“Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

“Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Having started this thread ~ "Composers in our Midst" - https://thesession.org/discussions/31405 - a loosely annual foray into that rough country, dark alleyways, dangerous scaffolding, rats surrying about, and dead ends, I was kind of enjoying the exploration when I came across a bright yellow and black box with the markings for ‘radioactive’. But it didn’t actually scare me off, I wanted to get a closer look. Where did I leave my lead lined suit? ‘Compositions Classes’?!? I have heard tell of this before, and even seen it on the list of workshops at various folk events, and folk study courses. So, as I gather from this you can get ‘certified’, like someone with a learning disability, as a ‘composer’? ~ or at least one ‘educated in composition’. I even read how some people had spent days, weeks, months, years working on a tune. Sorry, but that just seems weird to me, as does the other mention of assignments, given by the person or persons teaching said courses, or self chosen ~ "Lydian Oh Lydian", and using diminished and augmented 5ths, or limiting it to just three notes, or ~ played on six bottles of Guiness tuned to pentatonic?

I think I’m going to need botox my forehead is getting so deeply furrowed. But, I don’t think even that would work, or plastic surgery.

So, furrowing my brow even deeper, scruntching it and wincing a bit in confusion, what exactly are these things? What happens in them? How are they taught? Who teaches them? How? Why?

I know this is a lot to ask, for you to come out of the closet and admit you’re composition addicted or have attended these classes, or teach them, but please, I really am curious. I know of such things in studying jazz and so-called classical traditions, so why not trad too, eh? But why? And what exactly happens? And while I understand all the intricacies of doing something like this for an orchestra or a brass quintet, why the fiddle or a whistle and, for one example, a 32 bar reel? It sounds very serious, and potentially, in my limited understanding of ‘why’, potentially painful…

Perplexed, flummoxed, and very, very, very curious… ~ ‘c’

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Are you saying that composition cannot be taught? Why would this skill be unteachable, when other skills can be taught?

Writers study the techniques of writing stories, and composers study the techniques of composing. A glance at the catalogue of any School of Music should show that composition classes are commonplace.

It’s not to say that oftentimes people with no formal education in music can compose good music; it happens all the time. These people have unconsciously or consciously absorbed the structure and theory of the music.

BTW I have often encountered, at "studio gigs", composers who have attempted to write Irish reels or jigs, and the things they come up with never sound right. They nearly always misunderstand the structure of Irish music. Usually they have a little 2-bar or 4-bar phrase that repeats over and over, not understanding that Irish tunes have 4-bar or 8-bar phrases, and have at least 2 contrasting parts.

I’ve never taken or taught a class in composition, but it’s easy to imagine what might be taught: the underlying rhythms and structure of the various dance idioms, the notion of chord progressions and which progressions are commonplace in tradtional Irish music, the various scales which are used in ITM, the sorts of melodic shapes which are traditional, etc.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Sorry Richard, no, I’m not saying that anything can’t be taught, I’m just curious how folks go about doing it for the kind of music that is the main focus of this site, a tradition where that’s somewhat squiff in my sense of it all, holding classes in composing traditional dance music…

I’ve been in that route of studying composition, so it’s not about the subject in general I’m wondering about, it is how it is being specifically directed toward traditional music. I’ve also noted the composition competitions, another curiosity… :-D

"I have often encountered, at "studio gigs", composers who have attempted to write Irish reels or jigs, and the things they come up with never sound right." ~ Richard D Cook

Me too. and also in endless themed study books - ‘an Irish jig’, etc… Having been at one time in the sheetmusic business I saw a lot of that kind of thing, and never heard one that was decent. I suppose some of my curiosity comes from the high rate of percieved failure in producing something ‘comfortable’, that actually slides nicely alongside a set of well worn traditional tunes. Mostly, my sense of it, they grate, accepting this is a matter of opinion. I’ve also looked in on such classes where they’re ‘crafting’ trad tunes, and mostly found myself wincing there too…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Thinking about it, a first assignment could be to compose a 2-part double jig in A dorian using the pentatonic scale ABDEG the chord progression going Am-G-Am-G for each 4-bar phrase. (There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such tunes in the tradition.)

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

That makes sense, starting with limiting it to the Pentatonic…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I should also openly admit that the idea sounds like fun, another reason for wanting to know more about how people experience it and what approaches are used.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I’ve taken composition workshops from Brian Pickell and Liz Carroll. Neither one was a nuts and bolts sort of affair; it was just assumed we knew how a tune should go together. Instead it was playing your tunes in front of other people and with other people, getting suggestions on how they could be better, and writing a tune in the class. On the one hand they were kind of fluffy classes; but on the other hand, having Liz Carroll say "Nice tune" to one of yours feels pretty damn good.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I would imagine that composition classes would be as fruitful as poetry or writing classes. Which is to say that the foundations can be taught and errors pointed out, but as far as I can see, if you don’t know grammar you shouldn’t be writing anyway. How can you teach someone to compose a tune if they need lessons in the first place? If you haven’t got it in you, it can’t be put there.

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One thing and t’other ~

I’m glad you brought that up gam, as it was stirring in the shadows of my mind as I started this. Now for a little comparison based on experience.

Back in the days, I was fortunate to be taken up into the fold of a writers’ clique, mostly established and published writers and a few amateur mascots like me, though I was also involved in small press. Aside from me being ‘mixed media’, why me, I’m not completely sure, but I gather they found me amusing, quirky, liked my twisted way of thinking and that I had ink on my hands. We’d often throw out tasks to do and we’d meet on a regular basis and thrash it out, share the results. There was laughter and slagging, a little serious discussion thrown in, and some damned nice readings too, generally unaffected, ‘real’, and sometimes O.T.T. for the craic too ~ but we knew that most of what we produced was shight and that was OK, we enjoyed ourselves producing shight, and we didn’t, at least most of us, take ourselves too seriously. It was fun. I felt lucky, and I learned a lot about language ~ words ~ meanings ~ the rhythms of speach, and having fun with it.

By comparison I’ve also sat through some amateur writers’ group meetings, and workshops where there was one teacher and a bunch of us ‘others’. In those most people did tend to take themselves quite seriously and there was even a tendency to suppress and attack any criticism, things tending to be more sugar coated and syrupy and complementary. It was all so damned wonderful. (I’m wincing again as I remember and write this.) It was too sweet, too much, and while we generally also produced a lot of shight too, worse than the previously mentioned lot, none of it was allowed to be called shight. We took it very seriously that this was about praising one another, however awful or silly the writing was. I learned very little, and I quickly got bored with the back slapping and smiles. I’d occasionally do my best to write something really dumb, and they’d praise it. There wasn’t a lot of laughter, as that too might get misconstrued as criticism, or ‘cruel’. I had to back away as in most cases I wasn’t good at suppressing a chuckle, including when reading out my own shight.

So, yes, I think this kind of thing could be fun, if taken in the first instance, but if, as I’ve also seen, it is like the second ~ yuck! I think that part of such a project should be to recognize when we’ve screwed up or done something daft, that knowing what’s bad is as important as knowing what’s good, and that there are solid ways to recognize some of both that aren’t just about being a personal opinion. Oops! That could get stumbling into the bottomless mire of aesthetics and the ‘purposes’ of ‘art’… :-D

Nope! I’m no fan of Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst, but they are definitely having fun. I’d call most of what they do as ‘useful exercises’, like we use to do in the first group, but they take themselves far to seriously and have the waffling down to a ‘fine art’… It obviously pays…

I did say we could get caught in the mire of such things.

Back to the ‘How’ & ‘Why’ of trad music composition workshops/classes… ;-)

A high proportion of the first lot were also English and literature grads, and a few profs too…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

ceolachan, both of your writing group experiences sound kind of broken to me. At least, I’m not sure why not taking it seriously and knowing you’re sh*te would be a much better experience than taking it too seriously and never being negative. I’ve always imagined that a good writing circle takes what it is doing seriously but with a sense of humor, telling you what you’ve done right and what you’ve screwed up. Encouraging but honest.

I’d kill to be part of a group like working on new tunes.

For sure having _Steph_ to learn my tunes and give me feedback was more valuable than either composition class I’ve taken.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I think you would have to ask yourself how many of the good tunes were composed by people who had studied composition - or who were even formally trained in music.
The experience that Sol had with Brian Pickens and Liz Carroll doesn’t surprise me at all. Did either of those two have a structured approach to composing tunes? Something that could be formulated into a method of tuition?
Although there is a recognisable pattern to the music, it’s like speaking with a particular accent. It comes from absorption, and I should imagine that the vast majority of tunes "came into" the composer’s head when doing something unrelated to music. There’s only so much you could do in a class. It would be interesting to hear some of the tunes that came out of Sol’s class.
At any rate, I reckon there’s a better chance of coming up with a good tune from sitting in the seat of a Massey Ferguson than sitting at a table in the back room of a community centre as part of a class.

I’m not sure if formal musical education would be much of an advantage. I mind Peter Maxwell Davies coming up with some "Scottish" style tunes. One or two weren’t all that bad, but generally they appear as somewhat contrived. I spoke to him about various aspects of Scottish dance music, and he wasn’t ignorant regarding the structure. He just wasn’t absorbed in the idiom.
I’m not against the idea, I just don’t know how successful it would be. Finding a composer of good tunes with a method of composition formulated enough to be able to convey to others might not be that easy.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"With pipers increasingly joining the western art mainstream, a new compositional tool, ‘mantroch’, has been developed to bring something new and original to the concert hall. This is a musical form based upon repetition of a theme (ground) in several layers in different durations which combines and recontextualises several existing compositional techniques from different ages and traditions."

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Weejie, as I tried to say, the classes were definitely not "Learn to write tunes the Liz Carroll Way(TM)." It was more "Sit around and discuss composing with one of the masters." I remember Brian even had a handout "Why Write New Tunes?" (A decade ago it was on his webpage, but I cannot find it now.) They might not have taught me the secret of writing "top 40 reels", but I enjoyed both classes and would happily study from either of them again.

As for tunes written for the classes, I’ve saved both of mine.

Liz Carroll’s class (2004): http://www.harmonyware.com/tunes/The_Wayward_Girls_Farewell_to_the_Happy_Hooker.html

Brian Pickell’s class (2002): http://www.harmonyware.com/tunes/Cant_Stop_Corney.html

Looking back at it a decade later, the tune I wrote for Brian’s class doesn’t even scan as Irish music to me any more — my playing has developed quite a bit since then. I do still kind of like the idea of the tune (instead of going from minor to major like so many tunes does, it goes from major to minor, making it really want to go back around to the first part again) — I’m tempted to try to recompose the bits into something I might play today.

I think "Wayward Girls’ Farewell" is on somewhat solider ground, but I don’t play it any more, and I’d change a few bits if I did start playing it again.

Just for contrast, here’s a more recent composition of mine that I do still play: Tali Foster’s (2009) http://www.harmonyware.com/tunes/Tali_Fosters.html

As for good tunes from people who have studied formal composition, Evan Chambers’ "The Early Dark" jumps to mind: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Bb3XXtveDq4/SSthwQdzAII/AAAAAAAAACY/X3gQW825gXo/s1600-h/early+dark.jpg (Unfortunately Evan’s recording of the tune seems to have disappeared off the web.)
Evan is a professor of composition at the University of Michigan, but he’s also a fine fiddler.

Of course, given that he’s a fine fiddler, I don’t know that I’d credit his formal composition chops as the reason it’s a nice tune. But they certainly didn’t hamper him…

Between the cracks and the craic ~

"a good writing circle takes what it is doing seriously but with a sense of humor, telling you what you’ve done right and what you’ve screwed up. Encouraging but honest." ~ Sol Foster

That was the first group Sol, they were obviously ‘serious’, but they didn’t wear it as a requirement. Most of them were published, some of them were also publishers. The meeting was in part light relief, to have fun, for the craic. Like a session there was a bit of slagging and teasing mixed in too. What I especially appreciated about it was how ‘down to earth’ it was, not taking themselves ‘too’ seriously, as interested in food and drink and each other as in writing.

"I reckon there’s a better chance of coming up with a good tune from sitting in the seat of a Massey Ferguson than sitting at a table in the back room of a community centre as part of a class." ~ Weejie

That would be my assumption too, but Sol has done some of his composing behind the wheel of a car stuck in traffic, so at least similar…

Back to Weejie ~ "it’s like speaking with a particular accent. It comes from absorption"

I remember too a number of programs developed to spit out tunes. There was a formula and it could, for example, spit out one 2/4 32 bar polka after another, and most of them were awful, but there were some that weren’t too bad. Similar things have been done for dance, in particular RSCDS style dances, and there are a few on the books now, ‘official’, that were compiled, assembled, by computer, by connecting the dots…

Thanks for the contributions Sol, but how exactly were the classes structured in both these cases. I wish that handout was still available online. I’d be interested in reading that. I do think that such a class could be fun, a kick, but so often people who think of themselves as ‘composers’ seem a bit removed from the tradition, by their own choice as being something ‘extra’, ‘distinct’, above the general flow. The ‘trad’ composers I have come into contact with weren’t like that. You sometimes had to dig to find out they had a few tunes that were attributed to them. They didn’t so much possess their tunes in a kind of protective and wave flagging way. To make one solid example ~ Vincent Broderick, who was glad people liked his tunes, and who enjoyed discovering them, but didn’t make a huge song and dance out of it ~ as some do nowadays…

Back to gam ~ "How can you teach someone to compose a tune if they need lessons in the first place? If you haven’t got it in you, it can’t be put there."

It does seem that often, to use a cliche, people want to run before they can walk, want to compose before they have any real depth of understanding of or ability with this music they aspire to emulate. The results are often all the proof needed…

Not quite the same as your statement Sol ~ I’d love to be part of a group like that, the first writing group I’d given as an example, studying and working on traditional music, including exploring new compositions and arrangements, while experimenting as well ourselves. Actually, I have experienced that a few times in my life, bands of like minded folk, and it was great craic…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I have never attended composition classes, but I have conducted composition workshops quite a few times over the past fifteen years. The point is, are there ways of encouraging creativity? In my opinion the answer is a resounding yes! Whatever form that creativity takes, be it musical composition, artwork, business solutions or poetry, it’s the initial spark which you’re looking for, and my workshops explore ways of making the spark happen, and then ways of developing that spark into a cohesive new tune.

Having said that, you’re right, in that if someone isn’t creative in the first place, they’re not going to magically become creative. However, many people do not have the first idea of how to invoke what creativity they may have, and sometimes it takes someone else switching that lightbulb above their heads. (After such a workshop many years ago, one of the participants took to composing tunes enthusiastically, and three years ago published their first book of tunes.)

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"it’s the initial spark which you’re looking for, and my workshops explore ways of making the spark happen, and then ways of developing that spark into a cohesive new tune. ~ switching that lightbulb above their heads." ~ Nigel Gatherer

Yes!? Tell us more, be specific… :-)

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Yes, teaching - or, more accurately, encouraging the creative spark, this is positive stuff. Looking for that magic formula, trying to tie things to a rigid structure, these are not so positive. How many classical composers, well versed in the technicalities of the art of composition, have looked to "folk tunes" for their inspiration?
It might appear to be a romantic notion, but traditional tunes have a flow that probably comes naturally, rather than putting up a framework and trying to piece it together from a kit of parts.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"traditional tunes have a flow that probably comes naturally, rather than putting up a framework and trying to piece it together from a kit of parts." ~ Weejie

That bit of software I’d mentioned, the one that spit out tunes, that was a ‘framework’ and a ‘kit of parts’, bars and preconceived formulae as to how a tune is built. They tended to be like that, boxy, pebble dashed, plastic…

But, back to Nigel too ~ what worked? How did you tend to ‘structure’ these workshops you’ve taught? What kind of content? ~ exercises?

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"Be specific…" When I do workshops I demand of myself that I be dynamic; I put a lot into it, and this forum is not the place for that. But I’ll try to elucidate a little…

There was once a composer who, while looking out of his window, saw birds on the telegraph lines. There happened to be five wires, so he wrote on manuscript paper where the birds were on the wires. It’s unlikely that the music was much good, but it may just have provided the initial inspiration - the "spark" - for a more developed work.

The notion that artists (poets, musicians, etc) stand outside in a field waiting for the muse to visit upon them is fanciful; most efficient artists don’t wait for creativity to happen, but they use tricks to kick-start the creative process. One such trick is to use randomness, and in effect brainstorm with oneself. In business, a brainstorming session will have a group of people riffing random thoughts and ideas - anything goes and nothing is judged as useless. One person’s daft idea may be taken up by another in the group, and then another, developing, exploring, creating ideas.

You can do this for youself: e.g. jot down a random selection of notes. Or noodle. Or take an existing piece of notation and turn it upside down and play it as if it were the right way up. Randomness. Something that you do - two notes, a phrase - may make you think "Mmm, there’s something there…" or "I quite like that." That’s the spark, and your finished piece may be completely different and may not contain what sparked it off in the first place, but the spark is essential.

Other tools at your disposal are knowledge of the structures found in traditional music: the four-phrase structure present in almost all tunes. The significant chord change in the second phrase (chord to the V, melody to the II), the third phrase repeat of the first, the fourth phrase resolution. A limited palette can help as well, especially with inexperienced tunesters (e.g., and as has been mentioned above, pentatonic scales).

I’m tired.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

It should be said that my composition workshops are not designed to produce new Liz Carrolls or Paddy O’Briens. They are designed to inspire people, and if they come to me later with a tune they have made up, I don’t care how boxy, pebble-dashed or plastic it sounds. It means that that person is enthusiastic about the music and their musical journey, and they’re learning about tunes and creativity.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"boxy, pebble-dashed or plastic" ~ was about the results of a software program, not a person…

But I am interested in what exactly you did in your workshops Nigel, and how they developed, your techniques, over time and with repetition and experience…. Thanks for sharing that.

Most people who successfully seek and find inspiration do so by becoming immersed in the subject they hope to be inspired by, for instance Irish traditional music and their instrument of choice. That inspiration can be an accidental by product of their passion and involvement. But some folks seek inspiration purely from within and consequently miss the point one way or another… That involvement could include taking a workshop or a class, and it could even be one in ‘composition’. In the right hands and with the right motivation that too has clear possibilities in raising ones understanding and appreciation for this music. I have no problem seeing the potential for positive outcomes, but I am interested in how others might design or develop methods for raising the possibilities of success, not so much in composing as in understanding and appreciation… ;-) I like the idea, just unsure of the methods and the outcome… :-D

Pleasant dreams Nigel…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"The notion that artists (poets, musicians, etc) stand outside in a field waiting for the muse to visit upon them is fanciful"

Too true, but a heck of a lot of musicians I’ve met who have composed tunes have not particularly been looking to compose a tune. They’ve just happened. Often, the tune has come via some form of trigger, and it maybe stays in the head and develops as the day, or night proceeds.
Unlike a career composer, who would need a certain volume of work to pay the bills, the traditional musician may have other ways of keeping the wolf from the door - driving the Massey Ferguson, or doing someone’s accounts - whatever. They may be standing in the field waiting for the kye to shift their airses.
Then again. I have met composers of tunes who have been deliberately looking to do that. Perhaps encouraging the spark helps those who work in that manner.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Nigel, I recognize what you’re calling randomness as the sort of thing used when shifting the way our brain works from strictly rational to more creative.

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"They’ve just happened." ~ Weejie

Not pre-planned or intent.

I miss my grandad’s old Massey Ferguson…

Not pre-planned or ‘with’ intent…

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Some of us could use exercises the other way round, helping to shift our brains wiring from the creative to the more rational… :-D

Re: “Rationing more rational thinking Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Here’s one. Next time you climb onto the tractor stay focused on how a piece of machinery can help you complete the task at hand. And thank your grandad once you’re done.

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I studied composition as a music major in college, but I don’t know if any of it really translates to Irish trad tune writing except for the facilities to transcribe it and understand what I did. Most of my tunes… or should I say, all of my trad tunes—found me… I wasn’t looking to write a tune at the time. It seems to take 8 steps:

1. I unintentionally play a random melody snippet out of the blue that strikes my fancy.

2. I try to capture what I did and decide where to go from there melodically. (sometimes it happens when I really have no time to pursue it… like an uninvited guest)

3. If I complete an A-part, I think about a B-part… (this step sometimes ends the process if I can’t come up with anything.) On rare occasion I have enough ideas for a 3rd part.

4. (a) I realize I’m just rewriting a tune I already know and abandon the project, or (b) I think it might be unique and I continue experimenting and toying with it.

5. (a) Hours pass… days maybe… weeks… I neglect tunes I should be reviewing for upcoming gigs… I forget to eat… I get weak and dizzy from hydration… my wife asks me when I last showered… I write it out and shelve it for the future, or (b) I finish the tune and practice it so I can play it fluently.

6. I play it unannounced at a session to see if people think it’s just a weird version of a known tune.

7. It passes the test and I play it randomly at sessions until someone asks me about it… then I tell them I wrote it.

8. It matures into an actual tune that other people learn… 1 in 6 attempts reaches step 8.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I’ve never written a tune, but if I did, I would take Phantom’a approach.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"Next time you climb onto the tractor stay focused on how a piece of machinery can help you complete the task at hand. "

Have you done much tractor driving then? You’d die of boredom if all you were focused on was driving the bloody thing.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

each style of music has certain rules or conventions, if you want to write for that style you can start by analyzing existing music. Some things are going to be verboten for one style and fine for another.

I think a lot comes down to intervals, play around in a key and it may sound Irish, but flat a certain note and now it’s blues or klezmer. Play a trad tune a little faster and change the mode and now it’s a polka or Mexican ranchero. But what’s memorable about a tune is usually an interesting interval.

Check out Band in a Box to see how they’ve analyzed various styles of music so the computer can generate them.

Of course that’s only a starting point, you build from that with your desire to communicate. But you wouldn’t go hiking without proper boots and pack and big floppy hat.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"While mowing hay one day in June
The sounds I heard gave me a tune
The gears and blades as they cut the raheen
So I called this tune the Mowing Machine"


Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

It isn’t all about intervals. If you compare, say, the Banshee (or Sally Gardens) with something that Ed Reavy or Paddy Fahy wrote, the harmonic similarity isn’t that striking, and those tunes still have good reputation (now, someone might of course argue that Fahy’s and Reavy’s tunes are fairly recent "compositions":)). In fact, Sally Gardens (or similar) probably IS a tune that a computer program could generate. I’m not suggesting that we could (or should) squeeze any melodic content into a "reel" structure, but there are many types of tunes already in use, and not all of them sound like the Tenpenny bit or the Copperplate.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

It might be possible to analyse a piece of music but it wouldn’t be helpful. No-one knows how music affects us the way it does, so it is impossible to formulate how to do it. All we can hope to do is try things out and see what happens. The art, if there is one, is in recognising the things that don’t work and rejecting them, and in having broad enough experience to come up with ideas in the first place.

Something I have noticed that may or may not be relevant: the tunes I really like seem to be about something — to tell a story — as if there are words somewhere that would fit perfectly if only you could find them. Some tunes are really nice to play, depending on the instrument; but that is a purely physical enjoyment. Others are a bit ‘clever’ and give an intellectual pleasure; but the best are entities in their own right, entire and unique.

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"Check out Band in a Box to see how they’ve analyzed various styles of music so the computer can generate them."

Which key do you press for the nyah?

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

I certainly agree that teaching somebody the "nuts and bolts" won’t make them into a good composer.

I agree that the great traditional composers, probably all of them or nearly all, had no formal training. Their compositions sound "right" for the very reason that they have spent a lifetime absorbing and playing the music.

About the "muse" or "spark" or whatever it might be called, I know all about that from my own compositional efforts (mostly pathetic).

What happens to me is that a fragment of a tune will just suddenly pop into my head. It will be "just right" needing no tweaking. Now the hard work and trouble starts! Because nearly always what pops into my head is only a phrase, or at best a single part. That won’t do, obviously! I need two entire parts to make "a tune".

Sometimes I’m lucky and I can fairly quickly flesh out the fragment to a full part, and the notion of a good 2nd part will come to me too.

Other times the "muse" deserts me and I have to fall back on just plain lil’ ol’ me… not good! Because I can thrash around poor ideas endlessly and never come up with the rest of the part, or the 2nd part. Or what I come up with is workmanlike but not very musical. The stuff that I do on my own never has the "spark", the musicality, the "just right" quality of the stuff that just pops into my noggin.

The oddest example is the lovely 1st part of a single jig that popped into my head around 20 years ago. From time to time I mess around with trying to come up with a 2nd part but nothing has ever been very good, never a match for the lovely 1st part.

My best compositions, and there have been only two or three, stand up well beside the traditional tunes, and indeed I’ve played them without trad players guessing that they were newly composed.

BTW as a Highland piper who is a pretty good sightreader, I’ve spent the occasional rainy day sightreading through the standard collections (Scots Guards I & II, Queens Own Highlanders, the Ross Collection I-V, the Donald MacLeod Collection I-VI) and the disparity of composing talent between the various composers becomes quite clear. Highland pipe tunes generally have four parts, and many’s the composer who can come up with a good opening phrase but then can’t do much with it! He beats his horse through four 8-bar parts and it gets threadbare quickly.

This made me appreciate all the more the supreme genius of Donald MacLeod, by the way a native Gaelic speaker and someone raised in a tradition of Gaelic song. "Wee Donald" will introduce new material in each part rather than simply reworking the first part. Also it’s common in Highland pipe compositions for the 2nd and 4th parts to have 2nd endings which restate material from earlier in the tune. This gives a sense of unity to the composition as a whole. But not so with him! because he will often, in the 2nd ending of the 4th part, introduce entirely new material as if to say "I’m not close to running out of ideas for this tune!"

His "muse" never seemed to desert him.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

BTW I’ve not put my two or three good compositions here because 1) I don’t know if it’s acceptable to do that and 2) I don’t know how to write ABC. I’ve written two good reels and a tune that has a strange underlying meter 2+3+2+3+2+2 or 14/8.

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"all of my trad tunes—found me… I wasn’t looking to write a tune at the time." ~ Phantom Button

Yes! I find they drop in pretty much complete and I’m caught off guard, a kind of "Huh?" moment where I realize "I don’t know this tune!? ~ but it’s interesting, I kind of like it!" To be honest, I let most of them pass, enjoying them for the moment, sometimes dancing to them in the kitchen while preparing a meal or baking. Sometimes, if I decide to jot something down, I only catch a part of it, which is frustrating. For me they can go as quickly as they come… I’ve had some I really loved that happened in difficult circumstances and I’ll want to remember them, but by the time I’m anywhere where I could jot something down, it’s too late… That’s another reason I love ABCs. These things happen often when I’m thinking about a loved one, or a friend in need, so more often than not the heart is also involved. And too, they can bubble up from good feelings and humourous moments.

Nice contribution PB, I really enjoyed reading that, smiling through it…

Weejie ~ "Have you done much tractor driving then? You’d die of boredom if all you were focused on was driving the bloody thing." :-D

"But what’s memorable about a tune is usually an interesting interval." ~ banjouke
For me that would be the melody, not a mere interval. Intervals come and go, are numbered, limited, while the possibilities of combination those into melody is infinite…

I love the poem quote Weejie, as from the earlier submission by Martin… Is it actually Junior Crehan’s? Is there more than the one verse? I’ll have to look further, and also ask Martin. Junior was a great character, so much more than ‘merely’ a musician or a composer, though these things too he valued… ;-)

gam ~ very nicely put!

Weejie ~ "Which key do you press for the nyah?" :-D
It’s a sequence of keys, but requires the user to already be familiar with and understand the nyah in order to find it and recreate it, whatever the tool might be!

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"I love the poem quote Weejie, as from the earlier submission by Martin… Is it actually Junior Crehan’s? Is there more than the one verse? "

Apparently it is Junior’s. The source was a pamphlet containing 10 of his tunes and verses for each one, prepared for Junior’s birthday as related here:


This book would no doubt provide more info:


Junior Crehan

Thanks again, and for both links. The book is now on my meager list of must haves…

The preface by Angela Crotty is lovely ~ a relevant sample:

" ~ Working on the land and being so close to nature became the source of inspiration for many of his ( Junior Crehan’s ) compositions:

‘I saved hay in the meadow,
Cut turf in the bog on a fine summer day,
And the lark in the heavens, his sweet note resounding,
Would help to drive troubles and cares all away’

(A quote from Junior in Clare Association Yearbook 1990)

Sound appealed to him, the birds singing, the babbling stream, the sound of the mowing machine, the squeal of the bonham, the wheels on the track of the West Clare Railway and anything that created rhythm. These sounds were music to his ears and as a result he composed jigs, reels, hornpipes and slow air. He also had a unique ability to convert slow airs into dance tunes. ~ " - Angela Crotty

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Weejie it’s been years since I’ve been on a tractor & it can certainly be monotonous. My limited experience included some sloped terrain & if I wasn’t focused the whole thing would be down the ravine in no time.

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

"My limited experience included some sloped terrain "

Inspiration for some descending notes…..

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Those old tractors are damned easy to tip over ~ many, many accidents. Possibly good for swung tunes, like a hornpipe or a mazurka. :-D

Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Some interesting moments on a hill farm driving a Fergie 28 with no front wheel weights. More about decomposition than composition…

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Re: “Composition Classes” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

Still trying to tune those six bottles of Guiness to pentatonic!

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"with no front wheel weights" ~ cag

~ asking for trouble…

Sorry I’m not there to help Gobby. I do love the low notes. ;-)

Re: “Fine Tuning Class ~ Bottle 101” ~ ! ~ Huh? :-/ ?

If you have enough beer there’s always plenty who are willing to help;

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Thanks for that, I loved it!