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So How Do You Write Music?



Guest Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Finn looks into the art and approach of writing music.

How do you write music? Everyone’s a little different in their approach. For me, it is helpful to have a three or four-hour block of time every day for the duration of the project. But I have also had songs that “wrote themselves” as fast as I could get them down on paper. And the title track on the new album actually came to me in a dream. I literally jumped out of bed, grabbed pencil and paper, and sketched it out so I wouldn’t forget it. Billy Strayhorn was famous for saying that you shouldn’t write anything that you can’t hum right away. So I try for simplicity. Melodies should never be too complex or difficult to execute. A lot of the most memorable melodies that we all love seem to have that quality of “singability”. So I just play a few chords on the guitar and hum a little something that I can develop into a theme.

There are a range of decisions to consider. For me, the big ones have to do with the stylistic or idiomatic choices. My music is informed by the jazz tradition and it is important to me that it be perceived as such. This is a choice I made many years ago and one which I have never regretted. Composition is self-expression. The medium of music is the means by which I seek to convey various feelings or ideas. The various elements of a composition evoke an emotional experience on the part of the listener and my goal is to enrich that experience.

The tune “Asymmetrical Reflections” seemed to develop its own form very naturally during the compositional process. This never seemed contrived or concocted and was a refreshing departure from the typical AABA song form; hence the title. The first section ended up having 14 bars of a call and response setting in a minor mode with octave guitar and vibes in unison answered by the rhythm section. This was clearly inspired by the playing of Wes Montgomery who is a great hero of mine. For the second ending I chose to continue the call and response theme for another four bars to set up an eighth note line over descending ii-V changes which I took into a section of long tone unisons. That section is 13 measures long.

 On this particular track I already had the instrumentation clearly in mind: Guitar, Vibes, Piano, Drums and Bass. The specific players were all people I worked with previously so I was well aware of their best qualities and capabilities. When rehearsing with drummer Pete Sweeney I pointed out this asymmetry and explained how I wanted him to emphasize the sections of the form. He laughed at the lopsided nature of the form but understood what I was going for and played it perfectly. And in the process of rehearsing, recording and performing this tune, the guys in the band all became comfortable with its form and harmonic content to the extent that they could improvise on it with great freedom and spontaneity.

The coda on this tune was something I revised a half dozen times. Some of my ideas were too prolonged and others were too abrupt. In the end I settled on echoing the previous descending motif from the second ending. I took the melodic contour through a descending pattern over four bars, marked in a ritard and a final fermata on an altered chord from a new key. 

Asymmetrical Reflections is just one of ten new original compositions on my 2021 album “As Luck Would Have It”. During the process of bringing this album to fruition I came to understand a remark that Duke Ellington had made. He said, “I don’t need time to compose, I need a deadline.” Once your rehearsals and studio time are booked, your schedule and your mind is really in high gear. All the music needs to be double checked and finalized. I obviously need to be able to play my guitar parts flawlessly and to be just as familiar with all the other parts in order to direct the band effectively. They say preparation is the hallmark of professionalism, and with a project of this kind, that is indeed the case. Beyond just playing the guitar, an album like this  calls upon  your entire musical skill set: composing, arranging, presiding over rehearsals, proofreading parts, notation software ability and the all important activity of listening critically. Then there are the tasks of coordinating with musicians, recording engineers, art work people, CD manufacturers, reviewers, broadcasters, and promoters, etc. After being so close to the music for such an extended period, the mixing and mastering process can be a little anticlimactic. It’s good to take a few weeks off  to regain some objectivity in terms of how it really sounds coming through a set of speakers.

It is very gratifying in the end to hear the music you have created on the radio, online and in live performance. Connecting with listeners who understand, appreciate and love what you are doing completes the creative cycle and validates all the effort you have put forward. 

About Joe Finn: Born in Hartford Connecticut, the son of an amateur pianist and composer, guitarist Joe Finn was surrounded by music from the very first. By age ten he was playing his first guitar and giving lessons to kids in the neighborhood. After high school, he got a Bachelor’s Degree in Music at Plattsburgh State. After college, he spent ten years traveling the United States and Canada playing the guitar in a wide variety of situations. Finn lives in upstate New York where he concentrates on local performances and teaching. He has been featured in various festival and concert settings for several years since the release of his initial CD as a leader in 1991. The album entitled Straight Ahead received critical acclaim as well as extensive national airplay. His quartet’s subsequent appearance on the BET network’s Jazz Discovery Showcase won their 1998 award in the jazz instrumental category. Five more independent CD releases Guitar Signatures and Duets, Blue Tomorrow, Destiny Blue, String Theory and 2019’s Generational Dynamics have helped to establish Joe’s reputation as one of today’s top players.

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