You can be a composer. All it takes is believing in yourself and allowing the time to let it happen. The process of composing is a chance to unplug from our fast-paced world and unwind, discovering the music within you.
Composing your own piece is slow. It is like planting a flat white pointed seed in a patch of soil with the thought that someday you might eat pumpkin pie. Imagine how good that pie will be.
Composing your own piece is like eating from garden to table. You begin with the seed of an idea, like a two-measure rhythm. Then the idea begins to germinate, like setting the two-measure rhythm to five different tunes.* (*If you have not yet covered Steps 1-4, I recommend that you click here to get started with Part I of this series.) After some encouragement, your composition begins to grow and take shape. With some tending, in time it develops into a mature, complete piece, ready to enjoy and share with others.
The most enjoyable thing about composing your own piece is that you’ll have been responsible for every stage of bringing it to life. Once you discover this joy for yourself, you’ll want to lead your students through the steps so that they, too, can experience music done the slow way: music not at the click of a button but discovered inside of them.
What’s next? It’s the biggest question for all composers, and we’re going to answer it in this post.
Step 5: Choosing your favourite tune
In steps one to four, you’ve created a rhythm from scratch and set it to five tunes. Step five is playing over your music and deciding which tune you like best. Only you can decide which one resonates with you deeply enough to keep working with it.
Step 6: Tweaking and being a dissatisfied, temperamental composer
At this early stage you can tweak a rhythm or note if you feel your tune needs refreshing. If you’re still not decided on what you have so far, keep experimenting. The beauty of making up your own music is that nothing is cast in stone. It is well known that Beethoven fed off of his own dissatisfaction throughout his creative process and never settled. He kept trying new things.
Here’s how to keep experimenting, if you want to: at the piano, play your rhythms and tunes higher, lower, in different keys (both major and minor), faster, slower, or add dotted rhythms. In other words, allow yourself some playtime with your music. Enjoy it. See it as part of your professional development.
Write down any changes. Here is some blank staff paper to keep you going. It has wide spacing of the five lines of the staff, which is good for student composition.
Step 7: Making your tune longer
Now comes the real work of a composer. The first idea usually comes the easiest. Now you must ask yourself the age-old question all composers ask: What’s next? How are you going to follow up your first musical idea? How will you retain your listeners’ interest?
At this stage of guiding my students through writing their compositions, I played a little game with them. We played it in a group lesson, but you could do this in a private lesson as well. I called it ‘Finished/Unfinished.’ It’s a stretch of the imagination to call it a game, but my students had a blast and learned a lot about music and composition.
I first sang a two-measure melody starter and asked them to listen then join me. After a number of repeats, I felt they were confident enough to sing it on their own. I then said I was going to ‘answer’ them and it was their job to decide whether my ending sounded ‘finished’ or ‘unfinished.’ If it sounded finished (i.e. ended on the tonic, or C in the key of C Major), they were to slam their hands down on a piece of blue paper. The blue colour represented ‘home.’ If it sounded unfinished (i.e. ended on any note but the tonic), they were to slam their hands down on red paper.
Over and over again they sang the start of the melody and each time I improvised a sung ending, sometimes ending on the tonic, sometimes not. Their aural understanding grew of ‘home’ sound and ‘away from home’ sounds. We then switched it up and each of them took turns being the one to sing the end of the melody. They became the improvisers. We played the entire game again with a second melody.
Because music is a language, I feel it is important to teach the concept of finished and unfinished melodies aurally, through instinct, and then ask the students to use what they know from experience to help their compositions grow.
It is only a small leap from improvising vocally to improvising on the piano. That’s another perk of singing first. It builds the confidence that it is possible to improvise into the unknown.
For you, if you compose your piece before you begin teaching composition to your students (which I highly recommend), keep ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ sounds in mind.
First, we’re going to stretch your rhythm. Keep it simple. Why not simply write your rhythm twice? You started with a two-measure rhythm. Write it down twice, so that it is now a four-measure phrase. Now play your favourite two-measure tune. How does it sound? Finished or unfinished?
If it sounds unfinished, use this as the opening of your melody. Now play around on the piano with the rhythm of measures 3 and 4 until you have a tune to go with that, too – one that ends on the tonic and sounds finished.
If your original two-measure tune sounds finished (ends on the tonic), move it to measures 3 and 4 of your longer melody. Your new job is to come up with a tune for your rhythm in measures 1 and 2 that sounds unfinished.
When you want to make your tune longer, the key is to create music that sounds unfinished early on, music that is asking for more to follow. Then write more to bring the sound to a sense of completion. That’s the question and answer of musical phrases.
Write down your longer melody. Congratulations! You’ve just created your first complete musical phrase!
Step 8: Do all of that again for your B section
For your first composition (or, if you are already a composer and looking to teach composition to your students, for your students’ first composition), keep the form simple. ABA: two sections of the same material with a different section in between. It’s the easiest form for a first piece.
Your B section will be most successful if it is a contrast to the A section. Again, we come to the question: What’s next? Switch it up. Some ideas are (choose one or more):
- Play the tune with the other hand (higher or lower).
- Switch from short notes to long or long to short (change the rhythmic pace).
- If you started in major, switch to minor, or vice versa.
- If your first melody was mostly ascending, make your B section melody mostly descending.
It might take you as long to create your B section as your A section. Start with Step 1, creating a rhythm, and work through all seven steps. When teaching composition, allow as much time for the creation of B material.
You will notice so far, that we have only been talking about creating melodies. In my next post of this series, I will focus on adding an accompaniment. It is my hope that you’re hooked on slow music and can’t wait to create more of your own from scratch, and will then teach the creative process to your students.
It is the current generation of children, more than any other, that needs to disengage from instant results and experience the joy of unplugging, the joy of learning to make music the slow way.
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