I have been working on school things and work things all week, so I haven’t been able to do much in the way of writing. As such, I thought I’d let you into my musical world a little bit.
A big part of my BMus was about finding my voice as a composer. I actually didn’t go to university intending to study composition, but near the end of first year I realized that I was definitely not cut out to be a performance major (I love to play but practicing has always been a challenge). I hated music history and I didn’t want to be a band teacher, but I did enjoy the little bit of composition I’d done as part of my first-year theory courses.
Now, to be clear, I do not think in chords and I am really bad at musical analysis. I can’t easily distinguish parts of musical pieces, though I can create my own harmony line while singing. I can identify instruments and have been known to call out “English horn!” in the middle of a movie (because yes, I can tell the difference between that and an oboe, thank you very much). This is basically why I suck at music history: the listening component killed me because I literally could not tell the difference between similar pieces. When we studied Gregorian chant, my friends told me to listen for the bass line, and I was left wondering what part was the bass line because I couldn’t pick it out at all. I’ve since learned that this is part of how my ADHD affects me: I have difficulty paying attention to the correct auditory information, so listening to things is really hard. (Yet I also recently discovered that I mostly play by ear, so go figure that one out.) Of course, when I was in university we didn’t even suspect that I had ADHD, so there’s no way I could have been accommodated for my difficulties.
Anyway, like I said, I enjoyed writing music. I really liked learning the rules and when and how you could break them, and I loved discovering new sounds and learning different techniques for writing music.
I tend to approach writing music as a more academic activity than a creative one. There are several stages to writing a piece, and I’m going to outline them briefly below. Please note that this is my process, and other composers probably don’t follow my method at all.
The first thing is to figure out what I’m writing. Is it a solo piece? Is there accompaniment? Maybe it’s for a chamber ensemble of some kind. Do I have a particular mood in mind, or an idea that I want to convey, or am I mostly concerned with getting notes on the page?
Next I get my main theme/melody sorted out. Sometimes I do this with an instrument, sometimes I do it in MuseScore on my computer, but mostly I just write notes by hand on manuscript paper. I’ll pick a key and time signature before I start, and depending on the project I might do more than one staff (e.g., for the clarinet quartet piece I’m writing it in four-part harmony by hand and I’ll put it into MuseScore with separate staves when it’s done).
The next stage involves a matrix and little cells with their retrogrades and inversions. Sometimes I do rhythmic matrices as well, because that can be fun. This is all paper work, and I have a notebook that I use to work these things out. I also do some math to figure out how long the piece is supposed to be (assuming there’s a required length), and I’ll sketch out the form of the piece with key changes and so on if it’s got a particular format (e.g., a fugue).
Now I harmonize. For this, I write out all the chords in the key and the basic chord progression (14736251), and I consider all of my options for each measure and each note, as well as each voice. Sometimes I do this on the computer, sometimes I do it by hand. Either way, it’s an academic process for me: what notes go in the chord I want there, and which voices should play which notes?
Once the music is in the computer, I listen to it and assess each chord and measure as I listen. I try different arrangements for sections that don’t work. Eventually I get something that works for me.
And then, finally, I go through and put in articulations and dynamics. Some articulations will have been there from the start, but often I don’t decide where staccatos and slurs go until near the end of the process. Same with dynamics. My secret about dynamics is that I actually don’t worry about them at all and really only put them in where it’s important to me that a particular part be played at a particular volume. I suppose that’s horrible of me, but what it means in practice is that I trust the musicians to interpret the music appropriately, and that if there are dynamics marked they actually matter to the piece.
And that is my basic process for writing music.