Truth in fiction

Trust me: this blog post really IS about music composition…eventually, so hopefully you’ll read to the end of the post! This is another post after returning to posting my thoughts for aspiring composers after mostly switching to posts generated as part of my job as a working musician/composer during this pandemic (see and for discussions of this.

Long ago, way before personal computers and the Internet, there was a young woman I knew who, from an early age, collected quotes from books on 3×5 index cards. Even though only in her very early 20s, she’d collected hundreds of these quotes. Almost all of them were from fiction. Although I’ve never had the persistence to accumulate such a storehouse of quotes, from time to time, I noted some passages in fiction that affected me deeply. They expressed a truth about life that resonated with me.

Here’s an example: “As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come…and he would have to meet it when it did.” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.

I just “Googled” that entire quote for the heck of it and discovered that it was listed on J.K. Rowling > Quotes > Quotable Quote page. Someone else had found it meaningful also.

The older I get, the more slowly I read, the more I return to re-read books I’ve read before, and the more I savor those bits of truth I find. I’ve certainly read my fair share of self-help and applied philosophy books, but I’ve never found as many helpful truths in those books as I have in fiction, for as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Similarly, never have I found as many helpful truths in literary fiction as I have in genre fiction.

Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Awards acceptance speech is terrific. Not only does he talk about the truth in in the life (fiction), more importantly, he takes to task the academic (“literary”) fiction network and bias. I highly recommend his speech: Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, 2003 (

In an old blog I had, I once posted, “If I were able to write a novel, the kind of novel I’d hope to be able to write is the one I just finished reading, The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont.” The reason I felt that way was because of the underlying truth–a truth that is true for any human being–that was the premise of the story. It affected me deeply because events in my own life vibrated in sympathy with the tones struck in that story.

Part of what makes some authors so great is that they write “as if” they were inside the reader’s own existence. They must have the capacity to experience their books as we do and that inner perception must inform what they write. I also believe that the best musicians, be they performer, conductor, or composer, write/perform what they do for the benefit of the audience, not to aggrandize themselves.

In the field of professional music performers the best musicians also have a knack for hearing what and how they’re playing from the audience’s viewpoint, as part of the whole…as if they were outside themselves, sitting in the audience…quite literally and acoustically. They don’t just play their part from their own viewpoint.

The best composers have a way of doing something similar: they are able to experiencing what they’re writing from within time–just as a listener experiences it–not just from their viewpoint outside of time as a composer looking at the whole. In both cases, the musician/composer is performs/creates for the listener, not for the informed critic. This has always been true. Most people forget that Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven were all writing for the masses, they weren’t writing for the intelligentsia.

So, the moral of this story is to encourage composers to speak to the universal emotional experiences of their listeners. Engage the audience. Don’t write for critics. Write for the audience. You do that by providing them with an emotional experience. Become aware of your own emotions. Get in touch with the fact that we’re one person, that we inhabit a shared emotional world. Don’t just write notes.


Tailgate trombone

Feeling the urge to return to writing the occasional composition-teacher post! Some time ago I made a list of titles for posts I had ideas to write. Here’s one…

“Tailgate trombone” is a term that applies to a typical trombone part in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz in tutti sections (tutti, Italian from Latin totus, “all,” is where everyone is playing at the same time). This “tailgate” part sort of follows its own course, outlining often descending chromatic lines inherent in the harmonic progression of the tune being improvised upon.

The reason for titling this post with that designation is that in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz (I’ve never been absolutely sure to what extent those two styles are mutually exclusive) each instrument has a set role and melodic character that’s unchanging in the tutti sections.

Those are typically as follows:

  • trumpet plays embellished tune melody
  • clarinet plays arpeggiated harmonic structure
  • trombone plays tailgate part
  • tuba plays bass part
  • banjo plays harmony rhythmicized

Having these set roles in tutti sections helps clarify the texture, keeping everyone out of everyone else’s way while madly improvising in “le jazz hot.”

My purpose in raising this topic is that all too often, as useful as this device is, too many student composers do the same thing to their classical compositions, never allowing the parts of the texture to deviate from their set roles.

I do the same thing myself for certain reasons, especially when I’m wanting to create a static atmosphere.

For, that’s the danger: the music becomes static.

It’s definitely true that as great a composer as Mozart utilizes static texture, sometimes called mono-textural music. But, it’s worth your effort to take something like a Mozart piano sonata that definitely falls into this category, and see how even he breaks the texture from one phrase or group of phrases to the next into contrasting textures of different characters.

Then, take a look at someone like Beethoven to see how even the seams between contrasting sections are disguised so you start with one texture and miraculously discover you’re in a different texture without noticing how you got there.

This is even more true with someone like Mahler!

Mono-texture isn’t “bad” and multi-textural “good.” The goal is to become adept at handling texture freely without being forced to being stuck when you don’t want to be.

No magic brush


This is the most important truth I still have to learn for every piece. It’s like I completely forget how to write music after every piece. At one point in my life, I kept the first scraps of paper from pieces so I could look back, the next time, to see how miserable the first notes were. This really is the Number One lesson to learn. That Disney thing where the brush sweeps across the screen and the picture just flows off the brush just isn’t the way it really happens. It’s true, the Cosmic Radio does exist, but sometimed the reception isn’t that great. It can be like driving across country late at night and listening to AM radio. You might pick up a station that’s really from a different piece, or maybe a different spot in the same piece, or perhaps just a bad idea, or maybe…aliens.

Tabletop drummer

Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!
Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!

This post is a further exploration of one of the tricks mentioned in a grain of sand: coming up with a rhythmic idea devoid of any pitch content.

There is a legend, quite possibly not apocryphal, because the game of billiards was indeed one of his hobbies (another apparently being the collection of bathroom graffiti while on tours throughout Europe which he detailed in letters to his father), that Mozart would sometimes use the rhythmic pattern of the clicking of the balls in a break as the generation of rhythmic motives.

But, unless you’re a billiards or lawn bowling player (hmmm… shuffleboard would work too, wouldn’t it?!), you’ve undoubtably given into the urge to spontaneously tap out a rhythm on the tabletop of a diner while waiting for a 2 a.m. breakfast, or, possibly scat sing one like THIS. For this discussion, we’ll use my vocalized motive heard in that example.

The next step can be tough for someone without formal ear-training–but it’s doable with some effort and free software–and that’s turning that improvisation into written music notation. Either of those methods, however, depend on one basic skill: memory. Develop the skill of remembering exactly what you just improvised so you can repeat it exactly, over and over until you’ve sussed out the notation of the rhythm.

Developing this skill has other applications, too. There’s a technique used in certain types of pop vocals where the artist overdubs tracks with themselves singing in unison with what they sang before. I’ve heard pros who could do this matching every slight inflection and nuance of their first track’s performance for a 3 minute tune. Memory is a valuable skill.

Anyway, back to the task at hand.

Once you’re certain you’ve got your riff (motive) deeply embedded in your memory, you’re ready to write it down using the techniques you learned in Ear Training 101…or, if you prefer the software method, record it on your cell phone, then open the mp3 in your free Audacity software. I use Magix’s SoundForge Pro Mac 3, simply because I’ve used it for so long and my fingers do their thing without me having to think about it, but Audacity is great. Get it. It’s cross platform. And it’s FREE! Whichever audio editor you use, you’ll see your waveform, like this:

Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42.png

Now, I bet you “patted your foot,” either mentally or physically, when you improvised your rhythm. Breaking down this procedure a little bit further, let try to identify where those “foot pats” are in the waveform.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 A

The red lines in the above example represent where I felt the beat to be for my riff. That tells us a little, but not everything we need to know. To get closer, try tapping your foot exactly twice as fast as you listen to the motive. The blue lines in the following example show where those would fall.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 B

We’re almost there! Now, suppose we subdivide each of those in half. The green lines in the next example represent those subdivisions.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 C

Patience, patience, patience…almost done, almost done.

Now, suppose that the distance between red lines is a quarter note, then the four subdivisions would each be sixteenth notes, wouldn’t they? Mapping that out using music notation it would be 2 sixteenth notes, then a long note starting on the last sixteenth of that beat, then another short note halfway through the next beat, followed by two more sixteenth notes on the beat (like the opening). Looks like this in music notation:
Screenshot 2018-04-03 11.03.33

OK…that’s enough for now. We’ll continue this exploration next post by adding pitches, harmony, orchestration, tempi, and dynamics in Tabletop drummer part 2. We’ll also take a peek in a 3rd part at how this motive could be explored even further by developing into throughout time.

Look forward to seeing you next time.

A grain of sand…

2017-06-24 08.36.35 copy

Sometimes you get an idea for a piece and then you begin to write with absolutely no problems. You’re on fire and the music flows from you like images from the end of Walt Disney’s animated paint brush. Sometimes the ideas may be there, but it’s an uphill slog every step of the way, each measure bought by blood sweat. For what it’s worth, that’s how it usually is. But, other times, you may need/want to write a piece but you have absolutely no ideas. Those times can be problematic. There are some ways to deal with drawing a blank.

  • One way is to create just a rhythm without regard to any pitches. This often gives rise to highly energetic, motivic music. Use the rhythmic motive as a vehicle to explore chord changes or key changes.
  • Often composers will devise a series of pitches without regard to rhythm and then explore different rhythmic treatments of that. I’ve never seen the evidence myself, but I remember hearing that Beethoven did this. Apparently, his sketchbooks show him experimenting: sometimes applying different key signatures to the same basic note names, sometimes changing the clef but keeping the general intervals intact (this changes the mode of the melody), sometimes giving different rhythmic values to a given series of pitches.
  • Another way is to take words–and this can be prose or poetry, prose or free verse often seems to work best because of its irregular rhythm–and use the natural rhythm of the words to suggest melodies and the syntax of the sentences to suggest phrase structure.
  • You might create some sort of game with dice or a spinner (Mozart did this!) to come up with rhythms, or a series of pitches, or content of a section, or the length of a section…any aspect of music. The key to this technique is to not be in thrall to it! Feel free to abandon any detail of what you’ve come up with. This is approach is just to serve as a prompt. It should not be cast in concrete.
  • Sometimes it will be just a chord progression that is created first. This is a somewhat dangerous approach because it lends itself to predictable harmonic rhythm, especially the kind that changes on every measure’s downbeat. So use this carefully, trying to pay attention to creating a not-too-predictable harmonic rhythm.
  • The common thread in all these examples is that one aspect of music was isolated and an idea was generated for only that one aspect. Trying to think of too much at once can sometimes stall getting started.
  • After you’ve created your “grain of sand,” then you start applying other aspect ideas to it, just as an oyster overlays organic material. If you had a purely melodic “grain of sand,” try overlaying different rhythms. If your “grain of sand” was a rhythm, try pouring different pitch sequences into it. On and on…it’s just working with the materials, one aspect at a time.

By the way, this technique can be applied to everyday writing. You don’t need to save it for when you’re completely bereft of ideas.