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The creative hornist composing Made Easy.

The idea of composing music all too often carries the unfortunate impression that it is only for the elite trained fabulously creative few, not something that the hoi polloi could ever hope to aspire to.

Balderdash. Composition is--should be--for everyone, every day. Most musicians--even especially trained musicians--don't compose because we didn't receive encouragement or training in expressing ourselves in music. It was all about learning the instrument and playing well with others. Musical training silently omits little things like empowering musicians to "think in music" (improvisation and composition) because creativity is, well, messy, hard to grade, and mildly challenging to teach (or so it seems if you haven't done it before).

If improvisation is like normal everyday conversation, composition is like writing, and writing can be anything you want it to be: an email, a thank-you note, a graduation speech, romantic lovers talk, a rapid-fire auctioneer spiel, a quiet bedtime story, a somber eulogy, a funny story, a poem, whatever you like and want and need and enjoy in the moment. It is a poor music education indeed that does not empower musicians in their training to be producers of music as well as consumers of it. While no single article on the subject can supply a complete course in composition, we will try to outfit you with a number of tools to get you started on the path to making composition a normal, accessible skill that you can use to create music of any length, mood, and purpose at any time.

Inspiration and Preparation

It makes composition easier if you have either something you want to express or a purpose or occasion for the piece. The fact that these are limitations is what makes it easier. Example: you have a concert coming up and want to write a horn quartet for it. It will make a significant difference if you know where it will come in the program and what mood it should be. This will help determine if it is fanfare-like, long and loud, soft and lyrical, quirky and humorous, short or long. If you are writing the piece for an occasion, it will be a different kind of piece for a wedding than for a funeral, baby's christening, Halloween, or birthday party. It will be a different kind of piece if you want it to express joy, hope, rage, amusement, love, mystery, confusion, grandeur, or fear. Since you are writing it, you can also tailor the piece to the players, and the piece will be different depending on who is playing and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Tip: write about something that has meaning to you, something that you have experienced personally, whether bright or dark. Just draw from your own life--a feeling, an event. It can be about the award you got for citizenship or what you had for breakfast. Just be real, be immediate, be honest. Write what is meaningful to you. Never write what you think might be impressive to someone else--be true to yourself. This will make the piece sound genuine and give it life.

Once you've made some of these decisions (purpose, instrumentation, mood, approximate length, tempo), the next step might be a title, although sometimes pieces will arise quickly and easily from a good title alone with no other references. An evocative title is worth doubloons; a piece with a good title writes itself. Try some of these, or invent your own: "My New Skateboard," "Twisted Ankle," "Too Much Pizza," "Rover's Last Day," "Lost Love." You may want to retitle your piece "Magnificent Symphony No. 1 in G Minor" or "Duet for Two Tinhorns" later, but a working title of "Irritating Little Brother" will be just fine to get you going.

Warm up assignment #1: without stopping to edit, write down as quickly as you can ten titles for potential pieces for horn.

A word about style. Writing in a style of music with which you are familiar may quicken your selection of notes, since restrictions speed choices and any style is a certain set of limitations (rhythms, length, timbre, effects, form, instrumentation, etc.). You may need to brush up on the elements of a particular style and/or practice it a bit in preparation (let's see, how many bars per section and how many sections in ragtime piano music?). You might also experiment with combining two styles (what would calypso plus chorale sound like? A fugue plus a march? National anthem plus beatboxing?). In any case, write music you would like to play and hear, not something you think sounds impressive, erudite, complex, or is otherwise ego-inflating. There is only one rule that the piece must follow: it has to sound good to you.

Warm-up assignment #2: as quickly as possible, write down the names of at least six styles of music that you like to listen to (even if there no written compositions exist for horn in a given style) and which you know well.

Title, style, and other basic elements in hand, you're ready to start construction.


The next step is to decide on the shape or form of your piece. It's a lot easier to build a solid and handsome house if you make a blueprint first than if you just start nailing boards together. There are many ways to do this; following are a few.

Contrast. The most basic form might be AB: something happens. Then something different happens. This form becomes more interesting if you bring back the first happening: ABA (or a variation of it: ABA'). There are various ways to produce contrast, and you might construct some contrasting pairs to help decide what you might like to do: loud/soft, fast/slow, dense/sparse, high/low, major/minor, duple meter/triple meter, tonal/atonal, homophonic/fugato, plain/ornamented, and so on.

Sections. Letters can help planning beyond ABA, such as ABAC (adding a coda), AABA (song form), ABACADA (rondo form), A' A" A'" A"" (variation form) or your own personal invention: ABCADABCAEBrusselsSprouts (just seeing if you were paying attention ...).

Subsections: each section may be broken down into smaller units as small as a measure. For example, you could have section A made up of four measures with the form a a b a, where three of the measures were identical and one measure was different. You could also make a two, four, eight, or more measures. The content of B might be e f e g, with the new letters signifying new material.

Program notes. Another way to plan out your piece is to write a description of what you might like to have happen. The easiest way to generate this is to write a series of descriptions, beginning with a single sentence and then progressively expanding it with more and more detail. This is a quick way to establish quite a bit of detail about what will happen in your piece. Here's an idea for a horn quartet developed in this way.

1st description--short, general: The piece can be represented by a hairpin--soft building to loud; some contrasting material--then reducing back to very soft. Or it could be low to high and back. Your call.

2nd layer of description--adding detail: The piece starts softly over a rhythmic ostinato that adds voices and volume until all play (=A). At maximum volume, the group switches (=B) to a series of soft chords. Each voice acquires its own rhythm and the voices become contrapuntal. Finally the voices unite on a figure and repeat it, building to a great volume. The rhythmic ostinato of the first section takes over (+A') and gradually the piece grows softer and softer until it abruptly (codetta) holds the most prominent chord of the B section, crescendos, and stops.

3rd layer--more detail: Section A: Horn 4 plays a bouncing, syncopated repeating figure in and around middle C that is four measures long. The other horns are added one by one in harmony; they use accented stopped tones at various times in their lines. After all voices have joined the ostinato, the group flirts briefly with some short, dramatic figures that include glissandos before returning to building the ostinato once again. This second iteration is louder than the first time and breaks some of the longer tones into repeated 16th for more energy; some of the harmonization is changed to introduce more tension and dissonance between some of the upper voices.

Section B begins with a low drone in horn 4, over which the other horns play--muted--a smooth, soft, repeating four bar chord progression. The third time this progression is played, players begin switching to unmated independent rhythms, which transforms into a fugato section not unlike the b section of section A. At some point the voices unite on a repeated rhythm in an interesting chord sequence and get louder and louder. They hold a longer tone, crescendo, and return to Section A at full volume. The horns gradually transition to less volume and fewer notes until the texture is sparse and soft. Out of nowhere, the most prominent chord from Section B appears as a whole note. A quick swell and hold and then a decrescendo a niente.

You may find that as you turn the words into notes you make changes. That's perfectly fine. The first draft of anything is about using energy and passion to set down ideas in some form. Subsequent drafts turn this raw product into a composition by adding polish and detail, rearranging, adding, deleting, trying alternate versions. You can also throw the whole thing out and try a new approach.

Mountain Range. Another way to make a preliminary sketch of a piece is to make a graph that looks roughly like a mountain range with peaks and valleys; or like a cityscape with high, middle, and low buildings. These can represent whatever you like: energy, dynamics, texture (dense versus sparse), orchestration, thematic material, etc. You can also have several going at the same time to indicate different parameters.

Time/Number of measures. This approach may be used in conjunction with the above ways of planning form (or not). If you have a good idea of what you want to happen and about how long the piece is, you can actually calculate approximately how many measures you need (at a given tempo) and put in barlines on manuscript paper. Then apply descriptions or section letters to numbers of bars and you can visually see how much material you will need.

Tip: A first draft may be very fuzzy or messy or even chaotic, even when you have the title, a form, and a fairly good idea of the content and time. That's perfectly fine--it's normal. Don't worry about it. Let it be fuzzy. The only thing that is important in the first draft is to keep going, get that passion on paper, translate ideas to ink in any form. Get something, anything on the paper. If you don't know exactly what comes next, leave it blank and move on, or draw a wavy line, or write some descriptive words. Just keep going. You can go back later and fill it in, fix it, change it, replace it, add to it, delete it. Get down anything that comes easy the first time through no matter how imperfect. Don't worry about the details. Get the broad outlines of the piece down first--you can and should fill in the details and apply polish later.


Composing melodies should be as natural as breathing, but since the current system of music education almost never asks us to write our own melodies, we need practice to acquire some familiarity and ease with the practice. The way to write a good melody is the same way you learn to speak French: start small, start simple, and talk a lot of French. To be able to "speak" melody, write (or improvise) a great quantity of them, and keep them simple and short. Avoid the temptation to be complex: write only what you can easily sing--if you can't sing it, toss it out or simplify it. There are many styles of melody, depending on what you want to express, but we can make a few general guidelines to help get you started.

Warm-Up exercise #3: Create as many strong melodic ideas as you can in 2 minutes using only these notes: C D E G (scale degrees 1 2 3 5). #3a: Repeat, this time you may repeat the shape shifted in the major scale (e.g., D E F A). #3b: Repeat, this time you may transpose it at will to any other key (e.g., E[flat] F G B[flat]).

Go for quantity at first--quality will take care of itself later. Improvise a mess of melodies at first (sing them to yourself wherever you go). Warm up on your instrument with little melodies! Make melodies every day, all the time, everywhere. Be inspired by what you're doing at the time or your surroundings. Let most of them go, but do write down any memorable ones that pop up.

Use a lot of stepwise motion (think: vocal music) and small intervals.

At first write only diatonic melodies--stay in the scale. Henry Mancini's "Moon River," for example, is a white-key only melody that is cleverly harmonized. Don't feel you have to use a huge range of notes. Write many melodies that use no more than four or five different tones. You might also try your hand at writing some melodies using scale steps 1, 3 & 5, the major triad. Then try 1[flat]-3 5.

Pentatonic melodies are easy to write and guaranteed to sound good. Try some in major (12356) or minor (1[flat]-3 4 5[flat]-7).

They say the most popular sequence of notes in melodies is 5(low)123--as the beginning of "How Dry I Am," "Merry Widow Waltz," and many others. See how many melodies you can create using this sequence of notes (Note: one of my recent compositions is "Variations on How Dry I Am" for two horns and optional percussion. Go ahead and use How Dry anyway--there are plenty more variations to be discovered). Repeat in minor.

At some point, experiment with dissonance. Start melodies on the wrong note (chromatic or in the scale) and then resolve it. Ah!

Write some short pieces for horn alone. Write very simple, folk-like melodies (no 16th notes, etc.). Then go back and change them, adding life by varying rhythms, dynamics, range, articulation, timbre. Each piece needs a title, a tempo, and an expressive marking.

Now go back and add a second voice to each melody and make it into a duet.

Motivic Development: More Ways to Make Interesting Melodies

Composition acquires sparkle, sense, and depth with the use of certain devices that transform and develop melody. It's good to know about these, perhaps practice them a bit, and then use them in your composition whenever you need to:

* Repetition: make a strong idea. Repeat it. Repeat it. Repeat it.

* Transposition: take a motif or melody and bring it back in another key.

* Mode change: take that major melody and make it minor.

* Sequence: repeat a motive at progressively higher pitch levels (i.e., going up the scale).

* Ornamentation: decorate the melody with grace notes, neighboring tones, mordents, glisses, etc.

* Addition: add more notes to the motif.

* Subtraction: take notes away from it.

* Augmentation: note values are scaled up; e.g., quarter notes become half notes, etc. With intervallic augmentation, a half step becomes a whole step and so on.

* Diminution: Similarly, note values or size of intervals decrease.

* Retrograde: play the motive backwards.

What Lies Beneath: Harmony

Horn players have their glorious sound--no synthesizer will ever replace us!--but our one-note-at-a-time approach leaves us with a lack experience with chords. The answer is to go to the piano and experiment with chords and develop a palette of favorite harmonic "flavors" that we can use.

Harmony homework assignment #1: play (and listen to!) major, major seventh, minor, minor seventh, dominant seventh, augmented, and diminished chords in at least two keys at the piano. Extra credit: go back and forth between types.

Harmony composition assignment #2: pick one chord of any type and write a short piece using only that chord. Instrumentation possibilities: piano, horn and piano. Make your monochord piece interesting using rhythms, melody, articulation, dynamics, and timbre.

Harmony homework assignment #3: Make a list or chart of all the possible major to major chord progressions; e.g., C to C, C--D[flat], C--D, and so on.

Ditto: minor to minor. Cm-D[flat]m, Cm-Dm, etc. Ditto: major to minor: C-D[flat]m, C-Dm, C-E[flat]m, etc. Ditto: minor to major: Cm-D[flat], Cm-D, Cm--E[flat], etc.

For each pair, make some brief notes that are descriptive or suggest a setting for the combination, such as: "Aliens landing," "Horror movie chord," "Romantic-ish," "Shocking,"

"Yuk," "Sunset at the Beach," etc.

Harmony composition assignment #4: pick one pair of chords and compose an A section using only that pair. Pick a different, contrasting pair for a B section. Then come back to the first pair and compose A'. If you like, pick a third pair to finish the piece with a brief Coda.

Harmony homework assignment #5: Construct a 4-bar harmony progression in 4/4, with a chord change either every 2 or 4 beats. The chord type may be either major or minor. Rules: 1) Any major chord may follow any other major chord. 2) Any minor chord may follow any minor chord 3) Any minor chord following a major chord must be a diatonic chord of the major chord's key (e.g., Dm, Em, or Am may follow C, but not B[flat]m or F#m).

Harmony composition assignment #6: Compose a piece of 16 bars (or longer) over the progression above for one or more horns. As always, you need a title, a tempo, and a mood to start.

Harmony composition assignment #7: Using any chords that sound good to you in any order, construct a 16 bar (or longer) piece. Example: C7-E[flat]m-A[flat]-B.

Decide on a form (e.g. ABA); each section (A, B, C, etc.) should have its own unique chord progression.

Spicing Up Vanilla #1 (making harmony more exotic)

It's good to get familiar with different kinds of chords and chord progressions. At some point, however, you might yearn for something beyond the major or minor triad. The simplest way to do this is to keep the 1 and 5 and move the middle tone around. The melody may be the same as ever, but it will have a different sound if the chord underneath is using this kind of substitute triad. Example for a melody in C major, try C D[flat] G, C D G, C F G, C F# G, C G A[flat], and so on. Experiment. Come up with your own list. Each different flavor of altered triad may suggest a different style of triad. Also: you can leave out the middle note altogether and simply use 1 and 5.

Spiced Vanilla assignment #1: Write a march for two, three, or four horns that uses one or more of these altered triads in the accompaniment. If you use a B section, modulate to a new key and continue to use altered triads.

Spicing Up Vanilla #2

Earlier you had to write a melody that used a "wrong" (dissonant) note on a strong beat. You can do the same with chords, using any kind of chord to connect two prominent chords, or begin on a wrong chord and immediately resolve to the "right" chord (while the melody stays on the "right" chord). For an extended dramatic effect, start some beats or measures ahead of your goal chord with a transposed version of the final chord that progresses by half step until it reaches the end (you'll have to count back). A further wrinkle on this one is to divide up the chord among the instruments and have them approach the final chord from different directions; e.g., two ascending from below and two descending from above, and they meet at the goal (or final) chord. The power of the line is much stronger than the momentary dissonances created.

Spiced Vanilla assignment #2: Write a short composition (8, 12, 16 bars) that uses chords as connecting chords or approach chords as described above.

Spicing Up Vanilla #3: 4-note triads

One more way to spice up the triad is to keep the major or minor triad intact, but add another note. The best known of this type is called the Add2 chord; e.g., CDEG.

Alternate harmony homework assignment #4: Experiment with adding all possible notes to a major and minor triad. Record the ones you like best for future reference.

Extra credit: compose a short piece using this technique.

Rhythm--Instant Pizzazz

The quickest way to add variety, contrast, and energy to a composition is to use interesting rhythms: syncopation, variety of note values, use of rests (silence), meter, etc. Sometimes it's effective to have all the energy in the melody; sometimes it's a great effect to have a very active accompaniment while the melody soars over it in long tones.

Rhythm Assignment #1: Go back to your earlier melody and harmony compositions and see what you can do to add sparkle to the piece using rhythms.

One easy and highly useful rhythmic device is the ostinato: take a short idea and repeat it. In the accompaniment this might mean repeating a short fragment of melody (its rhythm may be steady or varied); in the solo voice, the ostinato could use a melody that is continually changing while the rhythm (i.e., isorhythm) stays the same.

Rhythm assignment #2: Compose a simple 1-bar ostinato and write a short (4, 8, 16 bar) piece over it.

Rhythm assignment #3: Take one of your earlier harmony compositions with a chord progression and use an ostinato of the length of the chord progression. Feel free to transpose this chord progression and ostinato in repeats of the progression.

Rhythm homework #1: Listen to many kinds of music and write down any interesting rhythms you hear. Hint: World music is a rich source of interesting rhythms. Western classical music in general is not.

Rhythm homework #2: Assemble a small array of kitchen, office, garage, and other household objects that make noise; e.g., stapler, box of dry pasta (shake it), crinkly plastic, bowl and whisk, half-filled glass of water and spoon, etc.

Enlist a creative friend or two. Improvise a rhythmic piece using the noisemakers you have assembled.

There you have it: a complete set of tools to for you to compose something for the horn. The educational system has kept a big secret from you--you have a voice in music. Everyone does, and every 21st-century musician should be a music creator. Start messing around with the notes and discover your musical voice.

Jeffrey Agrell is Associate Professor of Horn at the University of Iowa and is the author of Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians and Improv Games for One (upcoming: Improv Duets and Improvised Chamber Music I). He is a big fan of making stuff up. Blog: improvinsights. Web site:

by Jeffrey Agrell, Series Editor
COPYRIGHT 2012 International Horn Society
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Author:Agrell, Jeffrey
Publication:The Horn Call
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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