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Things I Learned in Music Composition #1 Sunday Scribble #8

Good Day Everyone!!

When I introduce myself to people, they invariably ask me, “What did you study in grad school?”. When I tell them I studied music composition the conversation inevitably turns to questions about what I do and how I make a living. These conversations eventually led me to think about what I learned while studying music composition, and how I could share my experience with people in a way that is meaningful and helpful.

This new blog series will focus in on specific musical concepts and ideas. After giving a quick overview of each topic, I will give my two-cents about why this concept is important to music-making and how it relates to human interaction and experiences in a broader way. It is my hope that through this venture, you will come away with a deeper understanding of the music you listen to, and will see how interconnected musical concepts are to the world in which we live.

The first thing I learned in music composition is that every note should be justified.

Every. Single. Note.

There needs to be a purpose and a reason for each musical note or musical expression that is included in the art you are creating. It can be a good reason or a bad reason, but there needs to be a reason, since each musical expression or note is related to what comes before and after it. Naturally, the more logical the reason for that note’s existence, the better your music will be. It is important to note that the composer, song creator, or beat maker has exclusive privilege in deciding the first musical expression in their work. There are no strings attached to the first musical expression created. However, that second expression has to relate or correspond with the first expression. This is true for every note that follows your first. If there is no connection between the musical expression, then your audience will not understand and connect with the musical idea you are trying to create.

In writing music, the justification of every note is usually addressed by working within the context of a musical form. Most songs or beats follow a general structure that guides and shapes the flow of the piece. For example, a pop song follows this formula: Introduction-Verse-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Bridge-Chorus (2x)-Outro. The order between the introduction and the outro can be switched and modified, but every variation, change, or duplication of a particular structure has to be justified or you will lose your audience and the grounding and craft behind the work you are creating.

The musical concept of every note having to be justified is also expressed in the various tools that a music creator has to expand on a musical expression, like repetition, duration, transposition, speed, volume, and texture. These terms relate specifically to the manipulation of a musical idea. The greatest composers and songwriters of all time have a good grasp on when, how, and what tools to use to create meaningful, purposeful music.

This concept is important to music making because not only does this give music creators structure and clarity to the musical ideas in their heads, but it also allows listeners to follow, comprehend, and enjoy the music they love without distractions or interference that could take them out of the experience of your music. This concept applies to all types of music from classical to rock, r&b to rap, and from pop to jazz. Good works from any genre are thoughtful of every note, every expression, and every idea, and they are all incorporated into a meaningful, purposeful way.

Philosophically speaking, this concept falls under the idea of teleology. In short, teleology is the idea that everything has a purpose, an end goal, and there is a reason for its existence. This is the only reason that music has any meaning or value. No matter what you listen to, there is a purpose or reason for its existence. The more clearly defined that purpose or reason is, the better that work of art is. It gives a basis by which we judge the music that we like and dislike. Admittedly, there is a pleasant experience in not having the purpose explicitly stated and having to derive the conclusion of its existence and purpose for oneself. This however does not prevent the work of art, song, or beat from having meaning. It is from this understanding that one can appreciate and understand music even if you would rather not listen to it.

This concept of music creation is reflective of the understanding of the human experience. We strive for meaning, purpose, and realize that every action and reaction has a consequence or effect in the world we live in. When one is cognizant of the purpose or meaning of one’s life, then there is direction and a goal that is knowable and pursuable. Most importantly it gives value to a person’s existence and understanding of the value of another person’s existence. People, like music, have a design and a purpose and the more you understand that purpose or design, the more you can enjoy your favorite song and live a meaningful life.

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Comment by Denzel Washington on October 24, 2019 at 9:51am

Hey Gav. Thanks for your comment. This was designed to express one of the first things I learned as a person interested in composition. Yes it is obvious to people who have been composing for a while and are learning and consistently practicing the art. But, this is something who is new to composition learns and tries to incorporate in their art. This piece was also taking a look as to why this methodology works and looks a little beyond the practical. It is also a series inspired as I mentioned in the beginning is when people ask me what I do. This article is also to relate to different styles and genres of music. I hope that clears up the purpose of this article. 

Comment by Gav Brown on October 23, 2019 at 10:26pm

Hi Denzel, I find it hard to think that there is a composer out there who doesn't already think this. I know I pay attention to every note in every composition of mine, including inner notes of chords etc. and I doubt you would find any other composer who thinks any other way. In other words, what you've said here seems to me to be obvious and so it begs the question: does it need to be said? It almost sounds like you think there is some bad practice out there that some composers adhere to, wherein they do not pay attention to every note, but I find it hard to imagine how such a composer could exist or how they would compose, if not by laying the notes down one-by-one and paying attention as they go along. 

Gav

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