Brush Stroke and Palette of a Composition

I have recently been trying to explain how it is that composers compose.  I've been using an analogy that I really like.

Essentially, composing is kind of like painting.  You start out with what you are hoping to convey and then you choose a medium, whether it is charcoal, watercolor, acrylics, etc.  You then select your colors and tools, and you start your art piece.  With each stroke of the brush (if that's what you end up using) you try to use your best judgement as to what will make the painting the beautiful and emotionally desired art work you have in your mind.
We do the same thing with composing:  I have different medium to convey my emotional message, whether full orchestra, rock band, chamber group, solo instrument, etc.  I can then choose how to start using my different coloring elements of key, time signature, harmonic progression, chord structure and voicing/spacing, rhythmic elements, melody, counter-melody, etc.  Then I start to take these elements and combine them into the sounds and feels that I want, the emotional effect that I desire to create and that I have envisioned.

One example of this is in the harmony section, and especially the rhythmic devices that I use.  For a movement of a string quartet I'm writing, I start it out in a mostly homophonic texture, with the strings in harmony but with pretty much the same rhythms.  The introduction of this opening theme this way gives it weight and solemnity and make it stand out.  I then take the melody and change voices to a higher register making it a little brighter and happier, and add some motion underneath with an eighth note rhythm outlining the harmony underneath.  This also gives the piece a sense of motion and movement, and I felt adds extra joy to the melody, almost like a light-hearted skipping underneath.
I space everything pretty close and in a middle register to give the piece a warm and almost earthy feel.  If I were to space it further apart, it might sound either too epic and grandiose for what I'm hoping to convey, and any closer and it would lose some of the richness and warmth I wanted.  In addition, a lower register would make it feel a little too heavy for me, while a higher register would make it more ethereal than I want.
The eighth note rhythm in only one instrument adds only a slight bit of forward momentum, not so much that it starts to feel frantic or anxious.  Also, the eighth note instead of quarters gives it just enough drive and enough contrast against the melody.  Eighth instead of sixteenth keeps it again from feeling too frantic.

Soon, I will take one of the compositions I have worked on and I will dissect the choices I made and the changes and why I made those decisions.  A lot of it was more intuitive, but looking back I can often see the decision making process I went through without being aware.  Most often it was just:  "that doesn't sound right," and later I end up understanding why.


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