Someone recently reached out to me on Instagram and asked if I had any advice for young, emerging composers. After responding, I realized that this might be a topic that could help other students of music theory that are trying to transition into composing. Here are a few tips to help you take your first steps toward composition!
1. Study Music Theory
Music theory is the foundation for every composition. Even musically illiterate pop singers who write a song with three chords and a simple melody are utilizing theory – they just don’t realize it. Anyone can write one song but the key to longevity and creativity is an extensive knowledge of theory.
2. Begin with 4-Part Writing
Most theory textbooks approach musical analysis by teaching the rules of 4-part writing. These textbooks also include exercises that reinforce the rules and help to develop a mastery of 4-part writing. I believe that the best progression to learn 4-part writing is:
a. Add inner voices to given soprano and figured bass lines.
b. Use a given figured bass to create a soprano melody, then fill in the inner voices.
c. Use given chords to create a figured bass, then create a soprano melody and fill in the inner voices.
d. Create a melody, choose a chord progression that fits, then fill in the rest.
In a first year theory course, this may feel tedious but it is everything that you need to compose!!! Take these exercises to heart and once you have mastered 4-part writing, you will have all of the building blocks necessary to create your own piece.
3. Start Simple
We all love Eric Whitacre and want to emulate him, but even many established composers aren’t ready for that. Most beginning composers have been inspired by the repertoire that they have performed in an amazing choral or instrumental experience and develop a desire to create something similar. Unfortunately, this often results in a young composer littering their first work with cluster chords in 8-part harmony. You may end up with something that sounds cool on your composition software, but it is likely that the music is overcomplicated, unsingable, and unlikely to be performed. I firmly believe that great composers are able to create amazing sonorities with the least number of notes possible (see Tip #2). I was recently mentioned in an article on Choral Clarity (check it out here) for my music being accessible for high school groups, and it is due to this philosophy. In short, composers must FIRST learn to create cohesive music in 4-part chorale form. Only once they have mastered that will they be ready to incorporate non-chord tones, divisi, and polyphony.
4. Compose Something Everyday
I often encourage my students to audition any chance that they get (even if they believe that they won’t get in) because the only way to get better at auditioning is by auditioning. The same is true of writing music – the only way to get better at composing is by composing. It is natural to want everything that you write to be a masterpiece but if you keep waiting until you are inspired to write a masterpiece, it will never happen. Music composition is all about learning from your mistakes and the more mistakes that you make, the more you will learn. Make it a goal to compose something every day, even if it is just a few measures that will never turn into a piece.
5. Write It Down
Writing something down makes it meaningful. Much of the value that you assign to your creation comes from the amount of time that you have invested into it. It is easy to invest the additional time that it takes to write down a composition if it is something that brings you pride, but what about the passage that you overworked and think is terrible? Write it down anyways! As I mentioned in Tip #4, everything that you create (whether it is an entire composition or a few phrases) is a valuable lesson in composition. Investing time into writing down unsatisfactory music allows you to move past it and puts you one step closer to a masterpiece. If you don’t write it down, the mistakes lose their meaning and are more likely to appear in subsequent compositions.
6. Don’t Rush
You can’t rush creativity. With the exception of prodigies like Mozart, it takes most composers many years to refine their style. It has been 11 years since I had my first piece published and my style still continues to evolve! I urge you to push discouragement aside if you struggle to find a group to perform your music or a publisher to put your music into print. Composing is a learning process and it takes time to create your masterwork. I have learned many times that when I feel like I have created my best product, there is something even better on the horizon that I will reach once I start composing again.
I hope that these tips are helpful to anyone who is learning to compose! Feel free to comment below with any questions that you may have about my compositional journey or for clarification about the information in this post.
I’m excited to announce that I am officially published with Hal Leonard! This spring has seen the debut of “I Will Lift My Eyes,” an accompanied setting of Psalm 121 with voicings for SSA and TBB. I am humbled by the vast audience that may be reached as a result of being published by the world’s largest music print publisher. I am even more humbled by the series of non-coincidences that have put the people into my life that made this opportunity possible!
To make a long story short, a friend hosted an Adjudication festival at which one of the judges heard my music and later decided to commission a piece. From there, he shared my music with Andrea Ramsey for consideration in her choral series and set up an introduction. When Andrea was looking for an original TBB piece, I worked up a draft for “I Will Lift My Eyes,” my first real attempt at a piece for men’s voices. I cannot thank Andrea enough for using her expertise of vocal ranges in published music to help me to make the necessary adjustments for her editor to approve the piece (and you should definitely visit her website to hear one of the leading voices in choral music today)!
I don’t consider any of these events to be coincidences; rather, they are all part of a greater plan for this piece to reach the right chorister or audience member at exactly the right time. Many composers have set the text of Psalm 121 and it is exciting to add my own interpretation to the list. I feel incredibly blessed to have been given this gift of composition and hope that my inclusion in the Hal Leonard catalogue will help me to reach even more listeners around the world!
Keep an eye out for my next post containing an audio recording with sheet music from Hal Leonard as well as a brief analysis of the piece.
Last week, I received the wonderful news that Alfred will be publishing my arrangement of Stille Nacht with next year’s choral releases! This is particularly fulfilling because I composed this arrangement in 2011 and have desperately wanted to see it in print. Once you hear the sonorities on the first verse, you will understand why it has always been one of my favorite musical experiments.
My editor and I have tossed around the possibility of publishing this piece on several different occasions throughout the years but it never seemed to be the right fit. The piece is rather cumbersome including three verses of German text, a tricky key-change, and a lot of divisi. Frankly, this piece had limited appeal due to its collegiate-level of difficulty. Several of my blog posts talk about how I have been able to improve upon my earlier works by using what I’ve learned throughout my experiences as a composer. This is a prime example!
When my editor first suggested cutting out a verse in order to make the piece more accessible to a larger number of groups, I felt like I was being asked to cut off one of my limbs. After all, I poured all of my 26-year-old blood, sweat, and tears into that arrangement. It was perfection (in my 26-year-old eyes) and I couldn’t bear to part with a single note. And then I pulled out my score.
As I listened to a recording by the outstanding Grove City College Touring Choir, the imperfections began to stick out like a sore thumb. The transitional key change felt stagnant instead of providing an energetic boost as it should, and I realized that I didn’t even care for the first two lines of the final verse. Some of the divisi made portions of the piece unnecessarily difficult and it became clear that this was not representative of my best work. Maybe this 5-minute piece could be tweaked in a way that would preserve the idea but create a more effective build to the climax.
I look forward to writing another post with some analysis to show how I changed the location of the key change and bridged verses 2 and 3 together to give this piece an improved dramatic effect, but for now I will leave you with this recording of the original arrangement:
My latest published piece may be the last thing that you would expect me to write, but it actually isn’t too much of a departure from my typical output. The collegiate a cappella craze, the arrival (and unfortunate departure) of The Sing-Off, “Pitch Perfect,” and the viral popularity of Pentatonix have all brought a cappella pop into the spotlight. It has completely changed the choral world and as a result, it seems like one question comes up more than any other when I get together with colleagues: “Does pop music have a place in the traditional choral concert?” Show choirs aside, this seems to be a divisive topic amongst directors when it comes to programming music for their concert choirs.
Last year, my editor at Alfred suggested that I choose a pop song and write a concert arrangement. It seems like every pop piece has a basic, 4-part accompanied arrangement that mimics the original recording, but he suggested a complex arrangement in my own style. I was further inspired by J.D. Frizzell’s arrangement of “Jar of Hearts,” which honestly might be my favorite pop arrangement that I have ever heard (listen here). The arpeggios are stunning!
My compositional style has always been a direct reflection of my lifelong musical journey which includes pop, jazz, gospel, and modern ethereal choral music. My music already contains elements from all of these genres so a pop song was actually a natural fit! “Blue Moon” immediately came to mind and, while we mostly remember it as the fast rock hit by The Marcels (founding member Fred Johnson in the picture above), it was originally written as a ballad by Rodgers and Hart. I typically begin my composition process by focusing on the lyrics and I decided that I should transform it back into an introspective ballad. By reimagining the piece, I thought that I could bring out its true meaning (as I would later attempt with my arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). I started with an introduction that is a true reflection of my choral style and the piece evolved from there. In the recording below, you will find a piece rooted in jazz and blended with my own brand of dissonance. I don’t know if this answers the question of whether pop music has a place in the traditional choral concert, but I believe that “Blue Moon” could be the solution for directors who want to program a pop piece that will fit in with the rest of their repertoire.
Many of my recent blog posts have been about writing arrangements so it should be no surprise that my latest project is an arrangement! I have performed Mahler’s 2nd Symphony several times but this weekend’s performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was particularly moving. In fact, it was so moving that I HAD to invite two of my former students (pictured here) who are current music education majors and brass players because I knew that it would change their lives. One would expect me to have been moved by singing the glorious (and ridiculously high) ending of the final movement. There are few moments in all of musical history that can compare to the ending of Mahler’s “Resurrection,” but the magic of this performance actually occurred while we were seated during the earlier movements.
There was a surreal moment in the second movement when Maestro Manfred Honeck stopped conducting, leading the orchestra through dancelike body movements and an occasional cue. Then there was the Jewish-inspired third movement with bold interruptions of brass fanfares. But the magic… The magic occurred during the fourth movement when alto soloist Gerhild Romberger began to sing. This movement has never meant much to me other than as a cue to start inaudibly warming up my voice; however, this time I was overwhelmed by the beauty and simplicity of Mahler’s music. Romberger’s solo voice, the offstage brass ensemble playing the chorale, and the perfectly tuned strings of the orchestra were enough to bring tears to my eyes. The entire ethereal experience captured me in a moment that I never wanted to forget. After the Saturday evening performance, I decided that I needed to solidify that memory by immersing myself in the music and writing an SSA arrangement of this fourth movement.
It may seem odd to create a choral setting of a symphonic movement, but it actually makes more sense than you might think. This piece, “Urlicht,” was originally a song written by Mahler as a part of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This song collection was written for solo voice and piano, but “Urlicht” later served a new purpose when Mahler decided to incorporate it into the Second Symphony. Because of this, my choral arrangement may actually be closer to Mahler’s original intention for the piece than its use in the symphony.
The key to writing this arrangement was to pay homage to the original. I am never going to improve on Mahler’s work of art so instead, I have stayed as close to the source material as possible. My approach to the piece centered around keeping the melody intact and creating a harmonization that matches what Mahler has already laid out in the accompaniment. The purpose of the arrangement is to spread this beloved music to a broader audience and I believe that I can best do this by honoring Mahler’s work instead of creating my own interpretation of it. I was shocked when I found that a choral arrangement of this piece is not available, but I hope that this will help to bring Mahler’s stunning work to traditional choral concerts.
There is nothing more rewarding than writing an original piece of music from scratch. It is an opportunity to take a blank aural canvas and expand 12 simple pitches into an endless array of possibilities. The complex process necessitates countless decisions regarding melody, harmony, rhythm, chords, range, form, lyrics, dynamics, phrasing, and expression. To your average non-composer, it may seem like writing an arrangement is a significantly easier task. But it is not.
The writing of an arrangement involves all of the same decisions but in a different way. Rather than creating a melody, you must decide whether to keep the original melody intact or alter it through ornamentation and embellishment. As I discussed in my blog posts about The Star-Spangled Banner, a transposition into the parallel or relative minor can help to develop a deeper understanding of traditional lyrics that may have lost their meaning over time. The reharmonization of a familiar tune can create fresh, new sonorities and an alteration to the rhythmic structure can transform the piece into something brand new. I employed all of these ideas in my arrangement of “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.”
One of the most noticeable changes to this traditional hymn is that it is transposed into the relative minor. It creates a dramatic backdrop for these words of praise as it portrays the plight of Christians trying to follow God in a fallen world. The opening is particularly interesting as the Bass pedal tones and Tenor ostinato create dissonance with the melody.
The other notable feature of the piece is its use of mixed meter. The time signature alternates between 3/4 and 6/8, often times occurring simultaneously to create a two-against-three polyrhythm. The written time signature indicates where the strong beats are in any given measure, but it is easy to see in the example below that certain voices are clearly in 6/8 while others are in 3/4. The alternation of these duple and triple meters creates a driving rhythm that builds to the piece’s climax.
The piece continually gravitates toward the major but falls back into minor. Finally, it settles into G-major at the onset of the third verse. This finale has a more traditional chord structure that is ornamented with of ninths and other nonharmonic tones. This combines with a steady 4/4 time signature to shift the focus from the fallen world to a glimpse of Heaven. The rhythmic and harmonic contrast tell a story of their own amidst the traditional hymn of praise.
“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” is another example of a mediocre piece that I was able to salvage once I had the compositional experience to fix it. The piece that I composed in 2011 was overly complex and confused, but I’m so glad that these 2016 edits have allowed the full potential of the piece to be recognized.
It is amazing how much perspective ten years can provide. It is healthy for a composer’s style and sonorities to change with the passage of time as long as the basic building blocks have been established. One of these building blocks for me has been the shorthand that I developed in order to quickly compose at the keyboard. I still use this same shorthand today and probably couldn’t get all of my thoughts down fast enough without it!
One building block that needed more time to develop was my ability to write meaningful lyrics. I had the misconception that I only needed three lines of text to develop an entire choral work. This often works with Latin texts but is less effective with English texts. Like last week’s post that showed how I revitalized Do Not Fear with a lyrical overhaul, Grant Us Peace needed to have its lyrical content expanded in order to have more meaning. The chart below shows the embarrassing repetition of the original lyrics compared with the addition of new lyrics ten years later. Interestingly, I first envisioned it as a Christmas piece with the text “Peace on earth tonight,” then “Bring Us Peace,” and finally settling on “Grant Us Peace.” But it still lacked meaning until its 2016 revamp.
One of the most unexpected edits to this piece occurred during a rehearsal with my Chamber Singers. I had always been unhappy with measures 16-19. I was able to make a small improvement with a dissonant chord on the word “sins” after the lyrical revision but the section continued to kill the momentum of the entire piece. During rehearsal, one of my Tenor I’s sang the wrong note and a lightbulb went off in my head. After making the kids sit for 5 minutes while I tinkered around on the piano, I realized that the solution to building momentum was to add an unexpected flat-VII Chord! This chord originally appeared at m. 21 and always seemed out of place, but by introducing it at the climax of the piece, the jarring chord adds energy to the phrase. It also introduces the sonority so that it feels natural in the harmonic landscape once m. 21 arrives.
After the last performance of “Grant Us Peace” in 2008, I wasn’t sure if it would ever be heard by an audience again. Something just didn’t click but thankfully, eight years and several key edits later, “Grant Us Peace” is a piece that I can be proud of:
The growth of a composer is much like the growth of an athlete. It requires a set of carefully honed skills that develop over time and through practice. There is always a temptation to skip a few steps in the process to get to the fun part, but this usually results in an unrefined performance. As a young composer in college, my aspirations grew after having my first composition, “Vieni nel Mio Cuore,” performed by my college choir. I decided that it was time to push the boundaries of choral music and become an innovator. 10-part harmony and tone clusters became my best friends, but then I realized that I was not yet properly equipped to use these tools.
There are two pieces of advice that I give to every person who asks me about composing.
1. Become an expert in music theory – Music theory will not make you a great composer but it will give you the tools to anticipate what should come next in your music.
2. Simplify – You will not be able to properly write a quality complex piece until you can write a quality simple piece. Complexity should be something that is used to enhance important moments in a piece. It should not the basis of your music. Even though I was fortunate to have my complex “Vieni” published, I look back and see things that I wish I had done differently.
It is almost comical to reflect on some of the decisions that I was making in my compositions during my early years. Many of the concepts were valid but the execution exposed my inexperience. I have a list of compositions that were indefinitely shelved during my novice attempts and resurrected into some of my finest work once I had the experience to fix them. One of these compositions is “Do Not Fear,” which was musically complete but required a lyrical overhaul.
From its conception in 2010, “Do Not Fear” had a solid musical structure. Its introduction exuded the power contained in the lyrics “Be strong and courageous,” I was able to use the opening ascending octave as a motive throughout the piece (including in the parallel major), and the climax of the piece is sure to give you chills. But the piece simply did not say enough through its lyrics. I chose to bury the piece because it completely missed the mark. Three years later, I stumbled upon it and realized that I could resurrect it using what I had learned. I printed it off, took it with me to a piano gig, and chaotically brainstormed new ideas all over it.
Within a few days, the piece received a new lease on life. By shifting the text into the first person as spoken by God, it took on an entirely new meaning. The original lyrics appeared to say nothing at all and were almost comical in their repetitiveness.
Now that the piece delivered a strong message (and was no longer embarrassing), I sent it off to my friends at the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers. They breathed life into the notes on the page, created an amazing interpretation, helped the piece to get published, and now it is being performed all over the country. There was a time when I had given up on the piece but now I know that sometimes, we just aren’t ready to complete a piece.
Enjoy this recording of “Do Not Fear” recently performed at PMEA District 5 Honors Chorus below! In my next blog post, I will take a look at “Grant Us Peace,” a composition that was 10 years in the making.
There is no greater honor than to pay tribute to our forefathers, veterans, and citizens by performing our national anthem. But have we lost sight of the true meaning of Francis Scott Key’s lyrics? The inspiration behind my arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner has been the unanswered question at the end of the first verse. In my last post, I discussed my use of a minor key to indicate the unresolved fate of our country in this first verse. So how do I end the question and transition into the victorious third verse? At first, I ended the first verse with a Picardy third as an indication of America’s victory. Unfortunately, this completely defeated my goal to show that there is more to our national anthem than what we typically hear. I also loved the idea of creating a climactic major chord at the end of the phrase “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” but did not want to overdo the Picardy third effect. I saw this as an opportunity for storytelling, first showing that our flag could still be seen amidst the bombs bursting in air and then questioning whether we survived the attack.
So how do I musically represent this question while creating a smooth transition into the final verse? After several unsatisfactory attempts, I decided to create the illusion of a major resolution and then move to a dissonant minor chord. Due to the limitations of the melody, I could not use a traditional deceptive cadence and move from V to vi. Instead, I allowed the voices to move to a I chord with a flat sixth on top. The combination of the anticipated resolution and an unsettling dissonant non-harmonic tone indicates the unrest of the question. Rather than resolving the nonharmonic tone into the major chord, the voices move to a minor iv chord. The bass stays on the same note to maintain some sense of stability and the resulting iv chord is in second inversion. To further emphasize the unrest, I included a 9th that creates dissonance with the minor third. The final result is a momentary dissonance that clearly conveys the question of verse one and then moves to the parallel major to show our victory.
At last, verse three reveals the answer to our question! This verse discusses the importance of protecting our land and thanking God for bringing us victory and peace. It does so through harmonic complexity and a march-like beat. When it reaches the lyrics: “And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave,” it creates a response to the first verse’s similar passage with a direct repetition of the notes. Finally, the piece comes to its conclusion with an unexpected IV – flat VII – flat VI – half-diminished ii – I chord progression.
I am incredibly proud of this project and hope that it will remind its audiences of Francis Scott Key’s response to “the unanswered question” whenever they hear one of our typically incomplete performances of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Arranging a well-known piece of music presents a set of challenges that are irrelevant in the composition of an original piece. We are bound by the lyrics, rhythms, melody, and style of the source material. While minor adjustments can be made, major changes can be viewed as a mistake even though we are merely exercising our right to creative license. In an original composition, you can adjust the melody to fit the chords that you are writing as the song progresses but in an arrangement, you have to choose your chords based on someone else’s melody which provides little flexibility. My composition process typically involves composing the melody, chords, and corresponding vocal harmonies at the same time. For this project, I elected to begin with a clean copy of the melody and lyrics and then add chords like a lead sheet. (See picture above) I found this especially helpful in deciding where the climaxes should occur and basing these decisions on the meaning of the lyrics instead of the flow of the music.
Many of my choices regarding the chord structure are a bit radical. I ignored everything that I previously mentioned about making major changes and completely immersed this piece into minor. The melody immediately sounds different but interestingly, it feels familiar. Many of the phrases quickly move to the VI-chord as if the i-chord is merely a pick-up instead of the tonal center. This creates a false sense that the chord structure centers around Ab-major even though melody is clearly in C-minor and blurs the line between a major and minor sonority.
I included a jarring reminder during the phrase “O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave” by setting this passage completely in the parallel major with a traditional chord progression. By reminding the audience of how the piece typically sounds, it emphasizes the uncertainty of our country’s fate when we move back into the parallel minor. (See picture below)
One of my largest complaints about our national anthem is that we create an enormous chasm in the middle of the important question: “O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave……………………. o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” The traditional fermata on “wave” and large pause before “o’er” could be one of the main reasons that listeners don’t realize that performances of our national anthem conclude with an unanswered question (see my previous blog post for more information here). Honestly, a simple explanation for this illogical pause is that it is the solution to a long phrase that few soloists can perform in one breath. This choral arrangement has allowed me to use the staggered breathing of many singers to bridge the gap in the middle of this phrase. I continually questioned whether this was a good decision because it catches you by surprise but I finally decided that it has to be this way in order to emphasize the question of whether the flag still waves over our country.
How will I musically represent this unanswered question? Tune in to my next post to find out!