How to compose solo flute folk music?
May 6, 2012 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I want to compose a piece of unaccompanied folk music. What do I need to know?

I remember doing some composition when I was at school, and have a vague idea that you end on a perfect cadence, and you have other cadences sort of in the middle and so on, but no idea of what they are or why they're there. I never really understood the rules for chord progressions in multi-instrument pieces, but I suppose that is a story for another day.

At the moment, I want to write a piece (or a few pieces) of folk music for solo flute.

What are the rules when you're composing for a single instrument? Should I just start and end on the first note of the scale? Or is it more fluid than that?

I'd be really grateful for general advice, or recommendations of articles or books to read.

I'm a competent flautist with a fairly bad grasp on music theory, so please assume I need to learn everything except for how to complain and play trills.
posted by teraspawn to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No offense, but what you're asking is roughly equivalent to: "I want to write a fairy tale. Do I say the same thing at the start and the end of the story?" So all I can give are a few ideas.

I'm assuming you're thinking of (roughly speaking) folk music of the English-speaking world (English, Irish, Anglo-American and so on). I would think the best exercise would be to transcribe a dozen or so pieces of folk music. The genre of what are known as fiddler's tunes gives you a healthy sampling. They're music for dancing; not a bad starting They have a very defined structure: A part, B part, each either 4 or 8 bars long whether you're measuring in 2/4 or 4/4 time.

Remember, I'm talking about dance music, which has set patterns because people do set dances to them. Ballads and story-songs are looser; there is no particular set of constraints. It's much easier to explain how something doesn't work as a piece of (pseudo-) folk music than how it does. Too many chord changes too far out of the family of 1-ii-IV-V-vi, for instance, are going to throw the ear.

I would transcribe. Benjamin Britten, Bela Bartok and dozens of other great composers set whole books' worth of folk songs into formal arrangements. I would suggest finding a collection of folk songs you like (start with the Anthology of American Folk Music) and play through a dozens of ballads until you feel like you recognize the patterns. This takes months or years; there's no way around that fact. The best folk musicians have hundreds of songs at their fingertips, so their muscle memory can do the thinking for them.

How do chord changes work? That's a good question. I teach kids to play folk music, and I insist that they step out chord changes. When they feel the music shift, they shift by going from stepping forwards to stepping backwards. Try doing so to this song, for instance (ignore the intro at first), and see if you can feel the regular shifting from the tonic to the dominant and back again. You should wind up back where you started. This is a typical two-chord pattern; three chords or four is a little trickier, but the idea is the same: away, back, shift to one side, shift to the other, ultimately balanced. Again, folk music is rooted in dancing, so this makes sense.

Also, if you don't have familiarity with an instrument on which you can voice chords (piano, guitar, etc.), you'll probably need to gain one. The chordal structure is an important backdrop to understanding what you're doing.

Good luck!
posted by argybarg at 9:15 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

By virtue of the very definition of "folk" music, you can do whatever sounds good to you.

If you want to write in a particular tradition, though, you might need to be more specific about what that tradition is, because most "folk" musics have their own structures and aesthetics and aren't just free-form - as argybarg says.

But also be aware that many people who create what gets called "folk" music - vernacular popular music that sort of lands in the Western tradition - have no more training than you do in composition or theory.

And for every rule of any sort of Western folk structure, we can find one or more examples of songs called "folk" that break it.

For a first composition, don't start from your head. Start with your ear. That's how most folk players learn, compose, and play.
posted by Miko at 12:43 PM on May 6, 2012

It would take some time and effort, but learning to sight sing using solfege would help you get a sense for which notes of the scale are commonly used to start and end songs, etc. Here's a source for some practice material.
posted by doctord at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2012

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