Composing on the Hammered Dulcimer

  • Ted
  • November 30, 2016
  • 0

So, you have been playing your instrument for a while now and you feel the urge to compose something original. But where do you start, and how do you finish? Truthfully, all you really need is your instrument and the desire to make music. But here is a list of hints to get started for the first time:

1) Choose a general starting place – 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, fast, slow, major, minor – in any combination. It could, and probably will, turn into something else once you get started; this is just a place to begin.

2) Noodle with a few notes until you find a short pattern or idea that interests you. It could be a series of notes, a chord or chord pattern. Can’t come up with anything? Try playing the notes that correspond to a phone number, a birth date, address or zip code! This pattern of notes should be short – one to four measures. Play it backwards, forwards, move it around the instrument and see how the sound changes. This could take some time, so relax and have fun with it.

3) Now that you have the first phrase of the tune, you need another phrase, same length (typically four measures, but it can vary), to “answer” the first. “Question and Answer” phrasing, and is a very common musical structure used in many styles of music.

4) After the first “question and answer”, play your opening “question” phrase again. Now you are looking for a second “answer” that makes you feel that the conversation is finished. The easiest way to do this is to end on the note (and chord) that names the key. If you are playing in D, then end on a D. It’s called “resolve” because, well, it settles the “discussion”!

5) Repeat this process to form a B part for your tune. Try playing the A part phrases in reverse, higher, lower, faster, and slower.

6) There is no one “right” format for your music. However, tunes are commonly divided up as 8 measures in the A part, repeated, and 8 measures in the B part, repeated. You can also have each section be 16 measures with no repeats. But this is not mandatory! You can have any number of measures that sound right to you – hey, you can even have different time signatures, key signatures in the same tune. Experiment!

So, now you have the necessary pieces, they sound okay, but something is still missing. You need more… flavor. This is where it gets interesting – and fun!

7) Don’t be afraid to explore your instrument. Try different chord substitutions, harmonies – and dissonances. Try those strings you have rarely, if ever, used – you know the ones I mean! Give yourself permission to make wonderful and hideous sounds. Use bare wood hammers, leather or felt covered hammers. Does your instrument have dampers? If not, try placing painters’ tape down the bridge to create a harp like sound.

Try playing a different instrument – maybe a recorder, pennywhistle, harmonica, guitar, piano, or just sing – and listen to (or record) the various sounds. How might they fit into your new tune?

9) Still stuck? Put your instrument down and do something completely different for a while — The Monty Python solution: “And now, for something completely different!”

  • Go for a walk or do jumping jacks! Physical activity seems to stimulate the creative centers in the brain.
  • Listen to new kinds of music.
  • Open the window. Listen to the birds, the traffic, and the wind.
  • Eating or fasting: tastes, textures, stomach rumblings!
  • Go to a museum, the beach, go dancing!
  • Take a hot bath or have a cup of tea. Do whatever helps you feel centered and able to listen to yourself again.

10) Now that you have something you can work with, tweak the results, keeping the following in mind:

  • Length vs. Material: Is the length appropriate for the material?
  • Satisfaction: Is the musical material you are presenting developed at some point? Or is it introduced only to be dropped – a practice that is very unsatisfying to the listener!
  • Save it: If you withhold an element (it could be a pitch, rhythm, that great chord substitution, etc.), it will sound fresh when presented.
  • Contrasts: Think pitch, volume, texture, complexity and the variety of each.
  • Unity vs. Variety: Is there too much repetition causing predictability? Or is there too much variety, also causing it to be confusing? The trick is to write something that sounds inevitable but not predictable.
  • Simplicity: Direct, simple ideas often communicate better than complex structures.


Last but not least, how to find a title for your piece?

Normally, your title should reflect the basic idea of the composition. But it doesn’t have to! In some ways, a title serves as a kind of packaging. It should be interesting enough that listeners will want to find out what is “inside.”

  • Consult a thesaurus or dictionary (Just open it anywhere and start looking).
  • Look through literature or poetry.
  • Try a word association game.
  • Ask someone else. (Ask your mom!)

But, what about copyright?

Unless you’re a big name rock star, there isn’t much reason to apply to the Library of Congress for copyright. The small circle-c (©), date and your name on the first page are sufficient.

“After the Rain”

composed by Susan Vinson Sherlock

Listen to Susan Vinson Sherlock play her beautiful ¾ air, “After the Rain.”

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