The Emotional Process of Composing Music
Do you have that desire to compose something great for the world? Did you experience something that you cannot explain in words? Music is an incredible thing, that can express the “inexpressible,” but how does that happen? How do you get from emotion to music? What is your process of composing?
It All Begins With Experience
“Only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience anything.” Gustav Mahler
I am a firm believer that wisdom only comes with experience. There are some things that cannot be learned from a book, they have to happen to you. One of these things is emotion. Emotion cannot be described to the point of experience, it must be felt.
But music offers something different. It is one of the few things that can convey emotion. When you hear Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement, you feel his emotions.
My Motivation to Write
I, like many others, dream of writing a Symphony. It was something I attempted in my teenage years, but I failed. I never finished. Maybe because I didn’t quite get the form, or I just didn’t have the patience to see it through. But more than likely, I didn’t have the experience. Not necessarily in writing music, although that plays a part, but definately I didn’t have the Life Experience.
But something funny has happened to me over the last 10 years. I grew up. Life happened. I graduated, joined the army, went to war, got married, became a Dad, went through ups and downs, lost some family and friends. I have lived.
So this is where I believe my desire to compose a symphony comes from. It is more a desire to express my life through music. So how is this done?
The Process of Composing a Symphony – Planning
As with most things, I attempt to be methodical about everything I do. My process for composing a Symphony may seem a little dry, but I think it will prove to be very helpful. I wish I could say that I envisioned the entire Symphony in a flash of genius, and am just writing down that revelation. But it’s not true. So I am planning it out, each step, in detail. This will give me a plan – a map.
The process of composing in writing (like writing a book or essay) is very similar. You create an outline and you fill it in.
The funny thing about plans, they don’t always go to plan. But as we say in the army:
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Mean Old Army Guy
The Traditional Symphony as a Roadmap
We have to start somewhere, so let’s take a look at the Symphony overall. I realize this is not every Symphony. I am not going to worry too much about what a “Real Symphony” is, or if it should be three, four, or five movements. I am just taking a General Symphony Outline and building from there.
A symphony traditionally has four movements
- First Movement – Tends to be in Sonata form (also commonly called Sonata-Allegro form, to differentiate it from the Sonata Cycle). I will stick with this, as the Sonata form gives you a great vehicle for development. An excellent example of this is Beethoven’s 5th, 1stMovement.
- Second Movement – Tends to be something slower, and can be in many different forms. Sometimes this is swapped with the third movement, which we’ll talk about below.
- Third Movement – Tends to be a Minuet and Trio or a Scherzo. We’ll talk about these forms more in depth later on down the road.
- Fourth Movement – Once again, this can be in all shapes and sizes, but it usually has a much more “finale” type of feel to it. I am thinking of doing a rondo for the last movement, but I haven’t made up my mind.
For my purposes, I am going to swap the 2nd and 3rd Movements. I’ll explain in later posts.
So with the overall view of the symphony down, I will approach it from an emotional direction first. I want to make sure the symphony conveys an emotional journey. What better to do that then to use the last few years of my life to map it out. These are the “life experiences” I am going with.
- First Movement – Going to Iraq
- Second Movement – 15 Months in Combat
- Third Movement – Meeting My Wife
- Fourth Movement – Coming Home
With those four topics, I have about a million different emotions to convey, so I will have to be selective, but this is a good starting point.
First Movement – Sonata Form
Going to Iraq. I won’t get into the details too much, at least not here, but in a period of a few weeks, I went through an emotional roller coaster:
- I prepped for going, a good friend got shot down in Iraq
- I was in a car accident, my car was totalled
- I said goodbye to my family (for all I knew was the last time)
- I partied in Scotland (thank goodness for “crew rest,” the airplane crew had to take the night off)
- I stepped off a plane in Kuwait, into what felt like a hairdryer all over my body
- “Crossing the Berm” into Iraq
It was a crazy time.
So with this in mind, I have tried to capture the emotions I felt in a logical way, that will help me compose the Symphony. This is what I came up with. It’s basically an outline.
Outlining the Symphony
To start, I listed the movement, wrote my inspiration, and then wrote down all the emotions.
Next I mapped those emotions along a shell for a sonata form. The sonata form can go through various keys, but it is usually firmly rooted in tonic for the exposition and dominant for the development. I’ll go over the sonata form in a later post in much more detail, like I have with the small themes. Please forgive me for not writing complete sentences in the outline, it was more stream of through type stuff.
- First Movement:
- Inspiration: Going to Iraq
- Emotions: Uncertainty, Pain, Excitement, Anticipation, Vulnerable, Sadness, Missing my family, Feeling pain in my heart for the chance that my family will have to miss me. Uncertainty. Relief after first flight was over. Feeling of accomplishment.
- Form: Sonata-Allegro
- Introduction: In America, week before leaving, car crash, friend gets shot down. Packing up. Arrival to Kuwait, funny, odd, camels, sand storm, late nights, lots of work, preparation.
- Key – Dominant (this is the typical key for introductions in classical form).
- Slow, ominous in America, Odd in Kuwait
- Key – Tonic, maybe minor for uncertainty
- Main Theme
- Depart for Iraq
- Flying around Bagdad, Tigris, Euphrates, Palm tree groves, landing, safe.
- Subordinate Theme: Defeat, death of more friends, moving to Mosul.
- Development: Finding my place in Mosul, new job. Direction coming.
- Key – Dominant
- Re-transition – Focus on Dominant 7th
- Recapitulation – Tonic, major
- First Theme
- Transition/Secondary Development
- Subordinate Theme.
I plan on posting my exposition very soon. I want to make sure I put up something good.
That is it for now. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What is your process of composing music?
Am I being too analytical?