Sunday, June 29, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part III

In part III, what Analysis and Self-Analysis offers a composer.

Analysis (oh no, not THEORY...) 
People often hear “theory” used interchangeably with “analysis, ” so I’m going to address how most musicians encounter theory, which is usually in the context of a music class or sometimes through private instruction. Invariably, the vocabulary of written music is introduced (note values, rests, meter, key signatures, etc.) followed by long courses about how our harmony system works (i.e. the world of chord progressions). Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, yet these are only two of a dozen or so major areas of study. Only much later are other areas generally addressed. And because theory is most often taught without a concurrent connection to composition or improvisation, many students are dismayed by such an abstract and disembodied method. What this traditional approach fails to do is equip students to listen to any style of music, no matter how seemingly simple or absolutely unfamiliar, and observe the patterns that the piece creates. If you’ve been groomed to listen primarily to harmony, you’re going to miss out on a lot of music that doesn’t gravitate around traditional harmonic practice. 

Like a great painting, a piece of music can be studied in detail to reveal its many qualities— some quite subtle, some surprisingly obvious. Good places to start your investigation of pieces that inspire you are: style, overall form, lyrics (if present), phrasing, melody, rhythm, harmony, arrangement, tone color, and rate of change. Less traditional, and still fascinating elements are: global placement, elemental qualities, lightness spectrum, social/political context, style tendencies, and placement within the composer’s overall output. 

So, if analysis is an after-the-fact phenomenon and is not actually composing, why bother? The first and most obvious benefit will become apparent when you feel stuck on some part of a piece and need a way to get “un-stuck.” After all, even the most experienced composers get stuck sometimes. The tools that come from analysis are akin to having your very own emergency roadside service. Anytime you feel the need for a “jump”, or a good flashlight to help you see why you’re at an impasse, you’ll thank yourself for having those skills. 

Another benefit you’ll feel from analysis lies in your ability to pre-plan. Granted, I pay careful attention to my unexpected ideas (and gifts) that show up and incorporate them when they strengthen a piece. But I also appreciate the ability to compose based upon certain elements that I know in advance, like style, key, melodic range, piece length, type of event that the piece will be played for, etc. 

The final benefit is more unconscious in nature, but no less important. Learning how to take apart music will help you trust your first instincts—a critical skill for any composer. Over the last several decades of composing, I have noticed that I feel much more trusting of my ideas as they occur, even when they don’t at first seem to make sense. Time after time I’ve observed that my first impulse was correct when I looked at my decision-making process using the tools of analysis (though not during the purely creative phase). I love that feeling of knowing that I can “find my way home”, no matter how far afield I travel. 

All of the benefits outlined in the previous section certainly h old true when you examine your own work. And there is a skill to keeping that analytic part of your mind at bay when you are in the exploratory phase of a new song, so don’t be alarmed if you notice a bit of that internal chatter at first. It’s a natural tendency to become conscious of your creative process when learning the various aspects of composing. 

When students who have done a fair amount of composing take a step back, they can quickly see what styles, forms, and approaches they’ve taken a liking to. Chances are good that many of their compositional choices are the result of unconscious habit, and this is where detailed observations and gentle suggestions from an experienced coach can make a big difference. For more advanced or professional composers, the role of the coach is to instill a system of observation that enables more risk-taking and more ambitious projects.

I’ve been observing for quite some time what styles of music I listen to and improvise in, yet in which I have not yet created finished compositions. For that very reason, I recently composed both a three-movement suite in a classical Turkish style, and I am currently completing my first odd-time funk piece in 5/4. Consequently, I find myself able to not only visit these styles, like exotic destinations, but to inhabit them as well.

In Part IV, we'll look at Games and Free Writing. Stay tuned...

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