Updated: Mar 14, 2020
There are nearly as many ways to compose as there are composers. Sometimes I write by just noodling around the piano until something sticks, but other times it's a much more deliberate process, particularly if I have a theme in mind or a program to follow. Another method begins with considering what mood I want to convey and then coming up with a melody or progression that fits that feeling. Whatever the formula for writing, composers are all chasing that perfect piece. In my experience there seem to be a few specific ingredients in the make up of the songs that move me the most. I'd like to share three of them. They are as follows: the expected, the unexpected, and a peak emotional moment.
The Expected In really great music the notes chosen by the composer somehow feel "just right". Some note choices simply work better than others. It's as if the notes flow in a way that accords with nature itself. I think I may not be too far off in this idea if you consider natural phenomena like the Golden Ratio. This ratio is both mathematic and artistic. Our eyes perceive patterns using this ratio as beautiful or well ordered. In music we have the circle of 5ths. One chord leads naturally and also mathematically to the next. It's what we expect and what sounds "right" to our ears.
Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean to imply that following the circle of 5ths or any other construct of music theory is a necessary element of good music. I'm only using it to prove my point that certain patterns sound "correct" to the listener more than others. As an aside, there were great efforts in the twentieth century to abandon order and convention altogether. Composers were even derided for adhering to tonality. I think like many of the other avant-garde ideas of that century the experiment proved to be a failure. Sure, people do still write atonal music, and it is even employed to great effect in film or other such incidental uses. But can we just be honest? Nobody (I mean the masses of humanity here) gets emotional about a twelve-tone row. Well, maybe if it was written by J.S. Bach.
The Unexpected So if the expected is the first essential factor, how does it follow that the second necessary element in good music is the unexpected? This fact is obvious when considering other aspects of life. We like things that surprise us. Jokes are usually funny because they come at us from an unexpected angle. In literature, we want to be taken to a place we hadn't yet imagined. Predictable movies are often deemed boring. We like the unexpected, but there is something more I want to suggest here. It's not any kind of random unexpectedness. It's a controlled shift away from what we thought would happen to a place of greater poignancy. That "perfect" expected note instead acquiesces to an even better note choice for example.
Surprising dissonance can be another way to achieve this effect. The composer can create this when there is just enough dissonance, just enough unexpected departure from the comfortable and safe that it takes us by surprise and gives us a sense of wonder or a pang of emotion. As an example, allow me to use a song by Coldplay called "True Love". Listen to the unexpected bend in the guitar solo. The first time I heard this, I thought it sounded like a mistake. It's weird, it's even jarring at first, but somehow it makes the song so much more than it otherwise would have been.
Another example and perhaps one of my favorite in all of the piano repertoire is the second section of Brahms' Rhapsody in B Minor. The first section starts with a forceful F sharp octave in the right hand. This is always followed by a fast and spectacular forte section in a minor key—until the section I'm referring to. Again it opens with an F sharp at the octave in the right hand. But what happens next is a section in a major key that is so beautiful and tender that it frustrates me how quickly most recordings blast through it. It's very subtle in most recordings, but it's like a veil lifting on a new world of delight.
How the expected interacts with the unexpected to make something more beautiful is still a mystery to me. Not every good song has a jarringly unexpected moment, but I will say most good songs have something you weren't counting on—an amazing bridge, a key change that just feels write, a secondary dominant chord perfectly placed. Listen to your favorite music and see if there isn't something like this in it.
The Emotional Peak Every story has a climax or it isn't worth telling. Music is also telling a story whether it be simple or complex. An emotional climax may seem an obvious necessity to good music, but in my own music I realized that it isn't always there. There needs to be some point in a song that really affects me. It could be a hook, it could be a crescendo. Again, there is no real formula other than it needs to be present. One piece of music that I've mentioned in the past that really impacted me the first time I listened was Víkingur Ólafsson's recording of Bach's Organ Sonata no. 4 transcribed for piano. Not only is it currently my favorite Bach piece, but it follows all of the elements I've described. The chord progression is so perfect it feels like it was sculpted, there is a thrilling and unexpected section with trills that requires masterful technique to pull off, and there is a point when the refrain comes in towards the end that is so emotionally powerful I got tears in my eyes when it happened.
All of these elements present in a song or instrumental piece don't guarantee that the song will be great. But I've found that so many of the songs I love contain them. Sometimes you find that the unexpected point is also the emotional climax. Sometimes the song is so subtle that it doesn't take much to bring it alive, but if you're looking for a way to catch the attention of the listener and craft a truly enjoyable piece, try adding all three of these to your next creation.