How I write songs

This is a description of how I go about composing choral works. I sometimes skip steps, sometimes take a lot longer over one step than other times. And of course, this is only what I do — others may have very different approaches.

1) Choose a text. Nowadays this is a bit easier than it was when I was a teenager; there is an entire internet out there including many websites with poetry and quotes on them. If I’m looking for a poem on a particular topic, I might do a bit of research, but I’m more likely to ask the Twitter hivemind, as personal recommendations of poetry are always good. I might also ask someone to write a suitable poem or metrification of an existing text: “I walked in darkness” and “Make me an instrument of peace” are examples of this that I’ve been pleased with. Sometimes, of course, a competition will specify a text, meaning I can skip this step. I always have to be very careful of copyright issues, as anything written by someone who died less than 70 years ago can only be used with their permission.

2) Learn the text. It isn’t enough just to have the words in front of me. I need to understand them. For me, this is usually a matter of repetition: I’ll read the text several times, silently and aloud. This usually takes at least an hour, sometimes much longer, but occasionally it can be very much faster if, for example, the text is a psalm I already know well. It also helps to note any structure, rhyme scheme, onomatopoeia and other devices. At some point, snippets of tunes or rhythms start to fit the words; I write these down, sometimes singing them first, other times not. If I’m having great difficulty relating to a text, I often find writing it out longhand helpful.

3) Begin to set the text. Sometimes I go straight into writing melody, sometimes I plot a rhythm first, in stick notation. The latter has the advantage of not needing manuscript paper, which is sometimes helpful. Writing the rhythm out first is something I’m more likely to do with a text that doesn’t have a regular metre, or when I’m anticipating writing something quite “modern”-sounding in terms of the melody and harmony; I don’t want the rhythm working against the words if listeners (and maybe singers!) are already slightly disoriented. If there’s a time limit or minimum time requirement, I’ll divide this by the number of words and try to get a feel for the tempo I’ll need, and maybe make some decisions about word repetition.

4) Continue to set melody. After I have some snippets of a tune, or possibly stick rhythm notation for an entire text, I start at the beginning and fill in any gaps in the melody. I’ll make a provisional decision here about what key to write in, and what vocal parts and/or accompaniment to use, though these may be subject to change later. As I write the melody I generally add in small bits of harmony and accompaniment as they occur to me, but the focus is to finish the first draft of melody.

5) Transcription and editing. I transcribe the notation I have into the computer, print it out, and then continue adding more music on paper. If there’s an accompaniment I try playing it. I fill in the notes in all the parts, and sing through each part to check for awkward bits. Then it’s back to the computer with the changes… sometimes I do some editing as I transcribe, but on the whole I still find pencil and paper more comfortable. This part of the process can take several iterations for me to be really happy with all the notes. If I don’t have access to a computer, I sometimes end up copying the work out by hand several times. It seems that the mechanical action of transcribing into the computer or writing out by hand “tidy” copies of what I’ve already composed helps the creative work on some level. I don’t really understand this but it works for me.

6) More editing. When I have all the notes in place I’ll do a final print, then add dynamics and other instructions on paper before entering them into the computer too. Whenever I try to skip the “print it out and write on the paper” part of this I mess up, so I guess I’m stuck with it. Sorry, trees.

7) Wait. If possible, I then leave the piece in a drawer for a week or two. Sometimes coming back to something after ignoring it for a while will reveal major flaws or minor typos (though these are just as likely to escape my notice).

8) Publish. If the piece isn’t for a particular commission or competition, I then put a .pdf and .mid file online, usually at the Choral Public Domain Library, as well as at Patreon. If a piece is submitted for a competition and is not selected, sometimes I opt not to publish it, either for text copyright reasons or because I rushed for a deadline and have since decided the work isn’t that good. I’ll also print a copy for my records, though the best adjective for my paper filing system is probably “indescribable”.

9) Record…. well, I haven’t done this step yet, though yesterday’s recital was recorded and we’ll see on Wednesday whether the two pieces I wrote came out alright. If they haven’t we’ll try again. Watch this space!

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