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My First Composition

Before I get into too much detail, a little bit of wisdom. If you plan on keeping the handwritten version of your composition, make sure you put it somewhere easy to find. I’d wanted to make a scan of the original, and when I went to go do it I couldn’t find it. I did end up locating it inside my couch (don’t ask), but by that point I needed to leave the apartment… so yeah. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll put a scan online when I get back from Pennsic, but until then you’ll have to settle for the Lilypond version I made.

Speaking of which, Here’s my first piece, and it’s midi It’s a three part “motet”, or at least that’s that I’m calling. The bass part is drone-ish, and the upper parts are more melodic. It’s definitely polyphonic and very singable even though there aren’t any words. It’s not exactly what I’m looking for–I’ll expand on this a bit later–but I happy with it as a first attempt.

The process

For the moment, I’m composing on my Casio keyboard because my primary instrument is the piano. I’ve been playing the piano since ‘95, so when I think about music I think in terms of the piano. I suppose one day I could use recorder or some other instrument, and perhaps I will, but for now the piano, or electronic keyboard as the case may be, is the most comfortable for me.

So, when I sat down at the keyboard I had only a vague idea of what I wanted. I wanted something polyphonic, singable, motet-like, and have some interesting contrasting rhythms between parts. I also wanted the harmony between parts to sound pleasing, but I didn’t put any restrictions on what chord types to use. I had Pucelete and Can she Excuse My Wrongs in my head, and you can kind of hear a little of both in the piece.

I started with the tenor part, and played around with some melodies until I found something I liked. When I went to write it down, I first played it a couple times until I found a base beat (quarter note), and wrote down what the notes were in relation to each other. I didn’t figure out what the meter was until a little later.

Coming up with a melody isn’t that hard. Even if you have nothing in mind you can play some notes and see what happens. It’s like writing when you have no idea what to write about. If you just let yourself relax you can start writing free-form, and eventually you might touch on an idea you’d like to actually focus on. Adding more parts, though, is a little more complicated since not only do you have to come up with a pleasing melody (at least it has to be melodic if it’s polyphonic), but it has to fit harmonically with the first melody you wrote down. Not that simple, but it’s kinda fun in the same way that solving problems is fun.

Once I finished with the bass part I moved onto the tenor, and for first section of the song I played the tenor part with the right hand, and let my left hand make up a bass part. I liked the sound of the walking bass, because it’s simple and reminded me of the plainchant part of motets so I kept it. Also, a walking bass is about all I can manage when I’m improvisizing over another melody. At around this point I realized what the meter was in the tenor part, so I marked the measures out.

The rest of the bass part I figured out by just playing around with it in isolation. That is, I didn’t try to play the tenor and bass simultaneously. I found I liked the rocking quarter notes for the middle part and that the descending scale sounded neat with the syncopated tenor. Once I decided I liked the bass part I played the two together and did some minor debugging a few of the dissonant chords. Most of it I left alone.

After that I worked on the treble part. For this I didn’t even try to improvise a third part of the other two. No, I just starting playing something in the same key as the rest with the constraint that I decided to have this part be more, legato than the other parts. As I was playing I was reminded of the theme from the 60’s Romeo and Juliet, which I happen to be a big fan of, and decided to stay with that feeling. Then I played it against the other two parts, and for the most part they seemed to work. Yay!

Reflection on the Piece

Overall, for a first rough sketch I’m happy with it. The individual parts make me happy, and the first part sounds pretty good together. The second half needs some work, but I do like the syncopation at the end.

As I said earlier I didn’t have any harmonic constraints, and after listening to the midi I think it could have used some. The song to me feels a little lost. It can’t decide what period it wants to be in or what it wants to say. I think it wants to be medieval, but some of the harmony is a bit off. I’m going to fix that the next time I look at it.

Once I’ve made it more medieval-like I’m going to do a couple of things: add onto it to make it a full song and write some variations, and by variations I mean play with rhythm and with harmony and experiment with different musical styles/eras. For example I might incorporate some 7th chords or something. We’ll see. After that I may or may not add lyrics. Yes, the intention is for it to be singable, but I think of it more as an exercise than an actual work. Still, if I like it, why not add some poetry to it?

Thoughts on the Process

Writing it was fun and really intuitive and playful. I know the description sounds fairly technical, but when i was writing, I did first and only afterward did I find words to describe it later. A prime example is my late discovery of the meter. I didn’t realize what it was until I’d already written the tenor part. It felt kind of like uncovering buried treasure that I’d buried subconsciously. Strictly speaking, you don’t actually need the musical terminology to start writing music, you just need some way of remembering what you come up with. But the theory is really nice for fixing sour notes, and trying different ideas. I mean, if I’m not sure what to do I can try and arpeggio or a modified scale and see what happens. If I didn’t know even those basic ideas I’d just be adding random notes, and would probably be less likely to write
something worthwhile. Needless to say, I’m happy I paid some attention to the theory lessons while I was taking piano lessons.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be posting the original hand written version when I get back from Pennsic in a couple weeks. In the mean time I may have some time later this week to work on experimentation and extension of the piece, and if I do I’ll write about it.

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