Thursday, January 25, 2018

Composition #1 – Pre-Submission Checklist

A belated welcome to all MUS 3100 "Intro To Comp" students! And welcome as well to all Comp Seminar students. I have already enjoyed working with you during the first 3 weeks of the winter semester of 2018, and I look forward to hearing more of your compositions, and helping you to develop your compositional skills as we move forward.

Today's post is relevant to all composition students, but it will likely be more useful to the Intro students, only because more experienced comp students have probably heard all these things already.

So, with that in mind, as 3100 students approach the due date of your first projects, please review this checklist to make sure you've done all you can to present your score professionally.

50% of your composition grade is based on presentation issues, so make sure you have done, or at least considered, each of the following:

For Starters…
  • Come up with an imaginative and evocative title, centred on the top of page 1. "Project 1," or "Atonal Chords Project" are not imaginative titles. "The Pompous Ass, The Mule, and The Donkey" is imaginative. So much so that I feel compelled to write a piece with this title now…😄
  • Your name should appear in a smaller font, aligned with the right margin (Finale/PrintMusic should have aligned this information automatically if you used "Set-Up Wizard" to create your score).
  • Avoid any temptation you may have to use ALL-CAPS for the title or your name. All-caps is the print equivalent of shouting, which is generally considered poor etiquette.
  • Always include a standard metronome value, expressed in relation to the basic beat value (e.g., quarter, dotted quarter, etc.); this should appear above the top staff's opening metre indication in bar 1. These are standard values:
 40 42 44 46 48 
50 52 54 56 58 
60 63 66 69 
72 76 80 84 88 
92 96 100 104 108 
112 116 120 126 
132 138 144 152 
160 168 176 184
192 200 208
  • Also include a mood/character indicator (e.g., misterioso, con fuoco, joyful, meditative, etc.), aligned horizontally with the metronome marking, and directly next to it. It doesn't matter which is first – the metronome marking or the mood/character indicator.
  • All subsequent tempo or character changes, including rit. and accell., should also appear above the top staff. If writing for a large ensemble, this information is placed above the top staff in each "choir," such as above the strings, above the brass, and above the woodwinds.
  • Mood/character indicators  are generally adjectives, not adverbs (e.g., quick instead of quickly, allegro instead of allegramente, etc.) .
  • You can use Italian, English, or any other language for these terms, but bear in mind that terms should be easily understood by performers. In classical music, Italian terms have traditionally been most widely used, and hence are more readily understood by performers who speak many different languages. 

Italian Mood Indicators – Just some of the many options available:
    affettuoso — with affect (i.e., with feeling/emotion)
    agitato — agitated, with implied quickness
    animato — animated, lively
    appassionato — to play with passion
    brioso — vigorously; with brilliance (same as con brio)
    bruscamente — brusquely
    con affetto — with affect (that is, with emotion)
    con amore: with love; with tenderness
    con bravura — with boldness
    con brio — lively, literally, "with brilliance"
    con calore — with warmth
    con dolore — with sadness
    con fuoco — with fire
    con gran espressione — with great expression
    con molto espressione — with much expression
    con moto — with motion
    dolce — sweet
    espressivo — expressive
    furioso — with anger; with fury
    giocoso — merry; funny; lighthearted; playful
    lacrimoso — tearful, sad
    lamentando or lamentoso — lamenting, mournful
    leggiero — play lightly, or with light touch
    lugubre — lugubrious; mournful and slow
    luminoso — luminous
    maestoso — majestic or stately (generally indicates a solemn, slow movement)
    misterioso — mysterious
    morendo — dying
    pesante — heavy
    saltando — jumping; buoyant
    scherzando — playful
    soave — smooth, gentle
    sognando — dreaming
    solenne — solemn
    sonore — sonorous
    sostenuto — sustained
    spiccato — with a marked bounce; 
    tranquillo — tranquil
    vivace —quick, lively
    vivacissimo —  as quickly as possible

    • There should be a starting dynamic for each performer. Ideally it would not be a "mezzo" dynamic (mp, mf) – some consider this a weak (as in, lacking conviction) way to start a piece – although this is more of a convention than a hard rule. I personally see nothing wrong with it.
    • Dynamics for the piano, or any instrument that uses two staves, such as harp, or marimba, should appear between the two staves, unless both staves require different dynamics simultaneously, in which case each staff can have its own dynamics below it.
    • Dynamics for all single-staff instruments go below the staff.
    • Dynamics for the voice usually are placed above the staff, so as to avoid colliding with the text, which goes under that staff.
    • There should be a generous amount of subsequent dynamic shaping for each performer, including hairpins. 
    • Be aware that intelligent, logical, and effective dynamic choices require much thought and planning; do not wait untill the last minute to make your dynamic choices, because it is unlikely that those last-minute decisions will be the best ones for your composition (and careless, last-minute decisions are usually self-evident, which will affect your mark); make them as you go, trying different possibilities before making your final decisions. Feel free to change them periodically once you have lived with them for a while.
    • A destination (i.e. terminal) dynamic is needed for all hairpins. 
    • A starting dynamic is only necessary if the starting dynamic is not obvious (i.e., if you have a p in the previous bar, there is no need for another p at the start of the hairpin cresc.
    • Dynamics must be centred under the notes to which they apply. Exception: if you have a cresc. or dim. under a long note, such as a whole note, the destination dynamic can be placed at the end of the bar, immediately following the end point of the hairpin.
    • If dynamics are used with hairpins, the two should be horizontally aligned with one another. 
    • Don't make the width of the hairpin any wider (or narrower) than the Finale default.
    • More generally, all dynamics within a system tend to be horizontally aligned, but there are many exceptions to this. Fortunately, this is easy to do in Finale: Highlight all the bars in the system in which you want dynamics to be aligned (and just do this one system at a time), click the "Plug-ins" menu, select "TG Tools," then choose "Move/Align Dynamics." It will give you a few choices, so just pick one, and, if you don't like the result, undo it and pick another.
    • Dynamics should not be placed under rests. 
    • Hairpins do not normally extend through a section that has both notes and rests, although one exception to this would be a section in which every eighth note is followed by an eighth rest, during which a cresc. or dim. is desired.

    System and Staff Spacing; Pagination; Bar Spacing within Systems
    • "Set-Up Wizard" usually does a reasonable job with the vertical spacing of staves and systems, but you may need to add extra space between, say, the solo instrument and the piano, to avoid a cramped appearance on the page. Sometimes you may need to adjust the separation of the RH and LH piano staves too. You can adjust vertical staff spacing by using the "Staff Tool" in Finale; click to the left of the beginning of the first staff in the score whose spacing you want to alter, which selects all bars of that staff for the entire score, then adjust the spacing as desired by clicking and dragging the spacing handles up or down. If you want to adjust only one staff within a single system, then just click on the spacing handle for that staff only.
    • Vertical spacing of staves and systems is normally the same on every page.
    • Pagination:  Avoid a final page with only one or two systems of music. Published scores usually have final pages that are complete, meaning that the systems extend all the way to the bottom of the page, no matter how long or short the composition is. This can be tricky to achieve some times, but at least aim for this.
    • The number of bars per system can change depending on how much content each bar has. A dense texture with many rapid notes in bars will naturally require wider bars than bars with only one whole-note chord. That said, if the number of notes within bars is relatively similar, then the number of bars within a system should be the same. Finale uses its own algorithm to adjust the width of bars proportionately, but you can control the number of bars within a system. You do this by selecting the bar(s) you want to move to another system, then press the up arrow to move it to the previous system, or the down arrow to move it to the subsequent system. 

    • Apologies for shouting (i.e., the use of all-caps), but this is important. Collisions refer to any contact between different elements of the score (except for information that MUST appear within staves, such as notes, metres, and bar lines, which are allowed to contact lines within the staff, of course), such as: Hairpins, dynamics, articulations, notes, accidentals, slurs, and ties.
    • Logical enharmonic spellings. "Logical" means that intervals should be spelled as they sound; F up to Bb is a perfect 4th, but if you spell it F to A#, it looks like a third, which may confuse performers. Cb, E#, B#, and Fb, are occasionally logical, especially in tonal music, but if you can avoid them, it's usually a good idea to do so.

    Logical Enharmonic Spellings; Avoiding TMI
    • "Logical" in this case means that intervals should be spelled as they sound; From F up to Bb is a perfect 4th, but if you spell it F to A#, it looks like a third, which can confuse performers (and trust me, composers do not want to confuse performers; it may cause them to turn on you!). 
    • Avoid different chromatic inflections of the same note name within a chord, where possible. A D up to Db, for example forms a diminished octave, which we would recognize more quickly if spelled D up to C#.
    • If writing for a two-staff instrument, like piano, try to make the enharmonic spellings logical within each staff, e.g., an A7 chord in the LH, played simultaneously with an Eb7 chord in the RH; one uses a sharp, the other uses flats, but both chord shapes are very familiar to pianists, and would therefore be logical spellings. There is no need to only use flats, or only sharps, in both hands simultaneously, unless there is a logical reason for doing so (Bb7 chord in the LH, Eb7 chord in the RH, for instance).
    • There are occasions in which Cb, E#, B#, and Fb, are logical spellings, especially in tonal music, but for the most part, it is better to avoid them if you can, because these notes are usually spelled B, F, C, and E, respectively.
    • All sharps, or all flats? Students over the years have occasionally asked if it might be a good idea to use just sharps, or just flats, within a composition, because it would be more consistent that using a mixture of both. The answer is that, while it would indeed be more consistent, it is virtually never a good idea, because you'd end up with illogical spellings, such as F to A# instead of F to Bb, C to G# instead of C to Ab, B to Gb instead of B to F#, etc. Have you come across the saying, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? This kind of consistency is an example. 
    • Be consistent! But not foolishly so! :-) By which I mean that if an idea is spelled E-Eb-C-Bb in one section of a composition, don't spell it differently the next time it appears, such as E-D#-C-A#. Just make sure that the spelling you choose is logical each time.  
    • Sometimes a logical spelling involving two consecutive notes leads to a sub-optimal spelling between the second note and the note that follows it. Sometimes there may be more than one logical spelling. In both cases, you just have to use your best judgement and make a call.
    • If it really is equally logical to spell a note either of two different ways (e.g., D#, vs. Eb), then consider this rule of thumb: Brass players sometimes have slightly greater comfort reading flats, whereas string players sometimes are more comfortable reading sharps. Experienced performers, however, are equally adept at reading sharps or flats, no matter what instrument they play.
    • Sharps ascend, flats descend: If you are writing any portion of a chromatic scale, use sharps to ascend, flats to descend. Doing otherwise necessitates the use of naturals to cancel the sharps or flats, such as A - Bb - Bnat - C - Db - Dnat - etc., or F# - Fnat - E - D# - Dnat - etc., which basically (a) results in TMI (the naturals are unnecessary if you follow the "sharps ascend, flats descend" guideline), and (b) creates visual clutter; the bar becomes wider than necessary, and this in turn sometimes creates collisions.
    • TMI, part 2: If moving back and forth between notes a semitone apart, use different note names (C-Db-C-Db-C, etc.), not the same note name with a lot of naturals (C-C#-Cnat-C#-Cnat, etc.)

    • I strongly encourage the use of articulations, where appropriate (obviously!). One of the great benefits of using the MIDI playback in music notation software is that it will (or at least should) play articulations, like staccato dots, or accents, and, as with dynamics, using articulations in a smart and considered way can really improve the sound of a composition.
    • I generally encourage a limited palette of articulations: Staccato dot (.); Accent (sideways wedge: >); tenuto line (–); and any combination of these (staccato accent, for example). There may be a case to be made for the use of other articulations, such as a hard accent vs medium accent, but, frankly, I think students sometime pick one kind of accent because they like the way it looks more than another kind of accent, not because they mean different things, and, even if used deliberately and correctly, not all performers realize that different accent indications can mean different things. 
    • The other problem I often encounter in student work is inconsistent use of articulations; either different accents or different staccato marks used in different places but intended to mean the same thing, or articulations used with an idea in one place that don't get used the next time we hear that idea, or, if they do get used, are not used in the same way as previously. There may of course be cases where we deliberately want the articulations within a musical idea to change when it is heard again, but much of the time, if the articulations of a musical idea are different in different sections, it is due to an oversight on the part of the composer, and not a deliberate choice. 

    Slurs, Breathing Opportunities, and Bowing
    • When writing for winds, use slurs to group notes that you want to sound connected; if you don't, every note will be tongued, which is something like using a "T" syllable to start every note you sing in a melody. While tonguing every note may be desirable in a particular section of a composition, it is unlikely to be a sound that you really want for the entire composition (although perhaps you would want it if the entire composition had a heavily accented, percussive character), so make sure to include slurs as appropriate.
    • Do not equate a slur with a phrase mark, however. They may mean the same thing, but they usually don't. Slurs in wind instruments are usually shorter than a phrase, often covering just 2-4 notes.
    • Where will the wind player (or singer) breathe? Make sure to periodically include rests of sufficient length to allow this. Never assume that a wind player can "circular breathe;" most can't, especially when writing for a community band, student ensemble, or semi-professional ensemble. And, even if you KNOW a particular player can circular breathe, it doesn't mean that they'd appreciate getting a score to play that contains few or no breathing opportunities.
    • When writing for bowed instruments such as the cello, include bowing slurs, whose meaning is similar to wind instrument slurs in that without them, the cellist will change bow direction on every note. There are many cases where this is desirable, but many more cases where it isn't. 
    • One factor in to consider when using bowing slurs or wind instrument slurs is the dynamic of the notes in question; louder note require more breath, and tend to require more bow, which means smaller slurs are usually called for.

    • This is a classic example of a blog post that I initially intended to be short and succinct, and ended up being much longer. I will undoubtedly add to this as I think of more information to add, but I think I'll leave it there for now. I hope you find it useful.
    • Please ask questions about any of the above, or suggest topics that are missing or incompletely addressed above, and I'll try to provide more information.