Composing for the Non-Composer with NMTI Associate Scott Murphy
Composing for the Non-Composer with NMTI Associate Scott Murphy

One of the most exciting parts for me of the
semester is seeing students who have never composed before, some of whom have never read
rhythm before, or maybe only pretended to, compose a rhythm piece, just the way Beethoven
did, pencil and paper, three-part rhythmic, counterpoint assignment as a means to underscore
a free-write that they already wrote. I’m Scott Murphy and I’m the Associate for
NMTI and I also teach Composing for Non-Composers and Composing for the Theater. So, we start with very basic stuff, but we
move quickly. As basic as you see 4/4 time signature, what
does the 4 on top mean? What does the 4 on the bottom mean? And then we look at musical elements like
dynamics, for example. But always through the lens of storytelling. Right after that we go on to rhythm and each
student writes a three part rhythmic percussion assignment, where three different parts of
rhythm are having a conversation. If you don’t know how to read rhythm, we spend
a class learning. So, then we jump into harmony and why it has
tendencies – why it wants to move from one place to another. Again, it’s very basic stuff, but essential,
because harmony is so much the sorcery of composing. And then it’s up to them, I mean, they might
take this level of musical detail and incorporate it in their own singer/songwriting material,
or they might write theater songs, they may want to write musicals. Or maybe now they have tools simply to have
conversations with other composers. We do musical examples of Bill Finn, Michael
John LaChiusa, Kirsten Childs, Jeanine Tesori – these are all composers they meet with and
are able to then have a conversation with. Composing for the Theater – that’s the class
that NMTI is going to have throughout the whole semester. We’ll start, just like Composing for the Non-Composer,
just lay the basics, make sure everyone’s on the same page, comfortable writing rhythm,
comfortable understanding how harmony functions, but then we get on to what is writing songs
for theater? What kind of songs are we writing? How are the songs functioning? How are they helping us tell our story? And a lot of our NMTI students end up writing
one-act musicals, where they are employing these kinds of techniques – techniques that
you would get primarily if you’re going to grad school for writing musical theater. It’s pretty amazing to see a student who feels
like the veil of music theory was just lifted. “I got a little bit of it in high school. I got a little in college. It was always mystifying. And why are we writing Bach chorales?” Now all of a sudden, it’s “Oh, I get it!”

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