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Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 2

Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 2

After the incredibly positive feedback that I had from Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 1, I thought I would talk a little bit about the composition angle of writing, at least how I do it in regards to vocal music. Here's a quick primer for anyone learning some of the basics of writing vocal music for opera, musicals, classical music, etc. 

1. The Sketch
I have had several great teachers in my life - Dr. Clare Shore, Hilton Jones, Dr. Kristine Burns, Paul Reller, Dr. Frederick Kaufman, Dr. Orlando Garcia, Chuck Owen, etc. My composition prof (and USF SYCOM guru) Paul Reller helped me develop the composition technique that I have had for years. 

When I have the time to go through the entire composition process (because sometimes I have to skip a step or two for deadlines), I will start out with pencil, paper, and a piano (or keyboard, in my case). This may not fit your music style, but this is how I start it. For an opera, I may already have the song playing in my head. For Libertaria, for example, the song "Metal Ink" essentially ended up just like I heard it in my head. I sketch the melody down or the motif. I'm a percussionist, so I often think in terms of mood, rhythm, and timbre, and less in harmonic structure. I improvise off of this melody or motif, inverting it, making slight changes, making it darker or more mysterious, making it lighter sounding or cheerier, depending on the overall emotions needed for the song. 


I sketch all this down on paper. It really looks like a ton of chicken scratch (see below). As you can see, some exact rhythms are there, as well as streams of notes, and scales. 
Sketch for Destiny: Eondwyr

2. Fleshing out Piano Part
At this point I will go to the computer and Logic to make a basic vocal/piano arrangement. In this arrangement I will work out basic harmonic structure and the rhythms for the melody. In my sketches I often will line up a group of notes from a melody or motif into a makeshift "scale", pulling my harmonies from manipulating this new scale. This also keeps some continuity in the song. My music often plays around with jazz harmonies, bitonality, cluster chords, and modal scales. I use obvious tonal harmony (think I, IV, V and their inversions) when I want to make a definite point or end in the work. 

Sometimes I will purposely throw in a non-chord tone at the end, just because I really, really don't like ending on a perfect cadence. 

I don't spend much time at this point developing a complex piano part. Usually I will start with a simple bass line under the melody and develop a simple harmonic structure using basic music theory. Think figured bass line. By the time I add in full orchestration later, the harmonic structure has been developed, but at this stage, I just need to create something to give to my vocalists and a skeleton for later orchestration. I will export the file as MIDI to Finale for a final pass after I work out the vocal lines.

3. Vocal Rhythm
Because I usually start with the melody and work forward from there, the next step involves fixing the vocal rhythms and logical places for verses, choruses, etc. I have to thank Frederick Kaufman for helping me develop how to write my rhythms for melodies. There are a few ways to approach a lyric. One way involves following natural speech. To do this, record yourself saying the words naturally, then dictate the rhythm as accurately as possible, keeping in mind that many vocalists (especially amateurs) are not great at syncopation and complicated rhythms. As a rule of thumb, keep the 16th note as your smallest denomination, even better if you can stick to nothing smaller than an 8th note. 
Following a natural rhythm

Another option is purposely singing the lyrics with a forced rhythm over them. For example, swinging 8ths or triplets work well. Many lines easily read in triplet format. Simply start in your head 1-2-3, 1-2-3, then speak the lyrics in the same rhythm. Many will naturally fall into place, with logical rests.
Baby Machine, Lyrics are manipulated to fit rhythms and simplified.

The third option is a combination of the two, where you purposely manipulate the lyrics to fit the rhythm in some parts, and then go with the natural rhythm in others. 

Baby Machine from Libertaria: The Virtual Opera

When I am satisfied with the basic piano and vocal parts, I will then export the whole thing to Finale as MIDI so I can make a clean professional score for my vocalists. The music imports into Finale, and then I spend many hours cleaning it up, adding dynamics, doing last tweaks to the vocal line (or lines), adding in additional harmonies, and checking for weird formatting issues. I also make sure that I make rhythms and the score in general as simple as possible. If a half note will do, I will put that in, even if I meant more of a dotted 8th. If I can find a key signature that avoids too many changed accidentals, then I will go there, or even raise or lower the entire piece by a half step to make it easier for singers (for some reason, I often end up in the realm of six flats or four sharps, which just means that my singers either hate me, or I have to do some transposition). To be honest, the slight change in key doesn't matter too much as long as the melody still works for the vocalist's range. 

4. Orchestration
This is where I may differ from another composer. I typically write for live performers and multimedia or will orchestrate entirely using software instruments for my work. When I traditionally orchestrate the work, I work off of the piano part, adding in instruments based on timbre, feel, the ensemble's instrumentation, etc. However, when I am working only in on my computer, I will improvise based on the piano score, adding in instruments, synths, and special effects around the vocal lines, being sure that the lines can be heard and that I do not oversaturate the score (I run Logic Express on an old iMac, an iMac in need of replacement, so if anyone can hook me up with a free Mac, let me know!). There is a big, BIG difference between orchestrating acoustically and on the computer. And do not confuse the two! Just because a flute  or violin sounds great on your computer doesn't mean that a real performer will be able to play those ridiculous runs and illogical syncopation insanities. 

Don't write for your computer if you are writing for real people. Ok, off soap box. :)

Reading the score in Logic

You can take the orchestration in Logic or ProTools and use that as a base for your orchestration, but be sure that your parts are always, always, idiomatic if you are writing for real performers. 

I hope that this little primer helps you as you embark on a wonderful creative journey of vocal writing! Be sure to share any of your stories, tips, or questions in the comments below. And SUBSCRIBE for the latest in contemporary music!

Composer Sabrina Peña Young writes mind-boggling "epic" music for multimedia and live performers. Her Libertaria: The Virtual Opera broke ground as the first machinima opera produced entirely through Internet Collaboration. Watch her TED Talk on Opera and Internet Collaboration below! 

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