Tips for composing and arranging music

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dmu3tem
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Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Sat Apr 29, 2006 10:38 am

It is surprising how often church musicians find themselves not just composing, but - more frequently - arranging or adapting music to meet local needs. Indeed, the skill applied to such activity can make or break the effect of any given performance. So why not use the Society of St Gregory Forum to disseminate your hard-won skills to other church musicians?

To start the ball rolling, I will make a couple of suggestions wearing my hat as a Clarinetist:

(1) Avoid the written sustained 'a' and 'b flat' above middle 'c' - unless you actually want 'fuzzy' sounding notes. However, you can dodge this problem by writing phrases that occasionally touch on these notes - especially if they have an arrogated character (like in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto or Clarinet Quintet). If you have to write sustained 'a' or 'b flat' another dodge that occasionally works is to instruct the player to use the side key trill fingerings. These produce a thinner, but clearer tone, although they can be a little awkward to reach.

(2) Always write out transposed parts for Clarinettist's. In other words, do not make their task needlessly difficult or give the impression that their contribution is not being treated seriously. Remember that Clarinets in Bb like 'flat' keys (e.g. Ab, Eb, Bb major). They do not like 'sharp' keys (e.g. A, E, B major) because transposition faces them with large numbers of accidentals (A major for them becomes B major with 5 sharps; E major becomes F sharp major with 6 sharps). This means that if they are playing alongside guitars (which like 'sharp' keys) you may need to transpose the music up or down a semitone and consider getting the guitars to use 'Capos'. However, if you are lucky enough to have a player with a Clarinet in A this problem is resolved. Clarinets in A like 'sharp' keys because you transpose them up a minor third. For example A major becomes C major and E major becomes G major).

I hope this inspires others to disseminate useful knowledge of this sort. Spread the good news.

Thomas Muir
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Post by ssgcgs » Sat Apr 29, 2006 7:34 pm

This is a very good idea for a new thread. I often commit blunders when writing for clarinet because I don't play one myself.

Choosing what key to use is surrounded by many considerations, sometimes conflicting. First of all, what instruments are playing (as Thomas explains above)? Second, what is the vocal range? Third (or first from a composers' point of view) what musical mood or colour do you want to create, from bright keys like B major and E major to black note keys that are more mysterious (no, I'm not suffering from synaesthesia)? Fourth, how offputting is it to read a key with a large number of sharps or flats?

With ref. to the fourth point, something happened on Maundy Thursday. The assembly music sheet had two music extracts for them to read and follow; both happened to be in 6 flats for good reasons, which I won't go into. You could ignore the key signature and just read them as white notes. However, one lady came up afterwards and commented indignantly on the "horrendous" key signatures. Perhaps the lesson is to pretend they're in easy keys when reproducing for the congregation. Then you'll get the clever clogs with perfect pitch coming up afterwards and complaining!

One plea I would put out to the arranger/leader is to think about which instruments work together well in an ensemble. Make sure they can tune harmoniously with each other (junior clarinets and junior flutes seem incapable of this, as the County Music Service concerts regularly demonstrate).

CG Sec

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Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Tue May 30, 2006 10:38 am

Just to encourage more people to contribute from their own experiences, here is another suggestion from me.

Plainchant accompaniment.

Many people think this should not be done. However we do know that medieval musicians did so and there are occasions when you may feel your singers/congregations need some support. If so, instead of using the standard accompaniments provided in many hymnals, why not try some easy, pseudo-medieval methods.

(1) Set the melody against a drone. You may also feel the urge to set up a second drone a fourth or fifth above or below you original one. Drones are especially suitable for organs because the sound continues as long as you hold down the relevant key/pedal. Quietly played, drones produce a mysterious effect. Loudly played they give a very determined feel to the music.

(2) Play/write out the melody in parallel fifths or fourths. This is known as Organon. Note that, like the medieval musician, you may need to adjust the parallel harmony by a semitone in one or two places so as to avoid tritones. Organon produces a severe, angular effect (medieval musicians do not seem to have liked thirds or sixths until the fifteenth century). For a fuller sound you can stack up the octaves and fifths/fourths.

These two approaches can often be combined.

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Post by ssgcgs » Sun Jun 25, 2006 5:47 am

I have a tip - come to Composers' Group.

Thank-you Thomas for sharing your wide knowledge and enthusiasm for liturgical music with us. You do this best live, as you did at yesterday's Sheffield meeting of the Composers' Group.

This particular meeting widened my perspectives considerably by the breadth of styles and approaches taken by the different contributors. One guy, who was new to the Group, presented his Kyrie without a note of music written on paper and delivered it as effectively as any of us with prepared scores. He then suggested that there might be more opportunities for improvisation at the meetings - what a good idea, scary though!

It was a particularly vibrant meeting with 12 composers all contributing a piece. Busy, but great fun.

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Post by VML » Sun Jun 25, 2006 11:30 pm

Yesterday's was a super meeting.

The newcomer shares my interest and involvement in folk music, and I would love to have heard more of his settings. And I believe there is much to be said for music that is learnt through the ears rather than the eyes, especially for a young congregation, which was his aim.

Improvisation could be an interesting thing to encourage, particularly in spontaneous vocal harmony, which would probably not be as polished and carefully balanced as scripted SATB, but could be pretty good nevertheless.

Thanks to all for your generosity in sharing your skills, experience and advice, and for all the lovely music I will enjoy trying out in our parish.
And thanks, cgs, for all your hard work.

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tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Mon Jun 26, 2006 11:13 am

Dear all,

Many thanks for the suggestions about improvisation. Would anyone like to share tips about specific approaches to improvisation? For example, I initially learnt my techniques in this area through the medium of 12 bar blues in a jazz band. Here each instrument repeats the 'melody'/motif or 'riff' in variation forms against a fixed sequence of chords - sometimes more than one instrument combining these together. Other approaches I have used or encountered are:

(1) 'Follow my leader' games. Someone starts with a motivic phrase - someone else 'answers' etc in a continuing conversation - repeating, transposing, modifying the motivic phrase or setting up something completely different as a contrast (do not forget 'classic' old fashioned techniques like inverting, reversing or retrograding the motif).

(2) A more sophisticated variation on this is known as Sca-fra. Start with a single motif. Repeat it with one small change. Keep on repeating it with one change each time round. You can, of course vary the 'rules' by adding more changes each time round, or have an accumulation of changes - first time round: one change, second time around two changes etc. You can also intercut one motif with other motifs as you go along. In addition you can set up the changing pattern of motifs against a common 'ground' of foundation material.

(3) An old 'classical' technique is the pasacaglia form. The motivic phrase is repeated endlessly (usually - but not necessarily - in the bass) whilst others place new melodies or variations on the top. This can also be used with a chord sequence - as in Jazz. This approach is, of course, also found in a lot of Taize music (sometimes referred to as an 'Ostinato')

(4) What I would describe as the 'Stockhausen' method. On a large sheet of paper (A3 or A2) you write out a series of motifs/phrases or other scraps of musical material with a sequence of instructions for people to follow. The musical material does not have to be presented in conventional notation. You can simply draw different curves to simulate a possible line, or use dots or blobs for denoting articulations or any other symbols you care to invent.

(5) A variation on this is known as 'Boxes and Lines'. On a full score for each instrument you write out a sequence of motifs, phrases - what you will. Place each of these in a box on the stave for each instrument with at the top some form of ruled calibration to mark the passing of time - or just use bars and time signatures - to denote the relationship of each 'box' to the others on the different staves.

(6) Tape/CD/recording and improvisation. Play a tape of music and have your musicians improvise against/over/under/across it. You can get equally interesting results whether your players are told nothing at all about what they will hear or if you give them some preliminary instructions/indications about what is coming up or how they should respond to the material.

Two general points might be noticed:

(a) These are all techniques developed in instrumental contexts. There is nothing, though, stop you applying these to text - though I expect this might raise a few liturgical eyebrows!

(b) All these techniques can also be used in conventional fully written out composition. Composition where all the instructions are provided by the composer with no scope for performance variation are simply highly controlled versions of improvisation. The divide between the two is purely artificial.


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Post by Benevenio » Thu Jul 06, 2006 1:24 pm

As a fellow clarinettist, I too learnt to improvise whilst in a Jazz quintet. I'd echo what Thomas has said - it needs practice. In addition to tape/CD, don't forget using tools such as SmartMusic running on your computer to help the learning process. If you can persuade others to help, though, doing it live is always best.

I reckon that for most people it isn't the technique that stops them but the feeling of panic as they step off the edge and have no support from the written dots. No easy way to overcome this fear, except by just going for it - whilst supported by musicians who can pick up the pieces and carry on as if what has happened was all part of the plan(!).

dmu3tem wrote:Composition where all the instructions are provided by the composer with no scope for performance variation are simply highly controlled versions of improvisation.
Never stopped the clarinet section busking parts during rehearsals of Mozart with the Southampton Youth Orchestra. Well you have to do something during all those rests… :twisted:
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Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Fri Jul 21, 2006 3:13 pm

For a useful cross-reference on combining organs with other instruments (by me, I am afraid), see the thread 'Organists' and the item dated July 14th, 2006. You might also be amused to see some of the reactions to this as well!

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Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Sat Jul 29, 2006 9:33 am

Readers might be interested to look at Alan Smith's article on composition in the latest issue of 'Music and Liturgy'. This is the first of three parts.

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Do you have to start with the melody?

Post by ssgcgs » Sat Jul 29, 2006 7:57 pm

Quite a few people who come to Composers’ Group need this kind of workshop, and I applaud Alan for catering for their needs; we cannot easily provide for them during a meeting. Indeed, I have already made use of the article; I was sent manuscripts for comment just a day or two ago and I could refer the composer to this article, thus reducing the detail of the comments I needed to make.

My suggestions below add to what is being provided in the first article by Alan. His is but one approach, starting with text, then form, rhythm, melody…… that’s where I get stuck.

Melodies often constrain your harmonic progression. I am, more often than not, driven by a harmonic sequence to which a melody often just clicks into place. In all honesty, I’m not a tunes person, I’m a chords person. I’m not saying that you have to do it this way but, I think there is a danger of banal results if you always start with the melody. We hear so many pieces stuck in recurring tonic, sub-dominant, dominant, chord progressions. I think that composing a bare melody leads to this tendency.

People like Ray d’Inverno use fantastic chord progressions, often a repeating four bar phrase used as an ostinato with everything pinned on it. This is another approach worth considering. Look at the section C of Daniel Bath’s “Communion Sonnet”, enclosed with your latest copy of M&L. Would Daniel have thought of that tune in isolation without knowing that he wanted to progress from F# minor in that descending sequence, and suddenly to F major as the text moved on to the word “Christ”? I don’t think so.

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Do you have to start with the melody - continued

Post by ssgcgs » Wed Aug 02, 2006 6:55 am

I hope this serves to illustrate an alternative approach, referred to in my previous post.

While all the heavyweights are at Summer School (and the Forum goes to sleep) I have had the indulgence of a “composition day”, looking at Communion antiphons and psalms, trawling for musical inspiration. Where do I start? Other people’s music.

I don’t know why, but Bairstow’s “I sat down under his shadow” was running through my mind. The opening phrase, “I sat down,” is underpinned by a chord sequence from E major to G major, which is immediately striking. Listen to how it continues on this link (but the opening phrase is missing here). Nice ideas here, let’s try using one or two. Then I thought of Paul Inwood’s psalm setting “You, Lord, have the message of eternal life” (which Alan refers to in his article). This is written around a 4 chord sequence D, F, Em(7?), A. Oh look, the same shift as in the opening of the Bairstow. I like this piece, it is simple and yet far from banal. The words fit so comfortably; it flows beautifully. He marries the chord sequence with a very attractive modal melody and creates a mood that fits that of the text (Mixolydian is one of the brighter modes). Result – a piece that works.

Now I have some ideas to build on, mainly chordal rather than melodic, and the suggestion of a modality which would fit my words. Is this plagiarism? I don’t think so (I don’t have the music for either piece, just memories of their impression on me, which I have chosen to analyse). I don’t yet know whether it will lead to anything worthwhile, but it’s my springboard.

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Post by ssgcgs » Wed Aug 02, 2006 7:25 am

Found a better mp3 of "I sat down", which doesn't cut off the opening, here

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Chord sequences

Post by VML » Wed Aug 02, 2006 10:18 am

It is the sequence of hamony changes that makes hymn tunes like Melita, (For those in peril on the sea,) and Howells' Michael (All my hope..), so satisfying.

'You Lord have the message...' is very hard to get out of my brain... :) We love it in this parish.

Thomas' mention of dicovering sequnces through jazz reminded me how exciting it was sitting in a room at college replaying countless times a recording, on an early portable reel-to-reel, of Abilene, and discovering the move from C through E to Am.

V

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Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Sat Aug 19, 2006 9:47 am

You might note some useful tips about the use of Sibelius software in the 'Sibelius Software and instant Responsorial Psalms' thread. Personally, I like to work out material on manuscript paper and then transcribe it onto my Sibelius programme. Observe, though, that some of the ranges it gives for instruments are not always correct.

If I compose a Gospel Acclamation with a Gelineau/ Bevenot style 'chant' verse I find it useful to have it on Sibelius because I can simply adjust this to fit different verse texts while keeping the basic Alleluia refrain. I then print off copies as necessary for the choir to sing. I occasionally do something similar with Responsorial psalms. Note for instance that last week, this week and next week (19th, 20th and 21st of the year) are drawn from the same psalm and have the same response.

A similar 'trick' can be used with arrangements of other music. For example, if you decide to add a new instrumental or vocal obbligato/ descant to something you already have.

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tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Sat Sep 23, 2006 10:09 am

Writing for Upper Voices

Here is something I recently picked up from a friend of mine.

Apparently most women have the 'break' in their voice at roughly the same point. Consequently, those who can reach above an e or f (10-11 notes above middle C) can usually only manage this if they use vibrato. Those who can rise above the 'f' without vibrato are uncommon. My friend cited an example at a local choral society where the conductor asked all the sopranos to sing a high passage without vibrato and got no sound from anyone!

This explains the confused answers I often get when I ask women singers what is their range. If they are receiving training - which usually seems to be training in singing operatic arias - they often give huge ranges e.g. Middle C to two octaves above that. They do not give the narrower ranges corresponding to Dramatic Soprano, Mezzo Soprano or Contralto which you might find in an old fashioned harmony text book. These seem to correspond to singers who do not use vibrato.

This has two implications:

(1) If you have women singers and wish to avoid vibrato, in general, even if they say they are sopranos, do not write above an f.
If you do write above that with women singers, you must be prepared to tolerate vibrato with all its operatic connotations.

(2) The only other 'dodge' is to write for boy trebles, who can get up to the top 'a' and sometimes the 'c' without vibrato.

In turn this raises other issues:

(1) If you use boys (or, for that matter, girls), unless they have been trained to breathe effectively, they have less power than women singers. When boys (or girls) do have this power I have found that this can be at the price of being 'short winded'. Hence the practice in Anglican Cathedrals of having about 10-20 trebles balanced against 2-3 each of male altos, tenors and basses.

(2) Women, especially altos, can reach down for the lower notes in the alto range more effectively than boys.

You might also note two other aspects:

(1) Contraltos without vibrato should have a range of between 'A' below middle C and the e. Male Altos only reach up to the c (if that). I hardly ever see this distinction spelt out in printed scores, but it is certainly something I now bear in mind in my own compositional practice.

(2) The balance of vocal sound colour can vary a good deal according to whether you use women's voices or not.

Basically you have four options:

(a) Trebles (boys or girls) balanced against a block of male altos, tenors and basses.

(b) Women voices (Mezzo sopranos and contraltos) balanced against tenors and basses.

(c) Trebles (boys or girls) and contraltos balanced against tenors and basses.

(d): (b) or (c) with male altos added.

And don't forget how the options multiply when dealing with an antiphonal layout of voices (i.e. what is effectively a double choir).

You may feel this sort of thing only applies to old fashioned cathedral choirs; however, the nature of such voicing also has implications with composition/arrangement for cantors.

So please feel free to add more technical details - and corrections - on this. The more specific the better. For instance, I do not know whether this issue of the relationship of vibrato to range applies to men's voices as well.

Thomas Muir
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