Hi,

In this post I would like to broach the subject of musical composition.

Foreword

Whether you are an experienced musician or a beginner, have you ever thought about creating your own music?

There are tons of ways of composing, and a lot of people improvise songs or melodies - think about the last time you sang in the shower :) - without even knowing they are composing. In fact, improvisation and composition are deeply linked, but this discussion is beyond the scope of this post...

Instead I'll focus on notated tonal music.
Flat.io provides the perfect tools for it ! Keep in mind that there are many other ways of composing than writing notes on staves. (think about oral tradition, computer-generated music...)

Another thing to consider: any artistic rule can be broken, and opinions on artistic maters often differ, but trying to understand a frame, and a set of rules, even if you disagree with it (and as a student, I used to disagree with almost everything...) is worth the trouble!

That said, let's begin!!!

Composition

We'll focus on a small composition, and try to do our best to achieve simple yet tasty music.

Usually, the main elements to consider, in your first compositions are:

  1. rhythm.
  2. melody.
  3. form1.
  4. harmony (for now, we'll leave harmony out, which by itself is a whole world).

You'll be circling around those 4 elements when you compose.

The purpose of this post is to break down the process of composition so as to have nice and easy little steps to go trough. The whole thing may seem overcomplicated once broken down, but once you have understood it, you'll almost never think of any of those steps again.

An important think to remember: When in doubt, think about "could I sing this easily ?" If the response is "Yes", then you are probably going the right way.
If the response is "No", then be sure that the complexness of your composition corresponds to your goal.
(I'm not saying, that unsingable is bad! I'm just saying that unsingable music, especially unsingable melodies correspond to advanced composition)

1.Rhythm

Things to consider: tempo, meter, note length.

1.1 Tempo

Do you want your composition to be fast and energetic, or slow and sad? Don't forget that it's the combination of tempo and note length that gives the rhythm flow.

Let's start at 80bpm. This is a very "simple" tempo, because it's a "walking" pulse. (in fact, the Italian term for this kind of tempo is "Andante" -70 to 85 bpm-, and means "at a walking pulse")

1.2 Meter

The most widely used meter in today's western popular music2 is by far 4/4. Then comes 3/4. (there are some wonderful exceptions like those listed in this page) In other cultures, all kind of meters are/were used, like 5/4 , 5/8 , 7/4, 7/8 etc.

Let's begin simply with a 4/4.

1.3 Note length

A really scandalously rough classification of note length for a 80bpm piece would be:

high rhythm flow Eminem song mix of sixteenth notes and eighth notes
medium rhythm flow Pop song mix of quarter notes and eight notes
low rhythm flow Bach choral mix of half notes and quarter notes

Let's begin with the first measure.
I'll start with a simple mix of quarter and eight note:

♩ ♫ ♫ ♩

There are of course many other possibilities (like ♩♩♫♩, or ♫♫♩♩ , or even ♩. ♪♩♩ among others), that's just what came to my mind.

2. Melody

Things to consider : melodic intervals, range.

Two simple things to begin with:

2.1 Intervals

Seconds and thirds are the easiest intervals to sing (unisson, of course, comes first...).
You will often realise that the melodies you know well are made of notes belonging to the same scale. If you're not familiar with scales, you should have a look at this post.

2.2 Range

An average singer has a range spanning one octave and a half.

2.3 Let's go

Since we are trying to compose a simple piece, let's make it singable by an average singer: we'll use mostly seconds and thirds, and make sure the interval between the lowest and the highest note of the whole piece are not spanning more than one octave and a half. (we'll talk about the overall range later, when our composition will be complete)

I just whistled 6 notes. I liked it, so I whistled again and again. And when I was sure I memorised them well, I wrote them down. That's our first measure:

Regarding intervals3 : only seconds and thirds were used. I did not plan that, but it's usually what happens when you sing (or whistle).

If I had thought about a longer melody, or a development of this one, I would have kept on writing. But for the moment, that was all I had in mind.

3. Form

Things to consider : reusing material , overall shape.

It's time to expand our little idea. (Let's call it a motif) How?

3.1 Reusing material

For the moment, we don't want to introduce a new idea, we want to expand the motif we already have.

The main tool for expanding any idea, is to reuse already existing material. The simplest way of reusing material is repetition, but what we have for now is still too small to be repeated. What we want right now is to expand it4.

We can consider that our first measure was a question, and we will now build a response.
To keep some balance, I choose that question and response have the same length. So we now have to build a one measure response.

What choices do we have? Here are some of the infinite number of ways of reusing our material:

  • repeat it higher, or lower (for example a third above, or a second below).

  • keep the same notes, and change the rhythm (♫♩♫♩ as an example).

  • keep the same rhythm, change the notes (for example, spell our melody backwards: A-G-B♭-A- G - A).

Or we can use only a part of our first motif and develop it...

That's what I'll do:

I suggest reusing the last two beats of our first bar. I'll call those two beats a cell.
The rhythm of this cell is ♫ ♩ and its melodic shape (the notes are B♭-G-A), is descending minor third, and then ascending major second.
Let's forget interval quality5, and only keep the pattern descending third, and then ascending second. (wether it is major or minor)
So one possibility is to fill the second measure this way:

What I did is: I took our cell, and wrote it a second below, and again wrote it, another second below. There are tons of other possible choices, as stated before.

Here it's clear that the "form" step is mixed up with the steps "rhythm" and "melody". That was the meaning of the sentence I wrote before: You'll be circling around those 4 elements when you compose.

3.2 Overall shape.

It's time to think about our masterpiece...

  • Should it be a symphony?

  • Should it be a song?

  • Should it be divided in 3 movements?

What I suggest, for now, is to make it 4 bars long :)

How to proceed now? There is something we didn't really use : repetition. Never forget about that!
We had "question"->"response". (one measure each)
How about doubling it : "question"->"response" , "question"->"response". ? A bit boring isn't it ? What is often done in music is a mix of repetition and variation. In this case, it would be something like:
"question"->"response","question"->"end of the discussion"

We now have only one measure to write: the "end of the discussion". And that's the moment where some surprises should happen! In other terms, that will be the climax, followed by the end of our composition.

  • One element to consider, among others, regarding form climax, is the highest pitch of the overall composition. It would be a good moment to have it.

  • Another element, regarding climax, is rhythmic flow and rhythmic syncopation.

So I'll choose to begin with a high pitch, sooner than expected, and a high flow of notes. And now I just sing, until I get something I like. What I got is this:

I seems ok to me!

Here are some thoughts before leaving the "form" step:

  • Note how the large interval (a sixth) adds some tension and highlights the ending. (it's the hardest part to sing, too...).

  • Now we can talk about the overall span: the lowest note is C♯ and the highest is F. It's almost an octave and a half, which is ok!

  • Again, it's clear that the "form" step is mixed up with the steps "rhythm" and "melody". It's normal to have this blurry feeling of: what am I doing here? thinking about form? rhythm? or melody?

  • All the notes of our composition belong to the scale of D harmonic minor. Have a look at this post to see all the harmonic minor scales. It is now time to find an accompaniment to our theme...

Conclusion

That ends our journey for now...

I want to insist on the fact that the path I chose is only one amongst others: one could begin to choose an overall form, fill it with harmony, choose rhythms, and then melody.

And the paths to composition are numerous... Do you want to write a piano piece, or do you want it to be played by an orchestra? And there comes instrumentation, orchestration, instrumental techniques...

Sébastien

  1. "form" is a tricky word, because it has different meanings, depending on the context. We'll see other meanings later on.

  2. from the 14th and until the 16th century, 3/4 was considered "perfect" and 4/4 "imperfect"

  3. If you're not comfortable with intervals, check this post

  4. which correspond to what suits human ears: a mix of repetition, giving a comforting feeling, and variation, giving the sensation of surprise.

  5. Here is an explanation of the word "quality" in this context.

  6. Here is an excellent website for jazz lovers!

  7. Here is an excellent website for Bach chorals lovers!