Composing With Handicaps

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It’s time for one of those “once in a blue moon” moments where I decide to say something actually useful.  Today’s topic is on writing with handicaps.

Writing with handicaps is strange in that with all the barriers you can put up it can often end up being more fun than writing without handicaps and probably actually stands a better chance at coming up with things that sound cooler than if you just meander around over a backing track hoping to defy laws of probability and garner something that you could confidently show others.

When it comes to writing with handicaps there are more ways to approach this than you could shake a stick at, so a lot of it can come down to how creatively you approach it.  Yes, handicaps are an art of their own.  With this hopefully I can at least offer different perspective.

Notation limitations.

I have not personally analyzed every single melody ever written, so take this for what it’s worth, but in my observations the more interesting a melody is the more whistleable it is.  As a handicap in this regard limit yourself to combinations of two different types of notes.  Maybe quarter notes and whole notes, quarter and half, whole and half, for example.  Cut out the quicker notation completely and hit the core part of the melody.

For example you could use combinations like these.

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Pick a specific set of notation and repeat it over and over.  Whichever tone in specific you decide to play, keeping with the notation will at the least give everything a feel like it belongs together.  The Star Spangled Banner is an excellent example of this concept in a widely recognized, and highly praised song.

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While it’s not the same exact notation repeated through the entire thing you can see just by looking at it that it never really deviates far from the notation found in the first four measures.  There are thirty-three measures and eleven of them are just three quarter notes.  Of the remaining twenty-two ten more are only slightly different, and the remaining twelve most are variations of a half note and two eigth notes.

Tone limitations.

No I don’t mean gear.  I mean the sounds themselves when you play any instrument regardless of the timbre.  This one is probably a bit more common in practice, but also probably a bit more subconsciously applied.  Any time you work with scales or arpeggios you’re applying this concept.  It’s just that most people really don’t think about it until someone points it out to them.

Let’s back up a bit.  The chromatic scale is the grand daddy of scales.  A major scale is a selection of tones within that.  An arpeggio is a smaller selection.  These selections are based off of specific reasons, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the right and the power to throw those reasons out and choose three or four tones because dammit, your vision doesn’t need an explanation.

This can be approached in more ways than I can write about.  Draw for tones out of a hat and see what you can do with them.  Try applying this to the previous concept or try it with more notational liberty.

Tonal limitation can offer more flexability than you’d think.  Or at least more perspective to the tones you’re using.  Remember.  Each tone reacts to every other one in a very specific way.  The more tones you allow the wider the variety, but it’s also easier to get a more cluttered sound.  There’s a reason why you don’t find melodies using all twelve tones.

If I were to try and give an example of something like this I would use canons.  More specifically Row Row Row Your Freaking Boat.

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Things like this can get big easily, so for convenience I’ve cut this down to two instruments.  The whole song is composed with just five different tones.  A context like this pushes you to really consider how you’re using what you have.  In the case of the canon you have your melody established and you begin harmonizing it with itself when the melody begins again with a second instrument in the second measure.

These limitations can also offer ideas on what to do beyond just sculpting a melody.  Still using Row Your Boat as an example, you could look at the tones and just presume that it’s in C Major, but those tones are also relative to C Mixolydian.  So you could put try putting a backing track of dominant chords to that and see how that works out.

When you start cutting available tones out of one aspect you can increase the options of overall feel in other aspects.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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Nicholas Tozier
11 years ago

This is really good advice. Possibilities are so limitless that it can really paralyze a musician–oddly enough, limitations can set you free.

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