How I compose music – pt. 04: musical vision

This is part 3 of a series on my modus operandi as a music composer. This time we’re going into musical vision. Naturally this is something that’s beyond words, but I’ll try to explain it as good as I can. Fortunately, some of my Twitter friends have issued questions already, which helps a lot. So let’s get into it and do it the Q&A-way.

Q: Do you decide of the number of instruments before composing?

A: No, I don’t. My starting point is the symphonic orchestra. If I get to the point where I can’t find a suitable instrument, I might look into modern or exotic instruments or synthesizers. How many instruments I use for a certain part of music really depends on the sound needed. Of course, “big orchestral” more often than not means more instruments than soft and tender moments, but due to doubling it might not be so easy, so it really depends.

Q: Do you hear the melody in your head before writing it down or does it come as you go along?

A: I hear fragments in my head, but fleshing out melodies is actually hard work and requires lots of “2 steps forward, 1 step back” which I don’t do in my head. My instrument is the piano, so I sit down and improvise, playing variations and repeating phrases until the parts fall into place. Then I write down notes or record what I play. When I’m orchestrating at the same time, I’d already consider colors of the orchestra. After all, writing a tune for strings is different than writing one for piano.

Q: Do you always use the grammar or do you let your instinct play it for you?

A: I’m not sure what exactly “grammar” means in that context, but if it’s about rules, then my answer is: I don’t follow any rules except for “what sounds good and feels good, is good”.

Q: Do you find other works inspiring during the process of composition, or is it on the contrary inhibitory (fear of plagiarism)?

A: A lot of music has been composed in the western tradition, so the danger of composing something that somebody else has already composed is always there. The worst thing is that you honestly don’t realize it until someone tells you “Oh, that’s nice. It sounds like …”. To answer the question: Yes, it’s inhibitory to listen to other people’s works during the project. I listen to them before and after the project, but not while I’m creating on my own. That has much to do with finding your own voice as a composer. It’s something very difficult to achieve. Something rare. Only a few composers have it. Austin Wintory comes to mind. Rarely heard such a unique voice.

Q: What elements do come first? Melody, harmony, rhythm?

A: You can break any composition down to those elements, and I’d add color (instruments, sounds) to them as a fourth element. Usually timing and tempo come first (see part 02), then I decide on with which instruments to take the lead. Then I think about themes to use, whether or not to apply them, whether to use them as they are or to modify them. If none of the existing themes and motives worked out, I’d introduce a new one. I did that with Isabeau’s first appearance in Ladyhawke in the Dangerous Woods scene. I realized there and then that the music needed something else, something new, as the main theme and all variations on it didn’t work out. Sometimes I’d go back and change instruments, but usually that’s the order of things for me: 1. tempo/rhythm, 2. instrument/color, 3. melody and harmony.

Q: Do you use leitmotives like John Williams?

A: I have a very theme-oriented approach, but using themes is not the same as using leitmotives. A theme I would describe as something that first of all carries a score musically, gives the movie a particular sound and provides coherence. Leitmotives don’t necessarily do that, but serve other purposes like storytelling or they have psychological effects. It all depends very much on the requirements of the movie.

I’m happy to answer more questions like these, so please keep sending yours to my e-mail address or to my Twitter account!

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