GCSE A-Level Composition

Composing at Home 5

So far in this Composing at Home series I have looked at creating music on instruments, using our voice and using percussion. I have considered ways in which composition can be completed without the need for traditional instruments and also without the need for technology.

In this blog I want us to think about how we go about planning a composition and what some the things are that we need to consider. I want to emphasise how we might approach composition from an initial starting point.

Imagine having a composition planned out so well that you can almost hear the music without even touching an instrument. This blog will help with the planning process in the hope that this will lead to more successful compositions.

What is Composition?

I am not sure if you feel we have addressed this issue or not. I guess put simply it is the creation of a piece of music. But for some students composition is a lesson where they sit in front of computer making noises. They drag and drop or play something random in on a MIDI Keyboard. I have indeed had lessons like this and I am always pursuing a more wholesome approach to composition. Composition should therefore not be considered as a hit and miss exercise but more of a process:

  • Listening – we need to listen to music that will inform, inspire and teach us.
  • Planning – we have to plan what we are going to do.
  • Stimulus – Structure, story, scene, pictures, poem, abstract through, experiment. Without a stimulus we are slightly lost as to where to start.
  • Sketches – we can bring our own musical sketchbook tot he composition table and use ideas that we have, as small as they might be.

Composition Process

I do firmly believe that composition can be a highly organic and exploratory process. Sitting down with a DAW and “coming up with ideas” can be a useful exercise. Random musical ideas, motifs or rhythms can be discovered through experimenting, and this relies on some knowledge of the software. This is the same with an instrument in hand, we can indeed compose short ideas, chord progressions or melodies quite easily and often to great effect.

But eventually we have to take our ideas or sketches and turn them into a composition. We then need some plan of where to go next and some idea of how we can develop, evolve and utilise these ideas.

Composing without Sound

The idea behind this blog is that we Compose without Sound. By this I mean that we go through the stages of a composition, forming the basis of a piece, but we don’t put “pen to paper” or “mouse to screen”.

Why you might ask? Well I guess I am dreaming of a future day when we are in a better position to Realise these compositions. At home we may not have the resources, instruments or software to fully create a finished piece. But we have the time to plan them.

So we are going to plan a piece that we want to write and we are going to consider all that we will need to make this happen. I am not suggesting that we remove the creative element, far from it. But let me suggest a scenario. A student wants to compose a piece of cinematic music and has a great melodic idea for saxophone. The melody works and is memorable. But what next? Composing at Home can start with an extensive plan of what is needed for this composition – how the saxophone melody can be expanded and developed.

It is this “what next” that I want to address. I believe that if we can combine creative discovery and planing, then we can really unlock some great compositions.

The Process

This Composing at Home task will generate a planning document for your next great composition. What you will then need to add are the musical ideas & sounds. Thislinks back to the first blog in the series but we are going one step further by brainstorming/planning a piece of music.

  1. What do you want to compose? Do you have a style, genre, structure or stimulus in mind?
  2. Once you have this established, what are your initial thoughts on how you want to compose this piece. Are you thinking of using an instrument, DAW, found sounds or a combination of all of them.
  3. What do you think you will need to include in order to achieve your goal from question 1? Does your chosen style or genre have any characteristics that you need to learn about, pursue or include? What we are doing here is considered what will make the finished product a success in light of question 1.
  4. What listening to you now need to undertake in order to gain inspiration, ideas and understanding of your chosen genre, style or structure? We may not be seeking to create a pure Pastiche, but we will want to get some ideas to help us create a successful piece of music. Check out the BBC Ten Pieces website for loads of listening that is linked to themes & subjects.
  5. Instruments are crucial, which ones do you plan on using? Think back to the First Blog in this series and some of the thought process surrounding instruments.
  6. What needs to come first – melody, chords, rhythm?
  7. What ways might you develop your melodies, chords, rhythms that are in line with your chosen style.

Is this Composition?

I wonder if you agree that this process of thinking through a piece of music is in itself composition. This thought process, planning and brainstorming of ideas is at the heart of a composition. Some compositions are easier to formulate in our minds. If I were to create a piece of music suitable for a 10 second intro to a podcast I might be able to just do it fairly quickly. But writing music for a piece of film or to represent a particular situation may take a little more thought.

The great thing is that the more we compose the better we get at composing. The more we think about the music that we want to create the more we develop our understanding of the whole composition process. Composing at Home might need to be a planning exercise to start with. But you can then take this plan and add sounds when possible. If you have instruments available then once the plan is done, start adding the sounds.

This Composing at Home task will get you thinking more about what you are going to create and will compliment the other blogs in this series. My goal is to get you thinking about composition in potentially a new way. But this process will develop a plan that you can then start to add sounds & silence to whether that be soon or when you are next near an instrument or computer.

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