Songwriting technique: The art of imitative composition

Playing piano

Playing piano

Imitation isn’t just a sincere form of flattery, it’s also a good way for novice melody-makers to hone their craft

t the start of the industrial revolution in North America, there were a few developments that converged to popularise a particular form of academic composition. One of the factors was the mass production of the parlour piano – what would be called a studio size today. This piano’s short stature allowed the player to look over the top of it to lead singalongs, a popular pastime with the urban aristocracy in Europe and with the new urban wealthy in America.

Another development was the invent of the catalogue store, usually the general store in rural America. Companies like Sears would sell items from a catalogue in the rural general store that could be shipped to remote areas that would not otherwise have access to those items. And the last piece of the puzzle was the availability of farm equipment that could allow farmers to harvest much larger yields with much less manpower and in a fraction of the time. This created a new class of rural wealthy that aspired to use, at least some of that wealth to appear cultured and urban.

“Piano music had been a European art-form, powered by male composers”

These converging developments combined to place a parlour piano in the front rooms of farm houses all across North America, but there remained one final, decisive factor.

piano insert

Piano music, and ‘cultured’ music in general had been, to this point, a European art-form, powered by male composers and dominated by male virtuoso performers. Men in North America’s rural midwest, however, were still primarily labourers despite the modernisation of farming and did not have the time or inclination to learn the piano.

Grown women didn’t often take up this newly purchased instrument either, as much of a woman’s work in that setting, in that era, was also still primarily manual and not yet automated. Nor did young boys fare well, as they often helped with farm chores after school and looked at the piano as more of an extension of a school day.

That, of course, left young farm girls as the natural choice for this instrument. Their chores were mostly indoors where the piano was located, they were encouraged to become cultured ladies, and the piano’s reputation made it the ideal instrument from a sociological standpoint.

This also saw the inception of the itinerant piano teacher who would travel from farm to farm and village to village, teaching these young farm girls how to play the music in their piano bench. One obstacle, however, was the shortage of mass-print sheet music. As result of this, many of these fledgling musicians had only one or two sheets of music to play, as the printing industry lagged behind the demand for more accessible music.

The solution for this, for many of these developing musicians, was imitative composition, or compositional tessellation. Tessellation is the art of taking smaller patterned items and making a larger pattern out of them. A quilt is a tessellation and so is the way a jigsaw puzzle is cut, or a picture of a face made up of many smaller pictures of faces.

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Tessellation is when shapes or patterns fit together seamlessly, like the hexagons in a honeycomb

Farm girls would take a random bar of melody from, say, New World Symphony, combine it with an equally random bar of melody from O Little Town Of Bethlehem, and compositional tessellation would be born…. well, perhaps not so much born because they did not invent this practice, but more adopted and certainly mastered it.

Bar after bar would be brought into the composition and adapted through editorial shifts of pitches and rhythmic placements. Sadly, most of this early North American music is not archived, since blank staff paper was not readily available and many of these composers would have not considered this so much composing, more just recreating on their instrument.

As mentioned, once the melodic motifs are stuck together there is often an editorial adjustment that is required to seamlessly join them into a single musical statement and then there is the work of re-harmonising them into a more full musical expression. In my estimation, that is every bit as much an act of composing as we songwriters would do today, either knowingly or merely intuitively, as we attempt to create new original music from our collection of past musical experiences and present abilities. In other words, as we draw on the resources available to us… just as the farm girls did.

“Tessellation is great ‘target practice’ at writing melodies”

Tessellation is a great way to take some ‘target practice’ at writing melodies: since the source materials are from already existing and at least somewhat popular songs, your tessellated melody is also likely to be likeable. It is a great way to get practice at setting chords to a melodic pattern as well, and a terrific way to test-drive your ability to solve the various kinds of problems that melodic motifs can cause when trying to create our new work.

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If we find we like what we are creating with a tessellation and want to turn it into a commercially available original work, there is often more work required to edit it until it no longer sounds like you just stuck a bar of Katrina & The Waves’ Walking On Sunshine on the front end of a bar of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. But if you edit it, then play it for a few close friends and associates and they cannot trace your song back to its original source materials then the original composers (and their legal team) will not be able to either. Your song will be no more plagiarism than anything else we write from the collection of other people’s musical ideas we have floating around our subconsciousness!

Words: James Linderman

Berklee College of MusicJames Linderman is a guitar, piano and songwriting teacher in Ontario, Canada and teaches in studio and over Skype to students all over the world. James is an Berkleemusic Ambassador and a music journalist and presenter at music conferences and workshops. Contact James at


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