The Mystery of Melody
How is melody created? How do composers get ideas for their compositions? The process seems to be somewhat mysterious. One theory postulated by those in India is that all melodies already exist, and we mere mortals simply discover them floating in the universe. Perhaps this stems from their belief in reincarnation. I have heard many composers allude to the experience of melody-writing as one of discovery, and it does feel a bit like that. Having been a singer/songwriter my whole life and given many workshops on composition, I gladly share my thoughts on something that is one of my greatest passions, composing.
There are many methods of creating a composition, and even though I have been composing for many years, I am still evolving and experimenting with new approaches. I tend to compose “by ear,” and many of my melodies are derived from a process I might call “doodling” on the harp. I simply play in a kind of freeform way, hitting strings in patterns, or sometimes even randomly. If I like a certain grouping of notes, I repeat them, or vary them.
Experimentation is the key. Sometimes the idea is based on note patterns, and sometimes rhythmic patterns. Often, a mistaken note can inspire an idea I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and so I go with the flow, exploring the surprises to see where it takes me. Once the basic concept is established, I experiment some more, usually over a period of days or even weeks, until the piece takes form and begins to have some structure to it. The melodic idea is almost always in the right hand, with left-hand accompaniment. I experiment both with the right and left hands, to see what works and what fits. Will the hands go in the same direction? Will they harmonize or contrast with one another? These are all possibilities.
One can take a more cerebral approach to the creation of music. Knowledge of music theory, even the most basic information, offers the composer a larger toolbox. The creative process can be approached systematically, carefully structuring the music section by section, sometimes creating the harmonic framework before the melody has even been determined. Knowing such elements as chord progressions, modulations, and melodic development will obviously be helpful to a composer, and I am constantly studying these elements to broaden my own works.
Yet, I would encourage any harpist with melodic ideas to explore and develop them, even without the benefit of formal musical training. Often, analyzing existing music, say the music you play in your current repertoire, can help you see certain patterns and chord progressions that could feed into your efforts to compose something on your own.
One pitfall is the risk of plagiarizing an existing melody. Of course, we can all think of examples of intentional plagiarism, but it’s easy enough to write a melody that sounds so much like an existing one that the composer must be careful. It is important to strike a good balance between maintaining a unique style, while writing pieces that are distinctively different from one another. Composers and arrangers tend to be drawn to certain tools, certain note patterns, certain rhythms. Some of these are so distinctive that the listener can recognize who wrote the work just by the way these elements are used.
The composer faces unique challenges in writing for the harp, arguably one of the most difficult of instruments to master. The piece must rest comfortably in the hands, the fingering must be easy to execute, and the arrangement must be compelling to the listener, but not too technically difficult for the player. Coming up with an idea is one thing, developing and refining it is quite another. The crafting of music takes knowledge, time, patience, and a constant willingness to redo. No note can be considered sacred, no passage untouchable. Still, the final product has to reflect the composer’s intentions and tastes. Creating a piece of music is an iterative, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately thrilling process.
The notation may be detailed and precise, but it is the performer who imprints his or her individual interpretation of the music. Of course, if the composer is also the one who performs the piece, the performance becomes a further refinement of the written music, for now the performer/composer communicates not only through the music, but the performance itself.
If others play the composer’s piece, this presents a different kind of challenge. The composer is now out of the loop, and must hand off control to the performer. It is always fascinating to observe how different musicians will interpret the same piece of music. The core of the composition remains in tact, but each time the piece is performed by a different harpist, it is given a unique and nuanced interpretation. The composition is no longer a collection of black and white notes trapped on the page. The harpist breathes life into the piece, establishing a connection with the listener through the written music. This is the ultimate payoff for the composer. The sweat, the rewrites, the discarded sections fade into the background. There is no greater thrill than hearing your music performed on one of the most beautiful sounding instrument we know, the harp.
by Meg Robinson
Published by the Folk Harp Journal