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From Nothing To Something in 144 minutes

Posted by David Luebbert, 9/21/00 at 8:39:23 AM.

On the afternoon of September 15th, I wrote a 16-bar musical composition, "Real Time", consisting of a single melody line with chord and rhythm accompaniment . I was satisfied with the composition and was willing to publish it after 2 hours and 24 minutes of compositional work.

When I was finished, I had a MIDI file that I posted on the SongTrellis site ( and had a score that I was able to transform into readable sheet music after 5 more minutes of work.

Composers usually are not able to demonstrate the thought process that allows them to create an original work. Usually they play ideas with their favorite instrument, find a likely phrase that allows them to make the piece longer. Then they play their provisional score for the composition with the new phrase added on at the right place in the score one or more times and decide if the newly generated phrase fits into the composition.

If it doesnít fit, they revise the new idea so that it makes a better effect or else they throw it away and attempt to find a new idea. If their memory is wonderful, they hold the new idea in mind and only commit it to paper when they are sure that it works. More frequently, the composer writes the idea down and transcribes it to paper so that he doesnít forget it, sometimes in his working score, sometimes on a separate sheet of music.

If he decides to discard the idea, he makes erasures or crosses out notes in the working score or throws away his sheet of scrap paper. Using paper, it is difficult to take snapshots that show how the score grows from a blank sheet into the finished score.

 Even if the composer xeroxes his working score each time an idea is added, the resulting sequence of pages would not be of interest to a general audience since the composerís working score is only intelligible to him. To demonstrate the scoreís development he must perform all of the versions for the interested listener.

Frequently, the score has too many parts for the composer to play by himself and more often than not the composer is not the best interpreter of his own work. For these reasons, even privileged music students rarely get the opportunity to watch over a more experienced composerís shoulder as they work. The process of music composition remains mysterious to almost everyone in our culture.

 Composers who compose with a music editor running on a computer find that it is much easier to document the thought process that causes a new musical work to be created. Every time they add an idea to the score or revise an existing idea they can save a new version of the score in a fraction of a second which documents the state of the score at that moment in time.

 If the intermediate versions are stored in MIDI format, it is possible to publish those MIDI files on a website so that anyone with Web access can hear how a new composition is grown. This has become possible because most modern PCs ship with sound production hardware and because now nearly all web browsing applications are able to translate a MIDI file into synthesized music.

For the past five or six years, my favorite instrument for composing music has been a music editing application, SongTrellis, which I wrote for myself, that runs on Macintosh computers. Iíve written 120 or so compositions using this editor.

When I started using SongTrellis for composition my knowledge of music theory was fairly minimal. I acquired the knowledge I needed to write different kinds of compositions as I wrote new tunes.

I believe that SongTrellis will enable ordinary folks with good ears to invent interesting compositions for themselves once they acquire the barest minimum of theoretical knowledge.

 Hereís the method I used to write "Real Time". In outline, this method is time honored. Western composers have used it for hundreds of years.

First, find a sequence of chords that will be played as accompaniment to the melody-to-be. The chords in the sequence must sound good to the composer and provide the right emotional complexion for the piece. As he writes the chord sequence he needs to consider the rhythm of the chords in the sequence and the playing time of the sequence.

Since melodies in a musical compositions are usually repeated more than once, he needs to ensure that the chords at the end of the sequence lead smoothly back to those at the beginning of the sequence.

 The composer needs to decide how to arrange the notes of each chord in the sequence so that the listenerís ears can follow the sequence easily. There are multitudinous ways to arrange chords in a sequence in an unpleasant, insipid or ugly way. There are a few that present a sequence in a way that works for the composer and the listener.

Next the composer writes the melody. He uses varied rhythm patterns to determine the length of notes in the melody and picks patterns of pitches for the notes that sound harmonious with the chord that plays during that part of the piece. He places notes of longer duration at the end of a run of notes and rests (stays silent) for a period after such runs. Doing this, he marks the end of a musical idea which listeners will hear as a self-contained unit, as a kind of phrase.

For varietyís sake, the composer writes the successive phrases in the melody so that each new phrase echoes, answers or contrasts with one of the earlier phrases of the melody.

To complete the composition, the composer writes a sequence of phrases whose last phrase ends precisely at the end of the accompanying chord sequence or no more than a few beats before that moment.

Itís possible that the composer does not want to end the composition when he has written enough melody to take him to the end of his chord sequence. In such a case, he can add more chords to the sequence to give him more time to bring the piece to an end. He can also repeat his chord progression and write new phrases that span the entire repeat of the sequence.

 If he repeats the sequence, almost always he is bound to write new melody phrases that will extend the composition to the end of the repeat.

As traditionally practiced, writing a new tune is a lengthy process for an inexperienced composer. When I first learned to compose, it took several days to write a tune that consisted of 16 or 32 four-beat measures. It would take a day or two of my spare time to find the tuneís chord sequence. I would find a few chords by slowly experimenting at the piano working out voicing arrangements for each chord and add them to the end of my sequence. Then it would take another day or two to laboriously write the melody, inventing a new phrase every 15 or 20 minutes and transcribing it to sheet music.

Since Iíve used SongTrellis for my compositional instrument, composition has become much faster. Almost always I end up with a tune that I like a lot after an hour or two of work.

In the case of "Real Time", I invented the chord sequence I wanted to use in about an hour and composed the melody of the tune in a little more than an hour.

The main reason I could compose this tune so much more quickly than I could manually was that I spent almost no time figuring out the names of the pitches and durations of the notes and chords I added to the piece. Instead, I performed operations in SongTrellis that added new ideas to the piece, properly notated.

I could select the notation added for the new idea and ask SongTrellis to play it so I could hear how the idea affected the piece. When I added the first chord to the chord progression of "Real Time", an Ab7 chord, I specified the root of the chord (Ab) and the type of the chord (7). I did not have to recall the formula that allows me to calculate the names of the tones in a dominant 7th chord, and did not have to mentally recall that an Ab7 contains pitches named (Ab, C, Eb, and Gb). I also did not have to voice the chord by choosing the octaves in which I would play the tones of the chord.

 I depended on SongTrellisís Chord Autovoicing feature to know the formula for a dominant 7th and calculate the names of the pitches in a dominant 7th built on the root tone Ab. I depended on it to know which tone of the chord should be played lowest in the chord, and how to distribute the other chord tones in the octaves above this lowest tone, in a way that would be pleasant to listen to, and which would flow nicely from the previous chord in the score.

 Every time I played the piece as I was composing, the Auto Voicing code would revoice the chord sequence and play it a differently than the way it was played during the previous playback.

If I did not like the effect of a particular type of chord, I brought up SongTrellisís Chord Grid dialog. This dialog displays all the chords that are possible to enter in a square grid showing the twelve possible chord roots in a row of the grid for each chord type. Each possible chord is selectable with a mouse click. This allowed me to quickly change the root or type of chord in the score and listen to it in its place in the score to decide if I liked that particular change.

I also frequently entered a placeholder chord at the end of the chord sequence, and auditioned chords using  the chord grid to find the correct chord to extend the sequence with.

Executing SongTrellisís Create New Phrase command created most of the phrases of "Real Time".

At every point in the score, SongTrellis knows what the accompanying chord is and knows scales whose notes will sound good when played with the accompaniment. It has operations built in that know how to find the next chord tone or scale tone that is up or down from a particular note in the score that fits the underlying harmony.

The leftmost control group on the SongTrellis Control Bar, which appears in each score window, determines the duration of the next note that is entered into the score. The leftmost control group can either show a Duration popup menu control or a Rhythm Pattern popup menu control.

 If the composer has chosen that the Duration control will occupy this slot in the control bar, new notes are given the duration selected on the control menu. If the Rhythm Pattern control occupies the leftmost slot, the composer can choose the name of one of the rhythm patterns known to SongTrellis (there are built-in patterns and user-defined patterns). SongTrellis orients the pattern with respect to the score and follows the sequence of durations in the selected pattern to assign the durations of notes as they are entered into the score.

The Create New Phrase command performs different permutations of the next scale tone up and down and the next chord tone up or down operations while following the specified duration or rhythm pattern to generate a new idea and insert it into the score where the current selection points, all in a small fraction of a second.

After the phrase is inserted, the notes in the phrase are selected so that the composer can do a Play Selection command to hear how it sounds. If the phrase is OK, I just press the right arrow key to make the selection an insertion point immediately after the end of the new idea. If the phrase doesnít work, I delete it, and quickly execute another Create New Phrase command. Very frequently, executing Create New Phrase makes a phrase that sounds good up to a certain point before adding notes that donít work. In such a case, I simply delete the notes at the end of the phrase and then do Create New Phrase to continue the idea.

When it feels like it is time to end a phrase, I add rests to the end of the phrase, by pressing the ërí key to add rests to the melody. Just like entering notes, the process that enters rests pays attention to the duration or rhythm pattern that is currently selected.

 If a note, chord, or rest sounds like it has lasted too long or not long enough, I would not try to figure out the name of that duration and change the note to be that particular duration. Instead, I would issue commands that stretched or shrank the duration of a note and listen to see if it was closer to what I actually wanted to hear.

When I was done scaling a notes duration, I might discover that the feeling I wanted required that the note be an eighth note triplet, but I didnít have to know that before I entered the note was entered in the score.

If the pitch of a note in a phrase of the melody felt like it didnít fit with the chord accompaniment, I could easily transpose the note up or down till I found a better pitch for the note.


Hereís a log I kept while I was writing the chord progression for "Real Time".

Start at 11:55am. Use Encyclopedia of Reading Rhythms. Find several patterns from the Eighth Note Triplet pages that contrast nicely with one another.

Chose a two bar cycle at 12:10pm that will be the rhythm cycle which will repeat as rhythm accompaniment for the first part of my piece.

12:15pm Start finding the harmony. Begin with Ab7 whole note chord

12:18pm Was thinking of continuing like a blues by going to Db7. Instead decided to go to D7 and then Db7. Interposing the D7 gives it a way different modern feeling. Also since the rhythm accompaniment has a feeling of three, decided to divide the second bar in three and have the D7 last for two-thirds of a bar and have the Db7 last a third of a bar. Saved current score.

12:23 Done explaining previous move. Want to try taking first two bars and transposing it to see what kind of feeling results if we do the same kind of chord motion from a different starting place.

12:25 tried copy chord pattern and moving it up a half step sequence reads: Ab7 D7 Db7 A7 Eb7 D7

12:27 donít like feeling of last chord last chord try moving it up a half-step from previous chord than having it move down a half step: sequence now reads: Ab7 D7 Db7 A7 Eb7 E7

12:32pm now have a 4-bar pattern I like a lot.

12:34 copied entire four bar pattern and have repeated it twice giving me an eight bar accompaniment that has interesting chord transitions at the loopback points.

12:37pm used the Chord Grid in SongTrellis and tried to find a different chord to change the ending E7 to. I want the progression to change feeling now and to move slower and in a more regular fashion.

12:42pm D7 feels nice. Need to find the next few chords

12:47pm Iíve found that Gm7 Cm7 F half dim7 Bb7 sounds good when you finally rest with an Eb M7. In four more bars I want to return to the original 8-bar pattern so I need to find my way back to that area.

12:58pm wasnít happy with how the chords wrapped around. Decided that a sus4 feeling might be in order. Still trying to figure out what the last chord of the cycle should be.

1:05pm Have the correct ending chord. I stop for an hour and forty-five minutes, to have lunch and do some family business.

2:50pm I start to write the melody. I run Create New Phrase trying several different rhythm patterns.

3:03pm I finally get a two bar phrase that uses the accompaniment rhythm of the second bar.

3:04pm After resting to end the first phrase, I use Create New Phrase again and get a continuation phrase that answers the first phrase beautifully.

3:12pm I used Create New Phrase to generate four eighth-note triplets and erased bad stuff that flowed across the bar boundary. I slowed down to use quarter-note triplets and then generated the continuation. I manually streched the last note so it carries across the bar line into the following chord. Here's how it sounds as of then.

3:24pm Continuing to use Create New Phrase have now travelled half way across the progression. I have the first note of the second half in the piece now.

3:33pm Four bars farther down the track. I love everything except for the last phrase which has a glaring clinker at the end and which also seems to start too early. 3:34pm I've now added rests to shift the last phrase farther back. The clinker is still there.

3:36pm Fixed the clinker. Taking a break for twenty minutes.

4:00pm Have half of another phrase.

4:00pm plus 30 seconds Have a few more notes.

4:09pm Almost complete. Have a really sour note in the last phrase and we're still missing the ending note. 4:21pm Have fixed the sourness but the last note is still wrong.

4:25pm Melody complete. Found a pretty note to end with.

4:26pm SongTrellis's melody generator had duplicated the chord progression assuming we'd go around for a second time. Eliminated the chord repeat at the end so all the parts end at the same time.

5:48pm An hour later I decided we needed some bell sounds in the rhythm accompaniment so did something that emphasizes the divisions of three in each bar.

Last update: Wednesday, April 18, 2001 at 10:16 PM.