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composition/arranging question
Last post Tue, May 06 2014 by hetoreyn, 3 replies.
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Posted on Tue, May 06 2014 02:55
Joined on Mon, Oct 21 2013, Posts 30

I'd like to hear how other people go about composing.  Do you tend to compose directly for the instruments of an ensemble, or do you start thinking of basic stuff like melody, harmony and form on one instrument like a piano or guitar and then orchestrate it?  What I really admire about the symphonic pieces by the legendary composers like Debussy and Ravel as well as film composers like Danny Elfman and John Williams is how the instrumentation is constantly morphing.  I want to get better at arranging in this way, but sometimes have a hard time making everything sound unified when I try to divide the theme among different instruments.  Sometimes I'll have a good 30 second section with all the essential parts layered that I'm happy with, but then when I'm making the next section, I have trouble making it fit well with the previous section, and the transition between the two sounds forced to me when I hear the playback in my sequencer.

Would those with more experience mind sharing how they go about composing/ what their process is?  Also,when you get the feeling that a section of music isn't quite complete, do you have any specific strategies for finding out what it's missing?  I ask because I oftentimes find myself playing back the music, scratching my head thinking either something needs to be added, or something needs to be taken away, so I keep fiddling with it until I eventually get to the point where I don't think I need to change it anymore.  This is fine in some cases, but I know there are those who take on projects that require lots of music in short periods of time, so there's probably not loads of time for this kind of trial and error in that scenario.  Are there any strategies you use for making quality music without all the head scratching and trial and error edits described above?  Thanks so much in advance.

Posted on Tue, May 06 2014 06:42
by jasensmith
Joined on Tue, Jan 15 2008, Arizona, Posts 1582
GRHM wrote:

Would those with more experience mind sharing how they go about composing/ what their process is?  

I remember watching an old BBC interview with the Beatles where they asked Paul McCartney and John Lennon something to the effect of, "So when you guys sit down and write a song what is it you do exactly?  How do you do go about doing it?

I think it was John who answered with, "Well the first thing you do is you sit down.  And then the second thing you do is you write a song."

"And that's really all there is to it."

I'm not trying to be facetious but I think the point John was trying to make is that you just flow with it and write what comes naturally.  It's just one of those things where you have to cut your own path.

Now I'm an expert in knowing that I'm NOT an expert in anything so take this with a grain of salt but if you are having trouble finding "your voice" I would suggest stealing somebody else's until "your voice" finds you.  Let's be clear, I'm not saying go and James Horner somebody else's music but just maybe somebody else's style.  And only temporarily.  If John Williams and Danny Elfman suit your fancy then write a melody or something and then say, "OK now what would Elfman do with this." 

I know that others may chime in with suggesting good books on orchestration to deal with your "morphing" issue and that's fine but nothing works better than just plain ol' trial and error I'm afraid.  Personally, I'm a Minimalist at heart so I live with the motto: less is more. Although I probably could learn more about orchestration.  For some reason, when I think something is missing I go to the mallets like a vibraphone, xylophone, but because I'm a minimalist I rarely ever get to this point.

I was classically trained on piano so I start everything by improvising on the piano/keyboard.  It may be a melody, or it may just be a chord progression but I just build and layer and go from there.  Unfortunately, I find this approach to be confining and I'm considering taking up Flute lessons from a friend just so I can compose from a different perspective.  Or, take a cue from some of my Pop/Rock friends and start with a groove. 

In the end, I guess it just boils down to either you have a gift or you don't but I would ponder that you have something if you are, at least, grappling with dilemmas like "Something needs to be added or something needs to be taken away."  Otherwise it wouldn't really matter would it?  So just sit down and write the songSuper Angry    !!!! 

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."
- W.C. Fields
Posted on Tue, May 06 2014 07:00
by hetoreyn
Joined on Sat, Nov 27 2004, Vancouver, British Columbia, Posts 1159

I've learned most of my composition skills from listening intently to Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry over the years. The biggest things I've picked up is that Time signature is EVERYTHING in film. You can write entire melodies jsut by being adventurous with your time signatures.

I met some composers in LA a few years back who said they were doing a course in film music writing and the teacher specifically told them not to change tempo or time signature because it's too jarring!?! What a load of crap .. As Jason said above .. the "What would Jerry do?" technique will take you further. Though I don't pretend to be anything like the late great Jerry Goldsmith I do subscribe to his ideas that it's all instinctual and that if something happens in a film and your gut tells you to change timeing .. then don't be a slave to modern trends .. just go for it.

With John Barry I learned that one can be so expressive with the simplicst of melodies and chords if you choose them right. Almost everything he wrote was in 4/4 .. now and again he'd give us a 7/4 but it's the simplicistic things he did that just pull your heart strings.

I've often found a lot of inspiration in writing with choosing my time signatures carefully, and often find that a melody will appear around the time signature as my brain locks on to the ryhthm and the films pace .. when they gel .. you'll know it!

In the Star Trek fan films I write for I'm often trying to evoke a bit of Fred Steiner, or Gerald Fried .. or any of the myriad of composers who contributed over the years and in listening to their work you get the feeling they worked totally unabashed and without constraints because the music is so varied .. it's funny how though in the fan films the producers often get very fussy about it sounding "trek" when what they really need is just music with some intent and guts, like what they used to write. Moral is .. don't be afraid to just let it all go.

No method is the correct one .. but we learn form the composers we love, and I don't think it's a bad thing to honour them by using what you've learned from them. The real secret is in letting your own voice come through too :D


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