I had read this post earlier!

Living with a musical idea helps me out a lot because I understand it better, I come up with answering phrases, and I think about what would sound good as an accompaniment or harmonic accompaniment to it.

Harmonically analyzing my ideas has helped me in the past, and I have done that for every piece I have written this past semester.

Adjectives have also been a big thing for me this year, both in performing and composing. By describing the music I play I feel as if I better understand it and I can really connect with it. Making up stories to go along with my compositions really helps me to make them cohesive and to keep a unified theme and idea throughout.

It's sometimes really tricky to develop a compositional idea, but there are so many ways to explore what you already have, and this blog really helped me out and I will definitely refer to it for future compositions!

Aiden Hartery said...

This is something that I think about often when I'm thinking about what the heck to do/ where to begin with my writing. I find myself a lot of the time with ideas floating around in my head but not being able to transfer them onto a score.

Most recently, when beginning a composition, I try to isolate one or two ideas and try to expand on them (this is also something which I am struggling to take control of). While playing around with my ideas, I often find myself getting distracted or bored and will wander off on some other tangent. Moments like these are usually more problems then they are helpers, and I will end up wasting an hour or more with nothing productive to show for it.

I now try to focus myself on things like character, motives, harmony, melody...etc. and will spend more time on my original ideas until I either get what I want, or find out that the idea wasn't a good one in the first place.

Over the past year or so, I guess I can say that I have come a long way in terms of developing my ideas, but I still have a ways to go.

Jenny G said...

This makes me think: How well do we really understand what we write? You would think if you created something, you would know all about it... but no, we have to dig deeper into our own music to get a better understanding of what's all in there. Analyze. And other people analyzing our music may discover things that we didn't even realize were there! It points to some deeper logic in music that we can sense but don't necessarily understand right away. We may know that we like it, but we may not know why. Very cool.
It also makes me think: This outlines a sort of process by which we write something that we like, something that sounds "good", and then we analyze it, think about it, figure out WHY we like it, and use our findings to develop/expand on the idea. So there has to be some balance between writing what just sounds "right" and writing what theoretically should work. The first helps the piece sound natural and flow well; the latter gives it structure and consistency.
Does that make any sense?
Good things to think about!

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great list of helpful tools Dr. Ross! For me, I find sometimes when I'm just starting to compose a piece, I tend to go back and forth between a bunch of small fragments and ideas floating around in my head, some of which may or may not work out I sit down to actually write it. So, I write them all down and try to evaluate which one I like the best will make the most sense for the piece. However, I find that sometimes I'm too quick to discard an idea without really exploring the potential value it has and even trying it in the piece itself. This was the case with my last assignment, as one idea I thought wouldn't work actually turned out to be great and it became the basis for an entire section of my piece I know with more experience and time I'll get better at this!

I will definitely use your ideas to help me in my future compositions, and I like that I now have a list of tools to turn to!

Josh Penney said...

This is a great list of ideas. I have never really thought to analyse me musical ideas in such a way. Often in my composing I try to come up with an idea, and then build a piece around it, letting the character or mood develop around it. I never really thought to develop a mood at that early stage.

As for the others, they are things that I definitely consider, however now I will probably look at differently the next time I write. You mentioned the different pitch centres, and how they relate. I always find myself aiming for a pitch centre, or a group a centre, but I never really thought about how these centres relate. May make for some cool experiments.

Flutiano said...

These are things that I will often think about when I'm figuring out what to write, or I'm feeling stuck in a composition. However reading this in this post is making me think that maybe I should analyse my music in more depth in the revision stages.

Part of living with it is working on the composition every day. When possible, I like to only have one composition on the go at a time so that I can think about it while I'm doing things like eating lunch or walking to the QEII, and I try to get it out and work on it at least once a day to keep it fresh in my mind. For example, I was struggling with the movement of my serial piece entitled 'White' that I presented in class this week. I worked on it for most of the week and made hardly any progress, and was not very happy with what I had written, then when I was walking to dining hall for supper one day I realised that 6 sixteenth notes in my main motive (I had been working with 8) worked a lot better, and I developed the idea for a 6/8 opening transitioning to a 2/4 section with the motive starting on the second eighth while I was eating. Then I was able to sit down at my computer and get some material I liked onto the page, which also created a momentum which led me to finish the first draft of the composition for class.