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I'm trying to understand more about how to compose music and most importantly combine multiple instruments at the same time.

I'm quite capable of composing a bass-line, chord progression, or main lead tune, but bringing the elements together at the same time seems more difficult for me.

Is there a good book on theory that will help with this issue.

I've studied the Modes in some detail before, chord progressions less so, but I understand them as moving between different points of the mode.

Essentially, while I'm certainly able to put together a convincing drum track, baseline and other small elements, bringing in another major element seems difficult to me.

I hope this gives you enough information for what I am looking for help with. I have played small amounts of Piano, Drums and Bass Guitar. I can sometimes achieve what I am looking for my greatly simplifying some of the elements, but I feel this is not really what I am looking for.

Could it be that you need the progression of each element to evolve in time with each other?

Any help greatly appreciated.

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3 Answers 3

Could it be that you need the progression of each element to evolve in time with each other?

Well, normally you wouldn't even talk of different chord progressions; it's just THE chord progression, which all instruments play over. The modes are usually global. So a typical workflow if you are content with one first single-instrument part would be to extract the modes from that first part and make them the basis of the other parts. In fact, you'll quickly start doing this quite automatically with a little practise. You can also simply improvise on the looped first track, starting with just unisono-ing the previous part (or what of it is playable on the next instrument) and evolving it to something different.

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Thats great advice and extactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. Anything else anyone has to offer along these lines would be appreciated too! –  Chris Barry Feb 18 '12 at 5:34

It also depends on what kind of song you are trying to write. If your style of music is such that it is more groove based (i.e. more soul, funk, hip-hop, dance, soul-jazz or even some hard-bop) Then you generally start with the core element of that groove. For example, Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock on Empyrean Isles (1964) probably wrote that song around the piano part. The music to Another One Bites the Dust by Queen probably started with that famous bass line. Once you have that core element of the groove then you just build the other instrumental parts around that based on what supports the groove but doesn't get in the way. To develop the song you either layer in other instruments that fit into the groove, remove instruments, change volume, fill add more/less notes to the groove to develop it, or just add other sections that you go to and then return to the groove. If its a good groove the foundation doesn't need to change much.

If you are writing a bop, cool jazz, or 60's Blue Note style then those songs generally start either with a 12, 16, 24, or 32 measure set of chord changes and then they write the melody or visa-verse.

A lot of rock/country music is based on a couple repeated chords for the verse, a couple other repeated chords for the chorus, and then something else for the bridge.

Finally lots of music is based around catchy hooks and everything else is very simple. No one notices the simplicity because the hook is so good.

An easy and fun way to learn how to do this is take a song with a structure that you like and begin to modify it. Change a rhythm, change chords, add notes, add parts, add instruments, whatever you feel like until no one can tell it was the original song. Even if you don't ever use that for anything you still have had a good lesson in developing a song. Once you'd done that a couple times you can start doing it with your original components and modify/create from there.

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Great answer, thanks! –  Chris Barry Mar 11 '12 at 17:11

A traditional approach to composition is to play/write out all the parts for the piano and create what is called the piano reduction score. From this you extract and assign parts for the ensemble. An analogy to painting: sketch the basic form on the canvas then work each part (usually from background to foreground) with color, shade, highlights etc.

In your case you are composing for "Piano, Drums and Bass Guitar". I would suggest working out the melody, harmony, and rhythm on the piano first. Once you have your patterns translated into beats, notes, and measures then start your recording from the beat up. That would be drums first, then bass, then piano. If you would prefer doing it another way at least provide yourself with a 'click' track as a beat reference so you can keep time as you lay in the remaining tracks. When you are done recording all the parts, just remove or mute the 'click' track before making the master mix.

When I compose I try to imagine the whole thing as it would sound when it is completed or I may already have this image in my mind and find myself taking it apart to see how it can be built. Another approach is to start with a simple melody and build on this to create the harmony (chords or extra voices) and development as variations or verses, chorus or bridge elements, all depending on the style etc. A good example of the additive method would be the fugues, canons, or preludes of J. S. Bach.

Since your target is Pop/Jazz, don't forget that in traditional jazz, everyone in the ensemble may take a solo. I sort of think this is dependent on how many players are in the group, and their ability to solo and improv. I wouldn't recommend everyone taking a solo in a 12 piece band. The solo may be different every time, or the composer may leave instructions on setting some musical boundaries on the solo, or even actually spell it out. Another thing that is cool about this is that you can make this a variable part of the piece, for example you may have 2 extra minutes to kill to complete your set, so why not extend the piece with some more improv and solos?

As the piano historically has been a very useful composing tool because it can cover both the range of notes of the orchestra as well as the dynamics ("quiet" to "loud, aka pianoforte) so too the modern day synthesizer with a multitrack recording device/software can be an extension of this. A good synth today will have keys weighted like a piano and offer a compatible action with the addition of extended voices (1000's). Linked to a multitrack recording machine or computer running recording software, the composer can now model, and mix his idea with more clarity than with a piano score.

Another approach is to use automated notation software with sample sounds such as Sybelius or Finale, which allows for notation and hearing and making the whole process of copying parts for each performer so much faster and easier than hiring a copyest.

Often the compositional process is more about the composer's process and how the composer has developed the optimal workflow to accomplish his or hers vision. Hence, every artist faces learning a methodology that embraces their journey. We all start out with learning the same process but end up changing it to accommodate our personal way of doing things.

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