Proper technique is critical for any composer, but how do you use that technique to express something you’re passionate about? Evoking a specific emotion or an event through music is a skill every composer should have, regardless of what style you write in. Here’s my advice on how to write about something you love. 

Think About What Ideas You Want to Express

This is the most important step. Music is great at taking big ideas and expressing them while being wholly coherent. This is much more difficult in writing and poetry. So don’t be afraid to start with big ideas, worry about specifics later.

Before you do anything, think of that thing you love, what specific idea do you want to write about? Write them down and narrow it down, pick one that will be the center of your piece. Every step in the process should have this idea (and sub-ideas) in mind. 

Remember, it’s about what the audience will feel, they are a crucial part of the pre-writing process.

Improvise on those Ideas

Now that you have an idea of what you want to express, think of the audience. What emotions do you want the audience to feel? Start by making a list and narrow it down to 2-3. Then get on any instrument, it can be piano, voice, electronics, MIDI, any medium that lets you improvise.

Remember, you’re not writing the piece yet, you’re just digging for ideas. Don’t worry about any playing technique, you just want to get an idea of what sounds should embody the music.

Sketch, Sketch, Sketch!

Once you have a basic sound profile, now is the time to start writing ideas down! You are not at the stage where you should worry of compositional technique. You should instead be solely focused on those ideas and emotions you want to share. Remember, it’s about what the audience will feel, they are a crucial part of the pre-writing process. With all that in mind, write some melodic, harmonics, motifs, and connect them to the ideas you want to express. For example, when you want to show something falling, Chromatic descents are the most familiar signifier.

Once you are done, you should have a musical thesaurus where words, ideas, and emotions are paired with musical ideas.

Write the Piece!

It is from here you can start your first draft. Now you are in a position to use your musical thesaurus with your technique to create a powerful expressive piece just be sure to always have those ideas in mind

Many of you have already heard the first movement to The Arrogance of Time, performed wonderfully by Ethan Valentin. But did you know it was originally conceived as a three movement sonata? I had a 2nd and 3rd movement outlined, but the first movement ended up being so big, it worked best as a stand alone piece.

But then I looked back at my sketches, and decided to make a second version, with all three movements. I will have to shorten the first movement, and rewrite the ending, but don’t worry, the one movement version will still be here. (Don’t ask how I plan to differentiate the two via titles, I haven’t worked that out yet).

I decided then, that this would be a good opportunity to show you how I do my work, and bring you along my as I write, edit, and finalize the second movement. Currently I have a mostly-completed first draft, written out by hand. I always do sketches and first drafts this way, since it helps to be on a piano when writing for piano, it’s a lot easier to focus, you’re writing slower so you’re more attentive to what you write, and it just feels more natural to me.

So let me talk to you about the beginning.

One thing that is very common in my music is the use of Baroque themes and finding unique ways to play with them in my music. This is the opening theme of the 2nd movement of my piano sonata, but it’s hardly original. For baroque listeners, one would probably expect a set of variations to follow, perhaps even improvised, as that was a common practice for musicians back in the early 1700’s. It looks bland now, but there’s some exciting variations up ahead.

Arrogance of Time: Movement 2-theme
     The theme for the 2nd movement of Arrogance of Time, a classic Baroque style introduction.

This is still the first draft, so there’s still a lot missing. For first drafts I usually try to just get as much on paper as I possibly can. This is usually the hardest part for me, since I’m very easily distracted and get pretty excited when first thinking about music. Not only that, but I have to write my ideas down without and judgement, because as soon as I question whether or not what I’m writing down is actually good, I become paralyzed by that thought, and end up barely writing anything at all. Everytime I write a first draft, I think of Hemingway’s famous quote (which has frankly been more meaningful to me than his books) “The first draft of anything is sh*t.”

So I will show you the sh*t I wrote as I copy this first draft into Sibelius, but eventually I will also walk you through my editing process, before I finish the final draft.

Join me next time where I take this theme from the style of Bach, to something closer to Ligeti.