Assignments are listed in reverse chronological order

For December 2nd

As promised, your last assignment for the fall semester is to compose a holiday song. This is practical songwriting, in that working songwriters/composers often are tasked with writing compositions with a particular theme, audience, and intent in mind. 

Consider which holiday you'd like to write for, do a little research as to the main ideas for that holiday, and keep your audience in mind. You might be writing to evoke a sense of nostalgia, as many Christmas songs to. You might be calling people to action, like planting a tree for Arbor Day. Or perhaps you are writing to educate your listeners as to what the holiday is about. This is not always the kind of thing that you're writing simply for your own enjoyment, though it can be. 

A great question to ask is, "What is the main idea I want the listeners to remember when the song is done?" If you can answer that, then you've got a good start as to what you need to include in the piece. 

Aim for about a minute long, any genre and instrumentation. Please send PDFs and .mp3s to my email by 7:00 p.m. on December 1st. Have a great Thanksgiving!

For November 18th

Music has an inherent psychological aspect to it. There's no way around it. We use music in all kinds of ways to evoke emotion, both for good and for ill. In the Baroque and Classical periods, ideas developed around what types of emotions were evoked by certain keys, a principle known as affekt. Over time, this principle developed to have very specific emotional associations with certain keys, to the point that composers would set their pieces in those keys in order to match the emotions they were attempting to convey. One famous example is "Hallelujah" from Messiah, which is in the key of D major, a key associated with heaven, victory, and triumph. Many other songs in that particular oratorio have key associations based on the idea of affekt. As an example, "Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" is in F minor, a key that implies funereal lament and depression, and the "Pastoral Symphony" is in the optimistic key of C, 

For this week your assignment is to write a piece, at least 1 minute long in any genre and instrumentation, in a key of your choosing. You should choose the key based on what mood you want to evoke, and which key matches that description. To read the key descriptions, visit this link: https://wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

After you write your initial piece, transpose it into another key so you can hear the difference. MuseScore has a way to transpose with a couple of clicks, so you shouldn't have to rewrite the whole thing. Here's some instructions on how to do that: https://musescore.org/en/handbook/3/transposition

When you've completed your assignment, send me the PDF of the original piece, and .mp3s of the original piece AND the transposed piece. We'll listen to both versions in class to hear the comparison. This assignment will be due by 7:00 p.m. Thursday, November 17th for class on the 18th.

Heads up! The next assignment is to write a holiday song that will be due our last day of the semester, December 2nd. You can write for any holiday you wish, but you might want to start thinking about it early. We'll talk more about it next week.

You can send me any questions you have to my email address, or via the chat feature here. Have fun and good luck!

For November 11th

We're playing with sound this week!

We are surrounded by all kinds of sounds at almost all times of the day and night. Our brains generally help us to filter what is important and what is not, so we hear all the sounds around us, but we don't listen to everything. Same thing with touch and sight. We take in much more information than we actually pay attention to. 

This week, explore how to make sounds with different things in your home, called "found object music." You might consider the different kinds of timbres that you can make, the loudness of sounds you can make, and the length of sounds you can make. 

Then make a sound or video recording of a piece that you compose using these found object sounds. You can make the instruments you use, like putting beans in a jar, or just make sounds with existing things. Totally up to you. Because of the nature of this assignment, you don't need to send me anything, so we'll all be surprised by your compositions next Friday. 

 

The point is to be able to expand your view of what music can be by making different sounds and thinking about how those sounds are made, how they contribute to the overall texture of a composition, and the many different ways you could even use instruments beyond the norm to create interesting and creative pieces of music. 

You can send me any questions you have to my email address, or via the chat feature here. Have fun and good luck!

For October 28th

Great job with your compositions last week!

This week you get the chance to expand your knowledge and start the process of learning how to write for an instrument that you don't have experience with yet. The first step is to learn about the instrument you'd like to write for. Some things to learn include:

  • The range of the instrument or voice type

  • A brief history of the instrument

  • Strengths of the instrument, such as the part of the range that it sounds best in or what other instruments it pairs with

  • Weaknesses of the instrument, including which parts of the range are difficult or technical things that are troublesome for the instrument (you might consider asking someone who is familiar with the instrument for their experience)

  • Listening to this instrument or voice type performing different genres of music, like jazz, classical, folk, rock, etc. 

In class next week, be prepared to give a short 2-3 minute synopsis of what you learned, and perhaps play a representative recording of your instrument. The rest of the time, if there is any, you can use to start the process of writing a new piece in any genre for your chosen instrument. This new piece will then be presented on November 4th. Aim to have a work at least one minute long. You can pair your chosen instrument with other instruments or voices, as long as your chosen instrument is the predominant or highlighted voice in the mix. 

Important details for this week:

  • You don't need to send me anything before class this week.

  • If you haven't yet figured out how to export a PDF and/or .mp3 on Musescore, please take a few minutes this week and either ask about how to do that or look it up online. It's not difficult, but it is a requirement for turning in your homework to me, rather than sending me the Musescore files. 

Have a great week!

For October 21st

We talked more today about "Golden Bricks," which are big ideas + musical gesture. 

We sampled a few pieces today, but if you haven't yet, I would encourage you to skip to the previous assignment listed below and read/listen to the examples I posted last week, in addition to the examples posted here.

In Ravel's "Bolero," the Golden Brick is both an instrument (the snare) and the rhythm it is playing on repeat. 

In Kerry Andrew's "All Things Are Quite Silent," the gesture she introduces the "extended sounds" the choir makes to mimic the sea. This is an "aleatoric" element, because the choir can make the sounds at will, and the composer didn't write everything out.

In pop music, the Golden Brick is also called a hook, and it's the ear-wormy element that keeps coming back again and again, the part that you get into your head. In Michael Jackson's "Thriller" from 1981, there are several rhythmic elements that repeat, like the heartbeat bum-bum that you hear in the bass through the dance break, and the main hook is the repeated word "Thriller." 

Your assignment is to continue to work on three musical gestures/Golden Bricks, that you can then use as the basis for a new piece of any genre. 

  • Your Golden Bricks should be simple, so you can expand them as you need to

  • Your new piece should be about a minute and a half long

  • You don't have to use all three of the Golden Bricks you write, but use at least one of them

  • Remember the story you are trying to tell, or what you are teaching your listeners to pay attention to. All the music in between is bringing people to those moments that you want to make an impression on them.

  • Keep it simple! Complexity is usually a lot more difficult to work with.

  • Send your completed works to me by October 20th at 7:00 p.m. Remember to send PDFs and .mp3s, and not the Musescore files. Send them to heather.nelson.svs@gmail.com.

Happy composing!

For October 7th

Great job on your melodies this week! And you're giving each other such great feedback that I hate to have to rush us along, but because this class is pretty big, we will have to tighten up the time that we spend on presenting and giving feedback. I'm thinking of solutions, which might mean we only have a few of you present in each class rather than all of you, or maybe only one person give feedback, but in the mean time, what would help the most is keeping our extraneous talking and interjecting to a minimum so we are staying on task. Ideally, we'd have more than an hour each week, but we have to work with the time we have. I appreciate your attention to how you contribute to our class time management. 

This week, we're going to set up for the following two weeks, by exploring creating moments in your compositions. This could also be called a musical gesture, or I called it a "Golden Brick" that you use to build the rest of the piece on. Your assignment is to spend some time thinking about a new piece that you'll be writing to present on October 21st. This piece needs to be about a minute and a half long or so, though longer is fine. Not too much shorter, so you have enough time to develop your ideas. As you are thinking of this piece, think of the story you will want to tell, or the ideas you want to get across. We've been talking a lot about story lately, which can include emotions, or pictures, or plot points that you want the audience to pay attention to. An alternative, though, is maybe you don't want to tell a story exactly, but you have a particular rhythmic figure that you want to explore. There will still likely be some moments of importance and the rest of the piece will be leading to those. You get to decide. But everything is on purpose.

"Golden Brick" = big idea + a musical element 

Notice that I used the word "element" on purpose. It's not a huge thing. It can be very small. Simple and small is often better.

In your piece, in every piece really, we are moving from moment to moment. Not every note is the most important, and so we have to decide what are the most important things, and then we write the rest of the music in such a way that we are leading our listeners to those moments. This takes planning. This week as you are planning, you'll explore the idea of musical gesture and write three things that represent the ideas you are wanting to highlight in your upcoming composition. This could be as small as a chord that has a particular feel to you, a rhythm that expresses some kind of emotion, or a small melody line that illustrates a storyline or character. Again, you get to decide. 

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

The entire Fifth Symphony by Beethoven is built on a four-note rhythmic pattern. Half an hour of music that he uses to explore those four notes, over and over and over. It's his Golden Brick that everything else is built upon. Of course you hear it in the opening measures, that you all have heard a bajillion times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKl4T5BnhOA&t=1287s&ab_channel=JamisonSanchez Listen for a couple of minutes and hear how many times you hear that bu-bu-bu-BUM (short-short-short-long) rhythm over and over, and how he changes it ever so slightly so that it's still there, but not a carbon copy every time. Then fast forward to 7:37 and see how in the score he uses the short-short-short-long rhythm in a different way. And again at 9:50. And again at 17:40 or so. Such a small little thing, but he practically beats it to death through the whole symphony. It's really neat. 

In "Lux Arumque" by Eric Whitacre, you'll hear right at the beginning the choir singing "Lux" three times in a row, Latin for "light" and how the choir moves from an open chord to a dissonant cluster chord, kind of shimmering, like light. Then he moves away from that and the parts get a bit more active and less together until they come to the moment of "Angeli" (angels) and then land on an F# major chord together, highlighting the presence of the angels at the manger. Then immediately he brings back the figure of the open chord to the cluster chord on the word "canunt" (singing) and AGAIN on "natum" (born). Mr. Whitacre has described his image of the piece as shimmering gold light around the newborn Child in the manger, and he used those open to cluster chord figures to show that kind of shimmering light in an aural way. 

In the "Shire" theme from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, there are a couple of things to listen for right at the beginning that Howard Shore uses masterfully throughout the hobbit themes. The first is right at the beginning when he quotes the opening measures of the hymn "This is My Father's World" that evokes a sense of green, lush, and safe open fields and forests. He then brings in the French horn and introduces a surprise chord that has a majestic and almost march-like feel to it, hinting to us the bravery of the hobbits that we haven't seen yet. And then the staccato figures that give an image of frivolity and playfulness in the hobbits. These things keep coming back over and over through the entire theme, and even through the whole film score as we learn more and more about the hobbits through the way the music portrays them. 

So again, this week you are aiming to work with three gestures that you can use to build your piece upon. As illustrated above with the three examples I gave you, there is a lot of wide-open interpretation for how you might want to do this. Have fun with it! And remember, it doesn't have to be complicated. Simple figures are often the easiest to work with because they give you more space to expand and play with them. We don't really want to hear how clever you are. We want to be moved. 

Important details:

  • You do not have to send your three gestures to me this week. Just bring them to class.

  • You might want your computers or whatever you use to work on your compositions in class next week, because you may have some time to work on your composition in class (if we manage our time well!)

  • Remember that when you send things to me from MuseScore, please send the .mp3 file and the PDF, and not the MuseScore file itself. The .mscz files are really big and sometimes are harder to open. If you haven't yet figured out how to export those, ask me in class on Friday and I can show you how. It's really easy.

  • Your assignment on October 7th will be a new composition at least a minute and a half long, using at least one of the gestures that you write this week. You don't necessarily have to use all three that you'll work on this week, but start thinking about what your storyline or big idea in your new piece will be.

  • Keep working on building your composition skills through little by little work. Don't wait for inspiration to strike!

 

Have a great week, and I'll see you on Friday!

For September 15th

We had a good first class yesterday! There's a lot of info in this post, so read carefully. Here are a few things to remember and the details of your first homework assignment:

1. There are several elements to every musical composition. You as the composer get to decide what you want the purposes to be, and the way you do that is to make choices about each of the elements you include. Good work doesn't generally happen by accident, so you will compose things on purpose. 

2. You're going to be bad at this for a while, so don't fret. Being bad is part of the process that you can't really skip over. Sorry about that, but it's true. You'll be better in the long run if you let yourself go through the hard stuff of growing. Fail big, fail often.

3. Creativity is not a whim of nature, or whatever. Creativity truly is a discipline, so make space for it to happen. The quote I gave from Maurice Ravel is something like, "I'll be at my desk from 8-4 everyday. If inspiration wants to strike, she'll know where to find me." Make composition a regular practice, rather than waiting for inspiration. There are things you can do to increase your skills, even if you don't have ideas for your new pieces yet. Past students have told me about 2 hours a week, in half hour chunks or so, were what they needed to do work they were proud of. You might need more or less, but consistency is going to be really important for you.

4. To increase your skills at composing, you can do a few things. One of the best things you can do is to get good at dictating melodies you hear. Start with simple children's songs, and try to write them down or sit with your instrument and figure out how to play them without using a score. The better you can get at accurately writing or playing melodies you hear, the faster you will be able to accurately write down or play the melodies you hear in your head. You can also get scores of other pieces and copy them, which can often give you insight into the inner workings of a piece. And of course, listen listen listen. Listen to a lot of different music, even stuff you don't generally like. You can learn from just about anything. You can also try orchestrating a song into another genre or for other instruments to see what happens when you do that. It's fun!

We listened to Bach Prelude in C, and examined some of the building blocks of this piece. He used the same rhythm through almost the entire piece, the left hand almost always starts on a C that keeps getting struck like a bell tone through the whole piece, and he gets more and more complex in his harmonic language as the piece goes on. He ends it with a very satisfying IV, V, I chord resolution. Try listening again during your composition time this week and listen again for those building blocks and how they add to the piece as a whole. Imagine what the piece would be like if any of those elements were changed. Perhaps even experiment with changing them and seeing what they sound like. 

You'll need to choose your composition software. Whatever you decide to use is a personal choice, and it's totally fine. The only requirement I have is that whatever you use, you must be able to save/export a PDF of your score and an .mp3 of your work to send to me for feedback and to be able to share your work with your colleagues in class. Getting feedback is an essential part of the process! There are several free options available for you.

All assignments will be due on Thursday evenings by 7:00 p.m. sent to my email address, heather.nelson.svs@gmail.com. That means sending me your score via PDF and .mp3. Let me know if you need help figuring out how to do this with your chosen software.

A laptop and earbuds for classes are going to be helpful for you, but not required. We will occasionally have lab days when you'll basically have some time during class to work on your music, and having a way to do that without disturbing each other will be very, very helpful for all of us. 

Your first homework assignment is to write at least 8 measures (16 would be better) of a rhythm line. Just rhythm, no melody or harmony. Because musical compositions are a way for you to say something, think about it as an opportunity to tell a story. Good stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning, you teach the listeners what to pay attention to. In the middle we often introduce a conflict or a problem, and move toward a climax. The ending resolves the conflict and brings our story to some kind of an end. This is tough to do in 8 measures, but again, think about how each note, each little bit of rhythm, contributes to the story. Each note is on purpose. This means you may spend more time thinking about your rhythm than you do writing it, and that's fine. You may write something and change it. Don't get caught up in perfectionism. Just do it. You'll have time to fix things later, if you need to. 

Rhythm exercises may be a bit hard to put into notation software, so for this assignment you aren't required to send them to me by next Thursday, but you certainly can. It's a great way to practice using your software and sending things to me. Be prepared to perform your rhythm exercise for the class on Friday. Let me know via email if you have any questions. 

Happy composing!