Jeff's online journal, ramblings, whatever.

Musical insight?!?


So I took an hour during lunch last week to write a new piece of music, just to see what I could do in an hour, much like I’ve done before, but this time using the better BYU equipment, and this is what I came up with. I also thought I’d describe the process, which I’ve used on a lot of the stuff I’ve written. The approach is mostly organic and less planned than one may expect, and I’ve learned to write stuff with more of a structure to begin, but this is still fun to do on occasion.

As I sat down I had some song with an accordion running through my head (I don’t remember what song now, but it was most likely a They Might Be Giants affair), so I decided to start with an accordion and do an Old World-type melody. To make it even more Old World-like, I put it into 3/4 time and played a 16-bar melody. Normally when I’ve done this in the past it meanders all over the place, but since I’ve received some training the first and the last phrase are similar. Then, on a separate accordion track I laid down the chords. These are also just played out as I go, which means that, although mostly they line up, sometimes the harmonies between the chords are quite jarring, and, indeed, a lot of the work I do on pieces is cleaning up the dissonances after I’ve recorded the lines.

So after I clean up the accordion chords, I repeat (read: copy and paste) the last two phrases to give it a sort of rounded binary feel (aababa, although it was really more abcaca). To change it up, I create a flute track doubling the melody to add a bit of color, and although it’s barely noticeable on the track, it is there. The rounded binary form gets me thinking about my Baroque music classes, and how most often the keyboard music from the Baroque was harpsichord-based and I’d never really written for harpsichord before, so I copied the main 16-bar melody into a harpsichord part to have something to work with. Normally I probably would have rerecorded the melody so it would have some ornamental differences, but I only had an hour. Then I recorded some arpeggiated chords into the left hand of the harpsichord and cleaned them up. Since I played them in without planning them out, some of the chord progression turned out differently with the harpsichord than it had previously with the accordion. (You can tell most easily at the beginning: where the accordion starts on the submediant (F major), the harpsichord starts straight on the tonic (A minor)).

At this point the whole thing has a very nice, old-fashioned feel to it. Now, while sometimes I program in my own drums, more often I take a pre-existing loop and edit it to fit my needs. And since I only had an hour, I decided to find a nice, 3/4, waltzy sort of percussion track to accompany what I already had down. Oddly, searching the library that came on the computer, however, didn’t turn up any waltz beats. In fact, most of the 3/4 stuff was actually rock/jazz beats. So, instead of taking the time to write my own waltz track, which I might have done given more time, I just dropped in the “Alternative 3/4 Beat” into a drum track. This, of course, changed the entire tenor of the piece and gave it a funk it didn’t have previously. And of course, a funky drum beat needed a funky bassline, so I added a fingered electric bass part, playing whole notes during the accordion section and a faster, funkier line during the harpsichord section. This was done because I wanted to emphasize the melody still during the accordion part, but since there was nothing new melodically during the harpsichord part the bass could take some more of the focus. In fact, a little later I decided to add the drums only after the entire 16-bar melody had played once, to both draw more attention to the melody and add a bit of a fun surprise when the incongruous drum track came in, a surprise emphasized by the funky bassline that plays during the second part.

So now I wanted to add some more texture to the second section, during the last 12 bars. Since I had added drums and a bass, the next logical step was to add a guitar. This I spent nearly fifteen to twenty precious minutes on, but it never quite gelled. It just seemed too busy with a guitar playing chords, especially since it was the same register as the harpsichord arpeggios. Conversely,  a guitar playing a contrapuntal line diddn’t work with such a funky bassline; however Baroque that might be, it was just too much to have three completely separate moving lines. SO in the end the guitar part got axed.

But what to do now? The second section still needed some more texture, and I only had about ten minutes or less left before I had to leave the lab and go to work, so what could I do? Well, the answer came in the form of a quick-and-dirty solution: take the accordion chords from the last 12 bars of the melody, and put them into a string part, one octave higher. The slow-moving chords would provide some nice color and a contrast to the fast-moving bassline. At the last second before I bounced the song to an MP3, I decided it needed even a bit more and ended up doubling the bass in a piano part, also an octave up. Sadly, I couldn’t fix the dissonances between the bass/harpsichord and the string part, which is why it sounds a bit jarring on a few beats in the second section.

Had I more time I would have fixed those, and probably done more with the piano part, probably changing the pitches to be more harmonious as opposed to just straight copies of the bass notes, albeit with the same rhythms to avoid the busy-ness problems I was having with the axed guitar part. Since the piece had already a nice AA beginning in the large-form arena, I would probably have gone on to write a contrasting B section, and then brought back the A at the end, giving it an AABA song form, Or maybe I would have gone more complicated; who knows?

In any case, this is what I could do in an hour of composing time, starting from scratch. I hope this provides some insight on how I write music.


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