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



Sound effects- like those in Cartoons



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?

Inner Musings-Thoughts on why we composers do what we do

Nov. 20 2016

Why do we write the way we write?

The answer may not be explainable with one definite answer. Some believe that everything that we encounter in music has a subconscious effect on our own compositions, whether we realize it or not. Similarly, our own out of music experiences can impact our choice as to what we decide to write on the page or what ways we organize sound. Ego is thought to play a role in that there is an innately selfish desire to express oneself for payment or conversely, a desire to share the love of music through our own creations. It is no different from the intent of  a poet or a director who wishes to show the world (whichever one this may be, inner or outer) what they have to offer.

I believe that  music is the poetry of the soul through the medium of sound. It can also be an aural  document of our inner psychoses : a physical reflection and manifestation of our innermost desires. If one wishes for structure and control or to freely emote, it will surface in one way or another in the music. Composing is a result of the desire to express oneself through the medium of music and is a consequence  of an amalgamation of experiences, tragic or joyful, acquired information,and the desire for monetary or personal gain. In short, we write because we need to and can.

What shapes our musical voice?

Again, I credit experiences and exposure to different sounds. I believe that your musical voice as a composer will constantly evolve the more that you work at it. From personal experience, when I began writing, I would imitate the music that I was exposed to on a daily basis, most notably Nintendo soundtracks and Band music.I began to improvise new melodies around the songs, though I did not know that this was what I was doing at the time. When I got older, and a bit better at piano (though not much better at reading it), and learned what it felt like to experience the  emotions evoked by varieties of pain, making up  melodies became my escape and the flavor changed (albeit that these songs were elementary in nature as compared to the present). In high school,  I was exposed Classic and Progressive Rock and Jazz through jamming with my brother and the Rock Band I was a part of, which brought out a brief songwriter phase.

As I’ve grown as a person and musician, my style has become more sophisticated, though I have had several occasions where others have heard the video game music influence to this day. Also, my reasons for writing certain pieces have varied as well as I continue to try new approaches and styles in order find my  niche in the world of composition. Sometimes it is for a grade or specific commission and sometimes it’s because of an innate desire to spontaneously create and experiment with an idea.

First and foremost , I strive to write for the musicians that will play my pieces. I would like to share the same enjoyment that I have writing the music as I hope that they will playing it. Perhaps It is my own selfish desire to share the human condition and help the world become a better place through imposing my notes, and my hope to give the opportunity to the musician to be creative through their own interpretation of my melodies.

If you have any comments to add to this discussion, please reply below as I am curious as to what others’ thoughts are on this subject and am open to any viewpoint or related stories.

Musings and Yammerings: Composers: What we do IS important

Apr. 14 2015

One of my former composition teachers used to use the expression “New Music, what nobody wants and nobody needs”.  Given today’s current trend in performing recycled music, orchestras supposedly dying according to several searchable articles on the internet, and because Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart seemingly leave leave little room for the (Fill in the blank with recent up and comers of the world), it is easy to  get sucked in to this belief. The irony is, we composers are the very ones agonizing over every note despite this perceived world view that many of us paradoxically share. But, it’s just that. A perception.

Human nature predisposes us to seek out patterns and leads us to be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar; in this case, a new piece. The more unorthodox the piece, the more most of humanity seems to be repelled. This is likely why Bach Brahms, Mozart (and a few other well known dead white guys) tend to be programmed more commonly than, say female identifying composers and composers of color.  And, yet, there will always be that small fraction of the populace that will be intrigued by the deviation from the norm. Let’s take a look at Fluxus performances in New York City in the 1960’s for example. The experience of music through unorthodox performance and lack thereof or (performance through unorthodox music) was arguably odd by most people’s standards, yet it enticed a large enough number for a niche audience and, through continued experimentation, inspiration of others to try the medium/art form, and performances, it was lifted to a level of relevance that lives on today. It’s influence can be experienced at modern contemporary music festivals and read about in music history textbooks. But, there is still this resistance that I have encountered in class discussion where my peers will reject this as being music. I am almost certain that when this argument is brought up, whether it be fluxus or rap and hip hop or today’s pop music, the opinion will always exist that it is either “bad” or not real music” simply because it does not fit the established pattern that people are used to listening to. Yet, the  evolution of the art of music persists.

Then there’s a “race” in entrepreneurship to not only create a product (your music), but figure out how to convince your buyers (in this case conductors or the public) to consume your music, and only the best at the latter half, tend to survive. It is difficult to survive, because even pure grit and determination will not guarantee success, whatever your personal definition of success may be.

Those of us who are lagging behind in the perceived marathon will likely get discouraged. “Why does nobody want my music. Why Bother?-All of the great music was already written” are just two of the defeating thoughts in many of my fellow composers minds. However, without practicing the craft, evolution and progress is not possible. Sooner or later, everything becomes old hat and people stop listening.

Most of this is relegated to a museum or academic library to be buried for years until some random person exhumes it for their Music history report, only to be buried again. Speaking of which, if you went to university for music, think of all of the early church music you listened to that-lets face it , sounded basically the same. The church designated strict rules that, for centuries, prevented composers from deviating from the accepted practice.Finally, when reform began and progress was made,  so too was the change reflected in the music. The general purpose of augmenting the service was maintained, but the interest and variability of pieces increased over time. The church still kept the old but over time embraced the “new” (for the time). This is why we can go from John Taverner to John Tavener in one church service and enjoy both of their pieces while possibly receiving a similar message when comparing two separate pieces from two separate composers from two separate time periods.

Imagine if we all stopped creating, what monotony that would create for the world, or even just for your own daily life. After all, one doesn’t choose this path because they find writing music blase. Quite the contrary if you ask me or just about any other composer.

Going back to that original statement, perhaps my old professor was a little right. But then, perhaps he was also a little wrong.  If your music manages to touch just one person, even if it’s yourself, to me, it is worth creating.