A Crash Course in Composing

Where do Composers Start?

Over the past couple of weeks, Intermezzo Orchestra students (6th graders) have been trying their hands at creating an original composition. It all started with the question:

Where do composers start?

We came to the conclusion that composers “simply mess around on their instrument to come up with a short musical ditty.” In musical terms, composers create a musical theme. For example, one of the most famous musical themes composed by Ludwig van Beethoven goes like:

Beethoven simply took 3 repeating notes followed by “I don’t know, how about this” different note. He then used this musical theme to compose a whole 28 minute long symphony. Which is kind of what we did, except our compositions top out at about 1 minute long.

Student Compositions

You can view and listen to all of the students’ compositions at bit.ly/lzorkcomp. But before you do so, let’s look at some of the compositions in detail. In some cases, I helped by providing a chordal accompaniment.

Nell’s Composition

Nell’s composition isn’t fully written out, but we knew what to perform. She wants us to play the first line twice, then the second line, and last the first line again. We can consider that AABA form. Notice how in the A part (top line) the 1st and 3rd measure are the same. The 2nd and 4th measure are almost the same too. Nell thought this gave the piece some symmetry. We can further analyze the form of Part A (top line) to be ABAB’ – where the last measure is just like B but slightly different. Yes, I agree Nell, it does give the piece symmetry. Listen to the recording.

Charlie’s Composition

Again, Charlie’s composition is also AABA form. The composition is in the key of D Major. Meaning the melody sounds like it “wants to return” to the home note D. Notice how the final note of the piece sounds good as it ends on that D.

When we asked “How does a composer start a B-theme?” Charlie simply took the rhythm of the A-theme and copied it in the B-theme but with different notes! Then he added some more notes that sounded good and, “Bam!” he’s got a whole B-theme! Listen to the recording.

Jade’s Composition

Jade did something different. She started with the idea that she wanted to tell the story of two sides of a village. One side with a fast tempo and the other side with a slow tempo. She doesn’t use the AABA form, but instead through-composed her piece. She found that her ideas flowed so fast that mixing all of the parts together made it sound a little too random. So we added some consistency by changing a note here or there, fixing the rhythm so the meter matched throughout, and added some starts and stops. Jade really liked when we changed the E and B naturals in the slow part to flats. Listen to the recording (she had me perform it for her).

Katherine’s Composition

Katherine’s composition also uses AABA form where she repeats the first line twice, plays the second line, and then repeats the first line. She uses a few interesting composition tricks as follows. She started with a musical idea (measure 1) where she “repeats the note C a few times, does a little upwards turn, and then back down to C.” In the second measure she reversed the first measure but changed the rhythm slightly because “it sounded better.” For the third measure, she repeated the first measure. And in the fourth measure she created something longer sounding that leads us to the next part. Her B-theme uses the same exact rhythm as the A-theme but is a melodic inversion. Meaning, instead of having an upwards turn, she has a downwards turn. Genius! She repeated the measure a few times to build tension and brought us back to the A-theme with some longer notes. She didn’t know it, but the B-theme contrasts in the relative minor key. Listen to the recording.

Olivia’s Composition

Olivia also uses the AABA form for her piece. So the red notes are played twice, followed by the blue notes, then back to the red notes. At first, Olivia had the blue notes as the beginning of her piece, but found that the red notes sounded better as the more frequent theme and the blue notes as a contrasting theme. Also, she rearranged the measures to her red notes as she originally had the second and third measure swapped. She found that it had more symmetry with the first and third measure being the same.

Note that she is a violist, so the clef is alto clef, and she writes a flat (b) sign in front of the note F. I don’t think she means to play an Fb, but instead wants an F-natural which is a low 2.

Now if I can get Olivia to share the recording with me, I’ll share it with you!

Other Compositions

Listen to all the other compositions!