music music Monday

Music Monday: Opus 6 – Progress

I sat down the other day and was able to write a few potential transitions to get me from one part to the next.

There are so many different forms that a piece of classical music can take. Some take the forms of dances: Gavotet, Mazurka, Allemande, while others are named for their tempo: Allegro, Largo, Adagio. Pieces can be called for what they are used for, such as a Study, or a diversion – Divertimento.

Like poetry, compositions often have repeated parts. Part one repeated, then part 2 repeated would be AABB. A rondo has a main part repeated 3 times ABACA.

Here is a sneak peek at the score:

As you can see there are 5 distinct parts, with the blue outline being the ending. Some parts may be combined depending how I want the repeats to go.

As for a name, not to give away the style, but I think I will be calling it “Lullaby”.


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music music Monday

Music Monday: Minimalism

John Cage’s 4’33. A pianist comes out and sits at a piano and begins to…do nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Is this taking minimalism too far, or is it just someone beating everyone else to the punch. Probably the latter.

My first exposure to minimalism was Philp Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. I didn’t hear it as a piece, but as part of the movie. Either way, it’s mesmerizing.

My all time favorite is Ann Southam. Here is just a taste:

Usually, when I hear one of her pieces, I have to stop what I doing and just listen.

Enter my composition. Fast Ride on a Slow Train, which was almost called Slow Ride on a Fast Train, although I’m not sure it makes a difference, makes use of two things: Repetition and dissonance. Dissonance is the sound of two (or more) notes that the ear perceives as not pleasant sounding. I know that this can be subjective but since much of western music is based on certain scales, we do have a common perception of what sounds “right”. I’m sure this could have turned out differently if we had divided the scales into 13, 14, 15 etc. notes instead of twelve. Anyway, I like how notes can clash, but after repeating them many times, the ear gets acclimatized to the sound. Well, mine does. So here we go-let’s take a ride. Thank you, Ann.


music music Monday

Music Monday: Places (acoustic guitar)

I hope you have been enjoying my composition series Opus 1 through 5. The next one will follow once I have all the parts connected into a cohesive piece of music. How long does that take? Beats me, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’ll share a project I have been working on called Places. It was written for the acoustic steel-string guitar. The composition process doesn’t differ from how I write for classical guitar. The only difference is the sound that you get from each guitar; sometimes a piece of music just fits better on one over the other.

I discovered the joy of playing acoustic guitar after beginning my classical training. My musical influences came from hearing folk, Celtic, country, and bluegrass at various music festivals. In the 80s, electric guitarists were taking guitar to a whole new level, and in the late 80s/early 90s, acoustic players were doing much the same thing.

Places (which I have shared in a previous post), is a fingerpicked acoustic piece. The beginning is actually the first part of a song I was writing called Pieces, which I absconded for this new piece because it just fit.

While I played it, it brought back memories of places I have seen, so it was natural to put together a visual montage to go along with it. I tried various video editing programs (free) but settled on the movie maker that my OS came with.

It’s a rough draft, but I think that it will work for the meantime. I hope you think so too.

music music Monday

Music Monday: Opus 5 Playing and Recording

Now that I have written a piece of music, what next? Music, like other forms of artistic expression, is meant to be shared. Not always—some of what I have created will only be seen and heard by myself. Not that I’m selfish, some things are just too personal.

There are two options: Live or recorded. Live music has taken on a whole new meaning in the last year, with streaming performances becoming the new live. I’m not a performer. I have performed, but it’s not my forte.

I suffer from the classic stage fright. If you’ve never experienced it, you are lucky. Imagine playing a piece and all you can think about is “don’t make a mistake” or forgetting the next part—the proverbial “drawing a blank”—and so on. It really sucks.

One thing about learning to play a piece of music is memory: Mental and muscle. There are pieces that I learned early on in my college and university years, I can still remember. And some, if I don’t think about it, will come back like water from a faucet. It’s pretty amazing. It’s also about consistency. Can you play it right the first time (you don’t want to learn mistakes) and can you repeat it correctly?

When I try to learn a new piece, it seems to be more difficult to do those things, and it feels like more work than enjoyment. Since I’m only doing it for myself, there’s not much accountability when I say, that’s enough. Often when I do learn a piece, if I don’t play it on a regular basis, I need to relearn many of the parts. I love to play. I used to be better. I don’t like when it feels like work.

It also takes me a while to record. I can play a piece perfectly (or perfectly enough) until I press the record button and bingo—mistake city.  I’ve been trying to record two of my earliest compositions, so maybe now is the incentive to finally finish them. Since I made a separate page on my website for all my music (plus I put them on SoundCloud), I might as well put those on as well.

Before the availability of computer programs to record, there used to be home 4-track cassette* recorders. Small, compact, and easy to use. Basically, it had four recording heads that divided the tape into four parts. Perfect for voice / guitar / bass / drums. But what if you wanted to add more instruments? Easy! Record tracks 1, 2, and 3, then put those on track 4. Now you have 3 empty tracks. So now you can record on 1 and 2, put those on empty track 3, and voila, you have 2 more tracks.

OK. Not so easy…

I use a free program called Audacity to record. You can have as many tracks as you need, add effects, and edit countless other aspects. Now, that’s easy.

What’s next for this series. Well, I have to finish the composing piece that I started. There are still parts that need to be connected, and parts yet to be created. Don’t ask me the timeline. I have no idea. It still needs a name as well. Stay tuned.


*Remember cassettes? Then you also remember when they jammed, and you pulled out lengths of crinkled brown tape. You also remember having to use a pencil to rewind them.

music music Monday

Music Monday: Opus 4-Writing it Down

When I started my musical education journey, I didn’t have the advantages of computer transcription programs. There was no easy access to popular sheet music. Other that a few guitar magazines, if I wanted to learn a song, I had to get a recording and learn it by ear. That’s not an altogether bad thing—it’s a skill that is indispensable. And that wasn’t that long ago. Unless you think 40 years is a long time (it’s not. Really.)

When I decided to do my post-secondary education in music, one of my first required purchases was a calligraphy pen. Thankfully, not the feather dipped in ink kind. I’m not that old. We studied older manuscripts, practiced our musical notations, and practiced some more. Take a look at a handwritten musical score and see how much artistic skill is required.

The ink was just the final step though. You don’t want to be writing down rough drafts in permanency. I do suspect that the early composers did. No, for the majority of the time, a pencil—and eraser—are your best friends. If I had to choose, it would be the eraser (sorry, pencil).

Playing and writing are alternating tasks. Play a bit, write a bit, play a bit, erase a bit, and so on. Besides writing down the note’s pitch, you also have to figure out the complicated rhythm you just came up with. Enter the foot tapping. One and-a two-e and…Nope. One and two and-a…One-e and-a, and so on.

Of course, most of the time you know the rhythm; it’s those parts that make your piece sound cool that always give you trouble.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I have to make sure I don’t play to much, otherwise I forget the first part. That means I’ll write things down in short sections as I come up with it, and then connect the dots so to speak. If I’m having difficulty deciding where the melody will go, I often jump ahead and try to join them up later. Which leads me to a piece of paper that looks like this:

Notice the arrows? And the scratch-outs?

Eventually, I’ll have a complete handwritten piece ready for the final task. No more ink and splotches, dreading making a mistake (but I don’t want to start over!). Now there are many different computer transcription programs for that. They range from free to not so free to really expensive.  I’ve used Finale, Encore, Sibelius, MuseScore, to name a few. I don’t write enough to warrant forking out the big bucks, so I am currently using the free program MuseScore.

I liked Encore, it was very user friendly and easy to learn, but it was glitchy and the price kept going up. MuseScore has a polished end-result, but it’s has some issues, mainly not being as straight forward as I think it could be.

My book, Journeys: Eight Original Pieces for Classical Guitar was put together using Encore, but at some point, I would like to transcribe them into a different program. I don’t want to have to key in everything again, so I need to find a way to convert one program to the other.

Part 5:  Completing the Composition


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

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music music Monday

Music Monday: Opus 3 – Decomposing Composition

Before you musicians start to complain about the accuracy of the notation, don’t. It bugs me too. There’s not very much correct with this. And at one point, we all wore the music staff / piano key scarf or tie and thought it was cool, so no one can complain.

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

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Music Monday: Opus 2

I sommelier once told me, don’t let anyone tell you what you taste. If you taste black cherry, then it has notes of black cherry. He also said that price shouldn’t be a factor. If you like it, it’s a good wine. That’s advice coming from someone whose job it is to sell us on the vineyard’s vintages.

I approach composing in much the same way. If I like the way it sounds, then it’s right. A composition teacher told the class that in order to break the rules, you first must learn them. Thus, began the arduous task of mastering music theory, harmonization, voice leading, etc.

Who made these rules? Every composer before me. The lucky ones were the ones from the beginning. Each composer wrote what sounded right to their ears, and others copied (because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). As with anything, music evolves. New ideas of what sounds right or wrong are added, and voila, we have Barbara Wharram’s Elementary Rudiments of Music.

There are still things that sound pleasant-or correct-to our ears. That could be because we have become accustomed to the way chords and notes move and interact over hundreds of years.  Don’t believe me? Play– or have someone play– this chord sequence: G / / / C / / / D / / /, then stop. For you musicians out there, don’t worry, you can play the tonic chord now, I’m not cruel. For everyone else, it leaves you wanting something else, doesn’t it? Hint, it’s a G.

I learned all the rules. I composed fugues and inventions according to convention. Sound boring? You wouldn’t be completely wrong, sometimes it was. In the 20th century, composers began to rebel against these rules and made their own. Some went toward the minimalist approach, others used math to determine the outcome, and the rest took the forms that they liked and used the notes they wanted.

Let circle back to the sommelier, not because I like wine – I do – but because he was right. Don’t let anyone tell you the music sounds wrong because if that’s how you want it to sound, then it’s right.

Next week: The Beginning of a Composition (or, Where did That Idea Come From?)

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

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Music Monday: Composing something original

I was thinking the other day (I do that sometimes) how much easier it would have been to be a composer in the early days. For example:

  • Gregorian chant? You hold that low drone for a while, and then we’ll move up and down this scale I invented. Ohhh, I got an idea! Let’s sing in this cavernous church.
  • Traveling troubadours? I can use these same three chords. No one has heard them in every country song written yet.
  • I bet no one said to Bach: “Hey, J.S., I love that tune, but doesn’t it kind of sound like In-A-Gadda- Da-Vida?”

We could have had more or less than 12 tones in western music, but nooo, someone decided to use that division. For you Ancient Alien fans, I think there was a show all about the number twelve. Just sayin’.

Do the math. There are many combintaions you can get with just twelve notes, but ultimately, you are going to write something that will get you sued. Bach then (ha!) everything was new. Oh, I’m sure there was the occasional fugue fight, or arguments on who’s motet that really was, or who was the real father of the symphony (psst–Haydn), but what you wrote was more than likely going to be brand new.

There are times when I am composing that I have to change certain notes because even though they fit and sound exactly how I wanted it to, it reminds me of something else that I’ve heard. You would think that it would happen more often than it does, but I’m sure glad it doesn’t.

The next few Mondays will give some insight into one composer’s process (mine, but you knew that): what I’ve learned, forgotten, ignored, and dismissed. So, you guessed it, sometimes I just wing it.

Tune in next Monday!

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Music Monday

Book trailers. Got one? If you have released a book, you have probably at least thought about it. Do you need one? I don’t think it is necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

When I was working on my poetry book, part of the package was a book trailer. Now, did I want to leave the entire process in the hands of a team I did not know? I didn’t want to give up that much control so I put together a rough trailer and sent it off to the production team.

I knew that I wanted to showcase the illustrations in the book, and to let the reader know, I wrote this short description: This book has words to encourage you, to make you laugh, and to invite you to reflect. With each chapter, a lens opens, revealing a different observation. I slightly modified it to match each frame that I chose.

I then used an acoustic guitar composition that I had been working on-it took a while to record it (I keep making too many mistakes when I’m under pressure), but eventually I had it ready. Then came the rain. The rain sounds, that is. I added them for two reasons. First, as a calming intro/outro to the video, and second-and I’m not embarrassed to admit it, to mask any little background sounds. But more for the beautiful sound of rain. Don’t you just love walking in a rain shower?

So, I sent off my idea, and after a bit of back and fourth, I had my book trailer. Sometimes I just listen to it for the music…

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Music Monday: Sell-out or Just Business?

A few news stories have come out over the last few weeks about musicians selling the rights to their song catalogs. Now, this is nothing new, one of the first bombshells was when Michael Jackson purchased some of The Beatles songs – which I believe were repurchased years later. Recently, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Mick Fleetwood have all sold parts of their own catalogs.

Why is it good business to own song rights? $$$$$$. Royalties are paid every time a song is played/performed publicly. Radio (yes, we still have that), online streaming, T.V. (yes, we still have that too), and movies are some examples. Ever wonder why you only hear snippets of songs during your favorite sports events? After a certain amount of time, royalties need to be paid, so the venue plays 10-15 seconds. Loophole? Maybe. But the first 10-15 seconds of Thunderstruck is the best part. Come to think about it, it is the only part. Why do you hear weird variations on that birthday song in restaurants? You guessed it-royalties.

I don’t remember the first time I heard a song that I liked used in a commercial. I do remember that many years ago (no, I’m not telling) cries of “Sell-out!” were repeated by music fans when the bands that they loved allowed popular songs to be used to sell…whatever. It’s not so surprising now–it’s just business. Can we fault an artist for trying to make money? OK, don’t answer that. That’s a whole new can o’ worms.

What can I handle? I can tolerate a song being used in its original form to sell a truck, insurance, banking services, or whatnot, but please, please, if you sell your song, sell the lyrics as well. Don’t know what I’m getting at? One of my favorite songs is–was–Rocket Man by Elton John. Now, when I hear that song, all I think about is the lady who “…shops at Rakutan”. Thanks a bunch, Elton.

Given the opportunity, would I sell the rights to my songs? Probably. Maybe. It depends. If my creations made me a decent wage that allowed me not to want for anything (FYI–that’s a low bar. I’m very frugal), I don’t think that I would. Never say never, though, right?

So, for all you restaurants looking for a cheap alternative to The Birthday Song, for only $0.27/use, I present to you, Happy, Happy Birthday:

 Happy, happy, happy,
 Birthday, birthday, birthday
 You were born [insert number here] years ago
 Happy, happy, happy,
  Birthday, birthday, birthday
 We’ll stop here 
 So we don’t have to pay… 

Darn, I didn’t think this through…