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what is the web book about and who’s it for?

Over many years as a musician and educator, I’ve developed a lot of materials for clinics and workshops designed for presentation to a wide variety of audiences. One area I’m particularly interested in is how we write music. I’ve had a number of great teachers, mentors, and fellow writers who have contributed to my ideas about writing and have also shaped my thinking about how to talk, write, and teach about writing music.

In 2011, I self-published a short book about this, called (no surprise here) The Art and Craft of Writing Music. While I’m generally happy with that text, a lot of my ideas have developed since I wrote it, becoming more refined, deeper, and more comprehensive. After encountering a web book by David Chapman, Meaningness, the idea of a book that could be ever-evolving, expanding, and changing – and relieved of the necessity to reach a fixed form for publication – became very attractive. I’ve also written for and produced a number of recordings over the past 25 years, so I have high-quality audio from which I can draw musical examples without copyright issues.

This book is written for all students of music writing and anyone who considers themselves actively engaged with ideas about writing music, from any perspective, in any medium or style. I hope that less experienced writers might find some of these ideas useful to explore. I also hope that more experienced writers will engage with the book and consider offering comments from their own perspectives. Of course, my ideas about writing music are informed by my own experiences and musical lineage, as I discuss later in this introduction.

There are a few writing situations that the book doesn’t directly address: composition in the “classical” lineage and contemporary hit song production, in particular, are two kinds of writing that fall beyond many of the ideas expressed here. However, I think my ideas about developing creativity and a personal writing process are universal challenges for all writers.

On a more personal level, I’m writing the book because I find the process of formulating, articulating, and organizing ideas extremely beneficial to my own music writing and teaching. Also, writing about music is fun.

what is “writing?”

I use writing as a broad term to cover a variety of activities related to creating and (sometimes) notating music: composition, songwriting, arranging, orchestration, instrumentation, transcription, and notation. There are also aspects of production that can be understood to be an important part of music creation. So, a comprehensive and broad understanding of the word writing provides the best possible container for this collection of activities.

Composition is commonly defined as the process of creating or writing a new piece of music, and a composer is someone who composes music. However, the term composition is often used in a relatively narrow way to describe particular kinds of musical creation. In addition, there are a lot of things a music writer does that can’t strictly be defined as composition.

There are cultural aspects to this term as well. When you look up Antonio Carlos Jobim on the web, Portuguese sites classify him as a composer. In North America, he would be called a songwriter first, and (perhaps) a composer second. (He did write some instrumental, long-form pieces for orchestra that Claus Ogerman helped with.) In English, the term composer often carries a certain implication that this person is somehow a more “serious” writer than, say, someone who writes pop songs or jazz tunes. This is not necessarily true in the languages of other cultures.

In Western culture, we often use the term composer/arranger to distinguish someone who has a career doing both from someone who is primarily a composer. I think this term can also carry an implicit bias.

Songwriting is also a difficult term in some ways. There’s no doubt in my mind that songwriting is a significant act of musical composition, but as currently practiced it usually involves the least amount of actual “writing” – in the sense of notating music in written form – compared to many of the other kinds of music creation. In addition, the way songs are now written and produced for the “pop” music industry is vastly different than how they were written during the period of the Great American Songbook. While some of the things discussed in this book can be useful to writers working in this new process of songwriting, there are many aspects of contemporary songwriting production that aren’t discussed here.

The term arranging has several different meanings. The classic definition of the term is: adapting a composition for a medium different from its original form. This describes the process of taking a symphonic work, for example, and arranging it for piano, preserving as much of the essence of the original as possible. This type of arranging, sometimes referred to as transcription or adaptation, has been common for hundreds of years. A classic example of this type of adaptation is Ravel’s orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition.

In popular, jazz, and theater music, arranging is a much more vibrant and creative activity, often involving the creation of new musical material, particularly in the introduction, in background writing, in added sections of music that don’t appear in the original piece, and in the development and transformation of existing musical material.

Another related term is orchestration, usually understood to be less creative than composition or arranging, commonly referring to the process of assigning given musical ideas to particular instruments or groups of instruments. Using this sense of the word, a listener might comment on the specific way the orchestration is used to convey a particular musical idea. Because of the tight schedules and heavy deadlines in production, it is common for composers of music for film and television to create the music and delegate the actual orchestration to others. A common synonym for orchestration used in this sense is scoring. The orchestrator takes the composer’s ideas and scores them for the appropriate ensemble, under the direction of the composer.

Instrumentation is a related term often used to describe the specific combination of instruments used in a particular piece of music. Used in this sense, the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks is flute, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos, and two double basses. Sometimes instrumentation is used to mean the same thing as orchestration.

Currently, transcription is understood as the more narrow activity of accurately notating musical sound, usually from a recording. Examples of transcriptions from recordings include notating an improvised solo, the drum part to a particular groove, or the lyrics to a song.

The most important aspect of the definitions of orchestration, instrumentation, and transcription is that they all refer to the practice of assigning existing musical ideas to specific instruments with the aim of preserving as much of the original idea as possible. In contrast to arranging, none of these activities involves creating new musical material or changing the existing material in a way that results in a significant departure from the intent of the original piece of music.

In many genres of contemporary popular music, the most important result of writing is a recorded track. While production had long been understood to be an important part of the process of presenting pop songs, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band in 1967 brought the creative possibilities of production to general public awareness. In a sense, with this record, production became as critical to popular songwriting as arranging and offered a whole new realm of creative activity. One of the logical results of this approach was the work of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker who, under the group name of Steely Dan, used the studio essentially as a tool to write and arrange complex, sophisticated songs, and were among the first to copy and paste tracks, edit recorded parts, and recombine elements into finished form.

So, writing music involves a wide range of activities that result in the creation of a piece of music. I like to use the word writing because it broadly refers to all these activities and allows us to consider them as part of the larger process of musical creation.

my writing lineage

You might find it useful to know a little bit about my background and how that has shaped my ideas about writing music. This book necessarily reflects my musical perspective and experience.

Like many writers of my generation, growing up in the US in the ’60s and early ’70s, I was exposed to three main traditions of music – what I’ll call “lineages” (more about this later). The first was the especially vibrant and rich popular music of the time. The first concert I went to was Cream, followed quickly by Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Frank Zappa, King Crimson (more on Fripp later), and all those classic rock acts. Cleveland gets a bad rap for a lot of things (Randy Newman memorialized the river that divides the city into East and West in his song Burn On; the Cuyahoga was so polluted that it actually caught fire), but it was a great town for rock and roll. My first instrument was drums and I had a stereo system set up in my house so I could play along with all the great albums of the day.

At the same time, I began studying in a typical conservatory mode – my second musical lineage, “classical” music – taking lessons on snare drum with Charlie Wilcoxson and later, Bob Matson, the auxiliary percussionist in the Cleveland Symphony. When I took up the flute, it was at the Cleveland Institute of Music and I started working through the standard “classical” repertoire. Of course, I related to the instrument first through the lens of Ian Anderson and Ian MacDonald, but I learned to read and was exposed to a wide range of classical music, from Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major to Debussy’s Syrinx and many points in between. I never performed the solo classical repertoire of the flute on the concert stage, but played in bands and orchestras all through high school and college.

When I started playing piano, my father found me a wonderful teacher, Bill Gidney (a great bebop player), and so began on my studies in the third lineage – jazz. With him I started working through contemporary harmony and the jazz repertoire. Bill made sure I had an understanding of the heritage of the instrument. For him, the progression was clear: from Art Tatum to Bud Powell, then to Bill Evans, and then the big three: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul. Of course, learning the jazz repertoire meant a heavy dip into the Great American Songbook and my love of popular song of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s began at this point.

When I got to the University of North Texas, I found another great piano teacher, Dan Haerle, and also began studying the classical repertoire with Bob Rogers, chair of the piano department. Dan and Bob were my teachers throughout my undergraduate and graduate time there. I also had two great arranging teachers at UNT: Lew Gillis and Paris Rutherford. A lot of the ideas about writing in this book have their origin in my work with Paris.

At the same time, I dug deep into classical harmony and composition, studying theory with Robert Ottman and Tom Clark, and took composition lessons with Tom and Larry Austin. I was deeply interested in the compositional aspects of what I was playing in my flute and piano lessons. The rich harmonies of the 18th- and 19th-century composers, and later their scoring and orchestration, was immensely interesting to me.

So, when I began writing professionally in the late ’70s, these three great lineages informed my musical writing and thought. I loved the songwriters and bands of the ’60s and ’70s (Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Judie Tzuke, the Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Little Feat, Steely Dan), with their lovely melodies, interesting twists on standard song forms, creative production, and cool textures. I was captivated by the writers in the jazz tradition that extended the harmonic and formal language of the idiom (Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Eberhard Weber). I was deeply attracted to the depth and breadth of the whole classical tradition (Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Dvorak, Strauss’s tone poems, Wagner, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Webern, Partch, Adams).

Of course my listening and learning has never stopped. I remember Bob Mintzer, the great saxophonist and writer, saying at a clinic that for a musician, listening to music should be a daily activity like reading the newspaper. (This was 20 years ago and, of course, who under 50 reads a newspaper anymore?) But the point is important: we all need a constant flow of music in our lives, both the music we already know and love and music that is new to us.

Two other traditions became deeply influential later in my musical life. Around 20 years ago, I became fascinated with Brazilian music. Like most players of the time, my exposure was mostly limited to playing Jobim tunes from the Real Book. When I went to the source of the music, listening to Jobim’s original recordings, and then branching out into the great songwriters of succeeding generations (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Djavan, and – especially – Chico Buarque), I realized that this was a musical culture every bit as rich, complex, and unique as the Great American Songbook and the jazz canon. I admit, I became somewhat obsessed and transcribed hundreds of tunes by these great composers, going so far as learning Portuguese (though my verbal skills have atrophied somewhat over the past decade).

I began working with the Spanish composer and producer, Javier Limón, in 2010. Through him, I delved deeply into Flamenco. Our first project together was to produce a section of the 2010 Berklee commencement concert, a tribute to Paco De Lucia. We later worked together on concerts with other Flamenco artists, including Pepe de Lucia, Antonio Serrano, Josemi Carmona, Pepe Habichuela, Piraña, Jose Mercé, Juan Carmona, and Genera Cortes. We also produced concerts and clinics with Spanish and Mediterranean artists Aynur Doğan, Damian Draghici, and Alejandro Sanz.

Working with my colleague Oscar Stagnaro, I’ve had the great fortune to serve as musical director in the production of concerts at Berklee with a wide variety of great artists (mostly Latin, with an emphasis on my favorite Brazilians), including Rosa Passos, Eva Ayllón, Isaac Delgado, Larry Harlow, Jorge Drexler, Ivan Lins, Luis Enrique, Guinga, Susana Baca, Totó la Momposina, Joyce Moreno, Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, and Paquito d’Rivera. These experiences were deeply impactful on my musical understanding and education.

As a writer, these varied streams of musical tradition have informed my work. I write mostly – but by no means exclusively – in groove-based instrumental and vocal styles, with a strong emphasis on improvisation and rich harmony/melody, in a variety of extended compositional forms, and for a variety of ensembles, from small group to full orchestra. Much of my work is for live performance, but my main focus is on creating recordings of my work, selections of which appear in the Scores and Recordings section of this site. The ideas and musical examples in this book draw on these lineages, reflecting how these lineages have shaped my perspective as a writer, player, and educator.

I’m not sure if knowing my writing lineage is interesting or useful to you – the reader. However, what I think is  important is that you know your own lineage, that you reflect on your own musical life to untangle all the various threads that weave together in your musical thought and writing. I’ll write more about this later.