Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Musical composition on dreaming?


Dream Painting
Dream Painting  
QUESTION: For class, I have to create a composition based on a particular theme/subject. I chose the subject of dreaming, with the picture attached as inspiration. I wasn't too sure on how I'd incorporate that into a musical orchestration so I was graded a U for my ideas. Would you be of any help on how to develop my ideas? I'm really stressing out about this. Would you suggest any other ways I could go about composing a piece based on the idea of dreaming? Thank you

ANSWER: Hi Ivan,

Thanks very much for getting in touch but please excuse my delay in getting back to you. The first thing is not to get too stressed out with all this because that will make things even more difficult! However, I think you have created quite a difficult task for yourself by choosing the theme of "dreaming". It seems simple on the surface but with so many things, when you start trying to "unpack" the ideas things become complicated. It's also a tricky question for me to answer because of course, I have no idea of your musical skills. You mention that you are expected to incorporate the idea into an orchestration so perhaps I can assume that you have a fairly solid musical knowledge of harmony, rhythmic devices, counterpoint and so on.

OK, let's try to make a start. First, the painting itself. Two recumbent figures on a bed that seems to be floating above huddled buildings in a rather grim industrial town, perhaps somewhere in the north of England. The town is bathed in a ghostly grey light even though it is night time (the lights are on in some of the buildings).  A similar grey-light technique was used in Manoj Shyamalan's psychological horror film "Sixth Sense". The two figures on the floating bed look distant from each other. The figure on the right appears to be comfortable and seems to be reading something while the one on the right looks tired and exhausted. There is no interaction between the two people and they are lying as far as possible from each other. Also, the bed seems to be floating out of the picture. We could also describe the picture as black figures on a moving white bed against a grey landscape. And what are they both dressed in black? And where is the bed taking them?

So this is not a pleasant dream. It is full of tension. The city looks a ghastly place especially in the half-light; the figures on the bed do not seem happy with each other and they do not seem surprised that the bed is floating in the air. Everything is muted, no bright colours (no colours at all, really), very little contrast, but the image seems to have a lot of tension. The two figures for example. The buildings are all parallel and the perspective takes us out of the picture in the opposite direction to which the bed appears to be moving. That also creates tension. Some buildings are partly lit and others appear to be deserted. Why? There appears to be no other life in the picture. Is it possible that the two people on the bed are actually the same person? We don't know.

So I think we have quite a few clues here as to what the music might sound like. (1) There probably won't be sing-along tunes or bright harmonies; everything will probably be rather subdued; (2)Perhaps the music will reflect the movement of the floating bed against the solid immovable grim buildings; (3) Perhaps it will reflect the utter strangeness of the scene, the awkwardness of the recumbent figures, the unreal quality;(4) It will probably be slow in tempo; (5) It might even be repetitive in a minimalist kind of way; (6) It won't have fast rhythms; (7) It might have unusual harmonies, discordant even.

But how do you get from all this into notes on the stave? That's the big leap. I think one way around it may be to create two smaller more manageable leaps. It is well-known that words convert more easily into musical ideas than images. So I'd suggest that you write a sort-of poem for yourself about the picture. It really doesn't matter how you put the poem together - it could be just blank verse. Just use interesting evocative words that describe what's going on in the picture. Then you can use the words of the poem to help you develop some musical ideas. Even at the simplest level, you could probably imagine a slow repetitive chordal (perhaps modal) pattern in the lower registers, slow-moving or ethereal melodic lines interweaving. The musical landscape will sound unfamiliar, perhaps even threatening. It will probably be quiet too; for there is no evidence of sound in the picture. Or perhaps the little squares of light from the few lit windows will give you an idea for a sound? I am hearing parts of Ligeti's "Atmospheres". Check it out on YouTube!

There. I've practically written the piece already! All you have to do it to find the most appropriate notes. (And I admit that it the most difficult part). Try thinking along these lines and see if it helps. If you are still stuck, write to me again with any specific problems.

Good luck with your composing project and I hope you can find your way successfully through this challenging task.

Best wishes


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hello again,

Thank you tremendously for the amount of help you gave; I'm certainly less stressed after reading some of the ideas you suggested! I was just wondering, as I'm probably composing for a string quartet, would you have any suggestions on pieces I could listen to? The Ligeti piece you suggested gave me some brilliant ideas but my piece is on a much smaller instrumental scale with a precise time of 5 minutes.

Thanks for your help again!

Hi Ivan,

For some reason this question came up again in my in-box and I am certain that I answered it a months or so ago. I suggested a number of string quartets that you might listen to. If you didn't receive that email, feel free to get back to me (if it's not too late) and I'll send it again.

Perhaps you've got your project already completed, in which case I hope it was a great success!

Best wishes


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Dr Colin


I can answer questions from students of "classical" composing, arranging, notation problems and music theory, writing for instruments and voice and writing music for education. I can answer questions about orchestration but I do not cover questions about pop or rock music, pop song writing or electronic music.

I taught for many years in UK up to "A" level theory and composition. I have spent many years in music education, initially (like everyone else) as a teacher. Then I moved on to advisory work (teaching teachers!) and also lectured, giving many workshops for teachers in developing music education skills and techniques. For a time I worked as a teacher-lecturer at London University's Institute of Education and eventually worked full-time as a Music Education Adviser to schools in part of London, offering advice on music education and curriculum development.


I started composing music at the age 14 (it was mostly rubbish, since you asked) and now have a large number of compositions to credit as well as many publications, especially for instrumental music and choral music. I have also written several acclaimed works for large orchestra and choir. My work has been published particularly in the UK (under different names)(notably by Boosey & Hawkes, Novello, and Schott) but also in the USA and the Netherlands.

My music for elementary players (several publications) has been performed and broadcast worldwide. I am now retired from my previous job as Music Education Adviser. These days I spend most of my time composing and arranging. I am currently working on instrumental arrangements of world national anthems for my National Anthems website and also completing a suite of very easy piano solos and duets for elementary players. For many years I have used the music program "Finale" for all my music writing activities.

International Society for Music Education; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

"The Times" Educational Supplement; "Hi-Fi News and Record Review". For several years, I used to write for many of the state music education periodicals in the US and I also wrote several influential articles on instrumental music teaching for "Music Teacher" magazine in the UK. (UK).

PhD(Hons); MA(Hons); FLCM (compositon) ARCM, LMusTCL,(music diplomas)

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