Thursday, January 12, 2017

Recommendation Letters – How Students are Evaluated

At the end of last semester, from about mid-November to mid-December, it seemed to me that I was writing more student recommendation/reference letters than usual — which is fine, of course — but, as I was doing so, it occurred to me (as it does every year) that students requesting such letters fall into different categories. There are students who are good at everything, students who are good at some things, pretty good at others (e.g., good at composition, okay in theory), students who are pretty good at 1-2 things, rather weak in others, students are are really good at one thing (e.g., composition) but really weak at others (e.g., theory), and every permutation of these and other variables you can imagine.

If I am asked to write a letter, the academic areas on which I comment are the ones that I teach, namely music theory  and composition. But, as you can see in the list below, professors are often asked to rate students in a surprisingly-large number of areas that go far beyond specific academic disciplines, and so I thought it might be useful to list these areas, and, more generally, provide information on the evaluation process for anyone that may wish to request such a letter at any point in their future.

If you are in a Bachelor of Music programme and there is even a remote chance that you might apply to graduate school upon completing your degree, today's post may have some useful information for you. And, if you have no interest in this topic, I promise to get back to composition-related topics in my next post!

Asking for a reference letter
 • Don’t be shy about asking a professor to write reference letters; it is a part of our job, like correcting/grading, office hours, extra help for students that seek it, committee work, research/composition/performing, and of course, teaching.

• Be aware, however, that it takes time – for me, typically about 1-2 hours – to write a thorough reference letter.  

Why does it take so long?
Part of that time is spent going through a student’s transcript carefully (which I request from the student), reviewing how the student did in my courses (which involves opening the spreadsheet files for every course taken with me in order to see the student’s results in all parts of the course evaluation scheme), and ranking that student’s final mark in relation to the class (e.g., 3rd out of 34 students), because some graduate schools ask for that information, and if they don’t, I usually provide it anyway.

Time is also spent listing all of the positive attributes I can think of for that student, particularly those that I believe would be relevant to studying composition or theory at the graduate level.

I also list any weaknesses or concerns I have about the student, because admissions committees want a balanced and honest assessment; if I describe a student in only positive terms, but the transcript reveals that the student has a 75% average over the most recent 1-2 years, then it seems unlikely that an admissions committee would take my letter seriously; a B+ average is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s not an A average, and, in my opinion, a professor's recommendation letter should expand on the evidence found in a student's transcript, without making claims that are unsubstantiated in the transcript.

What Student Attributes are Evaluated?
Professors are often asked to rate, and comment on, specific personal attributes or character traits, such as:
  • Ability – All around
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Ability to work independently/Willingness to take responsibility for learning
  • Academic potential
  • Academic preparation/Demonstrated academic ability
  • Achievement
  • Communication skills – Oral
  • Communication skills – Written
  • Curiosity – Willingness to explore new approaches, ideas, particularly those that may fall outside the student’s comfort zone
  • Industriousness
  • Initiative
  • Intellectual capacity
  • Leadership
  • Likelihood that my institution would accept the student, if we had a comparable programme
  • Likelihood that the student will complete the degree
  • Organization - Planning
  • Originality/Willingness to “think outside the box”
  • Creativity/Talent
  • Persistence 
  • Punctuality
  • Research ability
  • Response to constructive criticism
  • Teaching ability (if known) 
  • Teamwork (work well in a group)
The rating system varies, but it often consists of a series of clickable boxes that correspond to percentile values, such as top 5%, top 10%, top 20%, top 50%, lower than top 50%, and "no basis for judgment." The professor clicks on the appropriate box, in their assessment, for each category.

Universities typically ask for a letter, in addition to asking the professor to rate the student in a number of categories, as above, but no university with which I am familiar asks for the student to be assessed in every  category listed above; the above list is compiled from a variety of different universities' lists. Also, some universities have comment boxes in their on-line recommendation forms that allow professors to add a sentence or two explaining our rating in that particular category.

So What?
I have no idea how much weight is placed on this aspect of the evaluation process – I suspect that it matters, but perhaps not as much as the student’s transcript, composition portfolio, and the recommendation letter, but that’s just my guess. At the very least, however, these categories tell us something about what graduate schools value in prospective students.

How would you assess your level in each of the above categories? Most people have at least a few weak areas; if you can identify your own, I encourage you to work at them so that they become strengths.

How to request a letter
When requesting a letter from a professor, give them lots of lead time, and provide all necessary information. More specifically:
  • Make your request at least two weeks in advance, because of the time it takes to write these letters. If this is not possible for some reason, then at least one week in advance, but be aware that professors are generally pretty maxed-out in terms of demands on their time, and if you don’t give us enough time, we may not be able to write the letter you request.
  • Make your request in writing, as well as in person (if feasible). The reason for this is that I don’t necessarily remember every request, but if you put it in an E-mail, then I have something to remind me. Confirming this request in person is mostly a social nicety, but it may also give you a sense of the degree to which the professor is willing to write you a positive letter.
  • If you are asked to include a composition portfolio, ask your composition teachers for their opinions on what to include, and make as many of the changes/improvements suggested by your instructor as possible. If applying for a theory master's and they require the submission of a theory essay, ask your theory teachers for suggestions and corrections on any essay you plan to submit.
  • Provide the professor with an up-to-date transcript if you can, for reasons described above. The transcript can be a series of screen shots taken on your computer from your “university self-service” portal, or a PDF of the actual transcript.
  • Provide a list of every course you took with the professor, and the semester in which you took that course.
  • List any relevant achievements that might strengthen your case, e.g., Senior Rose Bowl Winner, Kiwanis Festival of (what region or city), Gower Band Terra Nova Competition Winner, etc., with the date(s) of the awards. You could include non-musical achievements as well, e.g., cycled from St. John’s, NL, to Victoria, BC, April-August, 2014... If I think they reflect  strengths in your character, I might mention them. And yes, one of our students did this!
  • Indicate in writing every school for which you’d like a letter.
  • Include the submission deadlines for each school.
  • Indicate in writing the specific graduate programmes to which you are applying (e.g., MA in music theory, MMus in composition, etc.).
Electronic Submission?
Most schools allow professors to submit their letters electronically; I much prefer this, so if that’s an option, please choose it. I would guess most professors find E-submissions most convenient, but double check with the professor to see if they prefer to submit the old-fashioned way (i.e., a hard copy via "snail mail").

On the pros and cons of “Gentle Reminders”
To the best of my knowledge, universities automatically send applicants an electronic confirmation message every time they receive a recommendation letter for that student (UPDATE: Maybe it's a glitch in their systems, but they occasionally don't, according to a student who just contacted me… However, I think they are all supposed to do this). If the deadline is near, and you have not received such a notice, here’s what I suggest:

Send the professor a “friendly reminder,” or “gentle nudge” a few days before the submission deadline . For professors, work life tends to be pretty hectic all semester, but particularly so towards the end of a semester. Also, if you have, say, eight students who each want three reference letters, that’s twenty-four references; that's a lot of references, and it is possible to miss some. Not only that, but E-mail is a somewhat inefficient way to communicate, in that every day our inboxes are bombarded with SPAM and “noise” (messages that are not SPAM, but clutter up our in-boxes), so it is easy for the occasional legit E-mail (one that requires a response) to get buried among the debris.

I know that not everyone appreciates reminders, however – I remember as an undergraduate student seeing a professor in the hallway one day, and reminding him as politely as I could that the deadline for that letter was that day, only to have the professor blow up at me and proclaim, in an outdoors (not indoors) voice, “Look! If I say I’ll write you a reference letter, I’ll write you that g**d*** letter!”

It occurred to me that I might have destroyed any hope I had of going to graduate school, which I found rather daunting at the time. In today’s world, however, this kind of situation can be mostly avoided, because a thoughtfully-worded gentle reminder via E-mail is unlikely to elicit such a rude response. Speaking only for myself, I don’t mind them at all.

Trust the Process; How do you know the professor will write a good letter?
Speaking of daunting, it can feel a bit scary to request a letter and then trust that the professor has written a good letter. But, once your request has been made and the professor has agreed to recommend you, I would suggest trusting the process. In my opinion, a conscientious professor should tell you if they can’t write you a good letter, rather than agree to write a letter, and then write only negative things about you.

I have turned down requests to write recommendation letters on very few occasions — when I do, I always suggest that the students find other professors to write recommendation letters —  for one of three reasons:

(i) The student's request came too close to the submission deadline. This is just a practical matter, not personal — requests often come at the busiest time of a semester, and there are times when I cannot set aside all the other work I have to spend two hours writing a letter that is due the day after I got the request. On the other hand, if I have recently written a letter for you, and you ask me to send it to more universities a day or two before a deadline, this is less problematic. It still can take a little more time than you might expect, particularly when the original letter needs to be modified in any way (such as if the original letter needs to be updated due to new information), but if I can do it, I will. But I'd still prefer 1-2 weeks notice, of course;

(ii) I don’t know the student well enough to say anything really positive about her/him; e.g., they only took one course with me, and it was a few years ago, and the student did not get a very good result in that course;

(iii) I know the student pretty well, but what I know isn't particularly positive… Perhaps they took several courses with me, but did not do very well in any of them, or they were rude/disrespectful on multiple occasions, or they skipped or were late for classes on multiple occasions, or they missed assignments or quizzes several times, or they committed academic dishonesty (the most common example of this is students collaborating with each other on assignments), or they generally disregarded my compositional advice and suggestions, etc.

To be clear, I’m not talking about an occasional disagreement with a student; these are not unusual in teaching, and I don't mind them, as long as the discussion is respectful. I’m referring more to an on-going and troublesome pattern of behaviour, which is extraordinarily rare; I can think of only about three such cases in thirty years of teaching.

The only time I recall declining a recommendation letter request for reason (iii) above involved a student who was extraordinarily sullen and rude. Don't get me wrong — I have encountered occasional instances of rudeness over the years, but this particular student really stood out from the rest (and not in a good way!), so much so that I actually had other students complain to me about the student’s behaviour. I was therefore surprised when the student asked for a recommendation — I'm not sure what sort of karmic good-will credits they thought they were accumulating while engaging in disrespectful behaviour — and so I suggested they would be better off asking someone else for a recommendation.

I don't hold grudges, or try to undermine students in any way. Had I decided to write a letter for this person, I would have found positive things to say about her/him (no matter who you are, I can usually find positive things to say about you, and this student was definitely smart and talented), but I would have also had to mention the problematic behaviours, which I felt would have sabotaged their chances of getting into a graduate programme, which is why I suggested they ask someone else.

Not sure about applying?
If you want to go to graduate school but are thinking that perhaps you ought not to apply because your marks aren't great, or your composition portfolio is not strong enough, I would suggest applying anyway, because you never know what the outcome will be. Sometimes, average students (IMO) have been accepted into master's programmes, while stronger students have been rejected. You don't know the circumstance or criteria used in the evaluation of your application; in some years, and in in some universities, you might be in competition with sixty other students; other years, you might only be in competition with eight other students for six available spots.

If graduate schools reject you, and are not willing to give up on your dream, find a way to turn this into a positive experience: Identify your weaknesses, work hard on improving in those areas, and then apply again. For composition, this might entail writing more pieces, perhaps longer and more substantial, perhaps for larger ensembles, or written more idiomatically for the instruments involved, or exploring new techniques, or providing more score detail, or better recordings, or just writing better pieces; most of us acknowledge that our early compositions are not as good as later compositions. If you had some weak results in music theory classes, explore the possibility of taking some of them again, this time working harder than you did previously, in order to gain a better understanding of the material.

Types of applicants
It is easiest students to write strongly-positive recommendations for students with these qualities:
  1. At or near the top of every composition course they took with me;
  2. Developing into very good composers — this is slightly different than #1, because a students course grade can be near the top of the composition class by getting full marks in all the extra-compositional assessment areas — excellent preparation, excellent contributions to class discussions,  making the required number of thoughtful composition blog comments — while producing compositions that are pretty good (B+, A-), but not extremely good (A, A+);
  3. At or near the top of every theory course they took with me;
  4. Actively seek out new scores to study and new music to hear, and are excited by new discoveries;
  5. Willing to try new things without pre-judging them, and to embrace at least some of them;
  6. Do all their work on time with a minimum of excuses;
  7. Do more work than most other students;
  8. Respond well to compositional suggestions,
  9. Have a great attitude, and
  10. Participate regularly in class, and, in particular, they are good at giving constructive criticism to fellow students in our composition seminars.
If I were assigning a score of 1 (= terrible!) to 10 (= whatever is better than excellent!) to each of the above qualities, I feel confident in saying that I have never had a student who I would have rated as a 10 in every category.

However, I have had occasional composition students who are strong in all of these areas, meaning I would perhaps rate them as an 8 or higher in every category. Such students tend to be accepted into graduate programmes, provided they didn't only apply to the most selective universities, like Indiana or Yale (but our students have gone to Indiana University and Yale, for example, so why not you?).

What do you do if you are pretty good at composition, but pretty weak in, say, theory?
 Most students are strong in some of the areas, but not all, and in many cases such students have been accepted into graduate programmes. Some students are very good at composition, but very weak in music theory; this can be a deal-breaker for some universities, since a graduate programme in composition usually involves music theory courses as well. I still recommend that such students apply to graduate schools, and, if not accepted, then consider doing extra work in music theory (like re-taking music theory courses to try to obtain better results), and then applying again in the following year. Realistically, however, this does not give students much of an opportunity to improve their standing in theory courses, since applications are often due by the end of the fall semester, which would give a graduating student only one semester in which to demonstrate an improvement.

If you are reading this in the early years of your academic studies, the clear conclusion to draw from this is to become as strong as possible in every possible area. It starts with taking every course seriously, and not falling into the trap of making excuses for poor results in, say, theory courses, such as, "this is nothing but a set of rules for OLD music; I want to make NEW music, and break any rules I wish!"

I will confess to speaking from experience on this matter. When I started taking music theory, I could not relate to it, and thought it had nothing to do with the music I wanted to write. Consequently, I failed grades 3 and 5 harmony at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), and didn't do very well in grade 4 harmony either. After about two years of poor results at the RCM, I started studying privately with an excellent composition teacher, Dr. Sam Dolin, who made me redo music theory from the beginning all over again, and, while I resented it a bit at first, he made it interesting, fascinating, and relevant for me, and my love for music theory – which is, basically, learning how music works – has never abated. And yes, I got better at it.

You can get off to a bad start in something, and end up becoming very good at that thing; in my case I just needed a combination of a good teacher and an attitude readjustment.

This has become much longer than I anticipated, but if you have questions on anything relating to recommendation letters that I did not address in this post, please ask them in the "comments" section, and I'll try to respond.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The expression, "ars longa, vita brevis," is a Latin translation of the first two lines of the Aphorismi (Aphorisms) by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is perhaps most famous for the Hippocratic Oath. It translates as, "art is long, life is short."

Interestingly, the order of those two lines was reversed in the originally-published aphorism (I am using the Latin translation, because I know no Greek, except "papoútsia" which means "shoes;" I had to look this up when my shoes were stolen on an overnight train in Greece 40 years ago… end of digression):

Aphorism 1, Section 1, Hippocrates
Vita brevis,
ars longa,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.
Life is short,
Art is long,
Opportunity is fleeting,
Experimentation is perilous,
(good) Judgement is difficult.

What does it mean?

  1. Well, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, it apparently does not mean what most of us think it means. According to one source, it means that "it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one's expertise (in, say, medicine) and one has but a short time in which to do it". The Wikipedia entry suggests that it "most commonly it refers to how time limits our accomplishments in life."
  2. The meaning that I suspect most people take from this aphorism is, "life is short, art eternal." •Today's post will explore both meanings, as they apply to music.

1. The clock is ticking.

We tend to have sporadic awareness of our impending demise; we know it's going to happen, but we just don't usually know when. The clock is indeed ticking for us all, which can be a little unsettling if you think about it too much. This is presumably why most of us do not think about it very much, even if we have experienced the death of a loved one. The first meaning above is not a suggestion that we obsess over our impending demise; quite the opposite, in fact!

Here is my composer-specific take-away from meaning #1: It takes a long time for a composer to develop a mastery of our craft, and, given that life has a finite time limit, it would be good to put whatever time we have to good use mastering these skills. Compose lots of music! Try to make each piece better than the previous one!

If Schubert (dead at 31) and Mozart (dead at 35) had been more casual about their desire to be great composers, they would not have achieved greatness. Ditto for Bizet (age 37), Gershwin (age 38), Chopin (age 39), and Mussorgsky (age 41).

The clock is ticking… Get busy!

2. Art is eternal. Or is it?

Some art has had impressive lasting power, sustained over hundreds or oven thousands of years. That's very cool!

Then there's music…

Unlike visual art or architecture, which produced works capable of lasting a long time, music was not notated for most of human history. The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete, notated musical composition from anywhere in the world. It is thought to date from the first century AD, making it about 2,000 years old. That means there is no record of notated music for the previous 198,000 years of human existence on this planet.

For how many of the roughly 200,000 years of human existence have our ancestors been making music? To borrow a common "click-bait" phrase, the answer may surprise you! Archeologists have discovered ancient flutes from approximately 43,000 years ago, which suggests that (a) music was being made 43,000 years ago, and (b) it was probably being made before that as well, since the first forms of musical expression probably involved the human voice and percussion instruments.

There is no record of the actual music made for most of human history, for at least one very simple reason: Then, as now in most cases, music was ephemeral; it was there when people played it, and not there when they didn't; there appears to have been no desire to make it "eternal" (or at least, "long lasting") by writing it down, until the Seikilos epitaph.

Not only that, but, to my knowledge, the Seikilos epitaph did not signal a vanguard in the new practice of notating music; the following 1,000 years or so produced very little notated music. According to Wikipedia, the founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033.

In the centuries following Guido d'Arezzo's life, notation became more commonplace, especially so when music became more complex, because the increasing complexity required a system of notation in order to be performed accurately.

Nowadays, despite the1,000+ year history of notated music, most of the "old" music that is performed or recorded was written since the late renaissance, meaning it comes from the past 500 (or so) years.

So, while it is entirely possible that some of the musical art from the recent past will be long-lasting, the inherently-ephemeral nature of music is such that most music, even in this day of easy digital recording, will only last for as long as we retain its memory in our minds, because most music is not recorded. I play guitar practically every day, but I doubt that I have recorded more than about 100 minutes of guitar music over 45 years of playing guitar.

Despite its essentially-temporary nature, however, it is undeniable that some music has lasted an impressively-long time, possibly because it is thought to represent the pinnacle of musical artistic expression,  or possibly because a lot of people just like it (Vivaldi: 4 Seasons; Pachelbel: Canon in D); that gives all composers something to aspire to, should they wish to do so.

And even if our music does not make it into the pantheon of musical greatness, there is a realistic chance that at least some of it will last longer than we will, provided we unceasingly strive to write better music.

Anyway, tempus fugit! I need to get back to the piece I'm working on…

Postscript: Experimentation is Perilous?

Hippocrates was a doctor, so when he called experimentation "dangerous," he probably meant that experimenting on a patient could harm that patient. If you are an air-traffic controller, experimenting on the job could have disastrous results; ditto for a military strategist, or an operator of a nuclear power plant.

If you are a composer, however, there is no equivalent worst-case scenario that results from a failed musical experiment. Some may not like your experiment, or performers may call it unplayable, but, generally speaking, people are not physically harmed by compositional experimentation. I would suggest that some experimentation, as in trying new things, is essential for an artist.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (3)

I wrote a short piece for today's post, based on the arpeggiated chords presented in section 8 of my Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) post. You may wish to listen to those chords again before listening to today's composition , but it's fine to skip this and just listen to the piece below.

The chords in section 8 of Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) were constructed by superimposing different harmonic structures found in tonal music, such as an F# major triad and C major triad, a combination used by Stravinsky in Petroushka, in order to create post-tonal sonorities.

There are no particular "rules" to follow in combining chords in this way, but I would suggest that the resulting sonority should not sound overtly tonal; if you start with a G chord and superimpose an F chord, for example, it would result in a G11 chord, which is overtly tonal.

That said, however, it is really the context in which such chords are used that determines whether they are tonal or post-tonal. If you play the chord in bar 3 below, for example, and resolve it to an Eb chord, it will sound like an altered V7 resolving to I in Eb major, because bar 3 starts with a Bb7 chord. If you play the same chord (bar 3) but move to a different sonority that in no way suggests an Eb chord, then you've placed it in a post-tonal context.

Another suggestion, if you try this approach, is to use chord combinations in which the two triad-based chords have no notes in common with each other, although that is by no means an essential condition.

The approach I find that works best is to work these out at a piano, exploring the possibilities by playing different chords in each hand until you find combinations you like, and then immediately write them down. Frequently, the experimentation may involve just altering one note at a time until you find a sonority that you'd like to keep.

Once you have a collection of chord combinations that you like, you can use them however you wish in a composition; you can transpose them, add further notes to them or otherwise modify them, invert them, re-use them, etc.

Here is the piece; there is an audio player beneath the score below so you can hear it as well:

More Details on this Composition:
  • I began with the first three arpeggiated post-tonal chords presented in my Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) post (they are in section 8, numbers 1, 2, and 3). 
  • I transposed the second arpeggio, and subsequently re-used and transposed the other arpeggios as well. 
  • In bar 7, I introduced a new chord (i.e., one that wasn't in the original blog post), which consisted of a Db Maj.7th chord plus an Eb Maj.7th with augmented fifth. I also reused transpositions of this chord.
  • One way to vary these chords, aside from changing notes within them, is to add notes on top of them that are not part of the original sonority; I did this a few times in this piece, especially in my choice of flute notes.
  • As you can hear, I took time in the score to move from one sonority to another, because the harmonic complexity of these chords is, to me, inherently captivating, and it takes time for the ear (well, the brain, actually) to absorb them. 
  • Harmonic progressions using these chords can proceed as quickly as you want, however.
  • This is "colour-based" composition; each chord has its own colour. The process is something like an artist creating an abstract painting using only splashes of colour here and there, with the result being pleasing to the eye (well, the brain, actually).
  • "Mystery" and "Wonder" were the names of two of our cats that passed away several years ago.
Final Thought: Practicality
  • One very practical advantage of this approach to composition is that the chords should fit naturally into the pianist's hands, provided you started by experimenting at the piano with chords that fit your hands. A skilled pianist has spent years training their hands to instantly form the correct shape in playing tonal chord structures, like triads and 7th chords, so if you use those same chord shapes, but combine them in untraditional ways, the pianist is likely to find the music easier to play than a lot of contemporary music.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (2)

In Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1), we examined tonality, atonality, and post-tonality, and explored two possibile ways of using tonal chords in a post-tonal context. 

One way is to superimpose triadic structures in order to create sonorities that would not normally be found in tonal music; perhaps the most famous example of this is Stravinsky's "Petroushka" chord: A combination of  F# major and C major chords. 

A second way uses triadic-based, tonal chords in progressions that do not follow the chord-flow practices of tonal harmony (e.g., avoiding descending fifth root movements). 

I will explore the first idea (e.g., Petrushka chord, and other combined sonorites) at greater length in my next post, but  the objective today is to expand on the second idea, using the last musical example from Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) as a starting point. 

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  - -  -  -  -

The example below is a very short composition written specifically for today blog post, beginning with the piano chord progression from the end of my previous post. The first five bars are virtually identical (dynamics and octave doublings have been added), but a trumpet enters at the end of m. 5. The piano chord progression is repeated in the second system while the trumpet plays a new melodic line, and the last two systems are an expansion of this chord progression, while the trumpet continues to play its melody.

For the trumpet notes, I picked pitches that, at the point they begin, are not part of the accompanying piano chord, although several subsequent piano chords include the pitch being held by the trumpet. My rationale for doing this was to increase the sense that this was not intended to be heard as an example of tonal harmony.

Have a listen; discussion to follow:

Dreary, isn't it? ;-)

As a reminder, the objective was to (a) create a succession of tonal chords that do not follow the typical chord progression patterns in tonal harmony, and (b) expand this into a short composition.

You might well ask, why would anyone want do such a thing? Isn't this like putting old wine in new bottles (i.e, repackaging something old and calling it new)?


This was an experiment. Whether it produced anything useful or not is up for debate, but there would have been no way of knowing if this approach (and yes, it is rather like putting old wine into new bottles) had any useful compositional possibilities to offer had we not tried it. FWIW, I don't know of any music that actually does this, although I would not be surprised to find that others have explored this approach as well.

Exploring new ways of using old harmonic structures completely violates the spirit and practice of modernism, and I therefore suspect many contemporary composers would reject this approach. We live in what some have called a "post-modern" period, however, within which this sort of exploration is completely appropriate.

Whether it is appropriate or not, the main thing most composers would want to know is this: Is there any situation in which this approach could be compositionally useful to me? I suggest that you ask yourself this question while playing the audio clip above at least three times, and, if you haven't run screaming from the room by the end of the third play-through, please share your thoughts in the "comments" section below. It's fine to decide that you do not find it worth exploring, but, whether you find it potentially useful or useless, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Also, if you would be willing to share a chord progression that you came up with, and that fits this approach (tonal-based sonorities that do not follow the harmonic progressions associated with tonality), please do so in the "comments" section.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1)

1. Post-Tonal Harmony

"Post-Tonal" Harmony refers to harmonic practices not based on tonality that emerged since the end of the nineteenth century.

Basically, this includes any variety of atonality, such as free (i.e., non-serial) atonality and serialism, but, at least in my definition, it could also include music based on Messiaen's modes of limited transposition (or other constructed modes), quartal and quintal harmony, bitonality (provided it does not sound like tonality with chord extensions), and even the use of chords borrowed from tonality, but not used in a tonal context. A longer, but by no means comprehensive, list can be found in an earlier blog post I wrote (A Sampling of Post-Tonal Techniques and Ideas for Composition), and there are many on-line sites with information on this topic.

2. Atonal Harmony

"Atonality" which can be thought of as a sub-genre of post-tonality, tends to be defined more narrowly. Here is the opening paragraph of Wikipedia's article on Atonality:
Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another (Kennedy 1994). More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments" (Forte 1977).
To be clear, my definition of post-tonality is considerably less restrictive than the opening sentences of the Wikipedia article above, which appear to preclude the possibility of pitch-centres in atonal music.

3. Pitch Centricity

The idea of "pitch centricity" – music that is based in some way on a pitch centre – is inherent to tonal and modal music, but many (click this link, and/or Google the term) argue that it is also relatively common in atonal/post-tonal music.

I agree with this, which is why I often encourage students to write some variety of post-tonal music with pitch centres, and to move between different pitch centres within a composition, borrowing from tonality the concept of departure from, and return to, a "home" pitch centre, using various "modulations" along the way. A fellow composer and long-time friend of mine, Omar Daniel (who teaches at Western University), once told me something along the lines of, "one of the biggest problems I see in student compositions is an unwillingness to modulate," by which he meant change pitch centre, not change key. I think.

4. Can Post-Tonal Music use Triadic structures from Tonality?

Quick answer: Yes, it is fine to use harmonies borrowed from tonality (e.g., major, minor, diminished, dominant sevenths, etc.) in post-tonal music, as long as they are removed from their hierarchical/functional context within tonality. Indeed, that is the main topic of today's blog, and if you want to skip ahead for examples of how this can be done, scroll down to #8 below.

If part of our definition of post-tonal harmony is "harmonic practices not based on tonality," it would be useful to understand what we mean by tonality.

5. Tonal Harmony

Tonality refers to a systematic approach to musical composition using major and minor scales, based on:
  1. Hierarchical chord-progression practices involving chord functions (e.g. pre-dominant to dominant to tonic class; );
  2. Relationships between notes, such as contextual attractions or tendencies (e.g., leading-tone resolution in dominant harmony (^7-^8));
  3. Resolutions of perceived instabilities (e.g., chord 7ths, suspensions, and other non-chord tones).

6. Common Chord Progressions Found in Tonal Music; A Chord-Flow Chart

"Hierarchical chord-progression practices" in tonality refers most generally to the chords that establish a key, namely dominant – tonic harmony, and predominant – dominant – tonic harmony. This is the basis of the following chord-flow chart, as found in Tonal Harmony, by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne (McGraw-Hill):

By the way, this is a diatonic version of the chart for major keys, but it is virtually identical in minor keys. Chromatic variants of the above chords usually function as their diatonic versions, so bIII functions as iii, bVII functions as vii°, bVI functions as vi, etc. Also, there are exceptions to this chart found in the music of many composers of tonal music; the chart is a pedagogical tool, meant to represent the chord-flow options that are usually found in tonal music.

7. Does this mean chord progressions that do not follow the above chart are post-tonal?

Not necessarily; V - IV - I is a relatively common pop and blues chord progression that is clearly tonal, and yet V to IV is not available in the chart, and there are other exceptions as well (another common one is bVII - IV - I).

The following progression, in which every chord after the third does not follow the above chart, is clearly tonal. It consists of a descending C-major scale with a first-inversion triad on every note. This is an example of "parallel-sixth chords," wherein passing sonorities are not considered to be functional; the underlying functional harmony would be I6 - V6 - I6:

8. Finally! Some Post-Tonal Options: Combining and Recontextualizing Chords to produce Post-Tonal Sonorities; You won't BELIEVE #3!

As stated previously, my definition of post-tonality is fairly open; harmonic practices that came after tonality and are not tonal can be considered to be post-tonal. This would include post-tonal music that combines triads (or seventh chords, or ninths, etc.) found in tonality in such as way as to produce sonorities that are clearly not tonal and are not used within a tonal context.

Here are some examples; play the audio file below each example to hear what they sound like:

1. This is based on the combined C major and F# major chords (i.e., two major chords whose roots are a tritone apart) found in Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911); I added a three-note figure with two additional pitches (Ab and D) at the end, because I like the sound:

2. This begins with a C7 chord, upon which four additional pitches based on a B° triad are added:

3. The next example starts with a D7 chord that becomes a D9 on the third beat of the bar; a G#m chord with a major seventh and major ninth is superimposed:

• Examples 2 and 3 above, which began with dominant seventh chords, could be used in a tonal context, if the dominants resolved to their expected tonics within tonal music. #2 could therefore resolve to an F chord, and #3 could resolve to a G chord. Try this yourself, if you can access a keyboard, to hear what this would sound like.
• Therefore, in order for the above examples to truly be post-tonal, they should not progress to any chords that could be interpreted as constituting a progression of functional harmony.   
 4. The next example uses quartal harmony, but, instead of stacking a series of perfect fourths on top of one another, which creates a pleasant-but-static quality, I stacked two perfect fourths, then went down by whole tone and stacked two more perfect fourths on that note, then repeated it a third time, finishing with three stacked fourths instead of two. The result is very different than just stacking fourths on top of one another until you run out of notes:

Try superimposing different chord combinations, notating any you like and/or find to be of potential use in your compositions. Feel free to borrow any of the examples above as well. You don't need to limit yourself to chords, either; you can start with a chord and then add to it different notes or scalar passages that happen to sound good, and help recontextualize the chord so that it no longer sounds like a traditional tonal sonority.

9. But Wait! There's More! Tonal Chords Progressing in a Non-Tonal Way

Another way to present tonal chords in a post-tonal context is to create progressions that consistently and deliberately do not follow the above chord-flow chart, and do so in a way that prevents any suggestion of a clear tonic chord and functional harmony. If you try this, you may find that it is a surprisingly difficult task to create a chord progression that doesn't sound "wrong" to your ears.

This may be due to the strongly tonal association each individual chord has, since each individual chord in such a progression is typically major or minor; when recognizable chord-types do not "behave" (i.e., progress) as we expect them to, it can be disconcerting. In the section 8 examples above, where different chords were superimposed, the resulting vertical structures were not traditional tonal chords, and thus created fewer expectations that they "ought" to progress in a tonal way.
– – – – –
Giant Steps is a John Coltrane jazz composition so seminal that its chord progression is known as the "Coltrane changes;" it is required learning for any gigging jazz musician. Although it is tonal, it uses some unexpected chord changes: BMaj7 to D7, GMaj7 to B, and EMaj7 to F#7; these are somewhat unusual progressions in tonal music, although they are common enough that there is a name for them: Each chord pair forms a chromatic-mediant relationship. Not only that, and this is probably what makes it sound so unusual, but the first chord of each of the chromatic-mediant pairs also forms a chromatic-mediant relationship with the first chord of the next pair, and the same is true for the second chord of each pair as well.

It also uses some very common progressions, notably, several V7-I tonicizations. However, each tonicized chord (GE, and B) is a major third from the next one, which means that together, they outline an augmented triad; this is highly-unusual! It is usually played very quickly, which helps make the augmented triad of tonicized roots even more evident:

Again, Giant Steps is tonal, but you can explore the possibility of using tonal triadic structures (i.e., major, minor, diminished, etc. chords, possibly with chord extensions like 7ths, 9ths, etc.) in a post-tonal context by writing chord progressions that do not follow our chord-flow chart above, taking particular care to avoid any hint of ii - V - I progressions, which are used to establish keys in tonal music. As mentioned above, You may find this a challenging task, but if you do come up with any you'd be willing to share, please do so in the comments section!

Here's one attempt; some of it uses double-chromatic-mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with no notes in common), some uses chromatic-mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with one note in common), and there are some non-tertian root movements as well. To my ears, it succeeds in avoiding being tonal (at least in any obvious way), but does it succeed as a musically-useful chord progression?

10. And That's Not All!

While this last approach above can produce useful results, I find that a much more satisfying and rewarding approach is to write a progression of non-tonal harmonies, each of which would be the result of sitting at a piano and just trying different harmonic sonorities until you find one you like or consider to be useful, and repeating this until you have perhaps 12-16 chords. If you'd like learn more about this approach, it is described in greater detail in this blog post: Project 1: Writing an Atonal Theme and Variations. In my experience as a teacher, it has produced some of the best work I have heard from early-stage composition students.

One of the keys to growth and improvement as a composer is to be willing to try new things; I encourage you to experiment with these approaches and many others.