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How do I compose?

Sally Whitham-Shaw
Sally Whitham-Shaw

Many people ask me ‘how do you compose?’

The honest answer is ‘I don’t know!’

There are obvious mechanics of composing that all musicians know about, technical knowledge of harmony etc. But where the ‘inspiration’ comes from for the formation of the whole piece of music, I just don’t know. I often ask myself, when I’ve just finished a piece, ‘where did that come from?’. There are always reasons as to how I got started, sometimes planned and sometimes spontaneous, but after that the music just seems to flow out of me, and I’m not sure from where!!

I often work with the voice, and therefore words dictate quite a lot, especially rhythm. I’ve recently finished a choral work. I’d been watching a robin in my garden, so I thought it would be fun to write a song for a robin.

When you start a song, you have to give yourself certain parameters, so questions have to be answered like, ‘is this to be a solo song, choral etc’ and ‘what style?… folk, pop, serious etc.’, 'what harmonic system?'. So, I decided on choral but then I needed the words. I did some investigating online about robins, wrote a few ideas down, and gradually the words emerged.

Once a certain number of words are there, ideas for rhythm and tempo start to emerge, and then they inspire the melody. I tend to start with the melody (other composers might start with harmony/the chords) and then I find the melody suggests the accompaniment, in this case modal. Sometimes, as in this particular work, the accompaniment works quite independently from the voices, almost a separate entity, or a second melody. Once I’d combined the initial part of the melody with the initial part of the accompaniment, then the rest just all came together. The great thing about writing my own words is that I can adjust them along the way, and I find I do this as the song emerges.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t follow a religion. But I don’t really like to describe myself as an atheist or agnostic either. To me they imply the existence, or non-existence, of a God, and to me just the word ‘God’ sums up too much for others, an outer force that manipulates. So, I’d like to say that I’m a believer of things of which we don’t know or understand, e.g. 4th dimensions. If I use the term ‘soul’ I worry that people will relate it to religion, but to me my soul is the essence of me, and I can’t find a better word. My soul, and the souls of others, is the inexplicable entity, but an entity I believe in. I don’t feel I need to understand it. I just believe it’s there.

So, the reason for the preamble is to explain where I think my music comes from. I believe my music comes from my soul. And my soul can be fed by a whole host of outside forces; nature, art, drama, dance, films and books, people…. a whole host of things. All seem to, at some stage, touch my soul, and I find that fulfilling. I don’t need it to be explained, or to be controlled by rules or regulations. I just believe in the essence of us, the soul, and for some reason the essence of me, makes me a composer and that's where my music comes from!!