Extra-musical Effects: What are they and how can we use them?

Recently, my friend and fellow composer Sakari invited me to guest teach her class “YouTH Can Compose.”

For the focus on the class, we talked about Extra-musical effects and discussed how they can make their way into our compositions.

So, what are extra musical effects? The Definition that we came up with together was “Anything that isn’t the music itself that can influence our compositional decisions.”.

Some examples might be:

Elements from nature like wind or the sound of flowing water

People

Memories

Sound effects- like those in Cartoons

Places

Colors

And even in some cases music.

In the class I had them listen to Of Wizards and Dragons and we listed and discussed extra musical influences in the piece. Wind- which one student mentioned before we started listening- found its way into the enchanted forest section and was illustrated by windchimes for example.

Another Student mentioned that thinking about their family when they write helps them create. That is another Extra Musical influence for sure!

Tying into this insightful comment, I talked about how Bernard, who used to teach African Drumming as a way to bring people together and was a great human being, was added into the piece when Fredonia wanted to premier it. I added a Djembe part that was not there before to honor him.

We also watch and listened to Blob’s Adventure, a film that I scored and I talked a bit about the process of receiving the film with no sound and having to draw on extra musical influences to score it.

The Students observed some of my tricks of “Mickey Mousing” – for example using dissonance on brass instruments to sound like car horns, and using the bass drum and melody direction to imitate what was happening onscreen. I also showed them the part with the bicycle and explained how the Queen Song Bicycle influenced my decision to use a rock drum beat and repeated scales.

We discovered how we can use timbre and various instruments and their abilities as a tool to illustrate what we envision sonically.

For their project, I read a short story (I Wish I Were A Butterfly) and they each picked a character to write a theme around.

Their pieces illustrated the way insects flew by having the melody hover or flutter, or echoed ( in the case of the Frog and the Cricket echoing his ugly thoughts). The colors of laughter or mud were illustrated cleverly through timbre as well. Some drew on the illustrations themselves to create their pieces.

Overall, this was a great experience sharing this technique with these aspiring composers and I hope reading this helped spark some new ideas for you.

So, fellow composers, what are some extra musical effects that you can think of and how have they found their way into your music?

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