Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.

What Can a Japanese Pasta Chef Teach You About Jazz?

I continue to be very busy lately between teaching and gigging, so apologies for letting things be so “dark” around here. Tonight (Saturday, September 26, 2015) I’ll be performing at the Kinston Ballroom in Knoxville, TN for the Knoxville Lindy Exchange with the Gamble/Wilson Swing Orchestra. I really enjoy playing with big bands and this one will be especially fun because I usually end up having to be the music director and deal with all the business stuff when I do big band gigs. This time I get to be a sideman and just enjoy playing.

In the mean time, a bassist who grew up in New Jersey and New York went on tour to Japan and learned how to play jazz from a Japanese pasta chef.

The chef’s name was Toshiaki Yanase, and cooking pasta wasn’t even his main gig; he also ran a small fruit stand! His life story, and his dishes ended up being symbolic to much of what I experienced in the country, and drew some interesting parallels to improving in music. I was on tour with a wonderful Japanese pianist named Yuki Futami. And while traveling throughout the country, inspiring encounters like these were all too common-some directly related to music, and others like in the case with Toshi, perhaps a bit more metaphorical. I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned during my stay.

Why Is Sheet Music Necessary For Music Education?

Robbie Gennet, a “songwriter, musician, educator and journalist,” tried to make the case that learning to read music notation is irrelevant for music education. His case is that none of the following musicians learned to read music:

All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.

Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:

As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.

He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.

Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.

I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

Weekend Picks

Lots of projects keeping me busy lately. Until I can get some more original content posted, here are my weekend picks.

How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.

Not your cup of tea? How about looking through a Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments?

Do you have aspirations to freelance as a musician? Danny Barnes has some great advice on How To Play In Someone Else’s Band.

Lastly, web comic The Oatmeal describes in a both amusing and enlightening way The State of the Music Industry.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday again. Here are some of my music related picks for your weekend surfing.

Here’s an older (2011) article from Psychology Today that asks Can Art and Brain Be Put Together?

Although we are all now more culturally comfortable bathing in conversations about art and brain, are we making progress? Has looking into the brain helped us make sense of the arts? Here I will briefly explain why I believe we have made little progress. And then I will propose an alternative route to understanding art and its origins.

And an interesting article from Missy Mazzoli on composing classical music, Missy Mazzoli Defies Dogma, Demands Diversity. In discussing music composed by William Brittelle that includes electric guitar and drum set, Mazzoli asks:

Why is the classical music world not clambering to claim this excellent music for its own? Because its creators use repetition as a compositional tool? Because they write triads? Is it the electric guitars? The drums? Is it that the composers don’t look or act like the “composers” we read about in music history class? Let it go!

There are many theories about Mozart’s death, ranging from poisoning to renal disease. If you’re into academic articles about medical problems that performing artists deal with, you can read another theory, Vitamin D deficiency contributed to Mozart’s death. Jazz musicians beware! Staying out all night and sleeping all day has consequences.

Lastly, Bob Pixley, Deputy Professor of Music and Substitute 3rd Trumpet for the Herrodsburg Volunteer Fire Department Brass Quintet, offers his trumpet tips on the “whisper key.”

Make Your Own Mute/Bow Holder Using Velcro

Glue Velcro Around Cup
1. Glue Velcro Around Cup

Two musician friends of mine simultaneously have come up with similar uses for velcro. Bob, a horn player, designed his own mute holder using velcro strips and a large plastic drink cup. Start by gluing a strip of velcro around your cup. You’ll obviously need to find a cup that’s large enough to hold your mute. Not such a big deal for trumpet players, but probably impossible for tubists.

2. Wrap Velcro Strip Around Chair
2. Wrap Velcro Strip Around Chair

You’ll need enough velcro to next wrap around your chair. I imagine that it would be more comfortable to use the soft fabric-like strip hear, since you’ll be sitting on it. Save the plastic hook portion of the velcro for use on the cup.

Completed Mute Holder
Completed Mute Holder

You’re all set. Your horn mute is right by your bell when you’re playing, making those quick mute changes much easier.

Velcro Bass Bow Holder
Velcro Bass Bow Holder

Coincidentally, a bassist friend of mine, Michael, was unsatisfied with using the bow quivers most bassists use if they alternate between arco and pizz throughout a performance or rehearsal. Michael needed a bow for one tune on a gig we were playing together and the bow changes happened a couple of times and were immediate. Since he mainly plays an older, slap-bass style on this tune he really couldn’t hold the bow in his hand when he wasn’t using it, so he used some velcro on his bow and the tailpiece of his bass to make for a very quick bow holder.

Keep in mind that he was using this for one tune and he doesn’t use his bow for gigs much at all. If you have an expensive bow and need to change a lot during your show I’m not sure how much I’d trust it to stay put. Use at your own risk.

What other musical uses of velcro can you think of? Off the top of my head, I was thinking that there might be a way to use some velcro to design an easy to reset method of holding sheet music on your music stand during outdoor gigs. I’ll have to give it some thought and see what I can come up with.

Science and Musical Thinking

I’ve long been interested in how science can inform what musicians do. Like others, I also make music with a lot of folks who have STEM careers (math teacher, pharmacist, surgeon, neurologist, rocket science engineer). Robert S. Root-Bernstein did some review of the literature on this and has some interesting ideas on this matter. To set up his thesis he writes of a fictional orchestral concert announcement:

This has been a very special concert in ways in which most of you are probably unaware. Everything about this concert is permeated with science. I, myself, am an expert in insects. The entire orchestra is made up of scientists and physicians. Indeed, you may well know that “doctor’s symphonies” exist in most major cities in the United States. But most importantly, all of the composers whose music we have played tonight also have ties to science. Herschel was perhaps the most famous astronomer of the early nineteenth century and some of his compositions have recently been recorded on the Newport Classics label. Berlioz was a practicing physician; Borodin was a Professor of Chemistry who pursued two professional careers simultaneously throughout his life; Ansermet trained as a mathematician and taught mathematics at the University of Lausanne before turning his attention solely to music. Iannis Xenakis is also a mathematician, who adds to his accomplishments those of a practicing architect, and he has written extensively on the interconnections between the arts and sciences. Elgar not only had a private chemistry laboratory, but actually filed a patent for a process for producing hydrogen sulfide. Bing is a cardiologist and medical researcher of international repute who has been awarded such international prizes as the Claude Bernard Medal for his scientific work.

Root-Bernstein hypothesis that the apparent correlation between music and the sciences to be contradictory to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theories, which are currently in vogue in education and academia. In contrast to Gardner, Root-Bernstein proposes that musical thinking is an advantage to scientific problem solving.

I, on the other hand, believe that creative thinking is trans-disciplinary and transferable from one field to another. More specifically, I believe that musical and scientific abilities are what I call “correlative talents”. By correlative talents, I mean skills or abilities in several different areas that can be integrated to yield surprising and effective results. Skills associated with music–pattern-forming and pattern recognition, kinesthetic ability, imaging, aesthetic sensibility, analogizing and analysis–and indeed an understanding of music itself–have often been important components of the correlative talents of many famous scientists. One way to summarize my basic thesis would be to say that correlative talents represent harmonious ensembles of skills that enable musical scientists to “duet” better.

His arguments are compelling, if largely anecdotal. The most interesting thing to me, however, is the idea that a scientific viewpoint might also be equally helpful for great musicians. While I can think of several professional musicians who are interested in sciences, there is a cultural belief in some circles that music is an Art (definitely with a capital A) and its goal is to reach that realm of the human experience that science just isn’t capable of understanding (according to them).

Regular readers probably already know that I fall down on the side of science here. I’m a big science fan and have personally found a little scientific method applied to artistic problems are often quite helpful.

What about your own interests and strengths? How many of you musicians have a science or math background? Do you make your living as a musician or do you have STEM career? Do you think that scientific thinking can be advantageous for musical creativity?


J.S. Bach Crab Canon

Here’s a neat video showing one of J.S. Bach’s “crab” canons. The melody of this piece in retrograde produces a very clever canon. This video by YouTube user Jos Leys shows how this works very clearly, including showing how the melodies line up on a mobius strip.

Even though it’s a short piece, it’s really amazing that Bach was able to compose a melody that created harmonious counterpoint when played in retrograde like this.

Just to warm up myself to work on a composition project I decided to try writing an 8 measure crab canon myself. You’ve got to keep in mind the harmonic motion must work in retrograde as well as keeping track of the intervals and melodic motion. As I wrote the first measure I went to the end and filled in the bottom part’s final measure and worked a couple of measures this way. Then I worked on composing the bottom part for the first couple of measures and filled in the top part towards the end, modifying the melodies as I needed to in order to make the harmonic and melodic motion fit the rules of baroque counterpoint. The middle four measures were the most challenging for me. I wanted to get away from being completely diatonic here and it took me a little work to get everything to work out.

The results, well, not quite as good as Bach’s. Here is what I came up with and a MIDI realization. Try it out yourself as an exercise and see how you do.

Crab Canon

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Stealing Like An Artist

Steal Like An Artist is a book by Austin Kleon.  I haven’t read it (yet), but I did enjoy looking through Kleon’s blog post covering ideas he wrote about in that book.  While Kleon is writing from the point of view of an author and visual artist, I find much of his advice to be helpful for composers and musical improvisers too.

Number 1 on his list, look at other works closely, take what you like and leave behind the rest. Continue reading Stealing Like An Artist