A-Level Composition GCSE Key Stage 3

Composing at Home 3

Composing at Home is entirely possible even if you don't have any instruments available to you.

Composing at Home is possible, and it is possible for all. In this blog I am going to focus on those who sing, but don’t play an instrument. If you do play an instrument as well then hopefully you have tried the ideas in Composing at Home 1.

In this third part we are going to look at how singers can compose at home, and I mean singers who don’t play instruments. This blog will also cater for anyone who is at home without an instrument and no access to anything they can use to make music.

Start with Vocal Warm-ups

The first thing we are going to do is just start singing. This approach is the same as that for an instrument and it just gets some notes going and helps warm us up.

So, start singing, anything really. It could be a scale, a warm-up exercise or a song you know. Whenever you sing it is important that you warm-up properly. This involves not just your voice but also your whole body. You need to think about your posture, breathing and vocal cords. If you are a singer, I hope that you are aware of how to warm-up properly and effectively. 

Whilst this blog is all about not using computers and the internet, you may want to check out some good warm-up techniques online. Recently The Voices Foundation have been doing a “Virtual Singing Assembly”. Whilst this is aimed at younger students I think it is something we can all use and benefit from. 

Singing Scales

Composing something using your voice might seem quite daunting as you may not have done it before. You may have tried writing a song, and you may be confident with singing. But now you are going to start to think about composing something for your voice. And you are going to need to think about what note to start on based on your vocal range. 

Pick a starting note and try singing the following:

  • A Major Scale
  • A Minor Scale
  • A Pentatonic Scale
  • Arpeggios – Major & Minor

Hopefully you are comfortable singing these and you may have used them in your warm-ups. When singing scales you can use numbers, letters or just an Ooh or Aah sound. Anything to get you singing these patterns. Just like with the instrumental composition in the previous blog, we have to think about where we are going to start.

Lyrics

Composing at Home using our voice is going to involve us writing some lyrics. Before we embark on this we are going to try rewriting the words to a song that we know really well. Pick any song that you are familiar with and have a go at rewriting part of that song. It could be something as simple as a Nursery Rhyme or Hymn. Alternatively, you could take your favourite pop song and rewrite the words. 

This process will not only get you singing more, but it will start you on the journey of discovering how to write song lyrics. There is no wrong or right way of doing this, but you will quickly start to see how the natural speech patterns play a role. You will also begin to see how good lyrics make sense, rhyme appropriately and help tell a story. 

Folk Song Tradition

It would seem to make sense to turn to the Folk Song Tradition as a stimulus for our Composing at Home vocal piece. Folk Songs are used widely in ABRSM exams where students are required to sing unaccompanied. Composing a Folk Song at home is a great way to bring together your voice and some lyrics you have selected or created. And the crucial feature here is the unaccompanied nature of Folk Songs. If we don’t have instruments at home, or can’t play an instrument, then we need to explore an unaccompanied solo song.

A Folk Song is essentially a traditional song from a particular region. It may represent a culture or situation. Folk songs might link to a particular place or time, and they are likely to tell a story.

There are 100s if not 1000s of Folk Songs that you could look at. If you are a singer taking Grades then you are likely to have sung a number of Folk Songs in the past. Have a look at these two examples and maybe use these to help you.

Your Song

The aim of this part of the process is to get you thinking about your own song:

  • What mood do you want to convey?
  • Are you going to tell a story?
  • Do you think you might use a poem as your text?
  • Would you like to use existing lyrics but create your own tune?

As much as possible try to complete all of this without any use of an instrument, laptop or phone. This process is all about creating a song without the need for anything. The process is as important as the finished product, something I covered in Composing at Home Part 2. If we are going to compose a Folk Song then it will be helpful to listen to lots of examples. Sing along and start writing down any ideas that come to mind.

Starting Points

The aim of this Composing at Home task is to write an unaccompanied song that will take the form of a Folk Song. We only need a pen and paper to write down our lyrics – instruments are not required. Even if you play an instrument, or have a piano/guitar to hand, I would encourage you to complete this task without them. Using just our voices always helps to fine-tune our inner musician. Writing lyrics is also good for the soul and can help us to get our feelings, emotions and ideas out on to paper.

  1. Use the Folk Songs above and rewrite the lyrics to both. This will get you thinking about your own folk song.
  2. Now that you have some lyrics, think about how you might write your own melody based on one of the scales you were singing in the warm-ups. What starting note are you going to use? Have you considered what time signature are you going to be in? Are there any rhythmic patterns that work best with that time signature?
  3. Now you can start to think about your own lyrics for your new melody. What is your Folk song all about and what stories are you going to tell.
  4. Experiment, try, fail and correct. There is no set formula here. As long as you are using your voice and mind then you are on track. Enjoy the process as much as the product.

Final Thoughts

This blog is not designed to be an extensive course in the Folk Song Tradition or Song-Writing. It is designed to get you thinking about how Composing at Home might be possible without any instruments at all. Writing music for the solo unaccompanied voice is also something you may not have explored before – so hopefully it will be enjoyable. Without computers, instruments or any software, we can begin to create melodies in our minds. All we need is a starting note and some ideas for a story we want to tell.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this article, James! This is a great way to get my choir and upper school students composing at home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic! 👍🏼🎶

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