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Compose Yourself: Rules To Give You Freedom

Composers are addicted to rules.  Ever since earliest times, fashion and theoretical rules have dominated the creative process.  And although many see rules as stifling and suffocating, composer Richard Mainwaring thinks they give him musical freedom.
Imagine driving the roads of the UK without a Highway Code?  How much freedom would we all have then, as cars hit us from every angle?!  Or how much freedom would a great footballer have to show their skills, if there were no rules on the pitch?
If I’m stuck for an idea, I often try to limit the endless musical possibilities by boxing myself in.  Here are 8 fun and rather left-field suggestions for painting-oneself-in-a-corner.  They might just spawn your next great work!

  1. What’s the first musical letter of your name?  Okay, that’s the key you’ll start in.
  1. How many letters in the name of your car?  That will now determine the amount of notes in your melody.  Perhaps even the melody notes themselves!
  1. What’s your date of birth?  Some of those numbers could be used as your starting tempo.  For example, 15/4/77 – possibilities include 154bpm, 54bpm, 77bpm, or if you’re feeling a bit Hindemith, why not 477bpm?!!
  1. What is your favourite city in world?  The amount of letters in the name will define how many chords you will use in your first phrase.  (If it’s a long name like Rio De Janeiro then that might be a bit of overkill!  Why not have 3 chords in the first section, 2 in the bridging section, and 7 in the second section?)
  1. Have you noticed how many melodies start on the first beat?  Decree that ALL of your melodies will start on a different beat of the bar.
  1. Use a rhythmic code.  A-M consonants will be crotchets, the vowels here minims.  N-Z consonants will be quavers, the vowels between these letters semiquavers.  Pick up the nearest book and read the first phrase you see.  Now rewrite the phrase using your rhythmic code.  It might be awful, or it might spark a little idea!
  1. Keep a diary of your hot and cold drinks over 24 hours.  This can then give you the direction for a new melody.  Hot = up, cold = down.
  1. Here’s my favourite 12-Tone technique.  Buy 12 pairs of Y-fronts, write each of the 12 semitone letter names in permanent marker on the front. Now wash them all.  When done, take them out of the machine, and hang them on the washing line outside.  Whatever order they appear on the line, is your Tone Row.  (The added advantage is that most of your neighbours will leave you alone after that point!)

We all tend to have fixed creative processes, which often lead to a uniformity of ideas.  Some call that their “style” – I find it a bit boring.  Go on, tie yourself up in knots, and allow your creativity to find fresh solutions!

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