Casual Conversations on Composing

Composition part two

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Composition part two

Demonstrating composition ideas with a specific song

Composing-Part Two
 
Before moving on to ideas for arranging music, I want to review points made in my first segment on composing, using a song from my stage musical, “Dorian, The Remarkable Mr. Gray” as an example.
 
This is a simple song in ballad form, with a basic structure of A-A-B-A-B, which is to say “verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus.”
 
The lyrics were written first.  They are selected passages from the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (gaol being the old English spelling of ‘jail’) by Oscar Wilde.
 
The entire poem is written in a strict rhythm and rhyme scheme based on the old folk ballad form.  This makes Wilde’s stanzas perfect to use as lyrics, already being formatted in an unwavering rhythm which automatically dictates verses that will be the same in their format.
Here are the lyrics for the entire song:
(VERSE 1)
 
EACH MAN KILLS THE THING HE LOVES
BY EACH LET THIS BE HEARD
SOME DO IT WITH A BITTER LOOK
SOME WITH A FLATTERING WORD
THE COWARD DOES IT WITH A KISS
THE BRAVE MAN WITH A SWORD
 
(VERSE 2)
 
SOME KILL THEIR LOVE WHEN THEY ARE YOUNG
AND SOME WHEN THEY ARE OLD
SOME STRANGLE WITH THE HANDS OF LUST
SOME WITH THE HANDS OF GOLD
THE KINDEST USE A KNIFE BECAUSE
THE DEAD SO SOON GROW COLD
 
(CHORUS)
 
SOME LOVE TOO LITTLE
SOME TOO LONG
SOME SELL AND OTHERS BUY
SOME DO THE DEED WITH MANY TEARS
AND SOME WITHOUT A SIGH
FOR EACH MAN KILLS THE THING HE LOVES
YET EACH MAN DOES NOT DIE
 
(VERSE 3)
 
HE DOES NOT DIE A DEATH OF SHAME
ON A DAY OF DARK DISGRACE
NOR HAVE A NOOSE ABOUT HIS NECK
NOR A CLOTH UPON HIS FACE
NOR DROP FEET FOREMOST THROUGH THE FLOOR
INTO AN EMPTY SPACE
 
(CHORUS)
 
SOME LOVE TOO LITTLE
SOME TOO LONG
SOME SELL AND OTHERS BUY
SOME DO THE DEED WITH MANY TEARS
AND SOME WITHOUT A SIGH
FOR EACH MAN KILLS THE THING HE LOVES
YET EACH MAN DOES NOT DIE
As we take a look at the music I wrote for this poem, I’ve included a series of screen shots taken in the Staff View of Sonar Home Studio.  Besides the melody line and lyrics, I’ve included the chord symbols for the song also.
 
Generally the chords were developed simultaneously with the melody.  The decision to use each chord dictated the direction the melody would take, and conversely, an idea of where I wanted the melody to go would dictate the chord.  In other words—chords and melody are co-partners in the composition with neither one really taking the lead during the writing process.
 
Because of the somber message, it was an easy decision to compose the song in a minor key.  I chose Em.
 
Here’s the opening motif:
 

reading-gaol-1.gif

As is often the case when writing a song or composing instrumental music, I started with a two-measure phrase.
 
I explained in the first installment of this discussion, that the second phrase is an answer to the first.
 
Here are those next two measures:
 

reading-gaol-2.gif

This is based on a retrograde (backwards playing) of the first motif.  Notice it isn’t a literal retrograde, but the results of the two phrases played together have a pleasing symmetry.  The four measures together have a natural flow and are easy for a listener to latch on to.  Notice that I’ve shifted to a new chord momentarily on this phrase, and it’s one of the less-often used chords in the Em scale tone chord family.
 
To explain that a bit more—Each key has a group of chords called the tone chords, because they have the notes of that key’s scale as their roots.  The root of a chord is the lowest note when a chord is in the basic first position.
 
Lead sheets for music often use Roman numerals to indicate chords, since a song can be played in any key one chooses, but the Roman numerals will always have the same relative relationship to each other regardless of key.
 
For instance, with a song in the key of C, I=C.  That first chord, with the same name as the song’s key signature, is called the Tonic.  The most commonly used chords for a song in C will be I, IV and V.  In C, IV=F and V=G.  In classical terms, the IV chord is called the Subdominant, and the V chord is called the Dominant.  Probably the most common chord progression, from classical music on through to songs written today, is I to V and back—Tonic to Dominant.  In “Amadeus,” Mozart is complaining about the lack of originality his fellow composers demonstrate when they perpetually write, and he said something like, “Tonic to Dominant, Tonic to Dominant, on and on 'till doomsday!”  Well, without that good ol’ Tonic to Dominant, we wouldn’t have 99% of rock n’ roll!
 
The numbers assigned to the chords simply indicate how many notes up from the root note they are.  C, D, E,---F is 4 notes up, counting C.  C,D,E,F,---G is 5 notes up.
 
Returning again to the notes at hand, notice that as I nail down the melody, I’ve already begun to move somewhat into the area of arranging the song.  If I had notated the melody in its purest form, most of the notes probably would have rested right on the beat.  But the phrasing of the melody has become important to me even at this early stage, so we have in the very first measure, the word “the” not falling exactly on the count of 4, but rather 4 .  Look at the 5th measure—the word “heard” is coming in on the 2nd beat.  Holding the word “be” in the previous measure, and coming in “late” on the word “heard” is, to me, an important ingredient in the melody.
 
So, indicating the phrasing I want the singer to use is an example of the earliest part of the arranging process.  Phrasing/arranging the vocal line this early is often important to me, and the various rushes and hesitations become an integral part of what I consider the melody to be. 
 

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