Each one of us has a different compositional process, and for many of us, the compositional process varies widely. Sometimes I write the entire composition out on large, 11×17 manuscript paper. Sometimes I sketch a bit of music in a notebook, and then move to a computer. I also enjoy drawing images, or graphing my concept:
This particular piece was a wind ensemble piece based around the concept of a mobius strip. These images found their way into the score, both conceptually and literally (I inserted these images in appropriate places).
One approach to writing is to record a voice memo. I have been writing a song cycle for tenor and fixed audio media, and I have really enjoyed singing multiple versions of my compositional ideas, both with and without the fixed media track written, to judge how my prosody, phrasing, and tessitura are faring. Here are some ways you can utilize this tool, and what it can help you achieve.
Record your singing via a computer mic or phone, and do multiple takes. Save each take, and listen to each one, muting the others if they are in separate tracks in a DAW (digital audio workstation). Please note that while I am applying this to vocal music, this works really well for instrumental and electronic parts too.
- Sing your already-written vocal part along to or separate from a backing track of what music you have composed.
- Are your phrases too long or too short? Are you breathing more often or less often than you intended? Are your syllables placed awkwardly in their rhythm, sense of line, or pronunciation? Are you really sure you understand the language you are using (do you need to go back to a dictionary, even if it is your native tongue)? Is your vocal line too wordy? Do you need to add or subtract melismas? Ask yourself these questions and determine how you can improve your vocal line. Even if you think your first few attempts at writing your vocal line are good and you can sing them well, the practice of composing is as much editing and revising as it is conceptualizing and writing first ideas. The best ideas are wrought over much revision and critical thinking.
- If you haven’t created a vocal line, sing/improvise singing your vocal line aloud to test some ideas that might work.
- Is your vocal line too strictly metered? Is it boring or repetitive? Do you need to experiment more? The beauty of this approach is that you are recording yourself multiple times, and can push the envelope even more each time. Then, you can review your music to determine what your best compositional ideas are, which may be an entire take, or may be an aggregate of the best parts of multiple takes.
- Once your piece is finished, create a mock-up of your piece with vocal parts. It will be easy to record the singer’s part if they share the same vocal part with you, but you can either use falsetto or digital editing if you have parts that you can’t sing. For example, I would need to raise my voice an octave in Logic or MetaSynth to be able to generate a soprano line. You can then create the following tools to help your singers learn your music faster and with greater accuracy:
- A mockup of your piece without any vocal parts (a backing track)
- A mockup of your piece with MIDI playback of the voice (using a MIDI piano sound and raising its volume in the mix helps to differentiate it from the other parts of the piece)
- A mockup of your piece with the vocal part sung by you (solo voice)
- A mockup of your piece with all vocal parts sung by you (tutti voices)
I wish I had done these steps, most prominently item 3, when I organized my requiem. Regardless, I am glad I have these tools at my disposal, and so I wanted to share them.