The New Year is well underway and I would like to share some composing tips that I used to write my recent harp solo, "Gratitude". It’s fitting that my first composition of 2018 came directly from a feeling of gratitude for both the year that had past and the possibilities for the year to come.
So here’s a sneak peek at how this piece came to be. If you are drawn to composing and creating music at the harp, maybe this will give you some ideas to consider in your own work flow.
1. Give yourself time
First of all, I rarely sit at harp having decided that I’m going to compose. If an idea starts to emerge I will clear away the time to let it grow, but otherwise I don’t force it. Time is everything. Creativity takes time. Exploring ideas takes time. I make a point of not over scheduling myself and I am grateful for being able to do that.
2. Feel, imagine or visualize your inspiration
I would say most of my compositions begin with some kind of imagery. As a highly visual learner the idea of picture becoming music is as natural as breathing. I often imagine colour or movement to set my composing in motion. Think of “Cerulean Blue” or “Flight of the Heron”. But the morning that I composed “Gratitude” the inspiration was a feeling.
3. Make musical decisions before putting hands to strings
Once I have my imagery or feeling chosen, it helps to make some musical choices. Those choices are going to come from your experience with the language of music. As you learn more theory you will be able to be more specific with what you choose to do in your composition and why.
When I was exploring the feeling of gratitude, I could feel it in my heart. I discovered a quote by Jean-Baptiste Massieu, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” For me, I was drawn to use G Mixolydian. This mode uses plenty of G and F chords, which for me represents heart, and the Mixolydian mode is able to create the quiet joyfulness of gratitude.
If you would like to learn more about using modes you might like to have a look at Emoji Modes.
The rhythm and time signature are also important considerations. I chose a triple meter to convey the joyful lightness I was feeling.
This is a fairly intuitive process, coloured by my own experiences playing, listening, teaching and composing music. But thoughtful decisions can really help get you started.
4. Let your hands guide you
I like to compose music that make people feel successful and expressive. That means I spend a lot of time making sure the patterns feel natural and the coordination is comfortable. As I composed “Gratitude” I had the late elementary level player in mind. So I stayed away from crossing fingers over and under and kept the reading requirements very straightforward. The structure is clearly defined and repeating patterns make the piece easy to memorize. The piece is tailor made to boost confidence. All this to say, know your audience. And if the audience is you, compose something that feels good in your hands with patterns and sounds that you enjoy. There is no need to over complicate things.
If you would like more experience with harp patterns and chords, you might want to have a look at Chord Town, a clever approach to making beautiful music with chords and patterns.
5. Write it down or record
I am very grateful that I have the ability to take a piece that I have composed and notate it so quickly and easily. It's a specialized skill, but remember I’ve been doing this for a long time and I get a lot of practice notating not only my own pieces but also ones that my students compose. If you are not yet able to write out your composition, I would encourage you to record it. Use your phone, make a video or audio recording. You don’t have to share it, just keep it so you have a memory of your musical creation. Each composition is a gift and you should find a way to keep it alive.
I made this video of "Gratitude" as a learning aid for those of your who would like to play it.
The sheet music is available here. Purchasing sheet music is like taking me out for coffee and a scone. Thank-you!