How I write music

By | April 22, 2013

Poorly!  *rim shot*

So I mentioned before that I’d been writing some music for the last several years and some of it may show up here from time to time. This is the first of those times.

Don’t get all excited. It’s very short – four measures. And it’s choral, not pop. And it’s church music. If you’ve got a problem with any of that, you’re on the wrong blog post.

Anyway… instead of just posting the end result, I figured I’d give you a quick overview of the different stages this particular “Amen” went through. The idea is kind of like when an artist shows the sketched and final versions of a picture. Not an exact analogy, but that’s the concept.

I wrote this one almost a decade ago – it was the first thing I wrote and completed. I don’t remember exactly how I developed it – whether it was a full chorus in my head I tried to transcribe, or if I had one part in my head and figured out the other parts around it – but I do know that I was deliberately trying to write an Amen with a “happy” tone to it. Whether I achieved that or not is subjective, I suppose, but I like how it turned out.

I use notation software called PrintMusic, which is part of the Finale line. (I actually wrote this one in the free Finale Notepad, but eventually needed something with more flexibility.) PrintMusic is very easy to use, which is important to me because I have a hard enough time just trying to figure out the music – if the software was difficult I’d have probably quit before I started. It’s very much just point-and-click (well, at least that’s how I use it) and if you’ve got a familiarity with sheet music I don’t think you’d have much trouble. This is what the Amen looks like in the software:

Sheet music for Amen #1

It’s very much a WYSIWYG view. What you see here is the “finished” product. I say “finished” but it’s not really. See, when I offered this to our choir director at church, it completely slipped my mind that I hadn’t written the piano part – it wasn’t meant to be a capella (as it currently appears). When they decided to use this one, the music director/organist had to condense these 4 staves into the two piano staves herself. Pat was very nice about it and didn’t say anything, but I felt bad for providing an unfinished product. In my defense, there were two reasons I hadn’t written out the piano part: 1 – I didn’t actually expect the director to use it, I was just trying to get some feedback, and 2 – PrintMusic uses MIDI for playback, and I had chosen the piano sound for all the voice parts, so to me it sounded like a piano already and I didn’t give it a second thought.

(Since then I’ve gotten better at using PrintMusic and learned how to assign different sounds to the parts, which makes it a little easier to remember to put in the piano part if I need a piano. MIDI has choir ooo and ah sounds, but unfortunately, MIDI voices are really horrible. They grate on my nerves after hours of listening to the same part over and over trying to get it right. I’ve since figured out some alternatives but for a long time it was pretty painful.)

When I was writing this Amen I didn’t put much thought into its tempo. I was just worried about getting the notes and rhythms right. And with the number of times I heard this, I was just as happy to have it play through relatively quickly for review.

So this is what I was hearing when I would play it back through PrintMusic: 

Not bad. A decent, if mechanical, representation of what I was after.

But my jaw dropped when Pat played it:

The slower pace, the added dynamics… I had no idea it could sound that sweet, even in my head. And when the choir sang it I got a little choked up. The performances far surpassed my own understanding of what I had written. That’s not hyperbole, either – I enjoyed and was interested in what I had done, but I was amazed by how much better it sounded “live.” It’s still this simple little Amen, but there’s a huge difference to my ears and heart between what I wrote and the interpreted performance of a professional. I can only imagine what it would be like to have a full song of mine performed.

The fact that Pat and Warren (the choir director) decided to use this – the first thing I’d written, though I don’t think they knew that – was a huge encouragement to me. I’ve written a lot more since then, and I’ll probably share some of it in the future. I know this Amen may not seem like much, but it’s the entry point to a huge journey for me.

3 thoughts on “How I write music

  1. Helen

    That’s really lovely.

    Now you just have to work on making alto lines more exciting! ;-)

    (Actually, that third bar is more than adequate compensation for the first two!)

    Seriously, though, I look forward to seeing more.

  2. Helen

    (Bother: the system couldn’t interpret my “teasing” tag that I had wrapped around the second line.)

  3. Jeff Post author

    Ha! Yeah, the altos get a workout in some subsequent pieces. In fact, they have the melody in one thing I’m working on.

    And speaking as a bass, the basses could use some challenge here too. :)

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