Oct 2, 2010, 17:12

If you’re experiencing writer’s block as a music composer, here’s a helpful technique I learned in music school:

In the early 90’s my college brought in acclaimed jazz pianist/composer Kenny Werner to spend a full week with students as an all-around clinician. It was sort of like having Henry Kissinger hang around your high school history department for a week. A tornado keeps upsetting everyone’s routine, but everyone’s smarter once he leaves.

Originally from Brooklyn, Werner had a big personality and was the quintessential New Yorker. He took himself very seriously and commanded any room he occupied. Here’s a clip of Kenny playing piano with jazz legend Toots Thielemans in 2009.

Most of Kenny’s week at our university was spent preparing for a live jazz performance with the faculty, but one afternoon he assembled the composition majors in a classroom to hear his philosophy on writing music.

“Someone call out some music notes for me.” He began. Then he jotted down our random notes at the top of a treble staff, spacing them far apart.

“Now name some chord qualities for me.” We named the fanciest chord types we knew. “Dominant seven sharp 9!”, “Major #11!”, “Major 9th”. He added these qualities to the right of our music notes and we now had a disjointed sequence of chord changes.

“We’re almost done. Now tell me some of the notes that are in these chords.” As we called out notes he drew them in, left-to-right, as half-notes on the staff underneath the chord changes. To some chords he assigned one note. To others, he assigned three but overall it seemed really random.

Werner then walked over to the piano, kept his eyes on the board and slowly played through our little impromptu ditty. It sounded pretty good! Yet far different than anything we would have written ourselves.

He walked back over to the board and made a couple of small adjustments. A passing tone added here, a chord change removed there. He played it again and suddenly we had written a nice little tune, written by the group, in less than six minutes.

He turned to us and said slowly, “It is far easier to edit something down…. than to struggle along one note at a time.”

Another word for this approach would be aleatoric which is essentially “chance” writing. But there’s really something to this approach when you remember how mathematical music really is. Often when we pull notes from our brains, it’s easy to just re-create something we’ve already heard, but when you choose to let chaos (or chance, your subconscious, God, or whatever you want to call it) create the marble slab from which you ultimately carve your sculpture, are you working any differently than a wood carver who allows nature to create the tree?

Big thanks to Kenny for sharing this great concept.

Here’s a video of Werner’s latest orchestral composition “No Beginning No End” now available on online music retailers.


Mike Bielenberg is a professional musician and co-founder of http://www.musicrevolution.com, a production music marketplace where media producers and business owners can license high-quality, affordable music from a online community of musicians.

Leave a Reply