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Anonymous writes: “I have written a theme, how can I find ways to develop it into a full song?”


Answer:  Once you have a theme that is strong and that expresses what you want, you already have a good start towards having a good






song.  Good thematic material is in some ways a centerpiece, or one of the most important parts of the song.  Now that you have the theme, you can make use of a number of composer’s tools for development.


One tool is knowledge of structure.  One common songwriting structure, especially in pop and jazz, is a sort of four-part phrase.  That is, the theme is first presented, second repeated, third changed to add color and suspense and depth, and fourth repeated as a conclusion, bringing the song back to the “home.”  This can also work on a larger scale for the whole piece, dividing the song into four sections, such as AABA.  For more information on this see Songwriting Structures.


Another useful structure is movement from the familiar towards what you might think of as “transcendence.”  Granted, this is a more philosophical idea and less laid-out, but it is quite common in music and can help with development.  You could think of it as first laying out your theme and repeating it, to develop familiarity or a sense of the expected.  Then you slowly alter the theme, changing only a few notes but essentially still repeating.  Gradually, you move towards a new view of the theme—usually one that pares it down to its central idea.  Or it could also be one that “transcends” the initial familiarity and moves the theme into a different world.  Although this is very philosophical, it can help in shaping the song, keeping in mind the idea of moving from traditionalàalterationsàtransportation to an essence or new idea.  For more, see Music as Tradition, “Transcendence,” or Both.


No matter which of these structures you choose, you will also need other tools for changing and varying the theme.  You should have a knowledge of basic techniques in contrapuntal variation, such as inverting the theme, playing the notes with double or half their values, transposing, playing only fragments of the theme, playing a mirror image of the theme, etc.  All these are techniques that can help in expression and variation.  For more, see Contrapuntal Variation as a Composition Tool.


A similar source of inspiration for development is improvisation.  You can simply improvise on the theme and use some basic chords and structure, recording ideas that make sense or interest you.  Sometimes composition can involve meticulously thinking and writing each note out—other times it can come spontaneously, through playing around at your instrument or “jamming” on a theme.  The article Improvisation Techniques also provides more information.


Finally, you should constantly look for places to gain additional composition tools, so that you can choose the right one at the right time in your piece.  Try to analyze the works of the great composers, and see how they solved the problem of development.  Listen to songs on the radio, focusing on different aspects of their composition, from melody line to verse structure.  Read books on composition and listen to lectures.  As well, you may wish to read many of the articles on this site which discuss other tools for composing, such as Learning to Compose and Composing at or away from an Instrument.



Does this answer your question?  Let us know how we are doing at liftoffcm@yahoo.com.




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