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The Art of Music Composition
Gigi Deinard '20 Staff Writer
May 29, 2019

Musicians have the power to create combinations of sounds that engulf space, overpowering silence with notes and intense human feelings. As a universal language, music has the power to communicate across cultural barriers.

Thus, many artists have composed a wide variety of pieces throughout the centuries to give voice to their thoughts and emotions. With so much music in our society, how does one compose a new song? How does one push the boundaries of art to create something unique?

Drawing inspiration is an indispensable starting point. There are different ways to attack the daunting process of starting with a blank sheet of music.

Credit: Madeline Lee

Helen Feng ‘20, a finalist for the ASCAP Foundation’s Morton Gould Young Composer Award, starts by looking at other literary works for inspiration: a poem, a phrase, even a word. Analyzing a stanza or a multi-faceted word can lead to an expansion of complex ideas.

Director of Chamber Music and Orchestra Thomas Bergeron suggested another way of finding inspiration: delving into different genres of music, which leads to creativity through new types of sounds and rhythms.

Mr. Bergeron said that it is crucial to “listen closely and critically and to ask yourself what about the composition captures you.”

After focusing on the music itself, the composer must decide the purpose behind the song. What is the deeper meaning that the chords are conveying? Drawing from past experiences or lessons can be a gateway for art.

Feng said, “Art can be a medium for people to say something about society in a way that is unlimited.”

Music can provide social commentary, which in turn can trigger action in the community. In this way, artists create pieces from pent up emotions and thoughts.

Once this idea is formed, the composer is ready to put thoughts and emotions to music. A common strategy to gain inspiration, as used by Christina Li ’20, a gifted musician with songs on Spotify, is to start with improvisation. By playing freely, melodies, rhythms, and harmonies begin to form into lasting chord progressions.

Throughout this process, an essential mentality is to create without judgement. Current music focuses on pushing boundaries, whether it be through tones or lyrics. Letting new ideas flow is vital because, if no risks were taken, art would never evolve.

When facing writer’s block, Feng challenges herself by using the Hemingway method: writing without erasing anything as a way to stay disciplined in this process.

Her style is unique, but it allows her to produce pieces of work that leaves lasting impressions on her audience.

But, after the music has been performed for audiences, what is the lasting effect of sheet music long after the artist has passed? Should composers leave detailed instructions on how they envisioned the piece, or is the beauty of music based on the creativity of the individual?

There are no right answers to these questions, only preferences of composers.

Some composers leave measures open for interpretation and improvisation, an increasingly used skill by musicians. Others fill measures with detailed descriptions and specific notes as to convey their artistry.

Li remarked, “Everything has a purpose in music.” Building sounds of a piano, guitar, drums, and many other instruments onto lyrics allows for musicians to have control over the emotion of the story they are telling.

Getting advice from other musicians can also add more complexity to the final product. All musicians have different perspectives. Through giving advice to other artists, pieces can be improved by adding layers of complexity.

The pathway to create new pieces of music is not unique. There may be standard steps for writing and composing music, but the process is different for each and every individual. 

Orchestra and Chamber Music Director Thomas Bergeron stated, “The best art is deeply personal.”

He means that each student will have a different artistic style, reflecting the beauty of art.

Feng added to this idea, saying that the creation of music is not only an inner reflection but also a sharing of ideas.

Smiling, seated on the green couches of the Hess, Feng said, “Music at its core is an interpersonal dialogue.”