Friday, September 19, 2008

Writing a Play

This is adapted and expanded from a reply I just made to a student's journal entry. I have posted it here on the class blog in case anyone else might find the ideas useful too.

If you were writing a play, you would, for the most part, be writing dialogue. Dialogue tends to be sequential; that is, one person speaks, then another, then another, etc. Sometimes one character might speak at length; other times, the dialogue may be rather rapid-fire and choppy, with characters interrupting one another, and perhaps even speaking at the same time. And sometimes, characters are silent, but engaged in some activity that the audience can see, as indicated in stage directions.

Composing has analogies to all these things. You can feature one particular instrument for a while, then focus on a different one, and continue soloing instruments sequentially, but you can also have instruments interrupting one another in a way similar to the rapid-fire, choppy dialogue described above. You can even have players wander about the stage while playing their instruments, or not playing their instruments, assuming their instruments are portable.

However, a significant difference between play-writing and composing music is that music typically has multiple instruments 'speaking' at the same time, whereas it would be unusual to have multiple characters in a play speak simultaneously, presumably because it would make it hard to understand what they were saying.

What is it about music that makes multiple instruments playing simultaneously work so well as to be the norm?

The answer is easy: The composer/arranger assigns different roles to different instruments (or different groups of instruments), and those roles can change occasionally.

A trumpet solo might be accompanied by slow-moving chords in the strings in a work for orchestra. In this case, the trumpet has a foreground role, while the strings are playing more of background (but essential, nonetheless!) role. Or the trumpet could be in 'dialogue' with another instrument, perhaps the oboe, where they take turns 'saying something,' and perhaps they might even overlap sometimes, while the strings continue in their background role. In that case, both the trumpet and oboe have a similar role.

A division of musical roles that you learn about in orchestration class is:

Foreground — Middle ground — Background.

In this case, the orchestrator/composer decides on a role for each instrument or choir of instruments, and writes accordingly. This 3-part division of roles is a bit more challenging to manage when you are only writing for two instruments, but it is nevertheless achievable if one of the instruments is piano, because you could, for example, have a LH bass line supporting a trumpet melody, while the RH plays chords. In this case, the trumpet would be foreground, piano LH middle ground, and piano RH (chords) would be background.

One interesting thing about music, though, is that you don't usually see more than three roles represented simultaneously, presumably because, like having several people speak at once in a play, it would result in information overload. However, there may be times where information overload is exactly what you want — perhaps to convey a sense of chaos in the music — in which case you should feel free to give it a try!

In any event, as you compose, decide on the role of each instrument at any given time, and consider altering that role periodically, perhaps with unexpected interruptions, or by having the instruments take turns being in the foreground/background, or with the instruments having identical roles sometimes (perhaps one is rhythmically doubling the other), etc.

Another parallel is that just as you wouldn't try to write a dialogue between two characters in a play by writing lines for one character first, and then, once that was finished, writing the lines for another, you would typically write for your two instruments at the same time too. Not to say that you CAN'T do it the other way — anything is worth a try if you wish to do so — but composers typically write for multiple instruments at the same time, probably because it seems the best way to allow the instruments to be equal partners in the music.


James Bulgin said...

Interesting post, with some things well worth thinking about.

I frequently find that when I'm writing music, I will write the initial sections with only one or two instruments, and then go back and write the other instruments in over them. But then I tend to write the instrumentation for the following sections more in tandem.

I think some of this is because when I start a song, I usually don't know what I'm going to do with it. So I'll keep filling in bits of the harmony or melody or whatever feels like it's missing by adding other instruments until I feel like I've arrived at something I like. Afterwards, I can just carry on this framework with some variations.

While I was reading the passage on roles, I started listening to the piece which was playing on my playlist at the moment in that perspective (which by total coincidence happened to be one I wrote). It may be an obvious extension, but I found it interesting that an instrument can often change roles without changing the style of what it's playing at all. Instead, it is a result of changes in the other instruments.

At the point I started paying attention, the song has 4 lines playing at once: contrabass, cello, harp, and flute. The bass and harp are background, cello middle ground, and flute foreground. Then the flute stops playing, and immediately, further back instruments shift up. The cello becomes clearly a foreground instrument, and the harp moves to middle ground, although neither of them are really doing anything different than they were a moment ago. (The bass is content to remain nearly invisible in the background)

Justin Guzzwell said...

I used this approach with my second piece. It turned out better than I had imagined! I was able to develop the trumpet melody in a way that (to me) feels much more fluid and natural.

Melissa B. said...

I wasn't too keen on writing two parts at one time because I thought I would be overwhelmed, however, after trying it, it worked out great. I definitely think that skeptics should try this approach even if they feel a little wary about it. It makes perfectly good sense as well, like you mentioned about writing dialogue for a play.

Thanks for mentioning this!

Jill A. said...

I've gone about composing my character pieces in both manners; writing both parts at the same time or writing one instrument before adding the other. Sometimes I sit down to compose and figure out a great chord progression, or melody and then continue to finish it without even thinking about the second instrument until I go to add in another part. I definitely think that writing a "dialogue" between instruments is generally the more productive method. Composing lines seperately works at times but once you add in more then two instruments it becomes more and more difficult to do so.
Although composing everything at once seems daunting it is actually the easier way to go about it!

Philip said...

Jill alluded to the fact that you can change your compositional style/strategy at times: writing a melody first here, then an accompaniment there. I think this is a great way to give a sense of variation to your pieces. The danger comes when you only write in one way. I hope anyone reading this can understand what I'm trying to say here... If you wrote the complete trumpet part first, and then added a piano, and then added a clarinet, the parts would be completely different. However, I think it's alright to write a trumpet melody that you like first, if that's what comes to you first. Then maybe write a piano ostinato that you liked. After all, ideas come to us at different times.

David said...

I think that this is a great way to view composition. I finished my second composition last night and now after reading this post I think it may be useful to create more dialogue between the parts.

As it stands at the moment my piece consists of the guitar having an entirely subordinate role with the piano making 'comments' all over the place however I think it would add a different flavour to the piece if I were to switch the roles of the instruments.

André McEvenue said...

This is a very interesting analogy.

I would like to expand it by commenting on the importance of drama in music.

Especially in the music of Beethoven, there is often a kind of interplay or dialogue that drives towards a climax, and sounds very much like an exchange of characters. The phrases are so well balanced in the way that a violent gesture can cause a shuddering reply.

Obviously this drama is not suited to all kinds of music, and the idea of characters in music could even become limiting. However, I still feel that this analogy could inspire very interesting compositions, and assist performers in interpreting certain pieces of music.

Flutiano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flutiano said...

Before I started reading the body of this blog post, I assumed that it was going to be talking about making music programmatic and tell a story, like you would in a play. The analogy of instruments as characters, and their musical lines as the spoken lines of actors in a play was unexpected . . .

However, unlike in a play, the musical lines are not spoken words that have literal meanings that require the audience to hear and comprehend everything that each person says. Also, instruments can play roles that are not played by the actors in a play. For example, they can set the mood. A play might have lighting effects to depict that a scene is ominous, and in an orchestra piece maybe the cellos and double basses would have an intense tremolo section to set that mood. Maybe one character is dancing around the stage in a ball gown while another character is speaking. This might be a duet, with one instrument giving a monologue about the state of American politics while the other instrument's line dances around the first.

It seems to me that the hardest part of thinking of writing a composition as writing a play is that instrumentalists cannot transmit linguistic information. Of course, vocalists can present text, and narrations, titles, and program notes can also give this type of information to an audience. But without these things, a musical line cannot say "You should vote for Santa Claus for US President on Nov. 8th." It can compel somebody to smile, or to feel like dancing, or to . . . and it can bring an audience on a journey similar to the journey taken when watching a play, and the audience is taken through the play's story. A composition can have a specific story (usually with titles and program notes, and maybe narration or sung words), but it can also tell a story that is not specific. A composition can lead an audience member on a journey where the specific details are created by the listener's imagination . . .