Compositional Process

This post is about how I go about composing music.  Not everyone will work the same way but I see composition as a step by step process of making decisions.  There is nothing magical or mystical about it; it’s like building a new Lego model based on many, many other models that you have built before with the instructions.  It is the culmination of a series of decisions.  Here is how I composed a song for our Early Years production called “Have you Ever Seen a Goat?”

  1. Think of context. The musical I was writing the music for was entitled “The Duck in the Truck” so I read the book.  The goat in the story is lazing around in his motor-boat sleeping in a hammock.
  2. Think of setting. When I thought of sleeping in a boat in the sunshine I imagined tourists taking a Spanish siesta in the Mediterranean.
  3. Think of style. I thought we could make it a Spanish sounding flamenco song based on Point 2.
  4. Think of instrumentation. This meant I should compose the music on the guitar rather than the piano.
  5. Think of instrumental technique. I tried playing flamenco-type music on the guitar.  I wasn’t very good at it as my guitar playing is pretty basic – I am primarily a pianist.  I made up some sort of strumming style that sounded a bit like flamenco.
  6. Think of tonality. I tried to make it sound a bit like bull-fighting so I played some chords in a minor key like you hear in the movies.  I thought of the music in the film “The Mask of Zorro” as it sounds Spanish/Mexican.
  7. Think of instrumental/vocal range. After thinking about Catherine Zeta Jones and epic sword fights, I thought about the range of the children’s voices in Early Years and made sure that we were no lower than a B and no higher than a top D.
  8. Think of key. I decided that we would do this one in E minor as the last few songs I wrote were in D and C.
  9. Think of harmony. I played around with a few chords and stuck with Em, D and C major 7.  It sounded a bit flamenco-like and imagined Catherine Zeta Jones dancing around with a sword.
  10. Think of melody. I whistled a few tunes to the chords to see if anything fit.
  11. Think of lyrics. I realized I was procrastinating and thinking way too much about Catherine Zeta Jones so thought about some words to the song.  They had to be relatively simple, use the story as much as possible and use basic rhyming words as that is the focus in Early Years.
  12. Think of phrasing. I decided on a question as the first words so the music could rise when we got to the question mark and then fall the second time around.  I had done something similar before and this is a technique used in many styles of music.
  13. Think of context of lyrics. The question I thought of was “Have you ever seen a goat, floating on a boat, watching the waves go by” as that was portrayed by the picture in the book.
  14. Think of second phrase. I then needed an answering phrase so I settled on “Have you ever seen a goat, floating on a boat, gazing at the big, blue sky”.
  15. Practice to mastery. I then played this over and over about 14 times and sang and whistled a melody that fitted over the top till I was happy with how the words scanned and how the melody was shaped.
  16. Think of alternatives. I checked the range of the tune and was happy with it.  It did start on a low B, which is about the lowest note I can use for Early Years, and I considered changing the key to F minor but as this is a nightmare key for the guitar I decided to stick with E minor, especially as I love playing the chord of C major 7.
  17. Think of the structure. With young children you really need to keep a pretty distinct structure so I decided on an AABA format.
  18. Think of a new section. I then tried to make a section B.  I decided it should be about the goat being very lazy because that was the character of the goat and I know that character-based drama is better than plot-driven drama so I could do the same for music.
  19. Think about new lyrics. I played around with a few chords and came up with something – “Lazy, very lazy, sleeping in his hammock getting lots of rest”.
  20. Think about existing music. I was a bit worried about this as it sounded very familiar.  I wondered if I had written something similar before.  I hadn’t.  My next thought was what have I plagiarized this from?  I decided it was a bit similar to a 1980’s worship song we had sung in church.  I wondered whether it was too similar to put in.  I recalled the song where I thought I had cribbed it from and thought it was a bit similar in style but the notes were completely different and it certainly wasn’t flamenco, more like Israeli klezmer music.
  21. Think about adding a new phrase. Having decided the material was OK to use, I made the second phrase, “Lazy, very lazy, relaxing, chillaxing is what he likes best”.
  22. Think about audience, venue and culture. Most readers will be familiar with the word “chillaxing”; it’s what David Cameron the British Prime Minister is always being accused of.  I imagined the PM as a lazy goat in his posh motor-boat and thought that the teachers might chuckle at the reference.  Originally I thought perhaps I should not put this in as technically it is not really a word but then thought Roald Dahl got away with this all the time so why not?  I decided to leave it in.  Sorry PM.
  23. Think of transitions. I then needed to get back to section A.  I had finished on an imperfect cadence so I did a strangish bar-chord movement down the guitar with no particular notes in mind.  I thought the children might find that funny and it would be even funnier if I put a pause in just before it.  They would all be waiting for the strange bar movement and I could keep them waiting so they would all be looking straight at me, ready to sing.
  24. Think of different instrumentation. I then thought that in the show performance I would have to play this on a piano so what should I do?  I decided that I would use a descending glissando instead.
  25. Think of the ending. I then put all the song together and thought about how to end it.  I decided to repeat the last line twice which is an easy way to end a song and I had done this many times before.
  26. Think of an innovation. I liked the song but it seemed a little bland at the end. I thought I needed something a little different, as it was too formulaic.  One thing that I know I do very well is creating good endings, so I spend quite a bit of time getting this right.  I wondered what I should do to end the song a bit innovatively.
  27. Think of theoretical techniques. From my A-Level harmony lessons we had come across techniques known as augmentation and diminution.  Augmentation is when you make the notes longer.  I decided to make them exactly twice as long.  I then slowed down right to the last note sung and on the last note went back to the original tempo.  For the first time in my life I thanked the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg who used augmentation and diminution in his tone rows, where I had first learned the technique.
  28. Think of the final cadence. I ended the song with a perfect cadence with just the guitar in triumphant, flamenco style. I even thought of putting an “O Lay!” at the end but decided against it as the last time I did this, this kids were a nightmare saying it all the time in the wrong places.
  29. Think of the introduction. It is always best to leave the introduction till the end as you have material you can use.  In fact, many musical introductions are simply the final phrase so you need the ending before you can have the beginning.
  30. Practice to mastery. I then played the song about 14 more times until I was happy about it.

This does not include the whole scoring and recording process which is still part of composition.  In those stages the song changed slightly as I had to formalize it so another musician would be able to play the music.  I also tidied up some of the rhythms so it would score well.

For a very simple song I had to make at least thirty decisions; imagine what it’s like for a symphony!  This is also why I am so unsure about composition being central to the Primary curriculum.  Composition done well is very hard and needs an awful lot of thought.  It is certainly not impossible for children to achieve; some children will just get it and not have to think too hard.  However, others really need to be explicitly taught what to do and this is why I think it is inappropriate for Primary-aged children.  Half the problem is that the tasks that children are often asked to do in composition lessons in KS1, 2 and 3 require group decision-making and it is hard enough to make one decision on your own rather than decide together and argue about it.  We seem to think group decision making is easier as many hands make light work.  It is not, composing collaboratively is even harder in my experience unless one person writes the lyrics and the other writes the music.  And if you are the one writing the lyrics, it’s hardly a Music lesson.

To compose well you need to play an instrument fluently; without being able to play the guitar relatively competently, there is no chance I could have composed that song.  Also, many of the decisions I made to write the song were based on things that I had played and heard before.  This is why I believe that if we focus on performing, aural skills and listening to a wide range of music children will become better composers.  Time spent composing is time lost on performing and listening and paradoxically won’t necessarily make them better at composing.  Being a better performer will.  There is no merit in letting children flounder at the beginning trying to create music that they are ill-prepared to make.  Let’s spend the time performing instead and bring in composition a little bit later where they will flourish.

Here is the song:

Have You Ever Seen A Goat final

One thought on “Compositional Process

  1. Great read, after having heard this wonderful song song over and over again, during a 6 week half- term.
    We take for granted the work behind composing great songs.
    A very talented teacher Mr Dan- thank you for sharing.

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