How to write a piece of music


This past Friday, I went over to Gateway High School to hear the Bel Canto Choir rehearse the piece I wrote for them with a text by Emily Dickinson: The Chariot. It is always such a thrilling moment for me to hear a group actually sing something that I’ve put down on paper, and I am very much looking forward to the premier performance tonight during their spring concert! I hope to be able to post a video after the event is over. (Now available here.)

Their director, Chris, and I were still discussing interpretation ideas when the next group came in for class. He introduced me to them and offered them the opportunity to ask me questions about the composition process. The first question I was asked reminded me of the questions I had been asked when I first went to hear the Bel Canto Choir last fall, both of which were some form of: How do you choose what notes to put on the page? In each case I referenced a quote which I finally looked up from Igor Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.” I remember hearing this first from my own first composition teacher who explained that when asked simply to compose a piece of music, even the great Stravinsky was at a loss as to what to write, but as soon as you told him that you needed a piece for -choose your favorite and most peculiar set of instruments (accordion, kettle drum, flute and viola, for example)- he had lots of ideas.

Five Ws

The five Ws are questions for gathering basic information: Who, What, Where, When, Why. Just like the five vowels include a “and sometimes ‘y'”, we could add ‘How’ to this list of questions words. Just like Stravinsky, the more information I have regarding these topics, the easier it is for me to write a piece.


Generally I need to have an idea of who will be singing or performing the composition I am to write. This will enable me to determine instrumentation and help identify the difficulty level. An amateur choir does not have the same musical skills as a professional octet, and if the brass ensemble is two trumpets and two trombones, writing a tuba or French horn part does not respect who the group is.


For choral pieces, what is the text? Is this a concert piece or a piece for worship? What addresses The answer to what sort of piece this is addresses the form the composition will take.


Is this piece for a small church covered in carpet, a large resonant acoustic, or Yankee Stadium? The performance venue can influence the style of writing or the form of the piece.


This can be a very critical question for style. How long until the performance? How many rehearsal will the group have. I always strive to write pieces that will be successful not simply in and of themselves, but for the performers as well. Giving a group with little rehearsal time a piece that is too difficult to learn only will result in either frustration, a poor performance, or even a cancellation. Not good.


This question for we is the one most closely related to musical style. What sort of affect is desired or intended by the composition? Is this a piece meant to convey joy or grief? Anger or delight? Severity or lightheartedness? Music has a message to convey, and that message is the why of the piece.

Craft vs. Inspiration

I studied harmony and counterpoint for several years, in addition to creating music on the spot through improvisation. Through a regular process of writing psalm settings, I feel I have developed a solid craft of composition. While a dash of inspiration may help the process along, as Stravinsky also said, “Composers combine notes, that’s all.” Plumbers and electricians do not wait for inspiration in order to work. People don’t wait for inspiration to have conversations. If music truly is a language, musicians should be skilled in the craft enough to converse and not have to wait for inspiration or rely on the “words” of someone else. In the past, formation as a musician included the ability to compose. Could the lack of instruction in composition now be one of the reasons “classical” music, including symphony orchestras and opera companies struggle to continue operations?

Writing a piece of music for me involves answering the 5 Ws and then applying the skills I have learned to communicate (or enable the performance group to communicate) a message appropriate for their skill level, the forces available, the venue, time and occasion of the event. Each of the three premiers coming up this month were easy to write because I had lots of solid answers to those questions. Do you need a piece for your group? Can you answer the 5 Ws for me? If so, send me your answers and I’ll see if I can add you to my calendar of events.

Wishing you all the best!


Newsletter Issue 21 – 2014 05 05
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