How Composing Can Keep You Out of Trouble

That’s right. Composing.

How CAN composing keep you out of trouble? If you’ve followed this blog then you know this is mostly about improvisation tips. But, composing can help you with your improvisation too. I’ve heard it said (and repeated) that composing is improvisation that you can edit along the way (wouldn’t it be nice to edit our improvisations in real-time? Maybe someday…).

I recently finished a new composition called Dad’s Game that will most likely be on the JKQ’s next album later this year. I wanted to show how I composed it and how I use the idea of “improvisation that you can edit.” If you want to check out more on how I compose you can check out that series HERE.

I usually start with a blank sheet of staff paper (good old analog paper), piano, and Finale open on my computer. There’s no one way to start composing and I don’t do it the same way every time, either. In the case of Dad’s Game, I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago and had a specific rhythmic figure over a Latin-feel. This is the initial sketch:

From there I sat down with the piano and improvised various chord combinations over the rhythmic vamp. I eventually locked into what I believe was what I heard in the middle of the night (I probably should have taken better notes, but I was half asleep). After deciding on the progression I wanted to come up with the B3 organ’s left hand figure over the vamp. This is where having a strong idea of targeting concepts helped keep me out of trouble (or I could have been spending more time finding the right sound). I knew what notes I was aiming for within the rhythmic figure and it helped me come up with the final idea. Here’s the final sketch (in treble clef):

When you improvise in real-time you must have a system of navigating the chord progression. I’m a BIG proponent of targeting (not sure what I’m talking about? Check more out HERE). When you compose, you will use the same process albeit much slower. You get time to think about your various targeting, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic options and change them if they don’t sound the way you want (i.e. you get to edit). The more you do the composing process the more solidified they become in your mind. That comes out in your playing.

  • How would you suggest to get started on this?

If you’re just starting out I would suggest writing out a chord progression you’re working on. Write out the guide tones or other targets. Compose a line of nothing but quarter notes. Play it back. Does it sound interesting with just the quarter notes? If not, edit it until it does. Once it does, add eighth notes. Sound good? If not, edit it. Once it does, alter the rhythm. Continue, rinse, and repeat.

This is an area I cover with my improvisation students (on Skype and in-person lesson). If you’ve used this process or found it helpful, please feel free to share how you compose to help your improvisation in the comments below OR feel free to share this with the social media buttons!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. As a thank you I wanted to give you a FREE MP3 from the JKQ. Simply click the button below and fill out the short form and you’ll have it in just a few short moments!

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Contemporary Composition part 5

Welcome to the last part of our Contemporary Composition series! I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and it sheds some light into different ways you can compose contemporary charts. This isn’t the only way to write, but I hope you found some parts (or all) valuable and useful to your writing and/or improvising!

In part 5 we are going to take about the final edits of the chart. This is the part of the composition process I suggest you make final melodic or chordal edits as necessary. If something doesn’t sound right or the way you want it…this is your opportunity to change it.

In this part of the process I will take a deeper look at the chords I’ve chosen. I will ask myself if these current chords fully support the melody or if I make a slight change-will it improve it? For instance, if I have a straight major 7th chord…does it sound better as a major 7th or major 7th (#11)? Does a Bb7 sound good or does a Bb7(b9) improve it? If it does, then make the change. If it doesn’t…leave it alone.

The last part of the process is deciding where to put rhythmic hits or punches. These are accents that the rhythm section can play (melodic notes or chords they play in a rhythmic pattern). A few examples of what this might look like are below:

While singing and reading through the composition-ask yourself where rhythmic hits or punches can be added to the composition. This can create a sense of depth and maturity to the chart. If it doesn’t need any-then leave it alone. However, to me, I find charts that have rhythmic hits or punches sound more put together then those that don’t.

Be careful that you don’t over-write with the rhythmic hits. Too much and the chart can lose it’s balance. In the case of Back and Forth, I had spots where I heard a catchy rhythmic pattern that fit in the space where the melody was static. However, when I played through the chart it made it too busy. So I kept the rhythmic hits simple. During the melody, the rhythm section plays a hit on beat 4 of the second measure. To me, it was all the chart needed.

This is the link to the piano part to Back and ForthBack and Forth Piano

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I plan on doing more posts about writing and composing tips in the future. If you haven’t already, please be sure to check out my books (Breaking the Monotony and Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose) at my Digital Store.

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Contemporary Composition part 4

For those that have been following this series on Contemporary Composition, I premiered the song we’ve been constructing here at a concert on 9/24/12. The video of that performance is below. If this your first time visiting this site or series, please feel free to have a look around. If you go to the pull-down menu (categories) you can find our other posts.

In part 4 we will look at the overall form and creating contrasting sections. There are almost an infinite number of choices in deciding your overall form. Do you want an intro? AABA? ABA? ABAC? Intro-A-B-interlude? etc. For Back and Forth I wanted to keep it simple. I knew I had a 12-bar A-section. I personally like the AABA form because the melody gets repeated so the audience can remember the melody. This makes my B-section my contrasting section.

To create a contrasting section, you can go through the whole writing process (part 1-3) again or you can do something else. My A-section was already built with a non-traditional/non-functional way of writing. So I decided to make the B-section traditional/functional harmony. When I think of AABA forms…the most famous that comes to mind is the rhythm changes form. So I decided to make my B-section the equivalent of the rhythm changes B-section (Back and Forth is in Db, so that makes the first chord of the B-section an F7). I wont go into the “how-to” write B-sections of rhythm changes because they’re explained very well on other sites you can check out (here is pretty decent explanation on Wikipedia).

My B-section now looks like this: F7, Bb7, Eb7, Ab7.

In part 5 we will finish putting the chart together by tweaking chords and creating rhythmic hits. If you haven’t already, please be sure to check out my books (Breaking the Monotony and Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose) at my Digital Store.

 

Contemporary Composition part 3

Welcome back to part 3 in our Contemporary Composition series! In part 3 we will talk about how I go about choosing the meter, harmonic rhythm and melody. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and that it adds value and benefit to you!

Let’s take a quick look at the chords that we chose from part 2: Db6/9, Amaj7, Bbmin7 & Bmaj7. There is no magical formula for determining the meter…you just need to make a decision! Do you want it in 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 5/4, etc.? You can make your decision on the style (i.e. swing, straight-eights, latin, etc.) and go with a meter choice. I’ve decided that for Back and Forth that I wanted to make it 4/4 swing.

The next step is either choosing the harmonic rhythm (when and how often the chords happen in time) or creating the melody. Some charts I choose to work with the melody first and others the harmonic rhythm. In the case of Back and Forth, I chose to start with the melody first.

To do the melody, I sat down at the piano and played through the chord progression slowly and let it influence my melodic decisions. While playing through the progression, I will sing ideas that come to mind over the changes. These are my first attempts at improvising over the changes. I will take some ideas and throw out others. I will do this over and over until I come up with something concrete that I can sing more then once over the progression. If your ears like it…keep it! There was a short melodic fragment that kept sticking that I decided to keep and transpose through the changes. It looked something like this:

This became my melodic fragment that I used throughout the composition and decided to transpose through the progression. Now I need to decide the harmonic rhythm. Do I want the changes to happen on every bar, every other, or? I played through the melodic fragment over and over and wanted the melody to help suggest the harmonic rhythm. To me, the melody suggested the C# in the second bar be held out before the phrase repeated. This ended up creating a series of 3-bar phrases. This made my “A” sections into a 12-bar form. I now have my “A” section created.

In part 4 we will look at the overall form and creating contrasting sections. If you haven’t already, please be sure to check out my books (Breaking the Monotony and Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose) at my Digital Store. Tonight (9/24/12) I will be premiering Back and Forth at Dazzle Jazz Club. If you’re in town, come check it out! We play from 7-9pm.

 

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Contemporary Composition part 2

Welcome back to our series on contemporary composition! In part 2 we will be looking at how we can decide which of our chord options stay and which ones we throw out. If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, check out last week’s post (Contemporary Composition part 1) for more information.

The next part of this process is something that you have to choose. Each person will have their own opinion and there could be a hundred different ways the progression could come out. We first have to pick a chord from our first set of chords. In the case of Back and Forth, I chose the Db6/9 chord. I personally like the quasi-major sounding quality of the chord. It’s not a major7th chord, yet not minor or dominant either. The Db6/9 is our starting point that we will build the progression from.

The next step is deciding: what chord should it go to next? To make that decision you need to sit down at the piano and play the two chords back to back (or plug the progression into some sort of sequencer like Band-in-a-Box or iRealbook OR have a friend who plays piano). Let’s review again what our chord options are for the second chord:

So we would play Db6/9 going to E7sus, or Db6/9 going to Fmaj7, etc. This is a very personal decision. You may like the sound of the Db6/9 going to a specific chord and not so much to others. In the case of Back and Forth, I liked the harmonic movement from the Db6/9 to the Amaj7.

You then continue this process through the remainder of your chord sets:

At this point you may start to have some creative ideas running through your head of what the progression sounds like. However, you may run into some options that sound “ok” to your ears, but yet don’t quite have the movement you’re looking for. That’s alright…you can borrow from the chord sets before or skip to the next one to find the right sound.

In the case of Back and Forth, I didn’t particularly like the options from the 3rd set (meaning I wasn’t liking Amaj7 going to one of the chords from that set). Instead, I ended up skipping ahead to the 4th set and using options from there. I liked the movement from Amaj7 to Bbmin7.

Then, for some reason I felt like there needed to be a 4th chord to add to this progression so I went back to the the 3rd set and didn’t like the options (Bbmin7 to x, x, etc). I decided to pick from the 4th set again. I liked the movement from Bbmin7 to the Bmaj7(#11), but liked it event better when I dropped the (#11) and made it a straight Bmaj7 (Bbmin7 to the Bmaj7). Remember, it’s all about finding a progression that your ears like and gravitates towards.

This is how I came up with the progression Db6/9, Amaj7, Bbmin7, Bmaj7 for Back and Forth. You will notice that it does not have the typical functional harmony movement (i.e. V-I), but rather jumps around in a non-functional way.

In part 3 we are going to continue building the composition by choosing our meter, harmonic rhythm and melody. If you haven’t already, please be sure to check out my books (Breaking the Monotony and Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose) at my Digital Store.

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Contemporary Composition Part 1

I wanted to start a new series this week in the Arranging/Composing category. If you check out the drop-down menu on the homepage you will find previous posts from various categories. This will be the first one in the Arranging/Composing category. In this series on contemporary composition we will be looking at a way to creatively compose a harmonic progression and let it become the foundation of the new composition. This is how I write my contemporary charts. I don’t do them all this way, but if I’m needing a spark for my creativity…this does it every time! I will be breaking up this process into a multi-week series, so you’ll want to check back  each week.

The first part of this process is not something I came up with, but rather one I learned from a professor at the Lamont School of Music (University of Denver) where I received my Master’s. This was taught to me by jazz pianist/composer Eric Gunnison. The other parts of the process would be what I do to finish out the composition. We’re going to build from the ground up a composition I wrote specifically to be premiered at Dazzle Jazz (930 Lincoln St Denver, CO) on September 24th 2012 called Back and Forth. If you go to my Facebook page you can get access to this chart and others that will be played on 9-24-12.

Let’s get started! The first part of this process is to build a list of any arbitrary two-note pairs. They can be of any interval distance. In the example of the song I wrote called, Back and Forth, I decided to make 4 sets of two-note pairs as seen below:

These two note pairs are now going to our Guide Tones (3rds, 7ths or any other chord tone) for coming up with our harmonic progression. Let’s take the first pair (the F & Bb). You can decide on how many different ways those two notes could become a guide tone. I typically start with the first note and move up chromatically looking at how each of those two notes fit with it’s new “root.” Here’s an example of what that might look like:

You can make your list as complex or as simple as you like. For me, in this process I don’t extend the chord quality past the 9th because those can be changed later. Notice how the F and Bb fit into each one of those chords. They are in some way or another a part of the guide tones or chord tones. Let’s continue the process with the next 3 pairs:

Now that we have a lot of different chord options, we can narrow down our choices for our new harmonic progression. Next week, we will look at how you can choose which ones to throw out and which ones we will keep to build our progression. In the meantime, if you haven’t checked out my books Breaking the Monotony or Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose then go to my Digital Store and take a look!

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