How do I compose? Probably the wrong way and the slowest way ever… I wish I could say that I can hear the music in my head then play it or write it down. I can’t. Not even close. The lucky ones can. I can’t even play the same thing twice in a row sometimes. I generally know if I want the next note or chord to go up or down, and sometimes I know what pitch it will be, but all my ear-training has failed me, or I never quite had it in the first place.
Ear training? How does that work? If you know someone who says they have perfect pitch, it means that when that person hears a note, they know what it is, and if they play a musical instrument–which they probably do (it would be a waste not to)–they know where to play it. For everyone else, we have to train our ears to recognize notes, usually based around a starting point. Relative pitch, I think it is called.
I’ll give you an example. Most people can sing a major scale. If you think you can’t, I’ll get you started. Do, re, mi… See? You know that! I’m not going to go deep into music theory because I’m not that cruel. I just want to impart a bit of knowledge. The space between two notes is called an interval, and each interval is given a name:
Do to Re = Major 2nd
Do to mi = Major 3rd
Do to fa= Perfect 4th …etc.
How is this used? If I make the note G, Do (we can do that), then A is a major 2nd above, B is a major 3rd, and a perfect 4th above is C, etc.
In a perfect composer’s world, I could play a note and know that the next note I want is a major 3rd higher. I then would know the exact note to play or write down. In my world, sometimes I can tell, but usually I need to play it to make sure if it sounds the way I imagined. If it doesn’t, then I try a different note. I know if the note needs to be higher or lower, which narrows down the possibilities. But it would be nice to know for certain the first time.
So, how do I get started? Sometimes I’ll hear a melody in my head, and I’ll play a few chords or notes to get started. If I can hear where I want the next note(s) to go, I’ll try them out. If I get stuck, then some random notes or changes can give me more ideas. I call this “try it and see” method, noodling. The difficulty happens if you play too much at once to remember, and even though it sounded good, it may be hard to repeat it in order to write it down.
My musical theory isn’t forgotten in all this. I know that certain chord progressions work well together, it’s good to stay within related scales, and that melodies usually need to flow smoothly without large leaps. But I’ll ignore those rules if what I hear is what I want. Take that, Theory!
Then the fun begins. Before I get too far into a composition, I have to make sure that I remember it, which brings us to:
Part 4: Writing It All Down
Leon Stevens is a composer, artist, and author of three books (so far): Lines by Leon: Poems, Prose, and Pictures, The Knot at the End of the Rope and Other Short Stories, and Journeys: Eight Original Pieces for Classical Guitar