The Art of Composing


Photo by Dara Levy


Most musical composers think in terms of notes, chords and bars. Alex Shanafelt, Wind Symphony 1 member and senior, thinks in terms of themes.

This means that Shanafelt, a contemporary composer, begins with a single idea and branches from that one idea. He plans out what happens next by dividing a piece into sections, almost as if the piece were a map. From there, he develops that idea, resulting in a large chain of developed ideas.

“I try to take a specific idea and see what I can do with it and how I can manipulate it, but the piece comes from that one idea,” Shanafelt said.

Like Shanafelt, Ari Brown, Camerata orchestra member and senior, begins composing his classical music with a theme, but he grows from that theme by representing it in different ways and seeing where it takes him.

Brown said, “There comes a point in everyone’s life where instead of saying what other people have to say, you have to start saying your own message and so that’s why I’ve been composing even at a young age.”

Director of Bands Michael Pote mostly composes music for marching bands, so when he gets asked to compose, he is given a theme and guidelines to follow. He said the story is almost already separated into chapters, so what he has to do is think of a piece of music that has the same feeling and use that as a reference point.


“I try to take a specific idea and see what I can do with it and how I can manipulate it, but the piece comes from that one idea.”

Wind Symphony 1 member and senior Alex Shanafelt

“We talk a lot in our band classes about being very similar to architecture in that architects are great artists but they’re also very, very smart engineers, and, so I lean on the engineering side of composing a lot,” Pote said. “How a chord sounds best scored in a certain way and then if that chord is moving to another chord, what’s the best physical way to go from that chord to the next chord.”

However, Pote’s purpose and goal of composing is different from Shanafelt’s and Brown’s. Pote said when he was hired, he was hired to write something that will make the group sound and look good.

“I like to write pieces that are going to make groups that are not necessarily the most talented, sound a little better than they are, so I like writing for groups where I know that what I’m writing for them is going to make me be a little bit of a difference in how successful they are,” Pote said.

Shanafelt said to him, composing is about creating something for others to create, while Brown said there is a different meaning to each of his pieces and sometimes it’s just a feeling.

Composing music allows Brown to see a lot more in the music he plays in orchestra and helps bring out more meaning than other students would see. For Shanafelt, composing allows him to appreciate the music he is positively influenced by.

“Composing actually (gives) me a deeper appreciation for some music and less appreciation for others based on how I can see it and how I can view it,” Shanafelt said. “It helps me understand the whole idea of music.”


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Sreeti Ravi