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  1. #1

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    There's so much to work on with just playing and improvising, that I haven't really done a lot of composing. I wrote a few rock songs back in the day, and I've composed a couple of fusiony things, but I'd like to see what's possible with composing in a somewhat traditional framework.

    I'd love to be one of those guys who just has a million melodies sitting in my head waiting to come out, but that's not me. I do hear melodies, but I don't typically remember them. They often come when I'm driving, or riding my motorcycle or otherwise engaged in something that doesn't really allow me to stop and work on it. When I sit down and "try to compose" I usually draw a blank, and when I do come up with stuff, it's mostly crap.

    So, I know this is something that will improve with practice. Or at least I could get my output up enough that there's some good stuff in amongst the crap.

    So how do I get started? I'd like to find a decent jumping off point, or at least a pointer to a direction that might help me out. I realize this is a very broad subject and there are certainly many approaches. Maybe just a suggestion of one thing that might help me get my feet wet? Anyone?

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  3. #2

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    Do you record your solos? Do you play solos that are worth listening to again? You know, soloing and compositional melody come from the same place: the synthesis of phrasing, direction, dynamics, continuity, tension, release, motif, melodic climax, ...those kinds of things. Do you pay attention to those things when you solo? That will give you a good idea of your natural tendencies.

    For starters, take a harmonic structure, a standard song form, and you might write a solo over it. This is a contrafact.
    Or you can make a map of harmonic flow on some manuscript paper and create your own changes.
    What composers are you inspired by? An Ornette type tune is going to be a bit different from a Ben Monder tune.
    Maybe a Sco type contrafact? You'll notice that his compositions are very much an extension of his soloing style. Get to know your own melodic personality. It'll help with writing a piece.

    For starters.
    David

  4. #3
    Thanks, David. Some of those ideas had occurred to me, like trying a contrafact. (Maybe it would be better to start with a blues.)

    I do occasionally record my solos. I should probably start doing that again (the batteries in my little recorder leaked, so it might not be functional). I'm not sure I'm advanced enough yet to feel like my solos have an arc, like they did when I played rock.

    As far as composers I admire? Wayne Shorter probably tops the list. Herbie is up there too. I like Mike Stern's ballads (I like his up stuff too but it's kind of formulaic). I like a lot of Metheney's tunes. Sco too. I think Bela Fleck is an amazing composer, but I think it would be a while before I could aspire to something like that. His compositions are like watches.

    I saw the Five Peace band when they were touring, and McLaughlin talked about composition. He said, "I write tunes. This guy [pointing to Chick] is a composer." I just wanna write tunes.

    Are you still doing Tuesdays at Westland? I wish I could go, but I don't even get home till 6:30 these days.

  5. #4

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    One of the best ways to get better at composing is, like practicing, to work on something specific. I think there are some great exercises in W.A. Mathieu's "The Harmonic Experience", particularly around composing using I/IV/V harmony only.

    Any kind of counterpoint or voiceleading exercises are going to be great as well, I have this book which I really like:
    Counterpoint in the Style of J.S. Bach: Thomas Benjamin, Johann Sebastian Bach: 9780028702803: Amazon.com: Books

    Even though a lot of Jazz compositions obviously don't follow as strict rules, I think a good working understanding of the basics of classical voiceleading and melodic construction is still essential. When I studied with Guillermo Klein, he lamented that a lot of composition students didn't have the basics down. Ingrid Jensen talks here about how Kenny Wheeler would do counterpoint exercises. The classical basics feel to me like a Well, that I can return to when I'm not feeling grounded or inspired.

  6. #5

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    Jazz Composer's Companion: Gil Goldstein: 9780825642074: Amazon.com: Books

    Gil Goldstein wrote a great book on jazz composing. Chapters by Carla Bley, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow among many more.

    David

  7. #6
    Thanks pcsanwald and David. I'll check those books out.

  8. #7

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    There are writers who have some geniune talent... like Faulkner or Kafka.. those who do not need to learn in a common sense...
    And I believe this is imposiible to teach or learn.. these guys usually go their own way and general principles will hardly be of any help fo them. Mostly they challenge traditional forms and approach...

    There are writers who can make a decent detective story... nothing really exceptional but good well-elaborated reading that could be a fun and pleasure to read.

    And this could be taught because mostly they use already well-known forms and tools.

    So if we translate it bal to terms of music... it depends much on what you want to do. If you're about to do something in second type... I believe you should start with genre and then appropriate form. Imho form is the basis and frame of composition, if you understand the logics of the form you can fill it up with material.
    To me it's more important than occasional tune-writing or even counterpoint.

    And the form is about how sections correspond one to another, how they function within a piece of music.
    And what musical tools you can use to achieve it

    For example if you take simple form as we call it AABA

    A is usually repeats but cadences are usually different, A(1) cadence is not complete usually so that you could go for reapeat. So what are the tools to make this incomplete cadence and repeat.
    Then A section is usually more stable harmonically... (what are the tools for stable harmony?)
    the melody is often more spacious...
    it often has recognizable motive that is developed through the harmony of the section in sequences, and usually it has sort of melodic climax
    (take Can't Get Started, The Way You Look Tonight, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Somewhere ofver the rainbow).

    Then B (bridge) - usually it has the function of diversion, going off the main road... or even a stop.
    Since the idea is to go off and them come back to A it usually has unstable modulating harmonic turnarounds
    Melody can be too less inventive and more simple than in A section...
    Very often bridges are stadardized so much that it seems they are set in just to bring in this main function without much care about the originality.

    Also when A section is repeated the final cadence could be extended to make sure that this repeat is final - in simple songs it's often the repeat of the cadence with some variations maybe (something very typical is The Nearness of You e.g.), or extension of final precadential episode (like in Can't Get Started).
    Also coda is possible (it's when you add something after final cadence).

    It is interesting also when the composer uses tools against it's regular use for these purposes...
    For example.. in Darn That Dream the A section harmonically sounds more like a traditional bridge - very unstable... and on the contrary Bridge sounds very stable like traditional A section...


    I took just one ver simple form... maybe you already know all that... and it's too general thing for your purposes...

  9. #8

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    Hey, what would you think about a writers' group that can meet maybe once a month? If there's an interest with anyone around Boston, I've got a space where we could meet.
    A brain storm. A way to throw out ideas. A place to discuss qualities we like in other compositions and a chime in on what makes them work. An excuse to get the pencil moving.
    Anybody around Boston up for that?

    I'll convey a story. A friend of mine is a teacher, and a good writer too. A student came to him for a lesson. He asked "How do I write? I'm so blocked, I don't know how to start. I have classes that tell me all these things but I can't do it. What do I do?"
    He might have been expecting some scheme for laying out a form, or narrowing down the form or tempo options... but Mick is sitting in his swivel chair, turns his back on the kid and looks out the window. After a few minutes, he turns back around.

    "Get a hat. Put it on your desk. Do not write when you're not wearing that hat and don't wear the hat when you're not writing."
    That was his advice.

    The next week the kid came in with a bunch of original pieces.

    The mind is a mysterious thing.

    David

  10. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by TruthHertz
    Hey, what would you think about a writers' group that can meet maybe once a month? If there's an interest with anyone around Boston, I've got a space where we could meet.
    A brain storm. A way to throw out ideas. A place to discuss qualities we like in other compositions and a chime in on what makes them work. An excuse to get the pencil moving.
    Anybody around Boston up for that?

    I'll convey a story. A friend of mine is a teacher, and a good writer too. A student came to him for a lesson. He asked "How do I write? I'm so blocked, I don't know how to start. I have classes that tell me all these things but I can't do it. What do I do?"
    He might have been expecting some scheme for laying out a form, or narrowing down the form or tempo options... but Mick is sitting in his swivel chair, turns his back on the kid and looks out the window. After a few minutes, he turns back around.

    "Get a hat. Put it on your desk. Do not write when you're not wearing that hat and don't wear the hat when you're not writing."
    That was his advice.

    The next week the kid came in with a bunch of original pieces.

    The mind is a mysterious thing.

    David
    If you could do it on the weekend I might be able to do it. Saturday morning would be ideal. I love the idea.

  11. #10

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    Write a contrafact to YardBird Suite.

  12. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Stevebol
    Write a contrafact to YardBird Suite.
    Challenge accepted.

    Would like to get better at composing (where to start?)-neil-patrick-harrisx750-jpg

    I don't promise it will be good.

  13. #12

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    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Joe
    Challenge accepted.

    Would like to get better at composing (where to start?)-neil-patrick-harrisx750-jpg

    I don't promise it will be good.
    I did a couple for Blues for Alice because of the series of ii-V's. Bird shows some real pop sensibilities with Yardbird Suite. It was harder. I didn't finish it. Got distracted with something else.
    Anyway I've found it useful to write melodies over existing chord changes. Doesn't matter what kind of music it is.

  14. #13

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    Good tunes have good melodies, so that's usually where people fall short. Lots of folks with a passing knowledge of theory can put together a nice set of chord changes that can be improvised over, but writing good melodies is rare. Unless you're Stevie Wonder, or Wayne Shorter.

  15. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by cosmic gumbo
    Good tunes have good melodies, so that's usually where people fall short. Lots of folks with a passing knowledge of theory can put together a nice set of chord changes that can be improvised over, but writing good melodies is rare. Unless you're Stevie Wonder, or Wayne Shorter.
    Or ABBA

    David

  16. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by cosmic gumbo
    Good tunes have good melodies, so that's usually where people fall short. Lots of folks with a passing knowledge of theory can put together a nice set of chord changes that can be improvised over, but writing good melodies is rare. Unless you're Stevie Wonder, or Wayne Shorter.

    It works for songs only... pop songs should have catchy melody.
    But it's not about composition in general..

  17. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Jonah
    It works for songs only... pop songs should have catchy melody.
    But it's not about composition in general..
    "Good" and "catchy" are not exactly the same thing. Phil Collins' tune "That's All" has a hook that will stay in your head for days, but I don't think it's an especially good melody.

  18. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by TruthHertz
    Hey, what would you think about a writers' group that can meet maybe once a month? If there's an interest with anyone around Boston, I've got a space where we could meet.
    A brain storm. A way to throw out ideas. A place to discuss qualities we like in other compositions and a chime in on what makes them work. An excuse to get the pencil moving.
    Anybody around Boston up for that?

    I'll convey a story. A friend of mine is a teacher, and a good writer too. A student came to him for a lesson. He asked "How do I write? I'm so blocked, I don't know how to start. I have classes that tell me all these things but I can't do it. What do I do?"
    He might have been expecting some scheme for laying out a form, or narrowing down the form or tempo options... but Mick is sitting in his swivel chair, turns his back on the kid and looks out the window. After a few minutes, he turns back around.

    "Get a hat. Put it on your desk. Do not write when you're not wearing that hat and don't wear the hat when you're not writing."
    That was his advice.

    The next week the kid came in with a bunch of original pieces.

    The mind is a mysterious thing.

    David
    So basically, he told the kid to put on his thinking cap.

  19. #18

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    I only read the OP and not the rest yet... Here's my opinion(a complete amateur here) - there is no single way to get better. There are so damn many ways to compose music that "do this and that and you ...." advice is just as good as any other. The op only said "want to get better at it".

    What worked for me in the beginning was that I didn't allow a mere "kinda ok" idea to pass. For example, that made me work on 4 chords for 4 hours relentlessly. But that's just me (20 years ago really) and from there on I saw people get better if they just tried for years. From "meh" to "oh hell this is nice" pieces. Just because they didn't give up. I mean.. hm, thats the thing - you get better at it just by attempting to do better. I mean... heck. that never give up attitude for me was the key always. I knew if an idea of any kind in the piece sucked or was only "ok", there had to be a better way. Vague advice but the OP was vague also



    edit: forgot that one: start from 1st bar perhaps.


    another edit for a serious advice: What helped me hugely when had to come up with many songs quickly was to figure out a story first. I mean, first the story, then just find the words and music to describe it. It was 10x easier than the opposite - sit on some musical ideas and a bunch of nicely rhyming words and try to finish the song.
    Last edited by emanresu; 11-23-2017 at 02:57 PM.

  20. #19

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    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Joe
    There's so much to work on with just playing and improvising, that I haven't really done a lot of composing. I wrote a few rock songs back in the day, and I've composed a couple of fusiony things, but I'd like to see what's possible with composing in a somewhat traditional framework.

    I'd love to be one of those guys who just has a million melodies sitting in my head waiting to come out, but that's not me. I do hear melodies, but I don't typically remember them. They often come when I'm driving, or riding my motorcycle or otherwise engaged in something that doesn't really allow me to stop and work on it. When I sit down and "try to compose" I usually draw a blank, and when I do come up with stuff, it's mostly crap.

    So, I know this is something that will improve with practice. Or at least I could get my output up enough that there's some good stuff in amongst the crap.

    So how do I get started? I'd like to find a decent jumping off point, or at least a pointer to a direction that might help me out. I realize this is a very broad subject and there are certainly many approaches. Maybe just a suggestion of one thing that might help me get my feet wet? Anyone?
    The biggest problems I think any would be composer faces are:

    1) the blank page
    2) judging what you write

    My strategies are
    1) start with something. Anything. A groove and three random chords. A set of changes from a standard. An interesting scale. A tune that you want to pastiche. Anything.
    2) Write the whole thing in one go as much as possible, even if some of it's a bit basic and put it on the shelf for a couple of days. Revisit when you've forgotten what it sounds like and play it back to yourself. Make decisions based on that.

    Write as much as possible.

    Sure you can work on your chops - harmony, counterpoint, arrangement techniques, but these are all in addition to the basic engine of write-revisit-revise-finish.

  21. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    The biggest problems I think any would be composer faces are:

    1) the blank page
    2) judging what you write
    Yes, and for me, I think #1 is the biggest problem, which is why I jumped on Stevebol's suggestion. Any direction helps.

  22. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Joe
    Yes, and for me, I think #1 is the biggest problem, which is why I jumped on Stevebol's suggestion. Any direction helps.
    Well hey let's turn into a brainstorming session for ideas to get the ball rolling. (BTW I like to write music on paper with a pen and put on sibelius later. Sometimes I play stuff at the guitar or piano.)

    1) write 4 random notes on a stave without thinking. Play back. Pick out something you like
    2) pick three or four random chords out of a hat.
    3) choose a tune that you don't like. See if you can improve it by changing it.
    4) use a phone number as the basis of a melody
    5) put the notes of a famous song backwards.

    Any more? See if you can think of some Boston Joe!

  23. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    Well hey let's turn into a brainstorming session for ideas to get the ball rolling. (BTW I like to write music on paper with a pen and put on sibelius later. Sometimes I play stuff at the guitar or piano.)

    1) write 4 random notes on a stave without thinking. Play back. Pick out something you like
    2) pick three or four random chords out of a hat.
    3) choose a tune that you don't like. See if you can improve it by changing it.
    4) use a phone number as the basis of a melody
    5) put the notes of a famous song backwards.

    Any more? See if you can think of some Boston Joe!
    I tried the Pat Martino thing where I assigned a note to every letter of the alphabet and tried to make melodies out of words. It came out kinda 'meh'.

    I've also done the random note thing, and I've had some success with that, though generally in a modal/static vamp kind of setting. Never tried it with changes.

    So maybe I'll start with that for my contrafact and see where that gets me.

  24. #23

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    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Joe
    I tried the Pat Martino thing where I assigned a note to every letter of the alphabet and tried to make melodies out of words. It came out kinda 'meh'.

    I've also done the random note thing, and I've had some success with that, though generally in a modal/static vamp kind of setting. Never tried it with changes.

    So maybe I'll start with that for my contrafact and see where that gets me.
    The point is not to come up with something good - the point is to have material so you can make choices with it. Play 3 notes - and maybe think 'hmm, the first two are OK but I want to change the third.' That kind of thing.

  25. #24

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    It's like sculpting

  26. #25

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    This book helped me a bit. I'm fortunate that the author lives near me so I could talk to him about any questions I had.

    Beyond that, just doing a lot of it helped me get better. For me, the hard part isn't the initial idea, it's coming up with all the other stuff that fits with the initial idea that's hard. I tend to spit out lots of various ideas, then go over them later and try and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

    You play in a Dan Fox group, is that correct? Dan's pretty open about letting people bring in ideas and work them out. Nothing like hearing your stuff played by actual people to learn what works (and doesn't work).