Saturday, January 31, 2015

How to Write a Tune 1

Would you like to be able to write a tune, say, for a song or a hymn or an instrumental solo? How can you make it sound like as though you meant it that way? How can you make it sound like a tune?

I make no claims to be a great composer. I may not even be rated as a particularly good composer when my none-too-numerous musical works are subjected to the judgment of history. I'm still finding my way along. But I've had to write a lot of tunes lately in a very short amount of time, and I have been working on this for two or three decades, so I might just have some pointers that may help beginners get oriented. Today's tip will be the first in a short series on this.

But first, let's lay a bit of background, both to help you and to establish where I'm coming from on this.

I dig classical music and traditional worship music, such as hymns. I have the highest respect for chant, both the Roman and Anglican types. I love the music of Handel and Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, and many, many other models right up to the present day, and I think there is much to be learned from how they handled melody and other dimensions of music.

I believe a melody written for any instrument, including the human voice, will work best if written with the melodic qualities of that instrument in mind, before being tried out on another instrument (such as the piano) or shaded in with harmony, counterpoint or accompaniment. So, assuming for example the tune you want to write is for a vocal song, I think the best way to approach it is vocally, by singing the tune (or at least a portion of it) before ever laying finger to keyboard or pen to paper.

I think of composing music as a problem solving activity. For example, I have recently taken to comparing the process of harmonizing a tune to doing Sudoku. Every composer sets his own rules and criteria for how to solve musical problems, often a specific set of rules for each individual piece, and how each problem is worked out according to these rules is what gives each piece its distinctive style. Each compositional problem contains its own parameters for what needs to be accomplished and what means may be used to accomplish it.

Solving musical puzzles could be, and maybe should be, as exciting as, or more exciting than, doing many other kinds of puzzles. Music exists in a space that has more conceptual dimensions, more levels of complexity, than nearly anything else in human experience - especially when it is married to poetry, and I think sacred poetry raises that complexity to the highest degree.

A traditional Christian hymn in Protestant chorale style may be one of the most complex yet deceptively simple inventions in the history of mankind. For it to achieve the highest level of excellence, it needs to succeed on so many levels. The lyrics can be bad poetry, or they can be in a reasonably good verse style but without much spark of inspiration, or they can be rich in literary techniques but emotionally dry, or they can be passionately moving but lacking in taste or thematic unity, and there are lots of other ways it can be more or less good but not great, and then once in a while it is all that a poem can be.

All that is prologue to the question of the religious content of the lines. What is the doctrinal persuasion of the poem? Is the doctrinal message clear but trite and shallow? Is it a brilliant exposition of doctrine but spiritually dry? Does it drip with evangelical fervor but lack biblical imagery? Does it fascinate with its kaleidoscopic swirl of biblical analogies but lack a unifying idea? If it's supposed to be (for example) a Lutheran hymn, how does it score on the Law-Gospel meter? The efficacy of the Word? The power of the Sacraments? The theology of the cross? And so on. The author has to balance a lot of things to achieve something really special on all these criteria, and then the question remains whether it would have any appeal to the layman, or to children, or to the singing congregation, or whatever the target audience is meant to be.

And then there's the music, which has at least as many axes along which it can range from bad to so-so to good and exceedingly good, and it takes the lot of them reckoned together to achieve an overall sense of whether the music was at all good, or whether it might not even be great.

When great literary, religious and musical materials comes together in one place, it's little short of miraculous.

So let's get down to the most basic level: the tune, how to write one, Lesson 1: Deciding what key to write it in.

All right. You've hummed the tune. You know how it goes. And let's also assume you have the musical wherewithal to scratch the notes onto paper. Preparing to do this is a whole course of study unto itself. It's called music theory, though a lot of it comes packaged with practical experience such as piano or voice lessons. If you want to write the tune down, you've got to know what the lines and spaces on the staff stand for, at least in the treble clef (though you'll need the bass clef later on). You'll want to have some concept of the names of the notes and the size of the musical intervals between them, their rhythmic durations, and the sharps and flats of the major and minor keys.

Consider all this Lesson 0, because if you don't already know it, you won't get Lesson 1. And while you might be able to find someone who can read and write musical notation for you and convince them to act as your secretary, your composing career probably won't go much farther than writing a few tunes unless you learn the basics for yourself. Don't get me wrong; some people have written famous melodies this way, and had other people add harmony and accompaniment for them. But there will be a point in this series where the fun will go out of it for you unless you learn your crotchets and quavers. Just so you're forewarned.

So. Now you've got a tune in your mind and you're ready to start marking notes on scoring paper. But where do you begin? Should the first note be a G, a B-flat, or a C-sharp? There are literally a dozen possibilities.

One approach, though not necessarily the right one, is to poke around on a piano or some other instrument and then write down whatever note sounds closest to the first note of the melody as you hear it in your mind's ear. Then, by working out which degree of the tonic scale that note is, you can very simply work out what key your piece is in. But supposing for example that your tune is in a major key, it would still be the same tune no matter what key you wrote it in. Many famous tunes have been written down in different keys, sometimes within the original piece and sometimes in books that transpose them into other keys for one reason or another.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make, what key your tune is in? Well, to answer that you'll need to understand why different books print the same song transposed to different keys.

Sometimes you'll see a piece that was written with lots of sharps or flats transposed so it would have fewer black notes, or to change flats into sharps or sharps into flats. This may have been done to make it easier for musicians to play it on their instruments. There are keys in which a piece may be harder to play on a flute or trumpet, or may present bowing difficulties to a string player. Pianists and organists may also find some keys easier to play than others, and will appreciate having a choice of keys in which to play certain pieces.

Then there's the matter of the range of an instrument or voice type. The same tune in one key might fit comfortably within the range of a flute or oboe, or the vocal range of a tenor or alto, while in another key it might be pitched uncomfortably high and put strain on the performer. Or it might be pitched too low and make it hard for them to project their tone properly. Or it might not fit within the range of notes they can play or sing at all. As for the keyboardist, all the notes may exist on the piano and the two keys may be equally easy to play, but the lower key may give the harmony a dark, muddy, murky sound; or a higher key may make it sound shrill, thin and unsupported. Sometimes it may take as little as a difference of a major second to register undesirable effects like this, which can seriously harsh your groove as you're singing and playing through, say, a low voice album of songs that were originally written with a high voice in mind.

If you look at hymnals published over the generations, you may notice that certain hymns keep being shifted down into lower keys. This is because concert pitch, the standard used for tuning instruments, has gone up little by little as the technology of building musical instruments evolved. Authentic-practice and original-instrument performances of pieces from the Baroque era will, for example, sound about a step lower than modern-instrument performances of the same. If you try to sing a hymn by Martin Luther in the key it was originally published in, you'll feel it in your vocal cords: the need to transpose the tune into a lower key. And if you take a choir piece written for a TTBB ensemble and try to change it to an SATB choir piece, you may find that more needs to be changed than who sings what: the whole piece may need to come up a step or two.

So, what key your tune will be written in really is an important decision.

There are a lot of reasons to choose one tune rather than another, quite apart from whether it will be a minor or a major key or some other scale or mode. Keeping your tune firmly in mind, you may have to poke around a bit and experiment until you find the right answer.

What are some of these reasons to choose?

RANGE: First, you'll want the tune to fit within the range of the voice or instrument it is intended for. So, after sketching it out in an arbitrary key (say, C major), figure out which are the highest and lowest notes in the tune. Then find out how those notes lie within the range of the target voice or instrument. Well inside or overlapping the realm of the impossible? Painfully high, ungratefully low, or comfortably centered? Look for a key where the range fits well.

TESSITURA: Similar to the question of range (sort of the "over-under" of the pitches in the tune) is the tessitura, which is more of an average. Do notes quite high or low in the instrument's or voice's range predominate to an uncomfortable, tiring, or unattractive way? Will the overall tune err in favor of sounding dark and muted or high and shrill? Will the highlights and shadows of the melody be appropriately balanced? Does the melody cross an awkward break between vocal or instrumental registers too often or in a way the performer will have trouble smoothing over?

EASE OF READING: Will the performer need to work extra hard to coordinate the written notes with actual performance? Will the number of sharps or flats put an undue burden on them? You will also have to consider how the choice of key will affect the performance of all the other harmony parts.

DEVELOPMENT: Is the tune a theme you plan to develop in a larger-scale piece? In that case, in what other keys, relative to the original key, may you want to state the theme? How those keys relate to the range, tessitura, and ease of reading issues may prompt you to change your mind about the original key, consequently changing the key of all the other occurrences of the theme.

SYMBOLISM: If you're writing a song about Jesus' seven last words on the cross, would you consider using a key with seven sharps in it? How about five sharps for his five wounds? Or three sharps (or flats) for a hymn on the Trinity? Some composers assign other symbolism to their choice of keys, such as Mozart's "Masonic" key of E-flat and Beethoven's tragic key of C minor.

TONE COLOR: Musicians and music buffs are often sensitive to tiny changes in tone color resulting from as little as whether a piece is notated in F-sharp (six sharps) or G-flat (six flats). The choice between E-flat major and D major, only a half step apart, can have a real effect on the mood and musical color of a piece.

GOOD PRACTICE: All that being said, it's good practice to exercise your ability to write, and others' ability to perform, in a variety of keys. Always sticking to the same three or four keys can be a trait of a composer whose body of work all sounds the same. Trying a less frequently visited key can force you to stretch your horizons and lead you to discover unexpected touches.

Have your tune's key picked? Good. Now, if you've followed my advice and written it in your head without pounding it on a piano, you have a place to begin as you pick out the notes and ink them onto the staff paper. But maybe you haven't even gotten that far. Lesson 2 will get into more of the parameters of what makes a tune a tune. Stay tuned, eh!

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