Discussing form (using “Soul Rest”)

I am a bit backed up on things that I want to discuss here. I am going to discuss last month’s “All Hail the Power” arrangement and I want to discuss Finale. I also want to talk about “Soul Rest” and I suppose I will do that first since it is fresh on my mind.

You could probably argue either way whether the piece is a composition or an arrangement (since it incorporates “Be Still My Soul” a lot of the time). I sort of see it as a hybrid of the two but I won’t argue very much and it doesn’t matter anyway; what I am about to discuss applies to any writing.

Anyone that writes knows that there are a lot of things to think about while composing. The most basic elements of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm; but from a composing perspective, all of that plus lots of other technical things have to be organized into a bigger picture. In music, we refer to that bigger picture as structure, form, or shape. Whatever you call it, that bigger picture is like the major plot of the book while all the other elements support the plot.

When you think about it like the plot of a book, it should not surprise you to hear that I consider a piece’s shape to be the most important component of a piece of music. Shape is usually going to determine whether a piece succeeds or fails because the bulk of the emotional impact comes from the piece’s shape. A clever rhythm or complex harmony will not usually carry a piece of music by itself. Trust me on that; I have learned that the hard way, and I can rattle off a half dozen songs I have recorded that might be strong in some technical aspect of music but yet failed to an extent because the shape was not strong enough.

“Soul Rest” is really not a complex piece at all. There is no complex harmony; in fact, the harmony is mostly triadic and based on simple inversions. There is nothing going on rhythmically except I did a decent amount of surgery on the flow of “Be Still My Soul” to try to smooth out some of the traditional but awkward pauses between phrases. I did work on the melodic material throughout the piece quite a bit and I like how it turned out; but it is certainly not too involved either.

Really, my focus in this piece was on the shape. The shape from a very simplistic perspective is a concept I often use: a twist on a power ballad where the momentum grows to a climax but then backs off and ends quietly. However, “Soul Rest” has a shape that meanders a long time with small ebbs and flows before it climaxes and I take a long time to set up that climax which is quick and short (about 20 seconds). Here is the form:

Orchestral opening: 30 seconds
Piano theme: 50 seconds
Be Still My Soul: 70 seconds
Interlude (with small swell): 60 seconds
Refrain of Be Still My Soul: 20 seconds
Interlude (with huge swell): 40 seconds
Refrain of Be Still My Soul: 25 seconds
Exit (backing off swell): 40 seconds

Note that this is a long piece (5:40) and also note that “Be Still My Soul” is only present in about 35% of it. You might wonder what I was thinking in the other almost 4 minutes and the truth is I was mostly thinking about shape. In other words, I knew where I wanted the song to go and I designed all of that material to follow that path. It is not just pretty filler to make the song long; it is very intentional.

If you are a new or aspiring writer, what I just said is very important. When you are arranging a song, you will obviously probably write extra material even if not as extreme as what I did in this piece. Don’t aspire just to be pretty and whatever you do, don’t write to fill time. Write to support your shape. That is what matters in the end of the day.

I will go into a few more details next week after the music is written out.

If you want to listen again noting what I did with the shape, here is the video again. If you don’t see it below, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekVdOzZs2Uc