Composing Tools For Young Composers

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By John McDonnell, Guitar Instructor

Over the past few years some of my students have written music. I will write about ideas I have discussed with them and more ideas that I hope will help others to write their own music.

These are very general ideas and can be adapted to fit your individual style; they can be used or not and may help you think of your own tools for composing.

The first and most important idea is to start simply. The easiest way is to use a ‘motif’. A motif is a small one measure theme that can be built upon later in the piece. The motif can be melodic or rhythmic. It will be repeated throughout the piece to unify other ideas. There can be more than one motif and once you have one you may want to construct a contrasting theme.

In order to have more material to work with there are ways to change the original motif(s). Inversion is one way, it means that the notes change places. If you have a single line motif the easiest way to invert it is to use each note’s scale degree as its point of inversion. If you have a melody note on degree 3 of your key it will become scale degree 6 in your inverted motif. The way to do this is to subtract the scale degree from 9, the answer will be your inverted note (9-3=6). If you are composing for an instrument that can play sustained harmony notes, like piano or guitar, you can invert the notes with each other, the lower and upper notes exchanging places.

Another more simple way to change the original motif is to play it in Retrograde. Retrograde means backwards so you only have to reverse the order of your notes and it will be in retrograde. The same would be done with rhythms in retrograde.

Once you have one or two original motifs and inverted or retrograde motifs as well, you can start to combine units to make longer Phrases. Phrases can be 4 or 8 bars, shorter phrases are simpler and easier to control so 4 bars is plenty to start with. You will have to use your own judgement when combining the smaller parts, your motifs, to make phrases; if you like how they sound then keep it, if you don’t like how they sound, change something. Be patient; it can take a very long time to find the best combinations.

If you write any new material to fill spaces between motifs, always remember your original theme and try to use some part of it in your new theme. This is the best way to keep a consistent sound for your piece. After you combine several bars to make a phrase you should start to think about a contrasting section. Balance is important, it means that the first part and second or any later parts of your music are equal in some way and have some parts or ideas that are the same.

Modulation, to change to another key in your piece, is a great way to make a contrasting area that can still go with your first phrase or section. Some simple types of modulation are; Relative major/minor key, or Parallel key modulation. The relative major/minor modulation is simple because both keys share the same key signature and most notes and chords. An easy way to move to the relative minor from the major key is to use the VI (scale degree 6) chord, or a ‘deceptive’ cadence. Modulating to the parallel key means, for example, to move from E major to E minor or the other way around. A helpful way to do this is to use the dominant chord (scale degree 5) because it will be the same chord in both keys.

If you get stuck with your composing and can’t think of anything to write down, listen to music. You can get refreshed and inspired by other people’s compositions; take some of the feeling you get from that and put it back into your work. I tried to keep my tips very general, if I mentioned something you didn’t understand you should ask your teacher about it.

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