Discovering the Secrets of Composition Darlene Irwin     February 01, 2016

Recently I attended a very interesting and informative Music Composition Workshop given by Frances Balodis (founder of Music for Young Children). It was hosted by the Barrie Branch of the ORMTA (Ontario Registered Music Teachers’ Association). This was a student workshop, but the teachers were also invited to participate. The class that I attended was the first part of a 3-part series.

I wasn't sure what to expect. Composition is something that I’ve never even tried. However I also feel that it’s very important that we, as teachers, be constantly learning and expanding our horizons. So I thought I'd give it a try. I was so impressed with the whole experience that I just had to write about it!

One of the first things I learned was that composition is not something to be afraid of. The students in the class were thrilled to be able to write a song that was 'theirs'. They were very excited when Mrs. Balodis shared their compositions with the class. The best part was that I felt like a student again, learning new things and trying something totally out of my comfort zone. And it was so much fun.

Here are some of the composition secrets that I learned from Frances.

Secret #1: One of the hardest things about composing is knowing where to start. First of all, you need to come up with a musical idea or theme (motif). Your idea doesn’t have to be complicated….maybe only 3 or 4 notes. Choose a time signature and a key signature…..C major is a good place to start. Wow….that’s not too complicated. I was starting to think that maybe I could do this!

Secret #2: It's important to understand the basic concepts of composition so that you can enhance your motif. These ideas were presented to the students in a very ingenious, creative and easy-to-understand manner.  

Here are some cool ways to add variety to your motif:

  • Repetition - repeat at the same octave, an octave higher or lower.
  • Sequence - repeat up or down a note.
  • Retrograde - write your theme backwards.
  • Inversion - write your theme upside down.
  • Rhythmic - shift change the rhythm of your idea.
  • Fragmentation - break your idea up into smaller pieces.
  • Augmentation - make your note values longer and/or intervals bigger.
  • Diminution - make your note values smaller and/or intervals smaller.
  • Conclusion - write an ending.
  • IMPORTANT - always have a title, tempo and dynamic markings so that others will know how to reproduce your piece. 

Secret #3: Study a variety of pieces to find examples of these techniques. Mrs. Balodis shared a few compositions with us and pointed out some of these concepts in the music.

Secret #4: Start writing your motif...remember to keep it simple. Everyone was invited to write a short melody based on one single idea. Frances played each of the student's compositions and gave lots of positive and helpful comments and suggestions. Each child was made to feel that their piece was special.

My first attempt was called "A Walk In The Park". It was pretty basic. We then had to take our original melody and expand it...maybe add another idea in the middle for a contrast and then repeat the original idea again (ABA form). I added a middle section in the relative minor key and called it "A Surprise In The Park". I was actually thinking about seeing a snake!

For homework, we had to find 2 or 3 simple pieces and identify some of the compositional techniques used by the composers. I chose to study a piece called "Allegro in B Flat Major" (K3) by Mozart. I’ve labeled some of the compositional techniques used in this work. (It’s interesting to note that Mozart was only 6 years old when he wrote this piece!)

Then we were asked to write another original work using some of these ideas. 

Here’s part of my composition that I wrote this week. I’ve called it "Western Sunset". (I played this piece for one of my students this past week and now she wants to play it at our recital in June. How exciting is that!)

Here's an excerpt from my piece:

Composition can be fun, rewarding and accessible. Mrs. Balodis has given this workshop series throughout Ontario to various groups of students. At the end of the first 3-hour session, one of the youngest students made this comment: "Was that an hour class?" Time really does fly when you’re having fun!

 ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

Photo credit: Alberta Sunset (Calgary, AB), pictures of Frances Balodis by Darlene Irwin