The Joys of Making Music

So I've had it pointed out to me that I've been rather slack with my blogging, and this is 100% true, and I'm sorry. So to make it up to you I'm going to use today's blog to discuss two of my all-time favourite musical pastimes: composition and improvisation. 

Let's start with a story. Once upon a time when I was around 10 or so, I started experimenting with creating my own songs. I knew nothing about compositional theory, why particular chords sounded good with others, how to identify my key or time signatures, I just liked making sounds. I took a piece I had labelled The Four Seasons, (why can I still remember that?) and brimming with bashful pride, showed it to my piano teacher. He said 'that's not what I told you to do this week'.

I'll admit, it wasn't the reaction I was hoping for. As a budding composer I thought my song was marvellous, certainly far more interesting than the pieces I was supposed to be practicing. Thankfully my primary school music teacher, Mrs. Laycock (my memory is on fire today) was as enthusiastic and encouraging as any young student could wish. I continued to compose using my self-developed techniques but as my musical education progressed through high school and into my Bachelor, I started to make connections between my compositional methods and the theory I was being taught.

It all came to a head one day when I was with an 8-year-old student. We were flipping through her folder and I came across a diagram of the circle of 5ths. I had never seen one before and asked her what it was. She explained her old teacher had given it to her to help with her scales, but as a looked at the circle I saw what I had spent the last 10 years teaching myself. Patterns, relationships, chord theory. All laid out on a piece of paper with doodles of flowers all over it. 

Mind blown.

Fast forward to now and I still use the circle of 5ths to teach my students what took me 10 years to figure out on my own. I genuinely believe chord theory is the foundation of all good composition and improvisation. If you have a decent chord progression you're basically done. Note that I say decent. Not fantastic, not technical, not complicated, just decent. As I say to my students, if you can't write something simple that sounds good, you're going to have a hard time writing something more complex. So let's start with two chords. 

For example, C major and its relative minor A. I'm not a fan of root chords (1,3,5 - I just find the third so cheesy) and I also believe in lots of space so I like to start my left hand in an octave-fifth position (1,5,8). That's it. No pattern, nothing. Just play your C position, and then move to A. Do this a few times and really listen to the tones. Do you play the A chord higher or lower than the C? Mix it up, which do you like better? Now on top of this your right hand is going to play one note. You're in C major, stay away from the black keys and you can hit whatever else you like. That's it, just a bunch of quavers (or ti-ti's if that's what you're into). Once you've found your one note that you're happy with, look at adding another. Expand from here.

I don't really get into melody/complex rhythm until I'm satisfied my students are really listening to what they're playing, appreciating the various tones. I generally encourage them to start with 2-4 chords at a time. They can play them in whatever order they wish but they're not allowed to change chords until they're very confident handling the first lot. I mean understanding the root chords, inversions, combinations they like, combinations they don't like, etc. Because if you can conquer one group of chords, the rest is just transposition. 

Now for today's controversial statement: I don't really care about melody. 'But Julia!' I hear you cry. 'Surely melody is the most important feature of a song!' And sure melody is pretty important I guess, but chords are where the true power lies. They are the glue, they are the meaning and emotion behind whatever your melody is trying to say. Don't believe me? Play a melody over a chord and it will sound good. Now play the same melody over a different chord and listen to how everything changes. It can change your melody from major to minor, from light to serious, from tonal fluff to a statement hook. Get to know your chords people

I realise I haven't really gone into the differences between composition and improvisation, (first I was slack, now I'm a liar) this has been more of an ode to chords, but this post is already rather long so keep an eye out for The Joys of Making Music Pt. 2 later this week!