The Composition Process: Sonatina for Brass Quintet

I’ve already written a bit about my composition process a bit, specifically some strategies I use to overcome “composer’s block.”  While the general strategies I discuss there have been useful for my students, I’ve found it to be much more helpful if I clarify some of this advice using actual examples.  With this in mind, I kept a journal detailing the steps I took to completing a composition for the UNCA Brass Quintet, including saving different drafts of the piece as I went.  You’ll be able to see here how I got from simple handwritten sketches of basic thematic and motivic material to a completed composition.

A quick explanation of the composition technology I use.  As a composition student I sort of bridged the gap between the paper and pencil method of notation and notation software.  I feel that my experience writing out my music by hand and composing at the piano was invaluable, but these days I tend to sketch out some ideas on paper first and once I’ve got something down go straight into the computer using Finale.  This has some advantages (clean notation for the musicians to read, instant feedback through MIDI playback, easy to make corrections), but also some disadvantages (you have to use your imagination with the playback because it can be deceptive, it’s easy to rely on “copy and paste” when the music really needs something different).  I know a couple of composition teachers who don’t allow their students to notate their composition with software until after a score has been written out by hand.  My own opinion is that music software is a tool and as long as you keep its strengths and limitations in mind while you use it the computer can be a very powerful composition aid.

Step 1, map out the composition

For this particular piece I started off with the idea of composing a brass quintet piece specifically for UNCA’s bi-annual Contemporary Music Recital, to be on April 29, 2010 this semester.  I started kicking around some ideas in my head for themes and an overall form.  I decided to try out a sonatina form, loosely based on the sonata allegro form but with a slow middle section in place of a true development.  Considering this for a bit gave me an overall plan for my composition as follows:

8 measures long, sets up 1st theme

1st theme – 8 or 16 measures, heroic sounding theme in trumpets, F major
2nd theme – 8 measures, lyrical sounding theme in horn, C major or C minor
Closing theme – 8 measures, aggressive and driving theme using a C pedal point

Slow, lyrical section with new themes deriving from motives used in the exposition

1st theme – 8 or 16 measures, heroic sounding theme in trumpets, F major
2nd theme – 8 measures, lyrical sounding theme in horn, F major or F minor
Closing theme – 8 measures, aggressive and driving theme using a F pedal point

Extension of closing theme to bring the piece to an end, maybe based on the introduction

Once I had that roadmap in mind, I sketched out on paper an 8 measure melody for the first theme:

And motivic fragments for both the second and closing themes.

And after composing that much I got sidetrack by other projects for about a month and did nothing more on this piece.  It might not be quite accurate to say that I stopped working on this composition during that time, since it was on the “back burner” simmering around.  I kept working out ideas in my head, even though I wasn’t able to devote time to realizing those ideas.

Step 2, plug your map into your score

Eventually I completed those other projects that were distracting me and decided it was time to get this piece completed so that UNCA Brass Quintet could have plenty of time to rehearse it before the Contemporary Music Recital.  My first step was to get my score started in Finale.  I set up my file to have blank measures where I didn’t know what I was going to put there, double bars to help me keep track of the overall road map, and notated the themes in where I knew they would go.  This first draft has 8 blank measures for the intro, the exposition’s themes plugged in with some blank measures for accompaniment and transitions, 32 bars of blank measures for the development, and then pasting the exposition in at the end, transposing the 2nd and closing theme so to allow me to look at them with the proper key relationships.

Step 3, start filling in the gaps

Once I have blank measures staring at me, I have much more motivation to get them filled.

All the below examples are notated in concert pitch, in spite of the staff name.


I was unhappy with the playback of this accompaniment for the 1st theme right away.  I thought it sounded too busy and needed to be simplified.

For my second theme I extended it by repeating the first 4 measures with just a different pitch on the final measure.  Then I began harmonizing it and trying out a rhythm accompaniment.  I realized at this point that I would be relying on a lot of rhythmic drive for the fast sections of this piece.  Note the rhythmic motive in the 2nd trumpet and trombone above, as I ended up exploiting that motive throughout the piece.  I also came up with a fragment of an idea to continue this theme or start a transition to the closing theme.

The closing theme above needed much more expansion, but I liked the sound of the different triads superimposed over the pedal 8th notes.

I began expanding on this idea and ended up with this:

Next I decided to come back to the 1st theme and begin to work out the accompaniment.  I finished the harmonization and also began to play around with some syncopated ideas, particularly in the tuba part.  I repeated the whole theme a second time, using trumpet 2 to play the melody instead, but then added the trumpet 1 again with trumpet 2 providing some additional harmonies.

I still have some blank measures between the 1st theme and 2nd theme here, staring at me waiting to be filled.

One of my next steps was to expand on the fragment of the last half of the second theme above.  I started off with the melody, then filled in some chord pad harmonies just to get an idea what it sounded like.  I didn’t like the chord in the 8th measure of the above excerpt, so decided that needed to be changed.

The next section I worked on was the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes.  I borrowed the accompaniment figure in the trumpets from the 2nd theme and used that as a point of departure.

After working out that transition I went back to the 2nd theme’s accompaniment and started breaking up the chord pads.

I had made an entry error in the rhythms of the 6th measure of the above excerpt, resulting in a syncopation in one of the parts that I hadn’t intended.  The resulting effect was so interesting that I decided to leave it in and expand it a little to include the other accompaniment parts as well.  I often find that my mistakes are more creative than what I originally intended and frequently let that help me determine the direction that a particular phrase or motive goes.


I continued to play around with some of the details of the exposition, but finally got to a point where I felt that the bulk of the musical material was there enough for me to begin to work out the recapitulation section.  My first step was to go back and copy and paste the entire exposition into the score where the recap happens, then transpose the keys of the 2nd and closing theme from C to F, to fit the sonata ideal of recapitulating all the themes in the tonic key.  This immediately presented some problems with the closing theme’s range, most notably in trumpet 1 but also a bit in the trombone.

I did like the way the recap’s 2nd theme range lined up with the horn melody.  It’s in the horn’s upper register and should sound exciting, but playable.  I did rework the accompaniment here and also started to re-orchestrate the last half of this theme here:

I noticed after listening back to this that the exact same transition between the 1st and 2nd themes from the exposition would work for the recapitulation.  In fact, I liked the way it sounds in the recap when the 2nd theme is stated in F minor better than when it’s stated in C minor.

My next goal was to work out the recap’s closing theme.  While the range is definitely playable by many brass players, I don’t quite want the sound of the trumpet 1 playing up there for so long, particularly since I don’t want this piece to get too rangy for most student quintets to perform.  I started off just shifting all the chord tones down an inversion, but didn’t like the way that worked out, so I ended up starting over, keeping the same rhythms but not worrying about the repeating the exact same pitches and chord progression.

The effect was very close to the exposition’s closing theme, but allowed me to drop the range down a bit in the trumpet 1.  I also added a pyramid figure extending this theme to start working out how to end the piece.


After a little more tweaking and expanding of the recap themes I decided it was time to start working on the “development” section.  Since I wanted to have new themes, loosely based on motives from the exposition, my first step was to play around with some of those motives and see what developed.  I first started by taking the ascending major 2nd motive from the closing theme and combining it with an inverted figure from the second half of the 1st theme.

The next motive I explored was the harmonic progression from the 1st theme.  In the exposition I harmonized the melodies with major triads a whole step away from each other, leading to a progression that moved from F, to Eb, to F, to G.  For the development I wanted to see if I could do something similar, but in a minor key instead.  I ended up with a progression that started with F minor, Eb minor, F minor, and then had to adjust by going up a half step to a Gb major triad.  This is what the whole chord progression sounded like at first.

The last chord, just after the double bar in the excerpt above, was derived from the first 4 pitches of the closing theme.  I had originally intended to use those intervals as a point of departure for a new melody, but after listening to how it sounded as a chord I decided to try to use them to derive the harmonies for a theme, rather than the melody.

I soon realized that I wanted to transpose the chord progression of this theme from F minor to C minor and wrote a melody to fit it.  I don’t recall if I intentionally wrote it for tuba right away or just stuck it into that part as a placeholder, but it sounded pretty interesting.  I went back and fourth about putting it in a different instrument since I expected to reuse this theme before returning to it.  Ultimately I decided that this theme sounded best in the tuba.  There were definitely some things to tweak here, including some more rhythmic variety in the melody and some of the chord progression.  I liked the Pacardy third (when a minor key has a final cadence that goes to a major chord), but started thinking about reserving that for later.

Next, I harmonized the the first melody I wrte for the development:

Some minor tweaks later and I had come up with an accompaniment for the tuba theme.

I next went back to the first development theme I wrote and started to work out the accompaniment for that section.  You’ll also note that I experimented with taking the tuba’s theme and moving it up to the trombone, which I later rejected and put it back in the tuba.

The third theme of this development section was a little more challenging for me.  I definitely wanted something that would contrast with the tonal center of C minor in the other two development themes.  Playing around with the intervals from the exposition’s closing theme implied some harmonies that I played around with a bit, including a melody for the trombone and then horn.  It took me a lot of messing around to get some harmonies that I liked in the last two measures of this theme.  I went through several revisions before I ended up with something that seemed to fit.

By this point I had decided that the development section would be in an ABCB form, so the above excerpt leads back to the B theme in the tuba.  I had also started to work out the transition from the slow development to the faster recap tempo using the rhythmic figure from the 2nd theme accompaniment.

The C theme to B theme to recap was starting to take shape now.


Now that I had the musical material for the three major sections mostly complete I needed to figure out how to transition between them.  Starting with the transition to the recapitulation I played around with the rhythmic motive some more, easing into the measure before the recap with it by way of repeating the last two measures of the B theme.

And then I worked on the transition to the development.

Step 4, complete the notation and get a read through

After some further tweaking throughout the entire piece, and a decision to not use an introduction but instead start right off with the 1st theme, I began to mark in more articulations, dynamics, phrase markings, and rehearsal letters.  Once I had everything notated the way I wanted, I worked out the page layout and spacing, printed off the music, and brought it to the UNCA Brass Quintet’s rehearsal.  Total time between beginning to work on this piece in earnest and completing it was almost exactly 1 week.  Yesterday the quintet read through it for the first time.

All in all, I’m fairly happy with how this piece came out.  I wasn’t out to compose a masterpiece, just a fun piece accessible for a student brass quintet.  As far as my composition process, this piece is a fairly typical example for how I write.  There are a couple of things about composing this way that I find particularly helpful.  First, rather than trying to make every theme sound great from the get go, I adjust the things that don’t feel right as I go, often quite a while later.  I figure it’s easier to fine tune something into something good than to have great music leap out of my head already complete.  Secondly, I jump around and work on different parts of the composition at different times.  While I’m sure some composers work very well starting with measure 1 and composing chronologically to the double bar, most of us will “paint ourselves into a corner” this way.  Before you can effectively compose jumping around this way, though, it’s necessary to have an idea of the overall roadmap of your composition.  With this piece I loosely followed a pre-existing form, but even through-composed pieces can be planned out in advance.  That’s not to say that once you start writing a piece that you can’t change your mind as needed, but if you don’t know where you’re going you’re not going to have a good way of getting there.

Update: This piece got its premier performance at the spring 2010 UNCA Contemporary Music Recital.  Here’s the performance by the group it was written for, the UNCA Brass Quintet.

AJ Churchill

I was commissioned to write a brass quintet and this post proved invaluable! Thank you for your hard work of outlining your compositional process from start to finish.

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