Category Archives: Composing

At what difficulty level to write a piece

I touched on this yesterday. First, you have to know what is difficult for a musician on the particular instrument you are writing for. You have to at least have an idea of the outer ranges of their ability, so you know what you’re getting into when you hand them your music to play.

For example, when Igor Stravinsky had The Rite of Spring premiered in 1912, the opening notes in the bassoon were usually not written for that instrument. From what I have heard, the idea was that it shouldn’t be so very pretty, or at least he couldn’t have expected that when he gave it to the orchestra. Bassoon players since that premiere have refined their skill, and often practice that solo for auditions, because if you can play that solo well, it means you have mastered the high range of the bassoon.

When I wrote Requiem last year, there is this part where the trumpet has really long notes. For a string player, a long note is not particularly difficult to play, but it is more challenging on the trumpet. Thankfully, Jason Bergman is a very skilled trumpet player, and he pulled it off very nicely.

I guess the trick with becoming really good at most things is to be able to make it look nearly effortless. So a piece can look and sound deceptively easy to play despite its difficulties, when you have a professional play it.

When I was working on the symphony, I was writing a sequence of notes for the contrabass that I hadn’t been writing before. It’s not that they were especially difficult, but I felt like I should show them to my contrabassist friend before settling on the bowings for them. Also, I know that bowings often get changed by the orchestra that is playing it. She reminded me of one thing that is difficult on the bass – multiple string crossings in rapid succession. Being a large instrument, and each note needing some time to start to resonate, really rapid notes can become muddled.

For a singer, I know a couple of things that make it difficult. Unusual interval skips can be challenging. Singing at the top of the register for an extended amount of time is also difficult, but in a different way. The unusual skips just means practice more to learn it. The extended high range tires out the voice, which shortens how long you can sing. I think these limitations are similar for most wind and brass players. From what I understand, a flute player might have a hard time getting it perfectly in tune as well, when you start hitting the max three or four notes in their register. Oh, and very long phrases have got to be divided. There is a limit to how long you can sing or play one note.

For a harp, having only seven pedals, which change the tuning for the entire harp, it is difficult to play lots of accidentals that are changing from one note to the next. You have to give them time to change the tuning. I haven’t tried to push it too much with my harp parts yet, just because it’s easier to write something that is “safe” than to extend what orchestras usually play.

And obviously, for all you piano players, it’s difficult for most pianists to play more than an octave per hand. Yes, many can stretch a ninth, but that is difficult and nothing to count on, especially for those with small hands.

When have you noticed that a piece you wrote was more challenging than you expected?

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.

Poetry attacks in the night

Have you ever been just about to go to sleep, but then you get the first two lines of your next song? It’s almost physical, the words just come to you.

You grab your notebook that you keep for such occasions and a pencil and try to keep up as the words just keep flowing to you.

You know the title of the song, and you have a draft of the lyrics, when you start thinking of a melodic line to start out with. But it doesn’t stop there. You get the next four lines, and you don’t have staff paper or a computer with you so you just write down pitches, ideas that is a kind of shorthand that will help you know what you’re thinking when you get to the computer after the weekend.

You write in the chorus, the repeats, and through it all, you weep because you know the song has several depths and you have a hunch it will work well both for an instrumental solo or possibly a song if you choose to make it that way sometime. No, you weep because it’s your grief pouring out of you at the same time as the song is taking shape.

Well, I had one of those experiences Saturday. I haven’t had a lot of time to write down the music in my software yet, but my notes have been extremely helpful, for when I had a few moments to start on it.

The grief kept attacking me Sunday, and I could hear new rhythms that needed to be included. Because I like to take sabbath, I just wrote in a shorthand note to be able to retain the idea until later.

Back to gathering inspiration

I guess it should be a welcome theme. Finish a project, try to get started on the next. I’m finding myself listening to lots of Felix Mendelssohn, playing some of it, and loving it so much. And today I’m trying to get to know Charles Gounod’s music better. I had known a couple of his pieces before, but today I discover his Funeral march of a Marionette, and it really moves me.

His music that comes at me from the Amazon artist station is deeply emotional, and I suppose that is to a great extent what music is meant to do. It grabs at any sadness or grief that is deep in your heart, and lets you just feel it. I can hardly catch any of the French in his opera lyrics, but the melodies, harmonic progressions, and orchestrations are still moving me, and I think it is true, that if the singer or musicians are pulling from inside them when they play or sing the music, that it transcends the language barrier.

I think this is just as true for instrumental music. You have to make more translations for yourself when you work on interpretation, but it can definitely communicate your feelings, and it can help the people listening to process their own emotions.

I didn’t think much about this aspect of music when I decided to follow the music path at 15 years of age, but I don’t regret taking that road.

(For those who don’t know that story, I’ll share it briefly here. In Sweden, when you are in 9th grade, you get to choose a program for your last three years of school called Gymnasiet. I had gone to a school that had an auditioned music program for grades 4-9. I learned a lot about music then, but aside from that, I was also a pretty good student, and I aspired to reach greatness in science on a separate path, that might take me away from full dedication to music. I knew I had a good chance of success in getting into the school of my choice, so it was important that I tell the admissions which was my first choice and which was my second.

I made it a matter of prayer, and I consulted with my mom about it too. I have never regretted choosing music as my main field of study, and I have cherished the experiences I had at Södra Latins gymnasium as a music student, and everything that it subsequently led to, with regards to further study of music, and a life full of music creation.)

I’m toying with ideas for my next project, and all the listening will hopefully help inspire me to make a piece that will also grab at your heart when you hear it.

Adding the middle part

After yesterday’s work on my song, I have a melodic line for the soprano, and most of the bass line for the piano (which I’m thinking might be played by a contrabass instead), and I’m filling in the right hand of the piano, which might be played by a guitar.

I’m finding that the line is kind of just flowing today. I finish the right hand of the piano part, and I think a guitar will play it very nicely, but it can work on the piano too.

I go to work on the rest of the bass line, and it feels like it’s almost writing itself. I save, and I guess it’s time to make a new score for the new instrumentation.

I’ve printed a score, and I’m ready to try it out with some musician friends.

Time to gather inspiration, and more work on the song

Yesterday I delivered the parts and ended up doing very little to write more music. I prioritized playing my viola for a half hour when I had the opportunity because I think it’s easier to get back to the sound I love if I do it more frequently. Then when the kids were climbing, I had my viola part for the Mendelssohn quartets and listened to Opus 13, 80, and just barely started on 44 when it was time to wrap up.

How deeply emotional they are! I’m trying to put my finger on why they are triggering such profound emotions when I listen to them. I think it is because they have a certain melodic turn-shape, and then it’s the repetition of that same shape. It’s coming from one instrument, then from another. It’s in one octave, then in another. It’s at one dynamic level, and then it’s at a different one. It’s the lovely development of ideas, and then the juxtaposition of a very different sound. It’s the dance-like structure to some of the movements that make me want to get up and dance.

Studying the quartets with the viola part helps me hear that part especially well, and I know when to anticipate what I think is a general pause in the musical flow.

Today I’m looking at my song again. Adding in a measure of rest for the vocalist, because I think it’s too much to keep singing for so long, and it’s good for the people listening to have a break in listening to the text as well. I know I need to add in the piano part, and it’s more than I think I can do in one sitting. So I’ll just get started and we’ll see how far I get.

I decide to work on a bass line in the piano part, from right before I stopped on the right hand line. I’m realizing I am writing the part so that a contrabass could play the bass line, and I like it. It would sound great with a contrabass and some other instrument, maybe a clarinet, and soprano. Well, a clarinet could only play one note at a time. A guitar I believe could do it well, with the few chords I have written, and mostly melodic line accompanying with a single note at a time.

So I think I might write another instrumentation for this song once I finish all the lines. Maybe tomorrow.

Adjustments, more lyrics discovered

Today ends up being a lot of different things. I start working on the hymn arrangement for Thanksgiving, go on to the wind symphony project, and finish on the Return of the King song project.

At choir practice yesterday, one of my earlier suggestions was revisited, and therefore there were some adjustments to make today. I’m writing in a verse of a different hymn in the middle of the song, and a small instrumental intro to that right after the first verse.

I’m taking a couple of risks here. I don’t know if the guitarist and/or cellist will struggle with the high notes, because I haven’t given them notes this high before, and I figure it could be a challenge – it is on many instruments. The violinist says she can do either octave from the part I sent her, so I will have us test it out on Sunday to hear how well it sounds at the high register.

The middle hymn is more subdued, and it’s in SSA instead of SATB format. So I don’t have all the instruments accompanying that verse, only coming in at times, and counting rests part of the time. I’ll want to have the choir test part of it a cappella, and have the piano optional for the entire song.

No key changes within the piece because I don’t want it this time. Some transposing had to happen to have both hymns in the same key, but it’s totally doable for the sopranos to go up to an F, so I don’t worry about that.

Because it’s fun to work on a big piece, I look in my folder for “Wind symphony,” and discover that I had started a score for the second movement months ago. I listen through the first movement, just over 3 minutes long, and I still like it. That’s good. I think it could go a little bit faster, but I like the themes, and the ideas and the development. It’s obviously needing the next movements though! So I guess I’ll get to that in the next little while.

Well, that song I worked on last week? I look at it, and it seems I’m missing something. I go back to the scriptures, and decide to include some more lyrics. Maybe I won’t need to repeat the lyrics, just melodic material, to make a more catchy song. It sure is superior to work with lyrics that are poetic (and these are definitely poetic). I add in what kind of amounts to a second verse of the “aria” if you can talk about this piece that way. I’m pretty excited. I think I’d like to sing this song some time.

Before quitting for the day, I add in the rest of the song (melody/vocal line). Its running time is five minutes now. Time to deliver the parts for the Thanksgiving song and maybe get dinner on the table.

Create something each day

I give out two parts this morning from yesterday’s work. I have never actually written for guitar before, and I’m uncertain how it’s going to go over with the guitarist.

It turns out he’s been reading TAB notation, but that is something I am completely unfamiliar with. I’ve written it on a normal staff, and he reassures me that he can translate into the format he knows better.

I get to my computer, and I’m kind of dragging my feet today. That song I started working on earlier this week is itching at me, but I don’t know what I’m doing with it. I decide to just do something. I write in the right hand of the piano to accompany the melody line I wrote a couple of days ago. I find that adding in one more voice actually does a lot to inform the way the song will go – harmonic changes, interplay between voices, and in turn, the bass line, if that isn’t one of the first two.

Yesterday I did a scripture hunt for the word “Perfect.” I don’t know who will be wanting to play it, but I have this idea for a three-movement piece for wind symphony. I wrote the first movement some time ago, but I never got it performed, and I kind of lost heart and didn’t write the second and third movements yet. But I had found my notebook with my ideas for the second movement, and yesterday I worked on the ideas for the third.

It’s easy to just go on being busy without creating something. But I made a goal to create something each day, even if it’s small. One thing it has done for me is appreciate the Sabbath more. I’m kind of spent after trying to create something for six days straight, and it gives me a better rest.

Last year, I was practicing my viola so much all the time, that I started to feel an inflammation develop in my arms. After starting to observe a Sabbath rest one day a week from practicing, my inflammation went away, and I don’t have that problem anymore.

Another thing I notice is that when I play music, I am happier. So when I feel heaviness lowering down on me, it’s usually a good cue to go play some music.

I write some more of the piano accompaniment. Last night, I also listened to Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It is not quite as esoteric as his later works, and I felt it was very moving. Somehow, as I’m writing today, I find that his harmonies are still ringing in my head.

And I fill in the rest of the accompaniment to how far I’ve written. I’ve long looked up to Franz Schubert, who cranked out hundreds of Lieder in his short life. Or Charles Ives, who wrote lots of cool songs, which I was first exposed to from a piano teacher at Södra Latin. Maybe that is how it is: once you find the harmonic/melodic language you favor, it’s much easier to put out a lot of music quickly, if you just show up and keep doing it, a little each day.

After getting in a good practice on my viola, I feel very happy. I’m back working on writing the song, and I find the melody flowing to me easily. Suddenly I’m out of lyrics. Is this the end?

Unlikely. It feels like it needs some repetition. So I’ll figure that out, sometime soon, but not today. I add in the right hand of the piano accompaniment for the next 41 measures, and I’m starting to feel tired. I’ll leave it for tonight, and get back another day to this song.

Reflections on rhythm

I have been reflecting on rhythm a bit the last day or two. I guess I sometimes keep the rhythm very simple, and other times I play with it a lot. I’m not a percussionist, and I know they play with rhythm a lot more. Sometimes in the string section, we get to be percussive, and it’s all about the rhythm. Like when we played Mjölnir or The Imperial March for example.

I have learned about music for pretty much as long as I can remember. At first, it was all in Swedish, because I lived in Sweden until 2002, when I entered Brigham Young University as an undergraduate student in music. I had taken plenty of music theory, aural skills, composition and arranging classes, harmony, choir, vocal ensemble, piano, and I had also rubbed shoulders with lots of talented musicians in other fields (instrumentalists of most kinds, jazz players, etc.) which gave me some insight into their world.

But it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned the terms “simple meter” and “compound meter.” It’s very intuitive once you apply it to all the music you’ve heard and studied for 15 years or so, and it becomes another useful tool or term to use when talking about music. I’ll explain here briefly for those who may not know about it.

Simple meter is when the subdivision is 2. You have 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc., and the subdivision is the eighth note. Compound meter is when the subdivision is 3, and you have, for example, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, and so on. For a conductor, you beat one, but there are three notes to each beat (or you feel it if it’s not subdivided right there).

We were just playing the music from Avatar last week at our Halloween concert. One of the intriguing parts about the music is that it switches from simple to compound to simple subdivisions several times. Harry Potter symphonic suite is all over the place as well, and you get to play both. You can simulate compound meter by writing in triplets in a simple meter. And you can simulate simple meter in a compound meter by writing in tuplets.

When I write music that is based on words, the lilt of the language helps inform the rhythm. That is one reason I love working with lyrics, because inherent in most poetry is an interesting rhythm, and it helps me create what I think is an interesting line.

Try these:

“and the calf” with the rhythm two eighth notes and a quarter note

and

“cover the sea” with eighth note triplets and a half note.

You get the stress on the strong part of the beat, which makes it easier to sing, and easier to understand when you listen.

This way, the way you write rhythm reflects your interpretation of the lyrics, much like a reading would convey the way you understand the poetry.

As I’m working on the melody for my new song, I listen through, and find that there is one point where the word “and” lands on the downbeat of a measure, and it seems wrong. I fix it by adding in an eighth note to the previous beat, and moving all the rest of the notes one beat closer to the beginning, and it’s like I was imagining. It’s easy to make a mistake, but I’m glad it’s pretty easy to fix too.

I’m trying to decide which parts of the scriptures I’d picked to include, and which to skip over. Trying to include all the scriptures will be tedious, and people might struggle to understand certain wordings because they’re so archaic. For a song to be “catchy” like I suggested yesterday, repetition is extremely useful. Nobody can learn a song that doesn’t repeat anything except by practicing a lot, and that kind of is the antithesis of “catchy.” I would like it if people hear my song, and then start humming it, and that will only happen if I repeat an idea enough. So maybe I’ll settle with the material I’ve come up with and then repeat the ideas again, with some interesting (hopefully) twists.

Writing a melody

For a song, the melody will be important. As I’m walking this morning, before it really starts snowing, my mind goes to the beginning of the lyrics, and I’m playing off the intro to get the beginning of the vocal line. My walking friends probably don’t notice that I just zone off for a moment while figuring this out.

I pull up my score and start writing in the first lines. I add in some accompaniment. I like sequences, because they make it so you feel like it’s not all new. As usual, I’m wondering if it’s any good, but decide to just keep writing, and edit later. Hoping that it’s not all going to get trashed. Hoping I can write a piece that has just enough challenge to be interesting, but not too difficult so nobody will want to sing it. Or maybe catchy, so everybody will sing it after they hear it. Hm, that would be something new, it hasn’t really been my style before.

At least the chosen selections from Isaiah are pretty powerful, and I’m glad to have some poetry to base the song on.

I don’t get very far today on this piece. But I talk to a friend about writing a piece for her, and that’s exciting.