On Theory

For the most part, I’m a self-taught musician. I played trombone in grade school, so I learned to read music a little bit (mostly bass clef), but on the whole I would say that reading/writing is not a skill of mine. In my teens, I taught myself guitar with the help of Guitar For the Practicing Musician magazine, which came with 5 or 6 rock songs transcribed in regular notation and tablature every month. Tablature is made up of six lines (one for each string of the guitar) and numbers on those lines, indicating what frets to put your fingers on. It’s very easy to pick up, and I would practice for 6+ hours a day. In high-school I played guitar in jazz band, and also took a basic music theory class. I’m not sure how much of this information stuck.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about making music for film. I thought it would be fun to go back and learn composition so I found an online course that is designed to teach me those skills. It’s at www.artofcomposing.com. In the first few days, you’re taught to come up with a basic motif, then learn how to expand it by playing it different ways, and massaging the motif to work over different chords.

It’s a great opportunity for me to hone my theory skills, and get a little more comfortable reading music. When I am writing my own songs, I usually just write down the names of the chords that I’m playing and not much else. If I need to print out a part, for say, a horn player, I’ll play it on my keyboard and have my computer print the notation for me.

For the Art of Composing course, I had to write several 8 bar ‘periods’, the first of which looks like this:

It’s not earth-shattering, but it is my first time trying this. I feel the chord changes could be a little stronger, and the bass smoother. Here’s what it sounds like:

The idea is to establish a motif in the first 4 bars, then use the next 4 bars as a variation with a weak cadence at the end (so the chords don’t feel fully resolved). The next 4 bars is for repeating the main motif, then the last four bars is for bringing the piece to a close with a strong chord resolution. I’m looking forward to writing a few more of these ‘periods’ over the next few days before I move on to the next lesson.