Learning How to Write Music – Using Tone Color

“What to Listen for in Music” is a book written by 20th century American composer ImageAaron Copland, originally published in 1939.  I read it 5 years ago and am now re-reading it and finding it extremely insightful for understanding more theory behind song writing.

Music has four essential elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.  These four ingredients are the composer’s materials.  He works with them in the same way that any other artisan works with his materials.  From the standpoint of the lay listener they have only a limited value, for he is seldom conscious of hearing any one of them separately.  It is their combined effect – the seemingly inextricable web of sound that they form – with which listeners are concerned for the most part.

I like how he describes these four ingredients in concrete terms, ‘as any other artisan works with his materials’.  Music itself cannot be seen or touched, so it’s hard to think of writing music in concrete terms, and the process or writing or finishing a song can start to feel completely nebulous.

Taking the element of ‘tone color’ as an example – I might get an idea to play a “C” note on the piano in the background of a chorus.  if I’m writing a song in an abstract sense, I might get caught up in deciding simply whether to go with the “C” idea, or skip it.  Or maybe I would get distracted and start experimenting with what it might sound like to play a “D” or an “E” instead.

However, let’s think of the “C” as dab of yellow paint on a palette.  Does the painter only think “Should I use the yellow or not”?  No, the yellow can be used sparingly, liberally, can be mixed with any color, can be watered down, can be thickened, etc.

In the same way, the “C” note on the piano can be played loudly or softly.  On a full 88 key piano, you have the option of playing a C somewhere in the low, middle, or high register of the keyboard, each one creating a slightly different feel in the song.  You can play the C in quick 16th notes, quarter notes, or hit the C one time and let it ring for the whole chorus.  Already there are so many possible combinations, it would take hours just to try them all.  I think it’s important while writing music to maintain a frame of mind where I’m thinking of musical elements as organic materials

Playing a Show at Uncommon Ground

In the Fall of 2008 I was living in Chicago, had just finished an album called “Poor Homeless Soul” and wanted to play some shows.  I emailed every venue I had heard of asking if I could play there (including the Chicago Theater, haha). The two places to get back to me and offer me a spot on a bill were Silvie’s Lounge and Uncommon Ground. I booked and confirmed a show with Silvie’s, and exchanged a couple emails with Uncommon Ground about possible dates, but after asking for confirmation for a certain date, I never heard back. Then a couple months later I woke up at 5:15 a.m. to go to work and my friend Dylan Peterson texted me saying “Hey, it says in the reader you’re playing at Uncommon Ground tonight.” I had no clue. I worked my morning shift at Weber Grill, came home, brushed up on my songs, arranged to borrow my roommates car to transport my keyboard, and drove up to Wrigleyville an hour early to set up. Unfortunately there was a Cubs game going on that night, so I had to park about ten blocks away from Uncommon Ground and then carry my keyboard and stand, which was extremely difficult and also funny when I met people on the sidewalk.  People don’t really know what to say to you when you’re just carrying a piano down the street.  I finally got to the cafe, set up my piano, got a mic set up, got plugged into the system, and played straight through the album.  The guy running sound that night was kind enough to record the whole set and give me a CD of it before I left. Lots of good friends came to hear the music and enjoy the food.  The audio clip above is the first song I played that night.

I never really ended up pursuing more gigs after that. As much as I enjoyed writing and recording that album, playing solo really just left me wanting to put a band together, but when I’d tried putting something together with friends it never really worked out. Soon after that I decided to put music on hold and set my sights on going to Korea to teach English. (Although being in Korea resulted in all sorts of great musical influences and opportunities which I never would have imagined…for a later post)

A little background on “Ephemeroptera”:  In 2007 I was visiting my family in the Quad Cities. I was driving along River Drive on a summer night and it was that particular time in the summer when the whole area along the road and next to the river is completely swarming with mayflies. There were so many that the ones near the streetlights were illuminated making them look like leaves on a glowing tree. Later that week I was walking along the same area and noticed piles of dead mayflies lining the road in a mass grave along the curb. This somehow fascinated me so I looked up more information on mayflies on the internet and found out that their official “order” (remember science class?) is Ephemeroptera, meaning “short-lived, wing” and their life span can go from as ‘long’ as a few days to as short as just a few hours. This spoke to me about how short life is, so I wrote this song. Admittedly there are a lot of other thoughts/musings/feelings crammed into this song, but the original inspiration came from those glowing trees of extremely short-lived bugs.