Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Improv

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Question
I've been listening to minuets (especially BWV anh. 114, 115). Do you know how one can go about learning to improvise (or at least compose) on a minuet? I do take piano lessons but still hasn't learnt about minuet improv.

Answer
Hello Hank, and my apologies that you've had to wait - I was off with flu last week.

The three inseparable and interdependent elements of music are rhythm, melody and harmony, and all three need to be taken into consideration to produce a successful composition. Even if you're writing an unaccompanied melody line, the underlying harmonic progressions must be implicit. Emphasis on the word "progressions" - music should never be static. It's always moving somewhere, taking ideas, developing them, introducing new ideas, reverting to our original idea, drawing to a close.

If you follow the ABRSM syllabus of eight grades you won't start composing until Grade 5, when you've learned to recognise intervals, triads/chords and their inversions, diatonic scale construction and key relationships, cadences and easy modulations.  When you start to tackle composition, you're given huge amounts of guidance. In the baby stages you're given the opening two bars of a four-bar phrase and told to complete it with an imperfect cadence; then follow it with a balancing phrase, giving you eight bars. Next you're given the first bar or so and told to produce 16-20 bars (so if you want to include an interrupted cadence or tack on a coda you can) in the style, say, of a minuet or hornpipe or any other form that has well-defined characteristics, including at least two modulations. So you know the mood and shape of the piece, you've got some material to work with and your signposts are set. Or you can choose to set poetry to music, which gives you the mood, shape, and also the rhythm, which must follow the natural stress of the words. Once you've had practice doing that, you can start adding simple piano accompaniments, at which point I set my students a theme for whatever instrument they play plus piano accompaniment if necessary, and get them to write me three contrasting variations on it - so they have to follow the same harmonic progressions but otherwise can use their imaginations.

So if the only instruction you're given is "compose a minuet", then you've got to decide whether it's major or minor, plan your harmonic structure and come up with a melody - the only clue you have is the time signature and the speed.  If you're composing, you can revise and improve it until you're satisfied; if you're improvising it has to be immediate and spontaneous so there's no time for doubt or second thoughts.  If you're going to improvise successfully, particularly in the style of a great composer or a particular period, then your knowledge of the appropriate harmonic vocabulary must be ingrained.  Here's an article I found in a scientific journal which talks about the mental processes used when improvising - hope you find it as interesting as I did. http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/the_improvisational_brain/

For now you need to carry on with your piano lessons, start studying theory and if possible combine it with aural training so as you recognise the tools of music by ear as well as by eye.  You're trying to run before you can walk, you know.

Hope this helps.  

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Clare Redfarn

Expertise

All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.

Experience

57 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 42 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 45 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 20 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Organizations
Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

Publications
I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

Education/Credentials
MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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