Composing shortcuts

2 minute read
Making notes, if not notes. Photo by Audringje, via Flickr/Creative Commons.
Making notes, if not notes. Photo by Audringje, via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Composing is often the art of writing down the music you hear in your head. Sometimes the thoughts flow faster than you can write, and ideas get lost in the shuffle. Other times your musical vision is cloudy. You might know what texture or rhythm you want, while not quite being able to sort out exactly what it’s supposed to sound like. In these situations, certain shortcuts of notation become useful.

There is no one way to compose a piece. Every song begins with a different germ — one time a melody; another time a rhythm; maybe even just a motif. The composer can set to writing what he or she knows definitely and then record the more vague aspects of the piece in nontraditional ways so that at least the foggy outline of the idea is not lost.

I’ve written prose descriptions right on the music staff. Over one bass vocal line I pose the question whether it should start “while the organ is still going crazy,” the nutty organ part having yet to be written. In other places the instructions are simpler, such as “declamatory,” or “contrapuntal.”

When I know the rhythms I want to use, I will often write stems without notes, accompanied with a comment or two about the intended texture: “chords,” “dissonance,” etc. More than once, I’ve drawn a line indicating the general path of a melody or even a diagram of the intended form. It might not seem like much, but it can keep a project in line over the course of a night of sleep, a dinner break, or even a page turn. I never take it for granted that I’ll remember anything.

Being right-brained, my thought processes rarely operate literally. Instead of fighting this tendency, I have had to learn how to make it my friend. With only the slightest hints of what I’d like to do with a given section, I often leave myself poetic descriptions: “Crescendo. Parts unfurling like a flower.” This would make terrible instructions from a conductor to an ensemble — although that hasn’t stopped a few maestros from speaking in purple prose — but it reminds me from which direction I need to hack away at a given project when I return to it.

Writing down what you hear in your head might seem like mere transcription. Maybe it is, but the important point is that it isn’t as easy as it seems. Even Mozart had to pound out drafts from time to time. For those like me whose vision is like a dim image in a mirror, we have to use whatever tools we can find to bring an idea into existence. I don’t always succeed in realizing my initial concepts, but with the help of a few more adjectives and adverbs, I will learn how to come closer.

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