As I sat down to generate ideas for a composition at the guitar a few days ago, I began to reflect on how far my writing skills had developed since I composed my first full work as a junior in high school. I remember vividly that I had to write a composition for a final project in AP Music Theory.
As I took my guitar out of my case and put ten-staff manuscript paper in front of me, I thought, “How on earth will I come up with the first four bars, let alone thirty-two?!” A few months before I began this project, Pat Metheny’s album, The Way Up (affiliate link), had just been released. As I listened to it, I was in awe of both Metheny’s and Lyle Mays’ ability to write a 68 minute-long composition by connecting short fragments of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas; not to mention the improvisational elements that fused together over a long stretch of time.
Consequently by internalizing this recording, I came to the realization that in each writing session I have two main priorities:
1.) Have the clearest view possible for my idea and have an openness to change from it as I expand from it. In other words, let my idea grow organically even if it travels in an unexpected direction.
2.) Make the most out of one idea.
Too many times as writers, we run into two problems. First off, we have trouble trying to expand an idea organically. Secondly, we create too many ideas that will not fit together. Instead of one song, we end up with three, five, or maybe even ten songs in one. We need to shift from thinking about every musical possibility to thinking about how many varieties we can come up with by only using two notes. Here is a guide I keep in mind when writing:
1.) What’s my aesthetic?
2.) What is the structure and form of the piece I’m envisioning? AABA? 32 bars? What’s the style and genre?
3.) Who am I writing for? What instruments? A key word to any composition is orchestration.
4.) Time signature and tempo. In 4? In 3? Mixed Meter? Fast? Slow? Medium? What’s the groove?
5.) Am I writing in a line or a circle? i.e: line – writing with one chord in mind; circle – writing through a progression of chords.
6.) Contour of melodic line. Does it have direction?
7.) Do my melodies have momentum?
8.) How do I embellish my base melodic line? Passing tones? Rhythmic variety? Lengthen time values (Augmentation)? Shorten time values (Diminution)?
9.) Am I starting a phrase on the off-beats? This is a great way to give melodies momentum (every note is a pickup note).
10.) Space – do I have it? Does my music breathe?
11.) How will I transition between two themes? Do I have transition material written?
12.) Am I telling a story?
13.) Does my music compliment my lyrics?
14.) Climax – where’s the money spot? How do I lead up to it?
15.) Range – do I have a solid foundation and balance between lower, middle, and my highest sounds?
16.) Harmony – what consonant or dissonant sounds can I underpin the melody with?
17.) Out of every possibility, am I making the most out of a few notes?
As a result, if you keep this list in mind not only will you generate plenty of ideas ripe for permutation, but you will also have a clearer view of your final product.
Related post: Composition Fine Tuning