We can do music just for the pleasure of making it without even thinking that we want to convey a message. But having a sense of where we want to go by trying to convey a message, an idea or feeling, will help you to organize your thoughts and give direction or purpose to your musical endeavors – this will already be a way of eliminating the blank page block and get you started.
So, before you begin composing, it is good to have a plan that you can follow or even discard if or when needed. At this stage, everything should be considered to be just guidelines and the only rule you really have to abide is your own aesthetic sense. Part of the experimentation process is having a framework that we can return to or deviate from. So what a plan does is to introduce some self-imposed limitations that in the end will be the basis for a more coherent experimentation process and musical path.
As said, you should have a clear idea of what you wish to convey with the music either if it’s on a high level of complexity, meaning more nuances and information to cope with; a more generic idea like the feeling of excitement; or just music with a powerful rhythmic drive.
Although some of the following will vary according to the genre and instrumentation you are composing for, here are some broad suggestions that would help you to start sketching your musical journey:
- Deciding the instrumentation or timbre regarding its relationship with characters, ideas/feelings – i.e. if you are going for aggressiveness, try using distortion, degrade the signal or sing differently in a given section
- Defining the musical structure or form that you will need – will there be an intro, what is the main theme (or chorus), verse, etc;
- Trying to be specific as to the level of intensity present in each section and respective transitions: i.e. working with variations (Micro-Form) of the musical material you created; where will you have transitions (rhythmic, modulations, etc);
- Defining how your melodies are going to be developed – i.e. like a long melodic sentence and the next section will be the answer; in a format of two part question and answer within the same section;
- Planning to use musical concepts and techniques accordingly – i.e. time signatures, type of chords, tonalities, modes, scales, associated to the feeling or idea you are exploring.
Inspired by Image – A practical Example
In previous posts, I’ve been stressing the importance of exploring your music creativity by using cues from non-musical ideas and associate those with your musical knowledge. One thing is to be knowledgeable of musical theory and depend solely on it – which also has its place; and another one is figuring out a way to use it without getting too technical, or to how to find a proper balance between your musical instincts and allowing your knowledge to kick in when needed.
Now we will be looking at the way I chose to work with this image and transform its extra-musical cues, or my perceptions from this imagery, into music. The musical events that you will hear are based on the action that is in tandem with the narrative I imagined for composition.
And with no further ado, here is the image I worked with:
Looking at the elements present in this image, I get this sense of adventure, magic and fairy tales:
- The owl is a central figure and I consider it to be the hero that everyone is putting their hopes on.
- There a dark forest, where our hero will find all sorts of perils and ordeals
- After that, it would get to this clearing with the lake, after escaping the woods and get some due rest.
- from thereon, our hero resumes his quest and flies towards the majestic mountains as he watches the sunrise leading the way to the next set of adventures.
Obviously, the image may suggest different things to you, and that way you would necessarily end up doing a different music based on your interpretations.
This example is presented in a single movement, much like in a Symphonic Poem*, where the music tries to follow the story’s events as they unfold. Nevertheless, and as I will show you, you will find some elements or motifs that are repeated throughout the music, to give a sense of cohesion (see The Importance of Repetition in Music or Music as Language).
So, let’s begin!
As a general approach, I used woodwinds to represent our hero, although sometimes is supported by strings gestures. And brass will be in charge of representing enemies and danger. I also used the celesta to imbue a certain sense of magic and mystery due to its dreamy quality of the timbre. Generally, I made use of diminished scales material and the sonority of the Lydian mode because of the implied augmented fourth interval, its dissonant quality, ambiguity and as a way to represent two distinct and opposing characters.
- To symbolize the tension while flying through the woods, you will hear the strings executing a tremolo. Harmony-wise, it is all based on minor chords.
- Double basses and celli enter with a melody doubled in major thirds interval and then proceed throughout with a perfect fifth interval – which is a strong interval and hints to the brave quality of our hero. The fact that they are used in such a low register is because it helps to provide that sense of a dense environment, filled with tension.
- Next, you will hear our hero’s theme, executed in the english horn and then supported by the first violins. As said, the melody is built over a harmony based minor chords due to this dark and grim situation
- You will also hear some muted brass because it stands for the danger or enemies lurking and still hidden from sight. I used contrasting dissonant chords and cluster brass FX to enhance the disparity between the hero’s goals and theirs, which are total opposites
- Alongside with the hero’s theme, I used the woodwinds, violins and the celesta in a complementary way to symbolize our hero flying around in the woods while providing that sense mystery and magic.
- In the end, the ascending melodic gesture from the violins represents the flight towards the imminent battle
- The tribal like percussion sets the tone for the battle before our hero dives into it
- Woodwinds and brass are respectively representing the antagonists, and their distant related scales/tonalities while interacting
- The meter is also changing frequently and the off-beat accents made by the strings represent the erratic flying and unpredictability of the fighting in the dense woods. In the end of this example, you will finally notice the strings playing a run and then a melodic gesture that represents our hero flying away and escaping that dangerous situation.
- The melodic gesture from the violins that you heard on the previous example is now fading as our hero sees a clearing and a lake where he will rest. Here you will only hear woodwinds and supporting strings in the high register
- In the image, you see that there are reflections in the lake’s surface. That is represented by the chimes tree, for its sparkling sound and by the harp with its arpeggios, in an attempt to illustrate the watery environment. Slowly, the harmony becomes less tense as the hero rests.
- This example and the next, mark the re-appearance of the hero´s main theme and its variations. Harmonically, the chords used are more stable or consonant, representing our hero’s recovery, and thus the slow orchestral build up.
- Here is the main theme again in the final section of our musical story.
- Finally, the strings are playing two complementary roles. The low strings are setting the pace with accents that give a sense of promptness to the next adventures, while the high strings are also adding momentum by executing arpeggios throughout.
And that’s it! The music ends in a high note, suggesting other great adventures for our hero. Now, listen to the whole music composition put together:
You could focus on another aspect of the image and develop on that. For instance, you could make a whole song about the perils encountered in the dark forest. This was just a way of showing you how you can make music based on the elements found of an image – or from any other source of inspiration; what it evokes, and then make your musical plans accordingly!
But, why don’t you try it? 🙂
* A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous movement, which illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source.
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