Cultural and Creative Arts

Music Composition


Musical composition can refer to an original piece of music, either a song or an instrumental music piece, the structure of a musical piece, or the process of creating or writing a new song or piece of music. People who create new compositions are called composers in classical music. In popular music and traditional music, the creators of new songs are usually called songwriters; with songs, the person who writes new words for a song is the lyricist. “Composition” is the act or practice of creating a song or other piece of music. In many cultures, including Western classical music, the act of composing typically includes the creation of music notation, such as a sheet music “score”, which is then performed by the composer or by other instrumental musicians or singers. In popular music and traditional music, songwriting may involve the creation of a basic outline of the song, called the lead sheet, which sets out the melody, lyrics and chord progression. In classical music, orchestration (choosing the instruments of a large music ensemble such as an orchestra which will play the different parts of music, such as the melody, accompaniment, countermelody, bassline and so on) is typically done by the composer, but in musical theatre and in pop music, songwriters may hire an arranger to do the orchestration. In some cases, a pop or traditional songwriter may not use written notation at all, and instead compose the song in her mind and then play, sing and/or record it from memory. In jazz and popular music, notable sound recordings by influential performers are given the weight that written or printed scores play in classical music.

Although a musical composition often uses musical notation and has a single author, this is not always the case. A work of music can have multiple composers, which often occurs in popular music when all of the members of a band collaborates to write a song, or in musical theatre, when one person writes the melodies, a second person writes the lyrics, and a third person orchestrates the songs. A piece of music can also be composed with words, images, or, since the 20th century, with computer programs that explain or notate how the singer or musician should create musical sounds. Examples range from 20th century avant-garde music that uses graphic notation, to text compositions such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen, to computer programs that select sounds for musical pieces. Music that makes heavy use of randomness and chance is called aleatoric music, and is associated with contemporary composers active in the 20th century, such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Witold Lutosławski. A more commonly known example of chance-based music is the sound of wind chimes jingling in a breeze. The study of composition has traditionally been dominated by examination of methods and practice of Western classical music, but the definition of composition is broad enough the creation of popular music and traditional music songs and instrumental pieces and to include spontaneously improvised works like those of free jazz performers and African percussionists such as Ewe drummers.


In classical music, a piece of music (a concerto, dance movement, song, etc.) exists in the form of a composition in musical notation or as a single “live” acoustic event (a live performance in recital). Since the invention of sound recording, a classical piece or popular song may also exist as a recording. If music is composed before being performed, music can be performed from memory (the norm for instrumental soloists in concerto performances and singers in opera shows and art song recitals), by reading written musical notation (the norm in large ensembles, such as orchestras, concert bands and choirs), or through a combination of both methods. For example, the principal cello player in an orchestra may read most of the accompaniment parts in a symphony, where she is playing tutti parts, but then memorize an exposed solo, in order to be able to watch the conductor. Compositions comprise a huge variety of musical elements, which vary widely from between genres and cultures. Popular music genres after about 1960 make extensive use of electric and electronic instruments, such as electric guitar and electric bass. Electric and electronic instruments are used in contemporary classical music compositions and concerts, albeit to a lesser degree than in popular music. Music from the Baroque music era (1600–1750), for example, used only acoustic and mechanical instruments such as strings, brass, woodwinds, timpani and keyboard instruments such as harpsichord and pipe organ. A 2000s-era pop band may use electric guitar played with electronic effects through a guitar amplifier, a digital synthesizer keyboard and electronic drums.


Chord progression

One method of composing music is starting by using a chord progression. There are many “stock” chord progressions used in music, such as ii-V7-I (in the key of C major, this is the chords D minor, G7 and C major) and I-vi-ii-V7 (in the key of C major, this would be the chords C major, A minor, D minor and G7). A songwriter can use one of these “stock” progressions, or modify one to create a different effect. For example, secondary dominant and dominant seventh chords could be added, which could transform ii-V-I (in the key of C major, this would be the chords D minor–G major–C major) into V7/ii–V7/–V7–I (in the key of C major, this would be the chords of A7–D7–G7–C major).

The chords could also be selected to reflect the tone of the emotion being conveyed in a song. For example, selecting a minor key, but with mostly major chords (i.e. III, VI, VII) might convey a “hopeful” feeling. As well, to indicate a “darker” mood, a composer could use unusual chords such as moving from I-♭II (in the key of C major, this would be the chords C major and D♭ major; D♭ is not a note from the key of C major, so the use of this chord has a dramatic effect. Another way to create dramatic effects with a chord progression is to introduce a modulation to a new key. Modulation to a closely related key (e.g., for a song in the key of C major, modulating to the dominant, G major). Modulating to a closely related key such as G major has been a common practice since at least the 1700s, so while this could heighten the drama of a piece, it would not create a significant emotional effect. On the other hand, modulating to a key that is not related to the tonic key, such as modulating from the key of C major (the tonic) to A♭ major or G♭ major.

Once the series of chords is selected, additional lines are added to the piece. The most important part in many genres is a lead melody line. This melody may be supported by one or more harmony lines. Songs often have a bassline which adds to the identify of the piece. Popular music is often written this way (see: Song structure) where a selected series of chords forms the structure of each of a particular section of the song (e.g., verse, chorus). The melody line is often dependent on the writer’s chosen lyrics and can vary somewhat from verse to verse.


Another way to compose music is to start by creating a melody, melodic theme, or group of melodies. Once these melodies and themes have been created, the composer can then add suitable chords which will support this melody. The same melody can be supported with many different chord progressions. For example, if a songwriter has a song in the key of C major in which the melody begins with a long “G”, this melody note could be supported with a tonic chord (C major), a dominant chord (G major) or a mediant chord (E minor). If the song is written in a jazz style, this held “G” note could be supported with a secondary dominant chord (e.g., an A7 chord, in which the “G” is the dominant seventh of the chord, which could then resolve to a D minor chord), or even by treating the melody note as an “extension” to an existing chord (e.g., supporting the long “G” note with an F Major chord, thus making the “G” note the added ninth of this chord).


As technology has developed in the 20th and 21st century, new methods of music composition have come about. One method involves using computer algorithms contained in samplers to directly translate the phonetics of speech into digital sound. EEG headsets have also been used to create music by interpreting the brainwaves of musicians.This method has been used for Project Mindtunes, which involved collaborating disabled musicians with DJ Fresh, and also by artists Lisa Park and Masaki Batoh.

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