I've been giving composition a try lately. Something I've noticed, is that most stuff I do manage to complete, ends up being a mashup of really different ideas, with the similarity of being in the same key. Anyone here's struggled with that? I want my music to be wide, but at the same time I want it to encompass a feeling throughout the piece. For the record, I try to write medieval-ish, prog-ish music, mostly instrumental.

In contrast, when I write a piece with similar patterns and general ideas, I always end up stuck, I don't know how to follow up, most of the time I try to figure out what would fit, or even try to give closure to the piece, but I just can't find a way through. Ambiguous, I know, but if you've been in a similar position you might know what I refer to.

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    This is a very broad topic, and difficult to see exactly what you are asking. You might want to clarify what the specific challenge is. But in the first instance, though, have a good read through all the questions here under composition, including the ones in the Related sidebar to the right. – Doktor Mayhem Aug 18 '16 at 6:52

This is really common for beginning composers - or at least I definitely suffered from it - as enthusiasm and a good musical instinct can often be enough to come up with a short idea, but coming up with developments can require more knowledge (of music in general, and the genres you're working in).

A lot of good pieces are based around rather a small number of main ideas that complement each other (and may be developed somewhat over the course of the piece) rather than having lots and lots of identifiably distinct ideas. So make sure that you have some strong ideas that you can present with confidence as something you believe the listener will be anticipating hearing - otherwise all the variation and development in the world won't be very satisfying.

Listen to favourite pieces in the genres you are trying to write in, and try to analyse how they develop. Some common ways to develop an idea are:

  • Having two or more sections that simply alternate (such as in the verse-chorus-verse structure)
  • adding a harmony line to a melody
  • bringing elements in and out of the mix / arrangement - even something very subtle like adding a couple of extra hits to a drum pattern can add enough interest to allow an idea to be repeated. It's also possible to decrease something in prominence by making it quieter, or making it play fewer notes.
  • going on a journey through different keys (sounds less easy for medieval music, but perfect for prog!)
  • developing a piece timbrally - develop and change the sounds used rather than having lots of different melodic and harmonic ideas.

Once you have identified how the genres you are working in tend to develop, try 'copying' an existing piece by starting with your own ideas, but making them develop in the same way as that existing piece. Have the confidence to keep things simple sometimes - to stay on one chord for 16 bars, or to have a strong melody playing solo for a time at the start or end of the piece. Many experienced composers comment that it's often the space - the elements or notes that you choose not to play - that really make the piece.

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  • Thank you very very much Topo! This seems to be life changing information, specially coming from someone who understands what I'm struggling with. Thanks again, if you don't mind, I'd like to report my progress in the (hopefully near) future, in this same thread. – Renzo Aug 20 '16 at 2:32
  • @Renzo You can always add an answer here with whatever you find actually helps, whether it's ideas people have given here, or something else. It would be good to hear what music you come up with too - you could post some links in the chat (chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/440/the-practice-room) or in your profile. – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 20 '16 at 7:29

In addition to what topo said, I'd strongly recommend listening to artists specifically renowned for their songwriting and/or composition, whether or not they're in a similar genre to the one you're writing in. I'm sure you'll already have your own preferences to explore, so there's little point in me reeling off a list here, but if you're stuck, try some Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Sting, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Brotherly (much less known than the other but great all the same - try System), Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys, The Beatles or Steely Dan. They're all amazing.

If you're thinking about developing specific ideas, the first port of call is always to listen to what you have written so far "in the third person" (as it were) and consider what you, as listener, want to hear next. I always find that the best cure for writer's block is listening to new music (i.e. that I haven't heard before). This helps me (to use a slightly cringy phrase) keep a fertile imagination and keep thinking in terms of the sounds I want to hear and feel rather than technical devices and theory.

Ultimately, this is a very personal question, and you need to invest a little time in experimenting with your compositional process and finding what works for you.

Composition, in my experience, is less about having ideas than developing them. I'd recommend studying a little Baroque music for this purpose - the way Bach, in particular, developed (at times) incredibly simple motifs into such spectacular, beautiful and complex music beggars belief. Mozart was also exceptionally good at this sort of thing (obviously not Baroque, but still). Try listening to Bach's first two violin partitas when you get the time. If one particular movement catches your ear, learn it (on whatever instrument) and its Double if it has one. As you get to know the piece, you'll begin to notice links between passages you had thought to be new material - any one phrase (except the first few bars of some movements) is usually derived from previously heard material. Once you get to know the music and the style, it becomes more like an organic stream of consciousness than anything contrived. To this end, it may help to consider composition more like slowed-down, refined improvisation (and vice-versa) than some sort of auditory equivalent of a novel. When you hear what people like Bach could create from such small beginnings, it's easier to hold your own initial ideas in higher esteem and concentrate on how you develop them (and that involves being, in a sense, subservient to them yourself).

As far as successfully executing dizzying about-turns like you describe is concerned, Jacob Collier's album is (imho) about as good as it gets.

Sorry for the wall of text. Hope I've helped a little.

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Here's a technique which has proved helpful. Write the LAST few bars of your piece first. Then dissect them, extract every melodic rhythmic and harmonic fragment, use some or all of them as thematic material.

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I've found that generally the solution to the "stuck composing" problem arises primarily from identifying what kind, what genre of music you're dealing with: if classical, rock, pop or jazz. After you defined that, then you should try to define what could be its sub-genre, as for example if classical, which sub-genre of classical music (in terms of which composer does that music brings up to your mind) and trying to adhere as much as possible to the very spirit of the music, literally putting yourself in that composers' shoes. At the same time, you should try to work in analyzing the single component elements of the piece, as for instance, the intervallic choices of the melody, the choices you could make harmonically, always keeping an eye to what your imagination could suggest regarding that peculiar composing style.

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