Writing Contrafacts

As our first project for the SJCW (Sacramento Jazz Composers Workshop), we decided to write contrafacts based on songs from the Great American songbook. We created some randomization by drawing composers out of a hat and then selecting a tune to use as the harmonic basis for our own composition. Here are a few of the things we learned:

  • Writing contrafacts can be hard.
  • Some composers (such as Richard Rodgers) have a lack of creativity in many of their harmonic progression which can handcuff attempts at writing a satisfying contrafact over their composition.
  • Some composers (such as Kurt Weill) have a fantastic online resources that are dedicated to their lives work. Spending a little bit of time researching these individuals can help you find more compositions with more creative harmony.
  • One satisfying approach to writing contrafacts, albeit potentially cliched, is writing pieces inspired by the work of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. Many songs from the Great American Songbook lend themselves very well to writing free-flowing eighth-note lines. Furthermore, using some diminished passing chords and side-stepping can really help turn boring harmony into something a little more fun (and challenging!)
  • Using 3/4 time or odd-meter can help if you are stuck. Since we are writing a contrafact and limited to the compositions original harmony (for the most part), you can utilize a different time signature to find other inspiration.
  • It is best to write your entire song with the original harmony and then as a second step go through and make alterations. The first goal should be to stick to the original composition. The next goal (and probably the most important) should be to make sure that it sounds good. Use any/all of your music editing skills!
  • Analyze the melody of the song you are using. Can you make a guide-tone line out of it? Are certain notes anchoring the melody? If so, you can also use this to help you get started writing your contrafact. If used properly, these guide tones you can write a song that “sounds like” the one you are basing yours on. This is another method for starting your composition that can help create a finished product that resembles the original material.

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