Composing Tips: Print out the standard version

I’ve recently started something that has helped me in arranging songs. I’ll take the hymn or Children’s Songbook song I want to arrange and print it out in the key or keys I want it to be in. Since lds.org does the key changes for you, it makes it so much easier!

So, here’s what I do. I print it out and put it on the keyboard in front of me before I pull out my composing music paper. I play it through a few times adlibbing an arrangement. If I come up with a different melody for a phrase or chord to accompany the melody that sounds interesting, I write it on the sheet music I printed out. This gives me a few ideas for when I start to write it out.

Sometimes you’ll think of good ideas before you are writing out your music so this makes sure you get some of them down before you forget it. I have done this and it is a sad thing! It can be messy and crowded to do it this way but it has helped me 🙂

Stop Playing, Listen in your Head

I was trying to find a transition between two verses and what I was coming up with was pretty boring and frankly, not fitting right. So I played the arrangement up to that point and stopped as soon as the verse was over. I closed my eyes and started singing in my head what would sound good. I was able to come up with a beautiful sound the first time I tried this.

I’ve definitely heard music in my head before but this time it helped to stop at a part I was stuck on and try to get my brain instead of my fingers to figure it out.

Composing Tip: Switching Up Rhythms

I’ve been working on a song in 6/8 time. Toward the end of the song I had a measure where the melody had 3 eighth notes then a dotted quarter. It didn’t sound right. I mean, it wasn’t a bad sound but it wasn’t interesting. When I switched that up and played the dotted quarter first then the 3 eighth notes, it not only sounded really good but it had a different feel than other parts of the song. It was just what that part of the song needed. Try out switching rhythms!

Composing Tip: Change Octaves

When arranging music I feel intros can be tricky to come up with. I don’t just want to play the last line of the song as an intro. That can be boring, and coming up with something new can sometimes sound out of place for the song.

One thing I have done to change up an intro is change octaves on the last note of a line. Take “I Feel My Savior’s Love” for example. Look at the first line (line of the title). Instead of playing the normal F on “love” you play it an octave higher. Can you hear playing that higher note while your left hand is playing ascending notes leading you into the song?

I’ve found this technique useful for changing up intros, but it could very well be useful at other points of an arrangement too. Try it out!

Composing Tip: Play it backwards

It has been a while since I’ve done one of these but I had to get this out there because it just worked really well for me.

When I was writing music in high school my piano made a suggestion to me when I got stuck with what to write next. She told me to try taking some melody I already have and play the notes backwards to see if anything interesting comes of it.

For a decade I have tried this tip and nothing really came of it. However, last week I was trying to come up with an intro to a hymn and I played the last line of the song backwards and wah lah! It was perfect! I was so excited that after trying it many times it finally worked and it worked really well. I’m excited to finish the song!

So, try it and maybe you’ll get something from playing a melody backwards!

Composing Tip: Finishing off Sound at End of Phrase

When writing “An Honest Tithing” my reviewer noticed that at the end of the verses the sound didn’t really complete. If you look in measure 12 you will see I finished off the verse by going down to the C in the treble clef. I didn’t have that at first and it just wasn’t quite right. So, between phrases look to see if you need to finish off the chord by adding a note.

In the same song you will see the very last note of the piece is a D. This is what finished off the sound at the end of the piece. Most of us know to do that but see if you need it anywhere else in your song!

Composing Tip: Look at Lyrics

When I am arranging music I try to look at the lyrics and make the piano sound like them. Here are some examples.

From my version ofIf You Could Hie to Kolob“:

Measure 21-22, “Or see the grand beginning…” : These lyrics are the beginning of the second verse. The measures mentioned are the transition measures. I build here–make the sound get bigger since it is a “grand beginning.”

Measure 32, “Methinks the Spirit whispers…”: For this phrase I slow down and where the word “whispers” is I decrease the volume.

From my choir version ofBehold! A Royal Army“:

Measure 54, “They see his signal flashing…”: Flashing is the word I’m focusing on here. I wanted to make a sound of flashing. If you play it, you will see how the eighth notes in the right hand sound like the word “flashing.”

From my arrangement ofNearer, My God to Thee“:

Measure 24, “The sun gone down”: Right after this phrase is over I do a little trill-like phrase with descending noes, since the sun is going “down”.

Measure 28, “Thy rest a stone”: This measure ends with a half note while the right hand is holding out the whole note. I like that the notes are held out, “resting.” I also dropped the half note to be played really deep, that is the image I had in my mind of a stone.

Measure 29-32,”Yet in my dreams I’d be, nearer, my God to thee”: In contrast to the lyrics right before with a deep sounding “stone,” I felt like dreams lift us higher. So I raised the melody an octave higher and tried to make it sound dream-like, beautiful.

Measure 42-43, “Steps unto heaven”: I tried to make the piano sound like steps going upward so, in verse 43 you will see 3 chords getting higher each time.

Hope these examples give you some ideas of how to look at lyrics and make the piano sound like them!

Changing Number of Beats in a Single Measure

I have found that sometimes a measure just sounds natural if you add an extra beat, or even two extra beats. Like if you are in 4/4 timing, you change one measure to 5/4 then the very next measure you go right back to 4/4. I usually use this when I am trying to connect two phrases. It can be done whenever but I’ve found that is when it is most natural for me.

An exact example of what I mentioned above is in my arrangement of Nearer, My God to Thee in measure 8.

Maybe you’ve been writing your own song and you are just starting to write out your music, watch to see if you even do it naturally–it might trick you when you are trying to get it out on paper.

So, try out extra beats, they might add just the right touch you are looking for in your piece.

Photo: Pencil by Dave Rutt

Composing Tips: Syncopation

Syncopation: I have found when right and left hands are moving back and forth, it helps to give more variety to a piece. If my arrangements are ever sounding the same I’ll try to add some different syncopation.

For example, if you are in 3/4 time and there are 3 quarter notes in the melody, add 2 dotted quarter notes to the left hand. Now, that is a very simple example but hopefully you get what I mean.

So, if your songs are in need of some variation, play around with syncopation. You might find a fun sound!

Ideas for Compositions

I want to start a tips section for anyone trying to compose their own songs. I remember when I was taking lessons I ate up the tips my teacher had. So, as I think of things I will make posts about them.
Before I go into tips I want to let you know that I am not a music major. I got my degree in dental hygiene. Um, farthest thing from music as possible! However, I did take private piano lessons from when I was 7 to when I was 17. Those are my qualifications. I compose what sounds good to me. That’s it. I don’t think about what is supposed to come next because that is how songs are supposed to be written. I play, and my fingers just fiddle around until I find just the right sound I was going for.
Tip:
TRIPLETS: When it comes to arranging music I’ve found that to really make the last verse (or the climax) of your arrangement more powerful , add triplets to the left hand accompanying the right hand’s melody.
Going from eighth notes, or other rhythms, to triplets just gives the piece energy and movement. In the final verse of my “Nearer, My God to Thee” arrangement, I even added triplets into the melody while the left hand held half notes. This proved to be the most powerful part of my song. I get chills every time I play it.
Triplets, when used at the right place and the right time, can turn an ok piece into a “wow” piece.

Photo: Pencil by Dave Rutt