I occasionally believe myself to be a decent composer, and once a certain level of self-satisfied proficiency is achieved, it’s all too tempting to compare oneself to the Greats – …perhaps I’m as innovative as Dvorak… perhaps I have the harmonic proficiency of Mussorgsky… the orchestration skills of Chopin… and so on and so forth.
But every so often, in the midst of a fleeting comparison between myself and someone more famous and accomplished than I will ever be, reality strikes, and I become aware that I’m actually not that good. This reality generally strikes during a session of composing when I get stuck at a crucial point in the music that requires I either sacrifice everything I’ve ever done to the ghastly flames and cry, or persevere and pump out a crappy piece that once upon a time had potential, and cry. (Pieces of music can often be akin to that one bright genius kid who falls into the wrong crowd and ends up spending a lifetime either in prison or burnt out on his couch watching HBO)
It is at these crossroads of my work and its hopelessness that I pull out my trusty book of gimmicks – the fail-proof and fool-proof Quack’s Quick Guide to Composing, guaranteed to get you out of any precarious situation: 10 easy steps to improving your craft and troubleshooting the problems of your tragically deficient aural discourse. It would be a shame if I didn’t share these tips with you, oh aspiring Beethoven.
1. Problem – “My piece is boring.”
Solution – Make it a polka. This one is easy, taught to me by the recordings of the great virtuoso, Maestro Weird Al Yankovic. If what you’re writing lacks luster, speed it up and throw in the good ol’ Oompa Oompas. This is most effective given to the piano or low strings, but also quite affective in the low brass or sonorous woodwinds. Experiment around. Harmony doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got a solid foundation of Ooms supporting your Pas. If people question your integrity, call it “postmodern.”
2. Problem – “I’m stuck in a pattern I’ve set up.”
Solution – Have a catastrophe. This one happens to me all the time, usually after adding a polka beat: often the power of the polka becomes too invasive, and suddenly, it’s impossible to get out of it without sounding contrived or disconnected. And it’s not just polka where this is possible – any ostanato pattern is liable to get stuck on repeat without relief. But not to fear! Catastrophe is here! Why work your way out of such a problem by painstakingly figuring out subtle harmony shifts and counterpoint when you can just stop all the action altogether and have a fortissimo bass drum hit? And if the bass drum isn’t enough, just have the whole orchestra play a chord in a completely different key. The absolute non-sequitor of it will confuse the audience, thereby cleansing their aural pallet, and allowing you to escape your relentless and tiresome pattern unscathed.
3. Problem – “My thematic material won’t develop.”
Solution – Fantasie! You could be predictable and use techniques like inversions, liquidations, expansions and other such follies of the Classical Era thematic development… OR… you could not. Developing thematic material is so 19th century anyway. Just start a new unrelated theme! It’ll keep the audience on their toes. Plus, no one’s attention span is long enough to deal with a developing variation of a theme. A new theme can be completely justified if you rename your piece something like “Multitudes,” “Faces,” or some other title implying multiple unrelated subjects. See #8 below.
4. Problem – “My piece feels too short.”
Solution – This one takes me back to seventh grade English class when we made our margins 1.1 inches to get away with shorter papers. Knock the tempo down a couple ticks and copy and paste passages you like randomly throughout the piece. Or add a superfluous repeat sign. The only one who will notice is you. People will still applaud out of respect. They always do.
5. Problem – “My piece is too long.”
Solution – Balderdash! No such thing. What do you think this is, a dance club? The audience falls asleep around the sixth minute anyway. Don’t you realize all the greatest major works are at least an hour in length, and usually include at least one movement spanning over 20 minutes? Quantity = Quality. Always.
6. Problem – “The players tell me my piece is too hard but I don’t want to change it.”
Solution – You can take their criticisms as a complement, but still this is a problem that requires you to change your state of mind, because ultimately you’re the one going to be displeased by their lack of skill if they can’t play it up to your par. So I advise: instead of believing the sanctity of what you have written according to what you have heard billions of times on MIDI playback, try to approach the issue by claiming that its sloppy implayability is part of the effect of the piece. That’s the sort of outside-the-notes thinking people give you grants for.
7. Problem – “I can’t figure out how to transition between two contrasting sections.”
Solution – The element of surprise is the greatest transition of all. See #2
8. Problem – “I can’t think of a good title for my piece.”
Solution – this is a fortunate problem to have, for as it turns out, creating a title has very little to do with your skills as a composer, and if you’re at this stage, it probably means your piece is finished and probably to be performed within the week. Congratulations! Here is a quick guide for determining what your title should be.
|Type of Piece||Suggested Title|
|Slow, Tonal, Minor Key||“Elegy for ____________”|
|Fast, Tonal, Major Key||“Fanfare for ____________”|
|Slow, Tonal, Major Key||Choose a scene of idyll from your youth, and place it in the British Isles
(ex. “Hedgerows at the Park in Bristol”)
|Fast, Tonal, Minor Key||Negative Adjective + Something that scares you
(ex. “Aggravated Foreclosure Rates”)
|For Choir (sacred)||The first two significant words of your text
(ex. “Jehoshaphat the father”)
|For Choir (secular)||The first complete phrase of your text
(ex. “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r who a)s w(e loo)k”)
|A technical etude on a solo instrument||Present Participle + Noun
(ex. “Diving Hawk”)
|Any duet||Present Participle + Plural Noun
(ex. “Conspiring Monsoons”)
|Generated via serialism||Something darkly abstract
(ex. “Quizzical Nonentities”)
|Generated with common household objects||Where you found your objects + Verb of Activity
(ex. “Kitchen Dance”)
|Generated via computer||A metaphysical non-sequitur + Random Number
(ex. “Mono-Duality Sock Instigation 82”)
|If you want to guarantee repeated performances in high schools across the country||“In Memoriam: [choose a national tragedy]”|
|For string quartet||A single word of negative emotion
|For string quartet to be played at a wedding||A single word of positive emotion
|For string quartet to be played at a funeral||“String Quartet”|
|For Solo Marimba||Color + Sea Creature + Childhood memory
(ex. “The Purple Seahorse Playground”)
Note – a piece with a good title can distract an audience from its musical shortcomings.
9. Problem – “I can’t figure out a text for my choral work, which I accidentally composed without a text.”
Solution – Find a religious text in Latin, reduce it a single phrase, and repeat that over and over and over again. If it’s a fast and rhythmic work, something like, “Ave Maria,” works quite nicely repeated ad nauseam. If it’s slow and lyrical, then perhaps it would be better suited to an “Agnus Dei” or “Kyrie Eleison.” Don’t worry about the music not quite fitting with the meaning of the text here. “Lamb of God” alone doesn’t mean anything out of context anyway, but if it’s in Latin, all people will hear is reverence.
10. Problem – I generally have no talent or artistic vision.
Solution – My sir, you are in good company. Hundreds of composers have been getting by on little talent and no vision since the dawn of time. You have four main choices here:
A) Emulation: If you have no style of your own, copy someone else’s. As they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. And if you think about it, isn’t all of composition emulation anyway? Isn’t originality dead? The more you emulate the Greats of the Past, the better your work will sound to those who aren’t familiar with the Greats of the Past.
B) Stealing: As Igor Stravinsky supposedly said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” And if you’re afraid you lack subtlety, you could always do “Variations on a theme by [Someone more famous than you].”
C) Aleatoric Serialism: Put the twelve chromatic pitches in a hat. Pull them out one by one. Arrange a matrix. BAM! New piece.
D) Become a Musicologist.
Just remember my young grasshopper: millions of listeners around the world for centuries have been mistaking trickery for talent, and through my trusty guide above, you too can shoddily troubleshoot your artistic deficiencies and seamlessly compensate for a lack of artistic vision through predictable and over-utilized gimmicks.
DISCLAIMER – to my fellow, potentially insulted composers: most of the words I speak above are a reflection of my own shortcomings. I am not calling anyone else out but myself. Although, if you feel slighted because you find that you fall into one of the systems above, then perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the reality of your situation and laugh at yourself. Because really: what are we good for if not laughing at ourselves?
And I’m totally kidding about the musicologist thing.