Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

I would like feedback from composers who are currently actively writing music and the methodology they use. I hear a tune in my head then play it for a while, then i write it down. This process can take as little as half an hour or as much as two hours, sometimes i will revisit a tune over the coming days but change little or nothing. Then i have to sit down and learn the tunes as i would a tune that someone else has written. Is this normal for a composer?

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Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Who cares whether it’s normal? Do whatever it takes for you. Keep at it - things may change. I have composed tunes that came to me almost fully formed out of the ether and took 5 minutes to finalize. Others I agonized with and fiddled with for weeks. Some have never been finished.

Go with the flow and don’t worry how others do it!

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

The best method is whatever works.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Hi Tombc,

I use pretty much the same method as you. The tunes formulate in my head, then I either write them down record them, and yes I still have to learn them by repetition to play them fluently.

Just like with other tunes, they need to be learned, but as I’ve created them, that gives me a head start 🙂

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

For me, a tune fragment will just pop into my head, a perfectly formed lovely phrase. Most of the time I’m not in a position to record it, and I forget it. Or I’ll scrawl something on a scrap of paper and when I read it later I’ve obviously failed to capture what I had heard in my head. Oh to have Perfect Pitch!

Sometimes the scrawled music does evidently capture somewhat that perfect phrase that magically appeared.

The other way is when I’m noodling on the instrument and a phrase comes to me that way.

Either way, it’s just a phrase. Fleshing it out to a complete tune is usually laborious and frustrating, and the "composed" bits never perfectly suit the "inspired" bit, nor are as good.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

"I have composed tunes that came to me almost fully formed out of the ether and took 5 minutes to finalize. Others I agonized with and fiddled with for weeks. Some have never been finished…" (Stiamh)

I can relate my experience closely to this.

I’m usually in reach of scraps of paper and a biro, and very often thinking up bars of music in my head. If some short snippet of tune seems one worth using or starting with, I jot it down in abc notation. I also try to imagine it being (proficiently) played on a variety of trad instruments. Usually the initial bars I jot down are beginnings of potential tunes, but sometimes they seem naturals for other places in a tune.

I have indeed found in the case of some nice own comps that the tune has practically run away and composed itself in one go, from two or three initial bars. This can give the impression that one has not so much composed the tune as discovered or captured something that was already in existence ‘out there’. Others may emerge complete after quite a bit of worrying at, and/or modifying. Many - most, for me - get nowhere, or turn into existing tunes I’ve encountered, or are merely bland.

One thing I tend to avoid is trying to cobble together various ‘also-ran’ scraps of notes in the hope it’ll make a tune. It just seems, well, muddy. I think the thing is, when I begin to work on an individual tune a kind of ‘thought-world’ is generated around that tune - mood, associations and whatever else - that is quite particular to that tune, and does not mix as a matter of course with that attaching to scraps of other tunes.

I love the element of mystery in composing, or attempting to. If I were to find a sure-fire way of composing ‘goers’ every time, I hope I’d just stop. But I would like to think this sure-fire way does not exist.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Sometimes a tune comes out finished, other times it takes several tries. I do keep staff paper around for jotting down tunes or bits of tunes. They are like dreams, you have to write them down quickly, before they are lost.

A few weeks ago, I found a great little bit, wrote it down, added more the next evening, started working on the "B" section and realized that independently and all by myself, I had written "Going to California". Oh, well.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

I record a lot of my efforts with my iPad. Every once in a while go back through the archives and listen. Most of it is horrible, but there are a few great riffs that sometimes I am able to turn into a tune.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

"Then i have to sit down and learn the tunes as i would a tune that someone else has written. Is this normal for a composer?"

In general do you learn tunes from sheet music ?

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

"…independently and all by myself, I had written "Going to California"…"

Interesting that you should say that, because one would think that that’s what would happen: a remembered fragment of some existing tune popping into your head.

A piper I know, a very good player, once played for a group of us a tune he thought he’d composed. I had to inform him that it was an old Hymn, actually.

But that’s never happened to me. Every melodic fragment has been a new thing, I’m pretty sure.

There used to be a fiddler around here who seemed to know every Irish tune, and from time to time I would call her and play one of my compositions over the phone and ask her if she’d heard it. Never had she.

My conclusion is that that’s not how it works. Yes I can recall existing tunes to mind, but the phrases/fragments that pop into my head are new things.

"One thing I tend to avoid is trying to cobble together various ‘also-ran’ scraps of notes in the hope it’ll make a tune."

Yes that never works for me either, because it just doesn’t have the organic seamless whole-ness of a unique composition.

Yes I’ve had times when that initial magic phrase can quickly be fleshed out into a whole tune, the thing happening fairly effortlessly. But that’s rare, and usually the new "me" bits are never as good as the initial bits, which as people have said have a quality of being pre-existing somehow. Once I was hired to provide some music for a TV show, and I got to see the successful Hollywood composer knock out the music for a scene in just a few minutes. When I expressed amazement at his talent he looked upwards and said "it all comes from God." Another time he said "there is only one music, only one melody. It comes from God."

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Thanks everyone for your comments and please keep adding to this subject.. Its good to know that (worldfiddler) uses a similar method and also learns the tune afterwards, just as I do…. In answer to your question.( Theirlandis.) I learn tunes really easily by ear but from time to time i will use sheet music if i cant work out a difficult bar or two. (best of both worlds)…. I have written 15 reels, 3 jigs and 2 hornpipes since beginning of December, some are very good and a few are not too hot…… Can you, (other composers) tell me what volume of tunes you compose in a given month or year? Or should i ask that question as another discussion.. Im new to the session and I think its a great platform for discussion and asking questions that I would be loathe to ask on a face to face basis. Again thank you everyone for taking the time….

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Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

They are like buses: none for ages, then 3 come along at once! (Same for any songs I write, where, usually, it’s words first, then invent a tune to fit.)
Getting a friend to listen is a great idea: I have also "re-written" a well-known tune accidentally, and also had to (privately and so politely!) tell a friend that "his new tune" was rather familiar already.
One technique: I was given a tip for changing such a tune is to invert a line or phrase, and it then becomes a new tune. e.g. a line such as CDEF GEC: change to GFED CEG.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Good thread. It is nice, and useful, to read practical info about new tunes. I cannot be the only person who has been disappointed by discussions here of cobbling together generic bits of style-like notes, and ‘composing’ new tunes by computer algorithms.

I cringe when I hear about ‘composing tunes’. Good tunes cannot be forced into existence. I find that tunes appear, usually complete — they simply play in my head, thank you very much. Sometimes a few per year, sometimes 3 per day.

"Coming from God’ is one perception. I believe that most music exists already, and we just ‘run into it’ as we proceed in time. I feel a responsibility to such gifts, so I record them (get on the bus when it comes).

Good music is a natural organic occurrence. Yes, skill is sometimes necessary to improve tunes, same as with variations and improvising. But the innate gift is a necessary source.

Capturing ideas: Beethoven, Schubert and many others carried sketchbooks and pencils. Always carry a pen, with which you can makes ‘notes’ on anything you can bring home: paper, napkin, sleeve, hand, toilet paper. For tunes, I developed a music notation shorthand with only 3 lines, and notes of dots and diagonals, and graphic signs for which measures to repeat in a part or previous part (so I needn’t write them again). This makes ‘taking notes’ much quicker than creating complete musical notation.

When the small recorders (just large enough to hold a full-size cassette) became available, I had one for many years until it gave up. I recorded oldtimer sessions, musicians I met, records, radio. When this died, I bought a digital voice recorder - I now have my second one of these. I have recorded concerts, rehearsals, demos, interviews, etc., and many of ‘my’ tunes and ideas. I recommend Olympus or Sony voice recorders.

I initially bought an expensive Zoom H4 machine, but I found it to be the Least handy tool I have Ever owned: its use is cumbersome (to turn it on you must memorize and execute a maze of movements), and turning it on takes a minimum of 35 seconds — that is, If you get it right the first time — but with the mental shift to left brain necessary for turning it on, by then the idea may have passed by. Further objections: it is large and heavy, does not fit into a pocket, and is very obtrusive-looking. I was glad when it soon stopped working.

I have always brought these recorders (not the H4) with me as part of my essential ‘survival kit’. The digital versions fit unobtrusively in a pants pocket, from where they will record some sound. Concerts can be invisibly recorded from a breast pocket. I cover the red ‘on’ light with black electrician’s tape, so no one else knows it’s on, and the light will not bother performers or interviewees even when the recorder is in full view.

When a tune comes to mind, I have the recorder handy and use it. When I get to my computer, I save the audio file, then transcribe it, retaining both. I have files for: Tunes Audio, Tunes Scores, Fragments Audio, Fragments Scores.

Several fragments have become tunes over the years. One of my best tunes had only one section (part) for a long time. To use this nice fragment I decided to complete the tune, but a suitable companion part would not occur to me. I liked the unique feeling of the intervals and rhythms, and wanted to retain these, so I made the existing music the first section, and inverted the melody for the second section. I only changed 2 notes to fit the chords I heard. Inverting the melody put the second section in a nearby key, and we end by playing one first part.

I used to make time specifically to actively listen for tunes and ideas, but this habit became continuous, so now the process is mostly automatic. My mind is always working on tune possibilities, compositions in progress, and musical and other ideas. I have trained my mind to bring to my consciousness anything of interest, which it does regularly. I evaluate each offering, and if it is not good enough I send it back down for incubation. If it is unique and shows promise, at such a moment I drop everything (sometimes literally) and turn on the recorder to sing, speak, or play what has come up. Many times this continues immediately to become a complete tune or song.

So you can open your receiver by making time and attention to allow it to work. And you can improve these skills, as I and others have.

Tunes and songs may occur by themselves simply because a person is a good receiver. Much music is instigated by experiences. A few of my tunes I heard immediately after reading a story, and are named for their respective literature titles. I have written many ‘portrait tunes’ that have the feeling of a person or couple, and are named for them. One of my first tunes (a mournful jig) I wrote for Bob McQuillen, the great accordion and piano player, RIP.

For example, before Al Brown had his rotator cuff correction, someone here sent "good vibes eastward" to him in Maine, and someone else wrote that "there should be a tune by that name". When I read this, I thought, "I could write that tune", and I immediately began to hear music, and wrote out the complete tune. This discussion and tune in ABC are in a The Session thread; perhaps someone knows which one.

If a tune needs improvement, or if I want to do something else with it, I let the tune run in my head (usually for 3 days) until the options have been considered and the results appear.

After 33 (or more) years of ‘writing’ tunes, I have about 150 good tunes (plus 300 fragments) and 40 songs of various types in many styles. (I write ‘good’ because I don’t save ‘bad’ music.) I have played my tunes for dances (prompted and ‘free’), wedding receptions, conventions, concerts, parties, busking, etc, etc, sometimes complete gigs of only my tunes (and songs), and no one knows they are not traditional music of some kind. Not that I aim for a traditional sound; simply, this is what I hear, because I am what I am, it does stem from my experiences with traditional musics for more than half a century.

And yes, it’s a natural reaction to hearing a good new tune to question, "I wonder where I stole that from?"

Some people should not try to write music. Some people only have one song (or tune).
For those who can or think they would like to ‘write’ music, everyone has their own ‘write’ way. This info is to encourage you that it is possible to find your own way that is natural, and not to ‘work’ at ‘composing’ tunes.

Happy musicmaking,
vlnplyr

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Thanks, Jeff.

Typo correction: After *43* (or more) years of ‘writing’ tunes…

Someday I will collate these tunes into books, so more people can play them.

vlnplyr

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

It’s not like me to complain, but…….
…..( extreme pedant warning )……….
…….surely, surely, surely, "composing trad" is a total oxymoron ?
……..IMNSHO.
Not that I don’t understand what you all mean and everything.

PS I did once come up with a beautiful tune, only to find that it was The Tar Road to Sligo. It’s easy to do.

Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Liz Carroll had a similar experience.

;)

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Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

You are right Pete!

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Re: Composing Trad: What is, or is there a best method?

Oh, err,… apart from that bit about it not being like you, of course.

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