Reprinted with permission from Percussive Notes, February 2008
Many musicians view composing as
a mysterious process that cannot
be analyzed, practiced, and learned.
However, like improvisation, specific
musical elements and devices used in composition can be analyzed and studied. From
Beethoven to Wayne Shorter to the Beatles,
various styles of compositions all have common
techniques and musical devices, regardless of
All of the great composers have their own
identity in their compositions. I suggest listening to the great composers and analyzing
what factors contribute to the overall sound
and make those compositions identifiable to a
specific composer. A few composers to check
out would be Carlos Jobim for his brilliant
Brazilian compositions, Duke Ellington and
Thelonious Monk for jazz composition, and
classical composers like Brahms, Bach, Mozart,
and Beethoven. Be careful not to overlook the
classical compositions, as many jazz players
have been influenced by them. Pianist Brad
Mehldau has been influenced by Brahms, and
that comes across in many of his compositions.
Many compositional devices in classical music,
like retrograde and retrograde inversion, are
valuable tools that can be used in jazz composition.
Guitarist Pat Metheny’s first album, Bright
Size Life, featured his original compositions.
When that recording came out, it was so fresh
not only due to the players (Metheny, Jaco
Pastorius, and Bob Moses), but also for the exciting and new sound of the compositions. Pat
said that he started composing to create new
and different vehicles for his improvisations.
He wanted to get away from the standard repertoire that everyone was playing and create his
own progressions to improvise over. Composing allows musicians to be their own architects
of music. It also allows their own voices to
come out more clearly and definitively.
Some of my favorite jazz composers are
Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington,
Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, and Pat
Metheny. Many of those composers wrote for
the specific members in their band at the time.
Ellington knew how trumpeter Cootie Williams would phrase the music and how alto sax
player Johnny Hodges would play lead with a
totally unique sound. Keith Jarrett wrote some
of his most beautiful compositions for his European quartet, which featured Jan Garbarek
on soprano and tenor sax.
Many important compositional elements
are inherent in simple folk songs, the blues, or
classical pieces. Elements like melodic contour,
melodic repetition, and melodic development
can be found in an ethnic folk song as well as
a composition by Mozart. As we have all heard
many times before, good music is good music.
There are only twelve notes, and those notes
can create great music regardless of style.
With composition, the musician can create and elicit a variety of moods, feelings,
and emotions from the listener. That is one
of the most important gifts of writing music.
Creating one’s own composition is personally
satisfying and allows composers to create their
own musical landscapes that are fresh and not
necessarily based upon the past. Many of the
standard compositions of the 1920s through
the 1940s (the standard body of repertoire
called the Great American Songbook) were
based upon a very typical and limited 32-bar
structure with, usually, an AABA form. Although many of those songs from that era are
compositional gems, they are limited in their
structural format. I personally enjoy writing in
the through-composed format of such artists as
Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett.
One of the most important elements of
composition is the use of melodic repetition.
Composers like Ellington, Monk, Mozart, and
Beethoven made the most of their melodic
motives and phrases. There is a good deal of
repetition and motivic development of simple
melodic phrases in many of the classic compositions. A composition might start out with
a simple two or three-note motive that is the
catalyst for an entire composition. However,
it is important to know when not to overdo
repetition and to know when to introduce new
melodic material in order to keep the music
fresh, unexpected, and interesting.
The process of composition can be practiced
with a variety of musical elements and techniques. Start by making a few determinations,
such as: Will the composition have a specific
groove or a vague time feel? Will the composition be fast or slow? What kind of mood do
you want to elicit from the listener—a sense of
melancholy or joyousness? Will the harmony
be static or active? Will the composition use
three-note triads and/or dense seventh chords
with tensions? What about modulations, metric changes, introductions, or interludes?
Try limiting yourself to specific parameters
and create something within those parameters.
For example, try writing a 21-measure composition using two major keys and only major
and minor triads. The list and possibilities are
endless. How about writing a modal tune using
a Phrygian mode as in the opening measures of
the jazz classic “Nardis”?
The act of writing is different for many composers. Some composers wait to be inspired,
while some composers can sit down and create
something magical on the spot. Pianist Chick
Corea is prolific and can sit down towards the
very end of a deadline and create masterpieces.
Many composers think of something inspirational, like an event, a place, or a person. All of
these approaches are very personal, and there is
not a right or a wrong way to go about it. The
key is to begin the process and to get something down on paper or recorded. Beginning
the process is the critical first step. After that,
it’s easy to make changes and edit.
I wrote “The Last Goodbye” as a tribute to
legendary educator and big band leader Herb
Pomeroy, who passed away. Herb was a great
educator, trumpeter and person. I had the
privilege of playing with Herb in a duo format
for many years, and he was a tremendous influ-
ence on my musical development. Some of the
elements worth noting in this composition
are: through composed with melodic repetition, variety of chord structures from simple
triad inversions to polychords, use of tension
resolution in the melody, interlude (which is
also used as a tag ending), variety of sections
with varying lengths, and wide dynamic and
“The Last Goodbye” can be downloaded at
www.edsaindon.com and the full track can be
heard at www.myspace.com/edsaindon.
The track features Dave Liebman on soprano,
Mark Walker on drums, David Clark on acoustic bass, and me on vibraphone. It is the lead
track on the recently released recording Depth
of Emotion from World Improvised Music.
DOWNLOAD the chart for "The Last Goodbye"
Ed Saindon is a Professor at Berklee College
of Music in Boston where he has been teaching since 1976. He is also active as a clinician.
German publisher Advance Music recently
released his book Exploration in Rhythm,
Volume 1, Rhythmic Phrasing in Improvisation.
For more information on his recordings, latest
news, videos, and articles, visit www.edsaindon.