Category Archives: Composition

Scuffy The Tugboat – The Process

I find that I learn best when learning is a side effect of actually making something. It’s what makes me an engineer, I guess. So in an effort to learn more about composing music, I decided to attempt to write some music for the Wind Band that I joined a couple of years ago.

The conductor, Danika, was open to the idea and mentioned that the theme to an upcoming concert was Songs of Sea and Sky. I love listening to soundtracks, so I wanted to do a soundtrack. I could take a scene from a movie and write some music to it, but that has the problem of having existing music that will influence whatever I might do. So I decided to take a children’s book with lots of pictures and a story involving water, then make a slide show  of the pictures in the book and write a soundtrack to that. The book I chose was Scuffy the Tugboat“; a book I’ve read many times to my kids.


Danika gave me a good specification for the piece of music. So I started work.

After doing a little reading about the process of orchestrating, or instrumentation, it seemed that the normal way to approach this is to write a reduced score and then expand this into a full score. A reduced score is essentially something like a piano part that contains all the information you need to expand the music into a full score.

My first step was to muck around and come up with a bunch of tunes and write them down in a piano score form, with different ideas for accompaniments and counterlines and stuff. I wrote a different section of the piece for each page of the book. It took a little while, but wrote down lots of ideas in a long rambling score in noteflight. I refined this reduced version in about 6 iterations until I had something that seemed to match the book. I threw out a lot of ideas.

So I started the process of arranging this for Concert Band. I added all the instruments that I needed to the noteflight score. Here is where I hit the first snag. Noteflight is great, and easy to use. I’ve been using it for a few years to write a bunch (gaggle?, murmuration?) of music. It is a web based application and runs in the browser. When I added all the instruments, it started running like a lethargic sloth stuck in cold honey. So I needed to buy a proper professional notation package. After much searching of the internet, I settled on Sibelius and bought it. It’s the most expensive software purchase I’ve ever personally made. But, it saved so much time and was worth it.

There was a learning curve to start using Sibelius, but it wasn’t too bad, especially as I was used to Noteflight. One of the major time savings was that the sounds built into SIbelius produce a half decent attempt at playing the music. Also, It allowed easy sharing of the score via YouTube. Here is one of the first versions I made.

The early versions were very early drafts, and had almost no percussion. I needed to set the music to a slide show so that I could show it to people and they would have some idea as to what I was trying to achieve. I wanted to do a slide show with the effect used in documentaries where they pan a camera slowly over a photo, just to fill in time. Some more searching revealed that this is called the “Ken Burns Effect“. Then I dug around and found a free program that let me do exactly that, called PhotoFilmStrip. So I made the official Version 1 video.

Now I needed some critical feedback. This is not as easy to get as you might think. Everyone wants to be encouraging and doesn’t want to say “this bit is terrible”. But I really value this kind of feedback because it is very easy to get too close to it. So I got some good feedback from my wife, Shari, and a few people in the band.

One of the main early comments was that the different sections of the piece sounded disjointed and unrelated. So I changed a couple of the sections to be variations on other themes from the piece. This certainly helped.

By the time Version 4 rolled around, I decided that I needed to do something about the percussion, which I didn’t know a lot about. Here is where percussionist Andrea Leong was amazingly helpful. She sent me an ever so subtle hint that I should ask her what to do. So I did, and got some awesome advice, including what instruments were available.

After a few more versions, I printed out the music and took it along for it’s first play through. I was a bit nervous, and with good reason. The first rehearsal exposed a few things about the music that are not so obvious when you are working with the computer, and also when you are very familiar with the story.

I wrote a different section of music for each page of the book, and this had the effect of lots of sections that were not easy transition when you are playing live. I wrote it in a key that was tricky to play in. The parts of the music that I had written in 11/8 confused the hell out of everyone. Also, I’d missed a bunch of dynamic markings. Also, we added a few extra dynamic flourishes. Some of the notation was unclear in its articulation.

However, on the bright side, using SIbelius meant that all the transpositions were error free, and the harmonies sounded correct.

After the first  rehearsal, I transposed the entire piece down a tone to make the key signature much easier. This did help in the next rehearsal.

Percussion still needed some work, and my saviour was Andrea, who took home the percussion part and re-notated it so it was notated how she liked it, and in the process modified it a little. She made it sound great and, more importantly, playable with only two hands and two feet. I also read a great book on percussion around this time.

The next tricky part, was the section with the cows.


Even though I said it was to be played with a “Bovine swagger”, 11/8 swing was proving unfamiliar and difficult for everyone to play. So I converted it to 4/4 swing. It made all the difference. After 3 runs through and they had it.

It was the second last rehearsal before the concert and for the first time, the band finally played Scuffy The Tugboat all the way through without needing to stop. I was thrilled. I knew then that  it would work on the day.

I recorded the last run through at rehearsal before the concert and redid the timing on the slideshow to match it.

All was ready for the world premier. I was a little bit nervous.

On the day of the concert, Scuffy was in the second half. The pre-concert rehearsal went well and it matched the slideshow really well. We had a couple of technical hassles getting the slideshow to work, but once that was sorted out. It was performed, and it went well!

I was so happy to have it performed after such a lot of work.

It is the biggest, longest, most complicated piece of music I’ve written (so far :-)). And I couldn’t have done it without the support of the whole band, particularly Danika and Andrea. I’ve learned a massive amount from this project. Now for the next one…

Thank You to all of the Inner West Community Band.

Basic Composition #1: Accompaniment

I was reading through the chapter on Accompaniment in “Fundamentals of Musical Composition” by Arnold Schoenberg. I thought I’d make some notes here and write a few different accompaniments to learn by doing.

Accompaniment should:

  • be as functional as possible.
  • compliment the essentials of the tune:
    • tonality
    • phrasing
    • contour
    • character
    • mood
  • reveal harmony.

Accompaniment is especially needed if there is complex harmony or rhythm.

Sometimes the accompaniment is ommissable, but this should be confined to “self explanatory” segments.

Characteristics of the Accompaniment

The accompaniment must have a motive. This motive is less complex that the motive of the melody. The rhythm of the accompaniment is relatively simple with more repetition.

The accompaniment should be adaptable to the current harmony.

Need to be able to vary the accompaniment by modification, liquidation, and abandonment.

The Bass should participate in every change in harmony.

If there are no parrallel octaves in voice leading, then voices can be doubled in octaves

Types of Accompaniment


  • Same rhythm different notes (TBD: type of early music this was common in)


  • broken chords, piano style
  • Repeated and adapted figure in the accompaniment


  • harmony appears (changes) once is a bar or several bars
  • sustained notes
  • short chords at the beginning of a bar
  • chords on sustained notes of the melody


  • fills out gaps in the movement of other voices

Contrapuntal treatment

  • fugues, fugatos
  • invertable counterpoint

Semi and Quasi-contrapuntal treatment

  • The accompanying voices are a little more elaborate, but not as formalised as fugues etc.

Here is a little melody I wrote to experiment with different types of accompaniment.

Coral-like accompaniment is where the accompaniment has the same rhythm as the melody, but uses different notes. It works pretty well for this tune.

Figuration is a classic style used on a piano (e.g. The alberti bass)
It pretty much means that a single figure is used and repeated and slightly adapted to the melody.

Maybe a little like this? My figuration accompaniment was occasionally in the Complementary category too.

Sustained Chords

I took a couple of these to band rehearsal to try them out and found that a combination will be better, and I added some percussion:


Fugues, and canons are a whole area of study in themselves. And what small experience I’ve had with writing cannons means that the melody and accompaniment are both composed together.

That’ll do for now…

Random Borrowing #17: Politics

The next random item from the library is a book that I would normally run away from very fast. It is Open Australia by Lindsay Tanner. Lindsay Tanner was a fairly high level politician in the Australian Labour Party.


This book appears to be the result of a few days of literary diarrhea on his holidays.  LabourBackIt is a rambling outline of his political philosophy, I guess. Hence, his ability to get high profile politicians to put quotes on the back cover of his book. I wonder who would willingly read this kind of stuff.

Anyway, I picked a random page and tried to extract what his point was, which was difficult because he’s a politician. In summary:

  1. Politicians seem to only know about the opinions of a very small minority of people.
  2. Education about the nitty gritty politics of government is good.
  3. Governments are moving from exercising power via command to exercising it through negotiation and persuasion.

So I can try to map this to music:

  1. people professionally involved in the music business or in music education are most definitely a small minority compared to the vast majority of consumers of music.
  2. education about the types of music in popular culture could be useful in allowing composers to be more relevant to their audience.
  3. Music is written and performed in a very different way nowadays than in bygone eras. Computers allow anyone to write, record, mix, use samples, apply sophisticated effects in a way that only top studios could do a few decades ago.

Contemplating this made me examine my own process for writing music. By this, I mean the entire process from conception to the production of a sound file. I made a couple of charts. This is an incomplete summary of what I have done. It doesn’t include what I will do in the future though. It is definitely a “work in progress”.

The first diagram is an outline of the mecahnics of how I compose. The end result is notation entered into Noteflight, an online music notation program.Composing


After I have a composition notated, it’s time to make a sound file that sounds better than the audio output of the Noteflight software.

Making a Recording

Here, the final out is really a project in Reaper, the DAW that I use. The final-final output is an mp3 that I upload to Soundcloud.

Each of these little block can be expanded on a lot. Especially, the Reaper part. Even the “Room” can be experimented with, using different recording locations with interesting reverb.




Cohen Remembers

At the recent Australian Discworld Convention “Nullus Anxietas”, I met Daniel Knight, the director of Troll Bridge. We got chatting about soundtracks and he mentioned a scene in the film where Cohen is talking about how things are not the same as they used to be. So I was inspired to write some music for to what I imagined the scene to be.

It is “Cohen Remembers“. Michaela Lila Bos recorded the cello for me once again; what a legend.

I’m pretty sure the professional composer that they get to do the music for the film will do a much better job, but it was fun to do my own take.

In summary, it is music for a scene in a movie that I haven’t seen, based on a story I haven’t read.

I have read about Cohen in several books though.


Experiment: Random Rhythm to Melody

After successfully making a melody from random notes, I thought I’d try the same idea from a random melody. This is sort of cheating, since I’ve used this trick to start melodies before. One method of generating a random melody is to start with a time signature, say 4/4. Then split it into tied quavers.



Then we randomly include or remove the ties to produce notes. This is equivalent to encoding the rhythm as a binary number where a 1 is a tie and 0 is no tie. Hence, for a 4/4 bar, there are 128 possible rhythms. Of course, there are other possible rhythms, but this is acceptable to start with.

Now, I get some random digits from this website. and generate a couple of bars of random rhythm. (1010001 and 0011010) produces:



This is pretty easy to make into a melody:RandomRhythmEx2


I conjecture that it is possible to come up with a decent melody from a random rhythm. The key here is to repeat that rhythm a bit.

Experiment: Random Notes to Melody

Is it possible to take a random sequence of notes and produce a coherent melody just by choosing the appropriate rhythm?

My initial thought is: maybe.

Here is the plan:

  1. Limit the notes to those on a major scale. These can be represented as integers from 1 to 7.
  2. Get a random sequence of notes from, say, here.
  3. Write out the notes.RandomNotes
  4. Muck around with the rhythm until it sounds ok.RandomMelody

This actually seemed to work. I made something that is certainly usable, if not great, to start a melody. I couldn’t end on the C at the end of the random notes, maybe I should have just kept getting random notes until it felt like a good place to stop.

As it is, I haven’t disproven the hypothesis. It would be interesting to try to work out an automated way to do this. Perhaps based on cadences and harmonies choosing which notes are to be on emphasised beats.