The Musical Sketchbook
In order to trigger your imagination, you may like to try one of the following approaches:
What am I trying to imagine?
- Imagine a piece you might play on your instrument
- Imagine how you might express a mood you have been thinking recently
- Imagine how you might capture a non-musical thing in music; animals, places, weather conditions, times of day, etc. are all good potential topics for music
- Imagine how you might explore a musical journey of opposites: quiet to loud, low to high, slow to fast, etc.
- Imagine how you might put a poem or set of lyrics to music
- Imagine a pattern of notes that could be used repeatedly and also imagine how the pattern might gradually change as it is repeated
Imagination is a deeply personal thing – you can’t show someone else what you are imagining, or how you started imagining it. There are lots of things you could imagine about your piece before you start putting notes into a computer or onto manuscript paper. These include:
- The energy level of the music
- The tempo of the music
- The dynamic of the music
- The instrumental and vocal sounds required for the piece
- The register of the music
- The rhythmic feel of the music
- A sense of the texture of the music
- A sense of the tonality required
- The rise or fall of a melodic line
Once you have some answers to these questions, you may want to spend some time finding some specific notes that utilise these imagined ideas. Few of us imagine complete musical ideas with note-by-note precision, but with the help of the instrument we play, or a computer, we can find a close representation of the musical sounds we have been imagining.
One aspect of our imaginations is that they tend to rely on a short-term memory capability: what you imagine tomorrow is unlikely to be the same as today’s results. When you have found the notes that capture your imagined idea, it valuable therefore to make a sketch of them.
These sketches could take many forms, including:
- A melodic shape
- A bass riff
- A chord progression
- A rhythmic groove
- A distinctive texture
The artist we thought about in my last blog will probably have made a lot of sketches before starting work on the canvas itself; you will benefit from doing likewise. Daily work at your composition will increase your creative fluency. Regularly imagining how your music might fill the blank canvas of silence and keeping a ‘sketchbook’ of resulting thoughts will provide you with a collection of musical ideas, some of which may become part of your composition.
What makes for good musical ideas?
In short, CHARACTER – something that makes the melody, rhythm, harmony or texture clearly recognisable: a strong sense of musical identity. It is not easy to say what musical character is, but you know it when you hear it. As with people, some character traits are attractive, positively charged and sunny, others are unattractive, negatively charged and dark. In music – because we are dealing with something artistic – both types can generate excellent results; sometimes one can involve both types in a piece.
Similarly, now that you have some characterful musical ideas for you piece, you will need a plan for exploring them and a structure that will allow you to develop your ideas and create contrast at appropriate moments.
If you were writing a play, you would need to devise your characters at the outset. You would probably make sure that there were some contrasts between them since this would allowing for dramatic tension. You would also need to create a plan for your play: a plot in which the interaction of your characters would be interesting, perhaps comical or tragic.
Along with musical character, STRUCTURE is the other vital to a composition. Once you have some sense of the character of your piece, and how that is to be created through the fundamental choices of instrumentation, tempo and tonality, your imagination should also consider structure.
Composing your piece is not unlike writing a story. There can be a structure of chapters; within each chapter, there can be a structure of paragraphs, and with each paragraph there can be a structure of sentences. The level of change between sentences is less significant than the level of change between paragraphs; then the level of change between chapters will be something greater still.
When we are composing, we need to build similar structures: musical phrases which combine to make sentences; musical sentences that combine to make paragraphs, and musical paragraphs that combine to make chapters.
So starting with one of our sketched ideas (the result of our imagining whilst contemplating the blank canvas of the silence) we need to find a way to:
- Continue the idea with enough continuity to make a sentence
- Sustain the essence of the idea further but with some changes to create a further sentence (or several)
- Retain some aspects of the idea whilst introducing a more significant change to create a further paragraph (or two)
- Create the start of a new chapter with a contrasting idea, whilst keeping enough consistency of style and substance to prevent the contrasting section from sounding as though it should be in a totally separate piece.
A creative composer can find many ways to achieve this gradation of change in a piece to build a convincing structure.
Building to a complete piece can therefore be a process that involves the following:
- Listening to silence
- Sketching some ideas
- Thinking how ideas can be extended, developed and explored
- Composing the piece - thinking of the structure of phrases, sentences, paragraphs and chapters.
I hope that you have found these ideas useful - do get in touch with your comments ...