Composing a Tune
Over the years I came up with several melodies and recorded them in audio on my iPhone. It was easy to stumble upon a melody while improvising, but it was another matter to turn it into a complete tune. Trying out different variations, I have accumulated an unmanageable amount of audio versions. It became clear that I would need to learn how to write things down using musical notation.
First I connected my digital piano to my laptop in order to automatically write out the notes as I played them. However, that did not integrate well with the creative process. Instead, I printed out blank sheets of music paper and proceeded to write notes down by hand. With a trusty pencil and an eraser, slowly counting the beats with my foot, I wrote down notes and played them back on the piano, erasing and correcting over many iterations.
There were three main challenges that I needed to overcome. First was distributing the notes correctly into bars. The melody suggested a three quarters waltz rhythm. The emphasis on certain notes suggested that the first bar must be a lead-in with only two quarters, so that the emphasized note would be in the beginning of a bar.
Second was the key signature. The beginning and ending of the melody landed on the E-minor chord, which suggested to me that the key signature was G-major. But the melody also featured notes C# and D#. The melody also had a chromatic descent which made me unsure if I should use sharps or flats. After deliberation, I went with G-major.
Third was the order of sections and the number of their repetitions. Once I had all melodic parts written down, I experimented playing them in different order and with different amount of repetitions. Playing things in the wrong order broke the tune. Still working with pencil and paper, I labeled the parts with ordering numbers, and experimented. Once I had something that sounded relatively smooth, I headed to MuseScore on the computer.
Using MuseScore, I entered the notes manually one by one. The fact that the software accounted for beats per bar and had a playback feature allowed me to fine tune the duration of notes until the playback sounded the way I wanted. The ability to set repeats and coda jumps allowed me to experiment with repeats and to reduce the number of bars. When the melody finally sounded in MuseScore the way I played it on the keyboard by ear, I printed the sheet music and headed back to the keyboard to add harmony in the left-hand staff.
As I found a chord that fit with the melody at some note on the right-hand staff, I wrote the chord letter above it. Iterating again, I tried to find a note from each chord that seemed to fit with melody, and wrote it on the left-hand staff in bass clef. After making progress in this fashion through a few bars, I headed to MuseScore, filled in the new notes, and sounded the result using the playback feature.
By default, MuseScore sounded out the full chords when I added them above the notes. This allowed me to check that the harmonic progression transitioned smoothly, but the playback overpowered and muddled the actual melody. I have disabled the chord playback and relied on getting the right voicing myself in the left-hand staff.
I kept printing new versions of the sheet music with partially completed left-hand staff, and returned to the piano to play them. The left-hand needed to support the melody, but playing complete chords made it sound boring. I needed to pick one or two notes only from each chord. I tried to avoid the same left-hand note repeating back to back.
After about two weeks of that process, I had the music written in MuseScore, with playback sounding correctly harmonically. With my own music printed out and in front of me, I could now focus on actually learning to play the composition as written. I needed to get both my hands to play together in sync and smoothly. Also, the sheet music helped me to experiment with variations without loosing sight of the overall tune, and I found that I could repeat a section a fifth higher which added freshness.
MuseScore has a rendering feature which outputs playback as an MP3 file. I showed the generated audio to a few people and gathered feedback. One friend told me that the music had too many empty spaces. I headed back to the piano and experimented further to add more notes to the left-hand. As I modified notes in MuseScore, it seemed that the closer I got to a better sound, the shorter and simpler the sheet music became.
The original melody was in medium tempo and felt like a latin dance. But as I have developed it further, I realized that it would sound better in slow tempo as baroque. It made me think of a music box with a slowly turning ballerina, so I called the piece “Music Box.” In summary, it took me about two months to get from a melodic idea to a piece that sounded complete.
This is the result,