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

No Turning Back

Click play to listen to “No Turning Back”

Click here to purchase the song at bandcamp.com

After 4 solid months, I’m taking a one month sabbatical from my new song project to work on a more urgent recording project.  In the meantime I’ll share a few songs I wrote a while back as a part of an album called “Word Trees”.  I wrote and recorded the songs for this album while living in Korea and made it available on my bandcamp site, but after more listening wasn’t happy with the overall recording quality of it.  So I’m going to re-master the songs and incrementally release them.

The original idea for this song came to me while I was still living in Chicago.  I was at Ipsento, a coffee shop close to my apartment and I was talking with the then-owner, Rachael Smith, about how, when you first start drinking coffee, you can get used to whatever kind of coffee you’re introduced to, but then if/when you taste a cup of really good coffee, suddenly you ‘know better’ and the coffee you were perfectly content with before is no longer good enough, thus causing you to take farther trips and pay higher amounts of money just to get the coffee that measures up to your new standard.

Whether it was something within or beyond my control, there are a whole lot of things that happen which I look at and think ‘It would have been nice if that wouldn’t have happened…but it did.’   We have to live in the context of all the things that have really happened, even those things which we prefer would not have happened.  We do stuff and we’re stuck with it.  That’s what this song is about.

History in Songs

https://lewisknudsen.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/story-of-st-patrick.mp3

I have a hard time applying myself to something unless I know why I’m doing it.  Songwriting is something I’ve had to come back to repeatedly as I continue to ask myself “Why am I doing this?”  “What’s the point?”  A few months ago I took time again to put down on paper what exactly I was going to try to accomplish by writing songs.  One of the things I put down was “to preserve history through songs”.  This certainly is not a groundbreaking concept in the songwriting arena…Many of the Psalms and poetry contained in the Bible are a preservation of the history of Israel.  Early American folk songs preserved the memory of meaningful events, such as those found on one of Decca’s earliest albums, a compilation titled, Badmen, Heroes, and Pirates, which pays homage to folk legends who fought against injustice.

People have been writing and singing about their past from the beginning, but it is a little more intimidating than it used to be.  Long ago groups of people all held basically the same beliefs about certain past events,  and affirmed those beliefs through their cultural expressions.  But now, even seeing is not necessarily believing.  There’s CGI, and Photoshop.  There are people out there trying to dupe us to serve their own ends, so we must be suspicious.  Anything can be called into question.  So as a modern day songwriter, I sure don’t want to be the guy who writes a song about how great William Shakespeare was, only to discover to my embarrassment that scholars have decided unequivocally that William Shakespeare, in fact, did not write the works of William Shakespeare (some people believe this, btw).

But I love history, I love learning more of it, and I believe some historical events and figures actually happened/existed, are meaningful, worth preserving, and can speak meaningfully to us in our time.

However, it wasn’t really an articulate thought process that led me to write and record “The Story of St. Patrick”. It was green beer.  It was corned beef.  It was leprechauns.    If March 17th were called “American Perception of Irish Celebration Day” it wouldn’t have bothered me.  I know, I know, nearly all the histories behind our holidays have been completely obfuscated by commercialization.  But, by jimminy, it’s called “St. Patrick’s Day” and nobody was talking about St. Patrick, so I needed to write this song.

Humility, Water, Coffee

Another song from that show at Uncommon Ground a few years back.  It’s pretty long so this is only the last half of the song, but you can hear the full version if you click here.  The inspiration for this song came from reading a devotional book, Humility, by Andrew Murray.  He talks about how water always goes to the lowest place it can find, giving the most nourishment to plants and roots which are in the lowest place.  So also people who voluntarily take a humble place will be nourished, but trying to be in the ‘highest’ place will result in dryness and eventual starvation and death.  Some of the lyrics in this song are about the process involved in making coffee and how long and arduous the process is (for the roaster and the coffee bean).