Writing for an unaccompanied solo instrument

How do you write a piece for an unaccompanied solo instrument? One of the important things to note early on is the range of the particular instrument. Often it makes a big difference in the difficulty of the piece if you let the player play in the extremes of the register. So with that said, keep in mind your performer! Are you writing for a beginner, an intermediate player, an advanced player, or a professional? Can you throw them anything, and do you want to make it a difficult piece, or would you like it to be simple enough that somebody sight-reads it, and can make beautiful music out of it from the start?

You have to think of a melody, and a harmonic progression, even if there are no chords being played, they come through within the melody.

I listened to some TheFatRat pieces on the drive up to climbing practice today. There is a tremendous amount of repetition in pretty much any popular music. It can still be interesting because they introduce new things to vary it a little bit. They change the timbre, take away or add different instruments, distortions, etc. Here’s Monody, featuring Laura Brehm, that has lots of repetition but enough variation to make it interesting.

But when you have just one instrument – you have to think about variation a little differently. You can’t change the instrument – but you can give them a mute, which totally changes the sound. In the case of a string instrument, you can switch to plucking instead of bowing. In a lot of cases you can change from legato to staccato. You can vary the rhythm somewhat. Change from simple to compound meter or the other way around, or change from 4/4 to 7/8 by cutting out an eighth note wherever you choose. You can make octave displacements. I’ll expand on this some below.

One of my cherished memories from my second year at Brigham Young University was when I was thinking that I would like to be a part of the Group for New Music. I had just taken the last class in the music theory core, which included studying the Second Viennese School, including Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I absolutely LOVED the song “Wie bin ich froh” by Anton Webern. It has lots of octave displacements. If you listen to it, you will hear lots of ninths, sevenths, that the soprano has to sing. It’s a bit challenging, but also interesting. The reason I say octave displacements is because a song is often comprised of lots of stepwise motion, not lots of skips. This song has stepwise motion, but they are octave displaced, which makes very unusual skips.

When I spoke to Dr Christian Asplund about joining the Group for New Music, he informed me that I could just learn that song and then sing it for Dr Steven Ricks, who was over that group then. So I did. I learned it, and sang it, and he rounded up two other singers to perform the second and third songs from that same set at the concert that November.

Another thing to study could be a cadenza from a concerto. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the F.A. Hoffmeister Viola concerto, movement 1 (for another performer, playing with an orchestra), and he’s just gotten to the cadenza. It’s not very long, but you can hear the harmonic progression in the solo instrument. You can hear how the violist gets to showcase several parts of the range, and there is a theme with development, so you feel like it’s the same piece, but not just the same thing again and again.

I was going to write more on the piece I had in my head Saturday night, but the problem is I left my notebook at home, and I’m sitting at a car dealership charging my EV. I probably will ruin the piece if I try to write without my notes. I had the piece all figured out, but I haven’t copied it all down into my software yet.

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