Creating Music

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Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category

Guidelines for creativity

Posted by Pamela Szalay on January 19, 2013

Nothing is sacred 2Successful composing and improvising stems as much from the right attitude as it is does from applying knowledge. In the previous article, I shared some musical improvisation tips for those interested in experimenting with creative musical expression. If you typically rely on written scores, I suggested starting your experiment by improvising various endings to a familiar song. However, those techniques may not work well at all if you don’t approach the activities with the right attitude.

The guidelines below can be extremely helpful in freeing your creative musical self to start behaving like a composer. Again, it all starts with giving yourself permission to be creative, just like all great composers of the past have done.

As you read each guideline you might want to consider how it will affect your approach for a specific creative task, such as improvising a new ending for a song.

Recognize that nothing is sacred. Once you decide that it’s ok to depart from the composer’s score, whether it’s Beethoven or Jim Brickman or a jazz transcription, you free yourself to the world of creative musical expression. Consider the score in front of you as your inspiration.

Creativity takes time. Accept that you may try twenty or thirty ideas before arriving at something you really like or seems truly unique. This doesn’t happen in two minutes! Sometimes musicians experience the thrill of an idea suddenly popping up in their mind, but often that occurs after they have spent time playing and tinkering and rehearsing. Which leads me to my next guideline….

Be playful. Go ahead and let yourself get a little silly. Or random. Or “off the wall”. Try out wacky ideas, or crazy combinations. The outcome may really surprise you! Yes, musicians can be really serious sometimes but remember that playfulness contributes to creativity.

Flow first, judge later. Although you may think your inner critic is the secret to your success, constantly finding flaws in your ideas could stop the flow of ideas altogether. You can be picky later, but first you need to get out all the ideas you can, whether they are from your own head or inspired by other things and people.

Dig deep. Most likely, the golden nugget you seek (my metaphor for an amazing musical idea) is not going to be your first idea. You might have to discover it, uncover it, or even recover it. Think of tunneling down a winding passage way in search of gold. You will get dirty, sweaty and tired. Yes, my friend: this is work.

There are no “mistakes”. For this activity you are in a workshop, not a concert.  As you try different variations, some will work and some won’t. It’s no big deal. Learning what not to do is a valuable part of the process.

Trust yourself. With time, effort and an attitude that welcomes the creative process, you will be able to craft a new idea that is fits the task at hand. Believe you are creative, because you are.


Posted in Composition, Improvisation, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Stepping into musical composition: the limited tone row

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 8, 2012


Looking for a way to introduce composition into music lessons? Creating a melody using a limited set of pitches is a great way to start. While the label “tone row” often suggests using 12 tones, this activity is focused on a smaller set of 4 to 7 tones which are arranged in a sequence and used to compose a melody, guided by just a few rules. This activity encourages creativity within constraints and works for beginners and more experienced musicians. As a matter of fact, it can even be used with students who do not yet read music.

For music-readers:


manuscript paper, pencil, music notation flashcards (optional)


1. Select four to seven flashcards and arrange them in a sequence (the teacher can do this ahead of time, or the student can select the cards randomly). Write the desired sequence on paper.

2. The student composes a melody using the sequence, using whatever rhythm, expression or style is desired.The composition should be committed to paper, but written in pencil for easy editing.

3. Each tone must be used in order, although a tone can be repeated before moving on to the next tone. When the end of the sequence is reached, the sequence beings again with the first note.

4. The sequence can be repeated multiple times, and can be treated differently each time.

5. The sequence should have a definite ending.

Depending on the outcome and the needs of the student, the melody could be further developed, harmonized, etc. Also, for additional mileage with this activity, start by using pitches that reinforce a recent note-reading or theory lesson

Alternate approach for non-music readers:Image

If the student is quite young and not yet reading music, use letter names instead of music notation. The focus should be selecting the sequence itself, rather than composing from a sequence. This will develop the ear while also introducing them to the compositional process. When the student is satisfied with the sequence, have the student write down the sequence on paper to preserve it.

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Your musical idea awaiting to be discovered

Posted by Pamela Szalay on November 16, 2012

“I wake up in the morning with an idea, then cut away everything that ain’t that idea.”

– attributed to “Bernie chainsaw artist” and tweeted by Scott Mueller@HandknitWebs

Clearly, a composer is working in a different medium than a chainsaw artist, but this quote got me thinking. What kind of focus is this describing? What kind of commitment? As a musician, if I wake up with music in my head I go to the piano to try and re-create it. I feel like it’s a creative and positive experience of constructing something.  But I have never thought of taking an approach of removing the antithesis of my musical idea.  It’s like saying “all the world is music, and within it is my idea. If I just peel away what doesn’t look like my idea, then the art will reveal itself!

This approach to composing is a philosophical shift for me, one that I will consider the next morning I wake up and hear music.

Posted in Composition | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

When wrong notes work wonders

Posted by Pamela Szalay on November 8, 2012

Last week, I featured a simple activity in polytonality for a beginning pianist (A spooky surprise from a simple transposition). However, the basic premise is one that can serve advanced musicians: playing with musical ideas and being open to new sounds can lead to musical innovation.

For six-year-old Alison, the discovery was that she could make a song sound very different by playing in two keys at the same time. More advanced students may not consider this news, but they may not consider it desirable either. The sound resulting from experiments with polytonality can be perceived as harsh, dissonant and simply wrong. However, those who are willing to persist and experiment might find that playing with polytonality can not only change how you listen to music, but how you arrange, improvise and compose.

As a musician or composer seeking new ways of expressing yourself, one thing that can hold you back is a concept called “premature closure”. Although you may often toy around with musical ideas, you may be quick to judge and discard them, too. In actuality, you could be missing opportunities to develop your sound by rejecting ideas before fully exploring them.

My proposal is that you entertain the “wrong” note a little longer, avoiding premature closure. If you are willing to explore a little further, perhaps mingling in a few other related (or unrelated) ideas, you might push your way towards something not only different, but refreshing.

Fans of Dave Brubeck, a legendary pianist and composer who brought polytonality to jazz, would argue that his polytonal technique made music dreamy rather than dissonant. Apparently, he became quite accustomed to playing with his hands in keys a minor 3rd apart. Go ahead and listen to this excerpt of a live radio broadcast where Brubeck naturally moves from one to two keys: Polytonal Blues

To me, Brubeck’s technique is an anecdote for musical boredom and well-worn habits. While there is, of course, more to the art of using polytonality that just moving your right hand, it is important to recognize that our attitude about what is “right” can determine how far we will travel down an unfamiliar musical pathway. If we can tolerate some “wrong” notes, and entertain some strange sounds in our ears for a while so that we might understand them better, then I believe we are taking solid steps towards maximizing our creative potential.

Posted in Advanced, Composition, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A spooky surprise from a simple transposition

Posted by Pamela Szalay on October 30, 2012

I love the way kids are naturally creative. Alison, a new student of mine who is just 6 years old, had taken about three lessons when she stumbled upon a spooky way of playing the song “Hot Cross Buns”, simply by following her own curiosity.

Alison was willing to share her budding skills as a composer and pianist on the video below. The result is a model for a very short but fun activity to do with young beginners which will help them explore music and composition.

The story behind the “Spooky Transposition”

Alison initially learned the song “Hot Cross Buns” on the three black keys and did very well. I decided to show her how the song could be transposed to C-D-E, and she made the change easily. At the end that lesson, I suggested that she continue playing the song at home with just one hand at a time. I also mentioned she could try it hands together when she felt ready.

The following week she proudly announced that she could now play the song with both hands! I was delighted, of course, and watched with anticipation as she sat at the piano.

To my surprise, she performed the song hands together but in two different keys! Her right hand was in F# major and her left hand in C major. Naturally, because the transposition was an augmented fourth, the result was dissonant and spooky. Noticing the unusual sound, Alison decided that the song should be called “Spooky Hot Cross Buns”.

Posted in Composition, Elementary, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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