Composing an Original Score

Writing an original choral octavo brings new challenges, as compared with a choral arrangement.

1)  Text – A composer must select a meaningful text…live with the text for weeks, months, or years.  How long does it take to get to the point of setting the text to music?  It varies, but I can tell you that one text was on my desk for five years, and I finally decided to go ahead and set it, even though I “heard” the melody in mixed meter, with several 5/4 measures.  Would anyone want to sing a piece in 5/4?  Thankfully….yes!

2)  Population and voicing – Who will sing the composition?  A composer must consider for whom the text is being set.  Many texts are appropriate for a particular age group and maturity level.  Others are perfect for most singers. The text may determine whether the composition is for male, female, young, or mature singers.  Before beginning the piece, a composer must know the age and musical ability level of the singers.

3)  Melody – What is a good melody?  In my opinion, a good melody is one that really “sticks”…the melody is put on the page, when I can sing it all day in my head.  When I am forming a melody, I take a look at the rhythmic “suggestion” of the words…then…I take a look at the vowels in the phrases.  It is my opinion that in most cases, open vowels (“ah, eh, oh”) should be assigned to “moderate to high” notes, and vowels such as “oo” and “ee” will work better for the “low to moderate” notes of the melody.  In a good melody, stressed syllables should be longer durations than unstressed syllables.  A melody must be easily sung and make sense.

4)  Key – Once the melody is secure, a composer must find an appropriate key that will complement the notes in the melody.  In addition, the key must be compatible for the vocal abilities of all singers.  Is there an accompaniment?  Are you writing for a skilled or limited accompanist?  Would the accompanist be able to perform the piece in the selected key? As an accompanist, I’ve often wondered, “Where would I be, if someone had not written a piece that a junior high student could play (with a little effort)?”

5)  Structure – The process for writing an original composition will generally follow the same steps of “writing an arrangement,” once items 1-4 have been determined.  Take a look at the blog for 12/20/14.  In some cases, the text calls for a through-composed composition, but most listeners want to “find home again.”  They want to hear something familiar.  When my Mom attends a concert, she sometimes says, “They only sang a couple of songs I knew.”  For most audience members, to hear something familiar is very special.  You see, she is 92-years-old, and enjoys celebrating her musical life “in concert.”  It gives her something to hear that she can no longer do very well.

6)  Total effect – What effect do you want to create in the composition?  Mystery?  Jubilation?  Power?  Energy?  Reflection?  Joy?  We must understand the text, insert our creativity, and work to that end.  We must know where we are going and how we are going to get there.  That is the challenge in musical composition.  The text must travel “hand-in-hand” with the music.

7)  Accompaniment – Before a composer writes an accompaniment, there are several considerations, most of which concern the difficulty level and style of the accompaniment. In addition, the composer must determine exactly how the accompaniment will enhance the voices and the structure of the work.  What is important to conveying the text?  How much is too much?  When should the accompaniment be silent?  If the accompaniment is present…why?

Wrap-up:  These considerations might help you get started in writing an original composition.  You might want to start simply (2-Part), and gradually move toward more complex voicings and accompaniments.  Give it a try!