How I compose 3 – Chords

Guitar chords

How to play a chord on a 6-string guitar

“A chord in music is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.” (Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2013)

To me, chords form the shell of a piece of music – the walls and roof of a house, so to speak. For me, this is the most difficult part of composing and always has been. Possibly because I’m a percussionist and therefore spent a lot of time focusing on rhythmic patterns and combinations rather than harmonic.

Harmony?

“Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the ‘vertical’ aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the ‘horizontal’ aspect.” (Good old Wikipedia again, accessed August 7, 2013)

Many composers, particularly song-writers such as Lady Gaga [despite her marketing style she really is a very good song-writer. My friend in NYC who knew her on the circuits before the fame will attest to that as well] start with a melody and work from there. I’ve done that sometimes, but as I know harmony is a weakness of mine I’m focusing on that first.

Chords are like a building's frame

Chords form the musical walls within the predetermined structure.

So, when composing a piece of music, I need to establish what the walls and roof are made of. This is the harmony, which is made up of chords. The content of the psalm or story always influences the harmony, particularly if the piece is to be in a minor key (sad-like) or a major key (happier than minor).

Outside my composition, administration, booked activity time, I’m studying various harmony books to build on what I learned many years ago. Over the past few years I revisited the ABRSM music theory guides (awesome material, by the way) and looked through many of my high school and college notes and texts, including Walter Piston‘s mammoth treatise. Now I’m fascinated by Tchaikovsky‘s guide and Rimsky-Korsakov‘s manual.

Next I’ll be delving into Schoenberg‘s “Fundamentals” and after that, will take a more serious approach to Walter Piston’s and dive into Persichetti‘s 20th Century Harmony. The plan is that by the end of Year 2 of this project I’ll have a pretty firm grasp on traditional harmony.

Enough context – how do I actually compose? Once I’ve got my ‘mood’ (happy or sad) I then consider the instrumentation. Some instruments are more sonorous in some keys rather than other. In addition, the keys themselves have characteristics, even colour (a form of synesthesia).

Once the key is established, I play around with various chord progressions: “Does chord I sound better after chord V (we use Roman Numerals a lot in Western music)? Or would chord II sound better? Hmm. But if I follow it with chord III, II doesn’t sound that great in this key. I’d better stick to chord I.”

“Unless I go to chord V again…”

This way I could end up with a pattern of chords that last 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 or any other number of ‘bars’ or ‘measures’. How do I know what a bar or measure is? That works in tandem with choosing the chords:

This is a medley/mixture of waltzes (3 beats) and marches (2 or 4 beats), as well as a rather talented trombonist @ 7mins

A happy dance might be grouped in 3 little beats (think of a waltz by Strauss) whereas a march would definitely be grouped in 4 steady beats. Sometimes the story is not that obvious and 4, 5 or even 2 beats grouped together sound better. At what speed? Again, depends on both the story and the chord progression.

I’m exhausted. You?! Next article in this series will demonstrate how I get a tune (or melody) out of the chord progression. To me, melodies are like a journey through the house, moving from room to room or dancing/ sitting in one spot.

How I compose: Step 2 – Instrumentation

A couple of weeks ago I shared how I start composing each of the pieces in my composition quest. It seemed to be a popular post!

So after I’ve read the psalm, understood its meaning through commentary, and established the structure for my piece, the next step in composing music for me is choosing the instrumentation.

Instrumentation.

The purpose of this quest is to improve my composing skills. One of my dream goals is to finish the quest by writing a piece of music based on Psalm 33 for large chorus and full orchestra. That’s a lot of people and parts, and like an Olympic Triathlete or Astronaut, there is a ton of preparation. Knowing the insides and out of every instrument, including the human voice, is imperative before tackling a huge opus.

That’s partly why this quest will take 7 years and 150 pieces – writing for solo and small groups of instruments will teach me a great deal about how those combinations work together and how they don’t. Think of Ravel’s “masterpiece” Bolero. Familiar with it? Very popular nowadays but guess what – it was an exercise. Maurice Ravel wrote the piece to learn what different instrumentation combinations would sound like. He never meant it to be a concert hall piece, or a film score! (10, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek). Below is a truly awe-inspiring ensemble Blast! performing Bolero:

 

Therefore, for this first year I am selecting mostly small chamber music ensembles for my instrumentation – a wind quintet, a brass quintet, a string quartet, trios, duets, solos. Piece #6 is a little more ambitious as I’m combining both the winds and brass together. In fact, it’s written for “Chamber Orchestra Non-Strings!” Think of a chamber orchestra that plays Mozart or Haydn, and take away all the violins, violas, cellos and double basses. I’m composing for everyone else.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown / Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

There is lots of string music out there, but not much just for the winds and brass, so hopefully this instrumentation will work and it will become a part of the normal orchestral repertoire.

But for those of you waiting for a large orchestra piece… Sorry! You’re gonna have to wait awhile. At least another year or two.

Right. Time to get back to the music…

Thanks for reading.

 

Next piece: Wind Quintet 2

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

 

Yes, I’m forging ahead!

Why? Because I know that as I improve my composition skills (the purpose of this entire project) I am learning how instruments sound and work together and I will be wanting to compose for larger combinations of instruments, such as a full orchestra. Writing such a piece will take a lot more time. If I can get ahead in the project now, it will allow some flexibility for taking longer on the bigger pieces.

For example, this next piece is a Wind Quintet. That’s the standard combination of woodwind instruments (plus French Horn) found in most Western ensembles – flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. However, in this piece the five performers are required to play a total of 11 instruments.

Huh?

There is something in the music world known as ‘doubling’. This is when a performer can play more than one instrument, usually related to their main instrument. For example, a flute player may also play the piccolo, or the alto flute. A bassoon player may also play the deep, funky contrabassoon.

So, in my composition “Wind Quintet 2” each of the woodwind performers are asked to play their most common ‘doubling’ instruments at some point. Only the French Horn is the stabilizing timbre (or, tonal quality).

Now, about the music…

 

Click here to get your copy of the score and parts

It is based on Psalm 91, one of six categorized as a Confession of Trust according to Matt Baker (accessed April 13, 2013).

Again, I’ve structured the music around the structure of the psalm, which provided an engaging framework to work with:

According to the Longman and Garland expository commentary, the structure is as follows:

  • A – Invitation to the Protection of God
  • B – Forms of protection (there are 5)
  • A’ – Another invitation to the Protection of God
  • B’ – More forms of protection (there are 3)
  • C – The oracle of Salvation

Do you know what that means to me? Theme and Variations! Like this:

  • Theme
  • Variation 1
  • Variation 2
  • Variation 3
  • Variation 4
  • Variation 5
  • Theme
  • Variation 6
  • Variation 7
  • Variation 8
  • Embellished Theme

Excellent!

Oh, one more musical point:

Part of verse 2 of the psalm reads:

My refuge and my fortress: my God; in whom I trust

The last verse of the Oracle, or Edict, is this text, which I have altered ever so slightly:

With long life I will satisfy

I’ll show him my salvation.

So the musical theme (or, melody) is actually based on these words combined –  you could almost use them to sing along with the theme!

I’m sure there’s an official Compositional Device or term for doing that, but at this point that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that such a technique exists, works, and it is in this piece.