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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The Chariot

Written on April 16, 2014 for Chris Barletta and the Women’s Choir of Gateway High School in Kissimmee, Florida, with an expected first performance in May 2014. The students selected a poem by Emily Dickinson as the text that they wanted me to set for them. The Chariot begins “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and is a somber piece that suggested a chromatic language to me. While there is four-part divisi, the piece remains homophonic and there are many passages in only two parts. The choir is supported by the piano with a brief unaccompanied passage. A video of the first performance can be seen here.

It is finish-ed!

ColorLogoRGBLogo chosen!

It was a tough choice, but I awarded a winner in the competition at for a logo for Audubon Park Music. Thanks to everyone who voted or offered their opinions on the submissions! Net up will be a website redesign to incorporate the new logo and start moving my catalog of music for sale from over to I hope to have the site fully functional by the time the bishops grant me permission to publish my psalter.


Any musician at a reasonably large church is familiar with the difficulties of having to be in two different places at the same time. While science may have advanced enough to provide clones of certain animals, I’m still waiting for the technology that allows us to bi-locate. How much more practice time could I get if I could actually be on the organ bench AND at the staff meeting? If you could be in two places at once, where would you choose to go?

Sadly, we can’t divide ourselves yet, and as the sound system in the social hall at Holy Redeemer was my most stressful part of this past week, I am extremely grateful that my choir was willing to change venues and move from their traditional location of the church to serve the overflow crowd in the social hall. While I normally like to have everything well-planned in advance, I am still an improviser and will go with the flow when necessary. Thank you to all the singers and musicians at Holy Redeemer for a wonderful week of liturgies and for going along with the flow when change was needed!

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Death seems to be the theme of this week. Not only at church, but in real life. One of my colleagues from Westminster Choir College passed away just over a week ago from cancer. While sad, this was expected. The unexpected event was the sudden death of one of my classmates at a rehearsal at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Jeff Dinsmore and I graduated from Westminster twenty years ago this May. I still feel young enough that learning of the death of someone my own age creates a pause for reflection: am I spending my limited time here on earth doing the best that I can? How about you?

The students at Gateway High School chose a text by Emily Dickinson for me to set for them titled The Chariot. Because I Could Not Stop for Death is the first line, and it seems very fitting that I managed to set this text during this week surrounded by death. We are still working on the potential performance date. There will also likely be another piece written for Gateway this year to be sung at their baccalaureate service at the end of May. No one wants to hear about death at a graduation ceremony, so I’ll be looking for a happier topic….

The next performance I do have scheduled is the Classical Choir Concert of the Central Florida Community Arts on May 3 and 4. The program includes The Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois (referenced by today’s subject line). Luckily, this concert also includes some happier tunes by Mozart, Rossini, Thompson and others. I’m hoping this week of death is now finish-ed and more pleasant times will arrive in this Easter season.

May you live long and prosper!


Newsletter Issue 20 – 2014 04 22
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