Casual Conversations on Composing
page two of "Composition"
Composition part two

"Composition" continued--

Back to the early stages of our piece, it’s possible that what we’ve just come up with is the Verse of a song, though I often find that my earliest sections end up being the Chorus.  But if it’s a verse, it’s very likely we’ll want to repeat the entire phrase again as we start thinking more in terms of the song’s structure.
Or maybe we’ve already felt stymied and we’re throwing out all the musical ideas we try.  This is self-editing at its worst.  That critical mind Must be turned off.  And we can’t fall into the trap of “waiting for inspiration.”  That’s balderdash.  We’re musicians—We should always move forward as if we’re being paid, even as if our lives depend on it.  We Can sit down on any given day and produce music if we just Do it, and not fall back on that lame no-excuse of needing “inspiration.”
So, assuming we have a phrase or two, playing what we have so far will eventually lead us (if we let it) to what would be either the Bridge or Chorus of a song—a new section, at any rate.  In an instrumental piece, it may be thought of as a second theme, or development of the first.
If we’re writing a piece with lyrics, the words will dictate to a great extent, the structure of what we’re composing.  If we want the song to be something the average person can pick up on and soon sing along with, then we’ll need to reign in the impulse to write More music—We’ll need to keep repeating verses and choruses WITH THE SAME BEAT STRUCTURE---capitalized because it usually won’t work to keep changing the rhythm of our lyrics as the song progresses.  Generally speaking, the best songs have the exact same rhythm structure, the same meter, for each verse.  The more “folk” and “pop” the music, the more those kind of rules are loosened up, while the more “sophisticated” the genre, the more we’re expected to be strict in our use of meter.
Maybe we’ve taken a break from this composition process.  It’s often best if we do that.  Come back fresh to the material the next day—make changes that strike us during this new session.  Maybe we have to keep coming back to these sketched-in ideas for an extended period of time—doesn’t matter—However long it takes!
One major thing we’ll find ourselves wanting to experiment with is the chord structure of what we’re putting together.
It’s very likely that logical chords presented themselves to us as we plunked out our notes on our instrument.  It’s also very possible that the resulting chord progression is extremely predictable, based on the music we’ve heard most of our lives.  Depending on the type of music we’re writing, we’ll want to experiment either to a small or very large degree with the chord structure we’ve arrived at.  The chords will eventually become an inseperable part of the music.
Even if we’re writing something intended to be simple and easy to play and sing, we can always find at least a few places where unexpected and therefore more interesting chords can be swapped out or substituted for the ones we were initially playing.
How are new “replacement” chords discovered?  Forget worrying if it sounds like too random of a process—just start playing all the chords that include the melody note.  Many will be in different keys, won’t be part of the traditional “logical” chord pattern.  It doesn’t matter—you will find several possible chords which can replace the one(s) you began with.  Using the new chords will often lead to new inspirations for a development of our melody.
As we play what we’ve come up with so far, it may be sounding awkward to move from one chord to the other. We need to start finding chord voicings which follow each other more smoothly.  Voicings?  The different ways in which a chord’s notes are stacked.  Generally you want to avoid the “first position”—taking a C chord as an example, the basic position for the chord is spelled “C-E-G.”  It’s very solid and standard, and boring when used over and over.  Make extensive use of chord inversions, like “E-G-C” is a favorite of mine.  Using the inversions, or even incomplete versions of chords will help you find the way to more smoothly move from one chord to the next.
The arrangement you’re developing on your instrument of choice will be the starting point for when you open up the piece into an arrangement for multiple instruments.  So even though everything can remain flexible in the next orchestration phase, choices you make now will be influential from this point on, and that’s why it’s important to construct a chord progression which is smooth and not awkward to play.
Even if you’re deciding that much of what you’re writing needs to retain a standard chord progression, there are ways to start livening it up even before you get to the arranging stage.  One basic way which is still very effective despite its common usage, is to maintain the same note in the bass while chords change above it.  Staying on C in the bass of a C chord while shifting to a G chord—that works great, for instance. 
Don’t be afraid of adding notes to a chord even if you don’t know what the resulting new chord’s name is.  Most of us know to add 6ths, 7ths, even 9ths, but it doesn’t matter what the chords are named as long as we’re liking the results of when we add notes to a chord.  Many is the time that I’ve added notes practically at random and have No idea what the new Name should be—and I’m not inclined to stop and figure it out.  Who cares what the chord’s name is, as long as the results are musically pleasing?  Here’s a good one—how about a sus2 chord which still includes the 3rd, instead of removing it?
As we develop the chord structure and melody of what we’re working on, it’s almost impossible to not have harmony lines also emerge.  Harmonization actually is what’s happening when we settle on the chords of a piece, and the “harmony line” per se emerges from those chords.
But at this point it isn’t too early to try specific harmony lines, counter-melody lines—they’ll be another part of the important foundation we’re constructing which will later be the basis for the orchestration.  More fully developed harmonies will indeed be arrived at during the more advanced arranging stage, but some ideas can easily present themselves at this point.  A harmonic line one 3rd above the melody is traditional and standard, but we don’t want to rely soley on those notes—it becomes predictable, and what Paul Simon referred to as “...emptiness in harmony...” in the song “The Sounds of Silence.”
Have we gotten bogged down with details such as intros, outros, bridges?  If so, we have to pull ourselves out of those bogs and focus on the Meat of what we’re working on.  As we get more familiar with what we’re composing, transitional passages will emerge over time.
If we’ve been working on a Song—something intended to be sung, this entire process may have been fairly fast.  A lot of good songs have been written in under an hour.  If we’re working on an instrumental piece which isn’t constricted by the needs of lyrics and singers, we’ll very likely be spending more time on the process of composing.
Regardless of how many times we return to the piece in progress, one essential thing is that it remains Fresh to us.  We have to get excited about the piece’s possibilities every time we return to it.  If we find ourselves getting tired of a piece even before we’ve finished writing it, then we have to try whatever we can to shake ourselves out of this boredom.  We can move to a possible new section, even if don’t know yet how it will tie in with what we have so far.  We can try playing in a different style.  We can try playing it angrily, sadly, happily—we can try all sorts of things that may not lead us specifically to new developments, but messing around in this way can get us excited again about the possibilities.
One important mind-set for keeping the work fresh for ourselves is moving into a space where it feels Good to work in slow motion.  If we get ahead of ourselves, we’re out of the moment—and it’s IN the moment where the music comes from.  If we find ourselves wanting to hurry up and finish—we’ll be compromising the results.
Working on just a few seconds of music can be something we spend many hours on.  We can sit and work on that brief section while still keeping it feeling spontaneous and fresh because we can be in the Flow of working in s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.  It’s like diving down into the sub-atomic scale of the music and realizing there’s infinite space around us.  It’s like swimming under water and being aware that we’re being slowed way down by the pressure of the water, but not feeling anxious to move at the speed we’re used to.
Only by going with the Flow of moving slowly through our music can we get our work under our skin, can we open ourselves up to the continuous possibilities.
We have the skeleton of a song—of a composition—of a Thing we call Music, and which we’re now ready to define as a Piece.  We are ready to move on to arranging this music for more than a single instrument.
--next time—Arranging.