Writing Original Music In A Traditional Style

What’s the most important thing you take into account when writing original music in a traditional style? 

Because I’ve been immersed in traditional music since childhood, I have a degree of fluency and traditional “vocabulary” to work with.  Like the english language I do not have to think about how to create an “Irish-sounding” ornament - it just comes out of me when I construct a musical phrase in that idiom.  Without these building blocks, composing fluently in a traditional style would not be possible.  

That being said, one of the most important things for me in writing a successful tune is the starting point.  If I have a compelling image, emotion or character, I will most likely have a compelling piece of music.  That character (sometimes a real person) or emotion   drives the type of tune (air, strathspey, jig, reel, etc).  But more importantly it drives what kind of air, strathspey, jig, etc.  

For instance, let’s say I haven’t written any jigs in a while, so I decide to write a jig.  So far, there is only one parameter that is set:  the meter.  A jig is usually in 6/8 (although even that could change to 9/8, or alternate, etc).  However, there are lilting jigs, driving jigs, smooth jigs, bouncy jigs - you get the idea.  So, you can see that merely setting out to “write a jig” is too vague a starting point.  As an artist, I have to narrow my parameters.  I have to choose an emotional space, a character for the piece before I even decide whether it should be a jig.  So instead of using the word “jig,”  I’ll use words like “dark,”  “fierce,”  “fiery,”  or just think of someone I know who is represents those characteristics.  That’s why writing tunes for people is fun - because a lot of the initial creative decision-making work is already done for you.  It’s also why a lot of my best tunes are written for specific people - and sometimes animals!   

Confusion surrounding the creative process is not confined to writing jigs and reels. There’s a very old argument that musicians in Western Music have been engaging in since the 19th-century (though the ideas are much older than this!).  The classic antagonists are the “Absolute Music” proponents against the “Programme Music” proponents.  Brahms and Wagner are two good examples of these two schools of thought.  Brahms wrote beautiful, expressive, heartbreaking music, but didn’t feel the need to attach that music to a concrete story.  On the other hand, Wagner rarely wrote anything that wasn’t supporting some epic tale with complicated characters and plot.

However, this classic dichotomy misses point of the creative process.   Pitting “Absolute Music” against “Programmatic Music,” is like saying Realism in art is superior to Abstractism.  It’s based on both the preference of the artist and the observer.  But what I’m talking about is not as much the preferred mode of composition as the state of the composer when composing.  When J.S. Bach wrote his daily fugues at breakfast, he probably felt little more emotion about the piece that when someone does the daily crossword puzzle.  The emotion (or lack of emotion), is going to come out in the music.  Writing a breakfast fugue doesn’t produce bad music (especially if you’re J.S. Bach), but I'm sure the process was much different for Bach when he sat down to write the St. Matthew Passion.  When Bach wrote the chorale for “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,”  he was literally envisioning Christ with a crown of thorns, suffering on the cross. I think there’s a reason that people are still deeply moved by this piece - because he was deeply moved when he wrote it, and that comes out in the music.  For me - and I think this is true for a lot of artists - function and emotional clarity always come before form.   

Eliot Grasso