How on Earth do you do that?

This Blog discusses the development of a professional working attitude.

I’ve often had the pleasant experience of people coming up to me and saying ‘how on Earth do you write music like that, you must be very talented?’. Needless to say, I have no objections at all although I’m secretly aware of the many years spent refining all aspects of my work.

In the back of my mind there are doubts concerning excessive reliance on ‘creativity’ and, especially, the thoughtless use of words such as ‘gifted’ and ‘inspired’. If I could wake up tomorrow and believe whole heartedly that I was the helpless slave to factors beyond my control I would be very happy. That way, I’d never be to blame.

In the book there’s a section dealing with getting ideas going during a fallow period. Such periods occur for a number of reasons such as overwork, general tiredness, etc. On the other hand, a stimulating environment will often get the juices going. Please believe me that, if a composer/arranger plans a whole life around a blind belief in his or her immortality, the quality of music will suffer whether or not we accept the idea of a spiritual plane. It will, I promise.

The problem is that we all carry with us a set of listening and other experiences which we absorb and reproduce by rearranging the parts in a seemingly original way. The only escape from the tyranny of these complexes is to develop an objective control of musical materials so that we ‘create’ beyond the limitations of our own experiences.

Music actually emulates the very nature of physical forces around us (forces that were operating before mankind even existed) in a way that no other art form can, directly stimulating a similar pattern of responses in the listener’s auditory consciousness. Music does not necessarily set out to be directly descriptive or programmatic. Begin working in this way and ‘originality’ will start to emerge. You can do anything you desire, providing that what you write has a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose and is consistent within itself. The rules will begin to fall like ninepins. We might choose the deliberate use of an exposed octave or fifth to emphasise an accent from pp to ff. A kind of “doowap” effect. The book mentions many similar instances, including the use of parallel fifths in the lowest two voices in large ensembles to strengthen the texture. Many undesirable parallels become acceptable when their intervals are compounded.

There are other reasons for developing a more objective approach to our work. If a professional composer is commissioned to write an overture by a week on Wednesday (as the great composers often were), he or she simply can’t turn up on the day and say ‘I’m very sorry but I just couldn’t get inspired this week’.

There are also unavoidable constraints of one kind or another:

The duration of the composition will be finite;

Conventional instruments can’t play certain things or they may sound awkward doing so, and some only operate effectively within a limited orchestral range;

The musicians available will have a given level of accomplishment;

A featured solo arrangement will be designed to avoid leaving the player standing unoccupied for too long and it may well be written in the instrument’s ‘natural’ key


The anticipated level of sophistication of the audience can’t be ignored. A composer may wish to push overlapping sections and dissonance to the very limits of ‘noise’ itself. Jazz players are OK with this but I sometimes get complaints about ‘wrong notes’ from older brass band players (their excessive use of vibrato doesn’t help). Listen to the uncompromising Richard Strauss. He was often called ‘a musician’s composer’.

The most difficult thing to do (and I still make the mistake to this day) is to discard ideas that don’t fit. It’s very, very difficult indeed but failure in this respect is the biggest time-waster of them all. The trick is to keep stepping back to take a long view of the process and only commit yourself towards the end. With experience, you’ll know when. It’s rather like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw.

You can try too hard, also. It’s OK, in a jazz arrangement, to let the rhythm section only take it sometimes, or it can play the intro or modulation. Unfortunately, very few big bands have a good rhythm section. Most likely it will comprise a collection of detached individuals with their heads buried in the written parts.One of my bands was built around an existing trio and you could really tell the difference. Before leaving the rhythm section, it’s worth mentioning the need to ensure that the guitar and piano don’t fight each other. They can’t both feed chords at the same time. It happened occasionally in my nine-piece but I had a look that could kill at twenty paces.

Try to avoid approaching a composition with the intention of creating a masterpiece. Just get on with it in a spirit of humility. We only learn by making mistakes. It definitely helps to limit the number of ‘ideas’ used. Instead, use instrumental and other variations on a theme. The old stock technique of writing brass with saxes backing followed by the converse, saxes with a virtually identical brass backing, still works extremely well and yet it’s the simplest, most obvious thing an arranger could do.


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