Ican’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones – John Cage. At some point as an improviser, whether you welcome it with open arms or avoid it like the plague, you’re going to be faced with the chance to compose. That’s right – you, alone in a practice room writing your own music.
You may be excited to explore this creative opportunity or maybe the idea of staring at a blank sheet of staff paper immediately induces fear and doubt. Whatever your initial reaction, the opportunity to compose your own music will always there and if you truly want to move forward musically, there are a number of practical reasons that you should give composition a try.
You may want to perform some of your own music for once, rather than another long set spent rehashing worn out standards. You might have an assignment for one of your classes or a request for an upcoming gig. Or maybe for some strange reason you have this melodic fragment that keeps ringing in your ears everywhere you go.
We all have different musical backgrounds. Up to this point you might’ve tried your hand at a few originals or maybe you’ve sketched out a simple chord progression and left it at that.
However, if you’re like a lot of improvisers, composing music remains this elusive task that you keep meaning to do, but never seem to get around to actually starting or finishing – and this is something that you should change.
Why compose in the first place?
Before you sit down and start composing you need to consider why you’re composing to begin with.
Is composition just another musical exercise? Is it something you force yourself to do for a few minutes so you have an “original” on your set list? Or is there something more at work here?
Composition goes to the heart of why you’re playing music and it’s directly related to the source of your improvisation. There is a reason why you’re drawn to music, a reason that you listen to certain players, and a reason that you are driven to practice and improve. Your improvisation and composition should be directly connected to this internal musicality.
It’s also important to remember that composition and improvisation shouldn’t be a music theory exercise. And if you think it is or try to approach it as such, you’re missing the point. You can hear a solo that’s approached like an exercise just like you can hear a composition that’s approached like an exercise. It’s just not musical. You don’t want throw together some chord changes and a melody made up of chord tones and call it a day.
Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.~Maurice Ravel
Improvisers have a long history of composing original music. Even though it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when we hear their names, many of the prominent musicians that we look up to are also accomplished composers. Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Kurt Rosenwinkel, David Binney, the list could go on and on. Nearly every great improviser has expressed their musical voice in the form of composition.
Now they probably didn’t think of themselves as professional composers and they didn’t create the next major symphony, but they did express their musical vision and ideas in the form of original works and performed these compositions with their groups.
Just as they felt drawn to this music and compelled to improvise, they felt a need to explore these ideas by way of writing original music.
When you look at it in this light, composition is an integral part of being a creative and forward thinking improviser. If approached the right way, composition can be a very fulfilling and musically beneficial endeavor. And the benefits will translate directly to your personal approach to improvisation.
Here are six reasons to begin your journey as a composer:
1) Finding your sound
It’s what creative musicians are searching for, it’s what your teachers are telling you to develop, and it’s the reason why critics are heaping praise on that prodigious new improviser.
When we start learning the art of improvisation, we are bombarded with this idea of creating our own sound or unique musical concept. This mindset comes from all directions and gradually takes root in our subconscious. One day, it suddenly becomes the main focus of our practice. Rather than ingraining the basics of the tradition of the jazz language, now we want to be noticed for our own ideas, we want to be the player with that new original sound, we want to be an innovator!
While an original sound is the mark of an accomplished jazz musician, the journey to this artistic milestone isn’t what most musicians think it is. Take a look at a list of the major jazz players of the past 80 years and you’ll see scores of improvisers that created starkly original sounds. However, these musical innovators didn’t set out with a premeditated plan to have this original sound.
The majority of these players worked for years studying and developing the sounds that they were hearing on the records and in their heads. Many times devoting most of their practice time to the exact opposite of originality – hours upon hours of transcribing and ingraining other players’ solos note for note, explicitly copying their technique and imitating their sound.
Many people have trouble believing this, but the proof is right there on the records. You hear Clifford Brown’s sound coming through on early Lee Morgan records, Art Tatum coming through Oscar Peterson’s playing, and you hear the distinct voice of Bird in an entire generation of saxophone players and beyond. For these players, it was only after years of practice and study that an original voice began to take shape and edge its way to the forefront.
Keep in mind that your “sound” is already taking shape through the records that you listen to, through the players that you imitate, and through those solos that you transcribe. But this development of your inner musical voice shouldn’t be limited to just your instrumental practice. One thing that many players don’t realize is that composing music is a great way to find your sound and develop your personal approach to music.
Those same musical concepts, ideas, and techniques that you find yourself drawn to when practicing or performing can also be confronted in the arena of composition.
It can be anything. An intriguing set of chord progressions, a rhythmic motif, a series of intervals that you are shedding up and down on your horn. All of these can take shape and grow in the form of a composition.
Improvisers have been doing this for decades. Parker explored his harmonic ideas with intricate bebop heads, Coltrane worked out a new approach to the movement of chord progressions through reharms and compositions, Monk penned his ideas into unique tunes that continue to be loved today. These compositions reflected the musical vision of their composer, just as their playing was another vehicle for this inner musical voice.
Take a listen to the players out there today writing tunes today like Kurt Rosenwinkel, David Binney, Dave Douglas, Mark Turner, and many others. Their compositions inevitably come from the same source as their improvisation – that internal sound.
Think of composition like an exercise where you meditate on your musical vision, that original sound that is developing within you. We all have a sound, a musical idea buried somewhere in our subconscious that is waiting to come out – What is yours?
2) Composing is improvising in slow motion
Many improvisers don’t identify themselves as composers, however the fact is that anyone that’s improvised over a chord progression has created an original composition. Improvisation and composition are more closely related than you might assume. Whether you’re taking a few choruses over an F blues or sitting down at the piano with a blank sheet of staff paper to come up with a new tune, the process of creating music is the same.
At the most basic level melody, harmony, and rhythm must be combined with the sounds that you’re hearing in your head to create music. It’s as simple as that. Composing is improvising and improvising is composing. And logically, studying and improving at one will greatly benefit the other.
On the band stand you are forced to create on the spot, but when you compose you have ample time (hours, days, and weeks) to construct your musical vision. In both settings the creative process is identical. You need to dig out those musical ideas from deep within yourself and present them to the world. Sometimes the result is a great success and other times, well – not so much. But working on the process each day will bring you closer to your goal.
To compose music, all you have to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of.~Robert Schumann
A great composition and a great solo have the same musical qualities: a well-crafted melody, interesting rhythmic content, and a logical flow of harmonic motion. Refining these musical devices and sounds through composition will directly translate to your playing the next time you take a solo.
Take some time to compose and it will help you on your journey to evolve as an improviser. It’s being creative without the pressure of passing time or an expectant audience. You can slow down time and focus on one phrase for as long as you want. You can even get a second chance (…or a third or fourth chance) if you don’t like what you’ve created.
3) Immersion in the classical canon
When you set out to start composing it’s very useful to have a model to follow, a reference or a blueprint for weaving together melody and harmony and rhythm. But where exactly are you going to find this model? Believe it or not the greatest resource of composition out there is classical music – over 400 years of developing melody and harmony in new ways with different ensembles and instruments!
But wait that’s classical music, that doesn’t help me as an improviser!?
Wrong. Classical composition often seems worlds away from the idea of improvisation, however both endeavors are dealing with the same elements of music and sound, just in a different way. Classical music comes from another musical tradition, another musical language, and another approach to orchestration and group playing. But the idea of composing original music and creating melodies, harmonies, and rhythms is the same.
Regardless of genre, we all start out with the same set of musical tools. Notes, scales, chords, sound, technique. The difference comes in the way we learn to use these tools and the things we build with them.
Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear. There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law.~Claude Debussy
When you set out to compose, you don’t have to relegate yourself to only jazz influences, you can get inspiration from anywhere. Working on composition is a great excuse to become familiar with and study the major works of classical music. Remember music is music, regardless of its origin.
Improvisers have a long history of studying classical composition. Parker, Trane, Miles, Bill Evans and hundreds of others have studied the music of great 20th century classical composers and used this influence in their own music.
As you begin to study these compositions approach them like you would a jazz record. Get rid of the notion that you must go to a library and study a score in silence. Put on a recording and listen with your instrument. When you hear a line or chord that grabs your ear, figure it out. Listen with your ears, not your mind. It’s not just theory – hear the sound.
Finally, study the works that you like and identify the components that would be useful in your own composition. Imitate, assimilate and innovate upon devices like counterpoint, orchestration, themes and variations, melodic statements, and harmonic progressions.
4) A greater understanding of melody and harmony
We all understand music theory, right?
If you’re like me, you thought you knew theory…that was until the day you tried to improvise. All of a sudden as you struggled to come up with a solo there was this huge gap that suddenly opened up between knowing theory and actually being able to play it. It was like an unexpected slap in the face.
Scales and chords made sense on paper, but when it came to improvising that knowledge just wasn’t cutting it. An intellectual understanding of music theory is one thing, but when you have to put these tools to use creating melodies and harmonies you need an in-depth knowledge.
You see, knowing the terminology of the components of music and having control of these techniques are worlds apart. You can talk about Rhythm Changes, half-diminished chords, guide tones and tritone substitutions all day long, but when you start your solo or compose you’re not talking, you’re creating music.
To hell with the rules, I’m going for the unknown.~Wayne Shorter
When you want to be creative, you can’t let things like or theory or technique get in the way. When you compose, just like in improvisation, you need to know theory at a different level. To be creative you need to take this understanding to a physical and emotional level. You need to get past that stage of memorized definitions to understanding the actual sound.
You may create a chord that doesn’t have a name, or have to figure a way to weave together two opposing lines, or resolve an unconventional chord progression. When you compose you can create your own theory rules. A ii-7 chord doesn’t always have to go to a V7 chord…
5) Insight into the inner workings of a musical group
You walk out on to stage and count off the first tune. The band sounds great. The rhythm section is burning, the horn players are totally locked in and the audience is hanging on every note.
But hold on a second, stop everything!!
Take out a piece of manuscript paper (yes, right there on stage). Now write out the bass line, notate the groove for the drummer, write out harmonies for the horn players, and come up with some voicings for the piano player. Can you do it?
For most musicians the answer is a resounding “No.”
Most of us subconsciously know what is happening within a group. The bass player is walking quarter notes, the piano player is comping and the drummer is…well doing what the drummer does. However, when we play in a group we take other instruments for granted without even realizing it. Everyone just does their own thing. You worry about your part and they worry about theirs and everything just kind of works out.
This is a natural result of intently studying an instrument for years. After some time, you gradually care less about every other instrument besides your own. You go into the practice room for hours at a time and focus on your playing. You go to rehearse with an ensemble and worry about your part. You go to a performance and concentrate on your solo. Pretty soon it’s all about you.
One benefit of composing a tune for your group or even arranging a tune is that it will give you insight to the other musical parts of your ensemble. You are forced to write out a groove for the drummer, a bass line, harmonies for the horn players, interesting melodies and logical chord progressions. You have step outside of your normal mindset and take a look at the big picture. You have to see the same tune from a completely different perspective – from all perspectives.
This may be a rude wake up call at first, but when you go back to play with that same group you will experience the music in a whole new way.
6) The longer you put off composing, the harder it’s going to be
Every composer has to start somewhere.
And do you know where that “somewhere” is? It’s at the beginning – that very first composition.
The initial step is often the hardest one to take and this is not something that’s unique to music either. Any time that you try something that you’ve never done before you have to overcome fear and self doubt. You just have to jump in and give it your best shot. When you’re composing or improvising you take a leap and create a piece of music from nothing.
It’s easy to be judgmental with your first efforts and it’s all too easy to give up. Your composition doesn’t sound like what you’re hearing on recordings, you can’t come up with any new ideas, this melody isn’t going anywhere. There are a number of roadblocks to being creative, but once you take that first step, it only gets easier. Remember, if you put off composing today, a month, a year or five years from now it will be just as hard.
Start with a simple melody or a chord progression that you find pleasing. Get inspired by by listening to great compositions and most importantly, try to compose something everyday.