Composing / (?)
Objective. To introduce to those musicians so inclined to create their own music, some very fundamental ideas about art, musical compositional forms and how we might merge them together with our own inspirations in creating our own works of musical art.
Writing songs. So often the process of writing a song simply starts when we "hear" a melody line or a catchy phrase of words that have a rhythm all their own. We can sing this idea and find its pitches. We can then shape this idea into a melody. We create a scale from the pitches of the melody. We evolve this scale into an arpeggio. We build chords on each of the pitches of the scale and try to find which ones best fit and support our melody. Once our song begins to take shape, it develops its own personality that will help us decide what musical color goes where, so as to create form and balance throughout the entire piece. If all goes well, we'll know when it is finished because there are no more rough spots or holes to be smoothed over or filled up. We'll polish this song a wee bit every time we play it, a song can sometimes take years to truly finish, and that's cool. Its personality will evolve as we mature as artists, oftentimes nourishing ideas for new songs. Then another melody comes along and we start this process again. And because we are smart, after writing a few songs, our own patterns for composing begin to emerge and we recognize it. We each of us then know what it takes within our own muse to write our songs. Cool?
Not to lose a good idea. One trick to composing, as consistently brought forth from discussions with successful composers, is the need to work with a new idea long enough for its personality to come forth so that we understand it, thus insuring that we can always conjure up its magic again. By doing this we enable ourselves to keep working on this song regardless of where we are or what we are doing. Thus: we write these ideas down with pen and paper, or audio record them by whatever means, we teach them to our co-writer friends, we teach them to our bands, do whatever it takes or works best for each of us so that the personality of the song we are creating becomes a friend we never, ever forget. So often unfinished songs will just sort of work their way through our psyche and present themselves when they need further attention or when that lost chord ... becomes found.
Composing music is simply about putting our spiritual ideas into tangible forms that we share with those we love. And along with musical sounds, it often involves words or poetry even dance and drama. It involves capturing the emotional essence of what our song is about. This involves an understanding of our musical colors and what they emotionally can convey for each of us. Individual composers write all different kinds of songs. Sad, happy, exciting, heroic, reflective, angry and loving songs often come from the same artist. What this shows is that our own emotions are so often the initial spark to bring a new song to life. Sometimes it's a turn of phrase, commonly know in the music biz as a hook, those words of a pop song that get stuck and loop around in our heads. Or just a couple of pitches with their own unique rhythm that creates the motif, our musical term for the core melodic idea or theme of our song. It is often around these hooks or motifs that we build our songs, they become like a seed of inspiration that we nurture to grow into a song. For experienced composers, all they need to get started on a new song is just a whiff of a hook or motif, for they know that rest will eventually follow. We composers often write songs about our friends, loved ones and historical events. Music is often commissioned to be written for a movie, a play or other cultural event. This list goes on and on, each of us writing our music to express the art in our hearts while the inspiration to create simply comes from the life we lead each day. "Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs ..."
Compositional forms in music. So, if composing music is simply about putting our ideas into form, is a one measure "vamp" a song? Could be eh? I mean, we have to start somewhere. Can a song be just two measures, or just three or four measures and be complete? Hmmm ... ? Regardless, what compositional forms in music often implies is artistic balance, and this balance is oftentimes what helps shapes a song. Children's songs are oftentimes simply two lines of verse which are repeated. Such as in the case of our melody for "Shortnin." Sing the song to yourself and hear the words "Mama's little baby loves ..." at the start of each phrase. Here is the melody. Example 1.
If we were to count the beats and create a time signature for this song, we'd be in 4 / 4 time, each of the phrases would be two measures and the overall form of the song would be a four bar phrase. Cool? Notice the two terms above the written music? Antecedent and consequent are simply two rather nice and sophisticated words for the two phrases in our song. First phrase / second phrase. Call and response. Question and answer. Antecedent / consequent. All of these describe the "closure" of the unique crafting of the phrasing that gives this song a wholeness, so as to feel complete and balanced. So much so that a child can often learn it with just a few tries and remember it always.
We could double our four bars into eight and enlarge our form yes? The ever popular "Happy Birthday" that we all know and sing is an eight bar tune. So is this lovely lullaby. Example 2.
"Hush Little Baby ..." is simply a four bar phrase repeated once with a slight shift in one melody pitch. Once at eight bars, our musical phrase length parallels the phrasing and meter of words as found in the Iambic pentameter of poetry and drama. Try to learn this line on your instrument. Happy Birthday too. For the adventurous souls among you, run these melodies through a couple of different keys, all 12 if you have the gift.
Again we double. Here we take an eight bar phrase and basically double it. "Amazing Grace" goes way back in our Western musical heritage. Example 3.
With the above expansion of our musical form from four to eight and then to sixteen bars, we sense a general trend towards gradually longer lines that follow in a consistent pattern. This is indeed the case. Here is a chart of some of the common forms of music we use to create the American songs. Example 4.
|name of form||description||name of popular songs|
|8 bar blues||2 / 4 bar phrases||"Key To The Highway"|
|12 bar blues||3 / 4 bar phrases||"Everyday I Have The Blues" or "Blue Suede Shoes"|
|A/A/B/A 32 bar song form||2 distinct melodic ideas, labeled A and B, each 8 bars long thus 32 bars total.||"Over The Rainbow" or "Yesterday"|
|A / B 32 bar song form||two sections, each 16 bars long, the melodic idea in the A section is used in the B section but oftentimes altered pitchwise for better melodic and cadential closure.||"When I Fall In Love"|
These last three forms, the 12 bar blues and the two 32 bar song forms, are by far and away the most commonly used forms in popular American song. Go through any real book and examine 25 songs, making a tally of the forms and you'll see for yourself just how common these three forms of composition are. (1)
So why all this talk about musical form on the composing page? Well mainly in that for many emerging songwriters, while they have good ideas and nice melodies, often lack the sense of form and balance that comes with a bit more formal training in music theory. Oft neglected in early music programs, as the goal is to get new learners up and playing and having fun, the theory gets saved till later years when a greater need for the knowledge is manifest, oftentimes simply due to the complexity of the music being played. A more thorough understanding of the musical elements within a piece of music can often translate to a more "artful" rendering or performance. Thus, when younger composers begin to write, getting a sense of form can help them to frame their work and provide some structure for their ideas. The cool thing is that all of our music theory rules and forms are breakable to make art, and that these guidelines simply come from music already written that we hold dear to our hearts. And as we move along in our studies, gain knowledge and strengthen our composing skills, we simply stretch our existing resources and create new shapes, forms and degrees of balance, that satisfy our artistic needs.
For emerging composers, try listening to your favorite songs and listen for the structure of the phrases, the repeating of the main melody, if there is a second, contrasting melody etc. Figure out the time signature and count along with the song and see if the phrases are four bars, eight bars etc. I think you'll be surprised after a bit when you realize how similar the musical form of different sounding songs can be. This is way true in the blues, where the vast majority of blues tunes follow the 12 bar blues form of phrasing and harmonic scheme.
Through composed. A concluding thought here is in regards to what composers call through composed. This compositional technique is a bit more adventurous artistically than the structured forms as the music simply winds its way along without any need for definitive sections, numbers of measures in phrases etc. The music is composed and flows, or charges or scoots along completely at the discretion of the composer's muse, that elusive part of our creative process that brings the magic to our music. Skies the limit here in creative composition! So often during the process of through composing, one idea or section will just suggest another and so forth, that a new idea organically evolves from the existing one. We then create interludes between sections, transitions from one section to another, use similar melodic and harmonic ideas in different keys, swap back and forth between the major to minor tonalities, combine these freer through composed sections with other more structurally definite forms. And while these last few ideas might seem a bit vague or random, believe it or not but sometimes that is just what is called for by our muse to express the ideas we have.
How to get started composing. Take your best idea and write it into a two or four phrase. Then extend it to eight. If there a words to your song, write a second eight bar verse of words. Is there a hook to your song? Find one if it needs it. From this point forward the song will probably write the rest of itself. And it can change and continue to grow and evolve as you play it. So many of us composers simply keep going over and over and over a song till it's right. Run out of ideas? Listen to all the music you can get into your ears. Also, some of the most successful composers in recent years worked as part of a team. So find a "co-writer" to work with and perhaps share ideas. Rodgers and Hart, Lennon and McCartney, Carol King and Jerry Goffin are just a few of the pairs that have created tons and tons of good music. And these teams are just the pop music writers. There's the blues, rock, jazz and classical solo and duo composers also. Always remember ... if you are driven to write ... you will write.
Review. In composing there really is no right and wrong, more of just what works and what doesn't for the artist. We start to understand the compositional forms in music by thinking of the phrasing of our melodic ideas and the two part nature of how are thoughts tend to be organized. First phrase / second phrase. Call and response. Question and answer etc. We often expand our form by simply doubling the size of smaller forms to create larger ones. We repeat four bar phrases three times to make a 12 bar blues. Or double a four bar phrase into eight bars, then double that into 16 bars. We repeat similar melodic ideas to expand our forms with additional lyrics and often use a contrasting theme to our first idea for variety. We often follow the poetic rhythms and shape of Iambic pentameter phrasing. As composers we aurally bring to life the emotional content and rhythm of words in poetry, in drama, or find musical sounds to articulate the happenings of the world we live in.
Vocabulary terms for this chapter.
|muse||That inner artistic sense that directs our creativity.|
|hook||Slang term for a "catchy" melody.|
|motif||The "cell" of an original artistic or intellectual idea that gets developed.|
|vamp||Slang term usually denoting a shorter, complete musical phrase oft repeated.|
|musical form||A musical structure of phrases, measures and sections.|
|antecedent||The first part of a musical or intellectual statement.|
|consequent||The second part of a musical or intellectual statement that usually brings to us a sense of closure to the whole idea.|
|Iambic pentameter||A style of spoken rhythm, articulated through inflexion and emphasis of syllables that is used with writing, poetry or prose.|
|12 bar blues||Three / four bar phrases to complete the form.|
|song form||Usually 32 bars comprised of four / eight bar phrases or two / sixteen bar phrases.|
|through composed||Allowing our muse to dictate how a musical composition unfolds.|
Go on and ace the matching quiz which follows, and once successfully completed, go over it with your teacher or write for help. For a start in composing, write as much of your best musical idea down in standard notation or whatever way you are presently cool with and try to get it played by your musical group or another group that you know of. Cool? Start to toughen up your skin for the critics and find your nicest, most humble and gracious manner to thank those who like your work.
Some good, basic music theory information on this page, was any of it new for you? Your thoughts on this? firstname.lastname@example.org Well, as "Porkie Pig" used to say ...." eeer ... that's all folks!" First a quote.
"Music is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." Beethoven
how to practice something ...
that we don't know how to play ... yet ...
(1) All of the information on musical form and composition in this chapter comes from playing the jazz, blues, folk and rock music I love, writing songs and teaching and learning this music to and from other musicians. I have studied compositional forms through analysis of music manuscripts formally in college using the following texts.
Berry, Wallace. Form in Music. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966
Green, Douglass. Form in Tonal Music. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1965.