Compositional Techniques

by Darren Lux.

Composing music of any style can become a very torturous process without some kind of solid starting point or a specific goal in mind. Frequently a piece has been started, but when ideas run out, the work stops and the music remains unfinished. For these reasons, I shall supply readers with an arsenal of techniques for generating material in the creation of your own pieces of music, and offer suggestions for what I have personally found helpful in getting past the dreaded mistress known as writer`s block.

I would start by saying that if you have a musical idea, which has some meaning for you, run with it. Do not be afraid to take off with a single idea; play it out to its full potential. One theme can be enough to hold an entire piece together. Repetition of notes, motifs, rhythms, and mixtures of sounds can be valuable assets to your music, if done in interesting ways. Something as simple as a repeated section of music, or a recurring rhythmic idea can be very effective in pulling listeners in and bringing a composition together. Take your idea and harmonize it, change rhythms and voicing, switch instruments, add ornamental colouration, or change the register it’s played in. Always look for another way to expand upon an idea that has a lasting impact for you. Do not be deterred by what an audience would enjoy. Compose what you want to compose, without regard to what is popular, conventional, or simple. It is YOUR music. So make it your own composition, in your own unique voice. Integrity in music can be hard to come by, but never depreciates in value. If you happen to be writing top 40/pop music, then please ignore the previous three sentences. Write the simplest 3-minute pop-techno song you can manage.

If you cannot think of any ideas, look to source material. Find music you enjoy, or that has similarities in tone colour, instrumentation and style to your own work for inspiration. Often I will find a musical theme, idea or riff that catches my attention, and look for ways to improve upon it. Perhaps you find a melody that you cannot get out of your head, or a rhythm that forces your foot to tap or fingers to drum. Vary it, turn it on its head, invert it, play it backwards, change the tempo register or key, or even take the whole thing (As long as it isn’t under copyright protection). Embellish stylize and repeat. Another idea to try is to get outside of your comfort zone. If you only listen to and write structured tonal music, try looking into some electronic, post-tonal, and atonal or ambient/atmospheric pieces. I have found a great many ideas for my heavy metal songs that have come from tonal and post-tonal classical music, blues, jazz, electro-acoustic and even musicals. Write for instruments or in styles you have never tried before. I cannot even express how much I have learned in the last year, which has been my first foray into writing and playing classical music. Diverse knowledge is invaluable in music. Always be on the lookout for a new handle, a new sound.

As for writer’s block, the bane of artists the world over, there are many useful tactics to deal with this particular problem. The most useful in my opinion is to take a big step back, and stop looking at what you’ve written, and instead focus on what you are trying to achieve. Take a nice walk, or a shower; the best ideas appear in the shower. Set your piece aside for a few hours or a day, and come back to it with fresh eyes, ears, and mind. Try writing in a different way. If you always play your music on a guitar then write it down, try notating on staff paper, or writing an improvised or abstract score. Try composing on piano, or another instrument you don’t normally use. Relax and listen to some music you genuinely enjoy, and refresh your mind for the task at hand.

Take your time. If you can avoid it, do not rush. Be thoughtful of what you are trying to achieve, and how you go about crafting your music. Small details like dynamic changes, different techniques and varied instrument doublings can change a nice piece into a glorious composition. Good Luck!