One of my newest passions has been tune writing, and over the course of this past year I’ve been working to develop my skills as a composer. It’s been an interesting ride, and there have been a number of new tunes born of that process. I reserve judgement as to whether any of them are any good, but a good and trusted friend of mine certainly enjoys playing them–as he should since several of them he has co-written with me.
Everyone has a different process for writing tunes, and not everyone uses the same process all the time. My process, if you can really call it that at this point, is still being refined while I learn what works best for me personally. The early stages almost always start with my smallpipes in a room without distraction; I’ll tune the drones and sound the chanter and just start playing something–whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it’s crap, and it so often is in the beginning, but with repetition a melody starts to form and reveal itself out of the muck.
I almost never have a plan when I sit down to create music of my own, and most of the time I don’t record or write anything down. I find the futility of it to be refreshing and in a way highly therapeutic: a fleeting moment in time where you know that what you play then will never again be played quite the same way ever again, and none but yourself will ever hear it. It’s a powerful exercise in presence.
My personal zen-like view on composing is to let nature take its course: let it flow out of you like water. If a tune feels forced when writing it, it’s going to sound forced when played, and that doesn’t make for good music. When I sit down with the intent to actually write a new tune, as I did last night, the sessions can vary from being highly productive and cranking out two or three quality parts of music in an hour, to extremely frustrating with nothing accomplished and I wonder why I thought I could write music at all. Last night was one of those head-against-brick-wall kind of sessions, and I’ve found that it’s sometimes best to walk away, let the project marinate, and come back to it at a later date.
Some tunes make themselves known immediately and demand to be written, while others need a little coaxing to get them out in the open… often with a large hammer and possibly some Acme TNT. For reasons stated previously, I would never recommend the violent options, but to instead line your arsenal with the skills and tools needed to safely and cleanly excavate your new tune.
For practical tools, learn music theory and practice writing music: start with tunes you know from memory and work up to tunes of your own. Hone musical skills by learning to improvise and learning to hear with a scrutinizing ear: pay attention to what sounds good in tunes you like and reflect on why that is–what about it makes it pleasant? Most importantly, enjoy what you do and take pride in your personal style. No one can teach you how to create your music; that’s something that you have to discover all on your own.