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How to Develop a Theme: Step 1

It’s pretty easy to come up with a musical idea. Anyone who noodles around on an instrument (or maybe even who sings in the shower!) will find some good ideas. However, people often get stuck on the “what’s next?” stage. Knowing how to develop a musical idea is a very important part of the composer’s toolkit, and it can seem very mysterious. How do composers get from a simple sketch to a fully-fleshed out piece of music? I hope to share some ideas and to give you some new tools in this short series of blog posts.

We’ll start at the beginning. Let’s assume you have an idea that you find interesting. Here’s one I just wrote down:

Now, this idea may immediately present itself with some baggage. In this case, it seems like a “brassy” theme, so I hear it played on solo horn, maybe a bit like this:

Most musical ideas probably emerge with some sense of mood or character. If you’re a songwriter, maybe they even come with words attached at the same time. Maybe there’s harmony, timbre, register, instrumentation, countermelodies (or more extensive counterpoint), rhythmic background, etc. That’s natural, but try, as much as possible, to leave all those things behind for a moment.

For a creative artist, that can be scary. Even something like this can be hard to do–you might be afraid of losing some of the magic of the idea. Trust me. Our goal here is to take the idea apart, into its very building blocks, and then look deeply into those individual pieces. Once we’ve done that, we will understand the idea better. We will see possibilities we might not have otherwise seen. We will stretch the idea… hammer it on the anvil of craft until it becomes something shiny and new. If you want, you can always go back to those first ideas, but they often put us in a creative box that can be restricting.

So, what we’re going to do first is to tear the idea down into its components. Formally, we’re going to divide it into motives.

How to do this? Well, there’s no one, right way here. Once you get a sense of what we’re doing, you’ll understand that some ways are more useful than others. A motive could, potentially, be as little as a single note, but this would be unusual. A motive could probably be as many as 8 or more notes, but this is also unusual. Most motives fall into the 2-6 note range.

Here’s one way to divide my little theme into motives:

This is a natural division, and one that probably presents itself at first hearing. A good player probably would not take a breath in the middle of the phrase, but the division approximately in the middle seems like a useful way to chop the idea up. (Some ideas at this stage could be longer than one phrase, but some could be as short as 3 notes.)

We also notice the melodic and rhythmic contours (outlines) here: Rhythmically, both start with an anacrusis (pick-up note). The rhythm is four ONE two three… and ‘a’ has another little “snap” in there. Melodically, both start low and move higher. The pattern is skip-step-step.

We can immediately see that a and b are more similar than we might have realized–they have the same basic shape. A is only different because it has a repeated note and a snappy little dotted-eighth sixteenth note.

Here’s another way we could divide this theme:

This division is quite different, but it also useful. Comparing a and a’ (read “a prime”), we see that they are both skips, but the intervals are different. If we play a and a’ back to back, we outline a C major chord in second inversion, so that probably tells us something about the harmony going on here.

Comparing b and b’, we can see they are both scalar patterns, stepping higher without ever going back. The “snap” rhythm in b is very obvious compared to the simple one-two-three rhythm in b’.

At this point, we have taken the theme apart into motives. Other divisions are certainly possible, and we might change our decisions once we begin working with these motives and building a musical structure.

In my next blog, we’ll do just that: start looking at how to transform those motives and find new possibilities for this little tune.

We’ve also done some analysis here, maybe without even realizing it. We can, at least, say what the most salient (think “obvious to the listener”) elements of this theme are:

  • The steady rhythm, which might suggest some kind of marching (maybe).
  • The melodic arc, which is pressing higher with a small reset in the middle.
  • The skips which land on downbeats
  • The dotted eighth-sixteenth snap
  • The simple, diatonic material–this little tune just uses do-re-mi-fa-sol in C major.