Thursday, July 30, 2009

Domenico 1° & 2°

I spent the first weeks of spring/summer finishing a chapter for an upcoming book, entitled Weinzweig; Essays on his Life and Music, edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney. I had spent parts of the previous two years working on that project, but I was very glad to learn more about the music of one of the truly great icons of Canadian music. I may elaborate on this in future blogs.

Having finished the chapter meant I could focus my energies on composing music once again, and the first project I gleefully tackled was a solo piano piece inspired by Domenico Scarlatti for my friend and colleague, Kristina Szutor.

In early 2010, Dr. Szutor will be recording a CD of contemporary piano works inspired by the Italian Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), and she had asked me to compose something for that purpose. The name for the CD is Après Scarlatti. Other composers represented on this CD are Clifford Crawley, Dennis Farell, Norman Dello Joio, Marcel Bitsch, Marcelle de Manziarly, and Marc-André Hamelin.

I wasn't quite sure of how to go about writing a contemporary piece based on Scarlatti's music at first, but, as with so many initially-perplexing ideas in life, once I began to delve more deeply into it I discovered there was much to work with. I soon became quite excited by the project and ended up enjoying the experience very much (which doesn't always happen when I compose).

So much so, in fact, that when I was finished I decided to write another. Part of my rationale in composing a second work was a familiarity with musicologist/harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick's claim that the great majority (almost 400) of Scarlatti's 555 sonatas were written in pairs1 (and they are often performed this way), so it seemed somewhat anomalous to be composing an azygous Scarlatti-influenced sonata. ;)

As I subsequently learned, however, more recent scholarship (notably by W. Dean Sutcliffe, in The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Cambridge University Press, 2003) has challenged Kirkpatrick's claim,2 so it really came down to my feeling that having completed one, it would be fun to write another.

My introduction to Scarlatti's music came through learning guitar transcriptions of his sonatas, and one of the most popular of these amongst guitarists is K. 208 (L. 238) in A major (listen to a performance by Leo Brouwer here). Two of the most pervasive characteristics of that sonata are the steady, repeated, quarter notes in the left hand, and the flowing melody in the right hand with frequent syncopations; these ideas formed the basis of Domenico 1°. The working title for this piece was originally "Domenico Daybreak," and perhaps this will make sense if you hear it (click the "play" arrow in the audio player below; if it doesn't work, click here instead).

Domenico 1° (5:52):

The great majority of Scarlatti's professional life was spent on the Iberian peninsula, most of it in Spain, where he had five children, composed the majority of his single-movement harpsichord sonatas, and became familiar with flamenco music, the influence of which can be heard in some of his sonatas.

I had therefore planned Domenico 2° as a kind of fantasy based on flamenco-like scales (for example, phrygian mode with the possibility of raised third and seventh degrees), but I decided to make it an even-more overt homage to Scarlatti by quoting four bars of his Sonata in B minor (K. 27, which I transposed to A minor) that use a chord progression known as a "fandango," much associated with the music of Spain: Am - G - F - E, in 3/4 time. This quoted passage is also remarkable for the use of hand-crossings (left hand crossing above the right), an uncommon technique for the time it was written, and I based several other sections of my composition on Scarlatti's fandango material as well. If the audio player below doesn't work for you (it apparently does not work in Internet Explorer), click here instead.

Domenico 2° (7:48):3

1. Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti, (Princeton University Press, 1983), 143: "385 sonatas [were] indubitably arranged in pairs… not intended to be performed separately… The real meaning of many a Scarlatti sonata becomes much clearer once it is reassociated with its mate.… The relationship between the sonatas of a pair is either one of contrast or of complement. The sonatas that bear a complementary relationship to each other may share a certain overall unity of style or of instrumental character or they may be composed in the same harmonic color. In the contrasting pairs, a slow movement may be followed by a fast; a simple movement, generally slow, may serve as an introduction to a more elaborate; or an elaborate and concentrated movement may be followed by a simpler and lighter movement, for example a Minuet, which serves as a kind of Nachtanz.
2. "Not a single detailed commentary exists in support of any particular pair. Instead we find gestures towards opening thematic connections or an outlining of the sort of broad relationships defined by Kirkpatrick." (p. 368)
3. Sectional repeats are observed in this recording of Domenico 2° (but not in Domenico 1°).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (® 2009-Jul)

Below is an index of most of the 2008-09 blogs posted (and is an update to an earlier blog index). I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, mostly because they contained composition class business, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

Feel free to browse these — you may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing. They are loosely organized by topic.

Originality and Art
Is Originality a Detriment in Art?
How Important is Originality in Art?
Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art?
Kandinsky's Theories on Art
Kandinsky's Theories (1)
Kandinsky's Theories (2)
Kandinsky's Theories (3)

Random Musings on Composition
Express yourself?
Creative Angst... Welcome to the club!
Running into a Brick Wall
Why Atonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!
Atonality = Noise?
Writing a Play; an Analogy to Composition
Keep? Discard?
Notation Software Woes

Thematic Growth
Thematic Growth (1)
Thematic Growth (2; Simon's Guest Blog)
Thematic Growth (3)
Nuts and Bolts; Musical Details, etc.
On musical detail (1)
On musical detail (2)
On musical detail (3)
Group Composition Lessons; Pros and Cons
Class Blog and Student Blogs Explained
New Year, New Blogs!
Adding Multiple Ossia Bars in Finale

Composition Projects
Project 1 - Atonal Theme and Variations
Project 1 - More Details
Project 2: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art Music
Project 2: Using a musical style or gesture as a point of departure
Project 2: Recontextualizing and atonality
Project 3: Fun With Scales and Modes
Project 4: Composition for Wind Band

Newfound Music Festivals
Newfound Music Festival 2009 - Thursday Daytime Events
Festival Feedback, Please

Composition Issues (9-part series)

1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.

3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fun With Scales and Modes

If you have been following my blog entries on tonality (Why Atonal?, Atonality — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!, Atonality = Noise?), you will know that I encourage (i.e., require) student composers to explore harmonic/melodic systems that move beyond conventional tonality, where tonality is defined as " the system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today" (from Wikipedia). One way to do this would be to experiment with any of the thousands of scales and modes that either already exist or that you can create yourself, hence the title of today's entry.

→ Here is an "octatonic" scale, also known as a "diminished" scale because a diminished seventh chord is formed from every second note. The intervalic pattern consists of alternating half- and whole-steps (or vice-versa):

Here is a short waltz based on this octatonic scale (click on it to enlarge):

Octatonic Scale Waltz:

→ Here is a Hirajoshi scale:

Here is the first phrase of the waltz, this time based on the Hirajoshi scale:

Hirajoshi Scale Waltz:

→ Here is one form of a blues scale:

… and here is the first phrase of the waltz based on that blues scale:

Blues Scale Waltz:

  • We tend to limit ourselves to the use major and minor scales if composing tonal music, but there are thousands of other scale possibilities that have unique nuances and harmonic implications. If you have fun (i.e., experiment) with even a few of them, you may discover that every different scale gives your compositions a slightly (or even radically) different feel.
  • Of these, there are a number of commonly-used alternatives to major and minor scales, such as anhemitonic (which just means "no semitones") pentatonic scales (5-note scales whose pattern can be found by playing only the black notes on a piano, any of which can be the tonic), the blues scale (there are different permutations, but all are derived from the form of the black-note pentatonic scale beginning on Eb, or La-Do-Re-Me-So-La), the Hirajoshi scale (another pentatonic scale, from Japan, but unlike the previous penatonic scale this one has two semitones (which means it is hemitonic): La-Ti-Do-Mi-Fa-La), or the octatonic scale (used in some Russian folk melodies and by some Russian composers such as Stravinsky and Scriabin, as well as by Bartok, and also used in jazz).
  • You can make up your own scales and modes; Messiaen created scales with repeated patterns that he called "Modes of Limited Transposition," such as:

    Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone (which he called his third mode):
    or Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone-Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone (which he called his fourth mode):
  • Messiaen's Modes of Limited Transposition are all based on repeating patterns within equal subdivisions of the octave, but in making up your own modes or scales, you do not need to be limited in this way. You could, for example, create a scale with a repeating pattern that spans a major sixth. After four such pattern repetitions, you would have spanned three octaves and the overall, three-octave, pattern would then repeat. But the pitch patterns in each of the three octaves would be slightly different. Such as this, for example:
  • The following scale is a mirror around the pitch F#, but you could also create a scale with few or no pattern repetitions in it:
  • Another approach, suggested by my friend and former colleague Dr. Scott Godin, is to construct a few (2-3) atonal chords that you wish to use as the basis for a composition, then construct a scale containing all or most of those notes. You can then use that scale to create additional harmonies if you wish.
  • Once you choose or create some scales with which you want to work (play), you could make charts of the triads and "seventh" chords formed on each scale degree. However, you need not build these chords in the same way as is done with major and minor scales (in thirds); you could form chords based on unusual patterns, such as chord I comprising the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th scale degrees; chord II comprising the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees, etc. Remember that there are no rules here, so you can form chords in whatever way you like.
  • All of these approaches create harmonic and melodic sound worlds that are distinct from major/minor tonality, but which can yield some fresh and attractive results.
  • Consider this: "Tonality" refers to far more than mere scales and the chords formed from those scales; it mostly refers to the relationships between the notes and chords in the scales. When using alternative scales and modes, you may notice some relationships between notes and chords that seem "natural" to you, and you are of course free to use them, but bear in mind that often what seems "natural" in these scales and modes are the aspects that are most closely tied to tonality, such as dominant-tonic relationships or leading tones. It can be fruitful to explore note and chord relationships that are not similar to the more familiar aspects of tonality.
  • Incidentally, the objective, when using something like a blues or Hirajoshi scale, is not necessarily to create blues music or Japanese music (although it obviously can be if you wish); it is to write compositions that may sound to the listener as though they are related the kinds of music from which the scales originated, but with your own unique spin on them. For example, my blues-scale waltz fragment above does not sound particularly bluesy, because the F#-F-F#-G in the 3rd bar is not characteristic of blues music. More bluesy in that bar would have been F-Eb-F-G, or even Gb-F-Eb-G, because the F#/Gb in that scale is usually treated as an inflection of F or G.
  • And finally, don't forget that the concepts of "non-harmonic tones" and "modulation" can be borrowed from tonality and applied to any music you compose using these alternative scales.
  • Have fun!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mu3100 Project 1 (Atonal Theme + Variations)


Begin by creating an original harmonic structure on which the variations will be based. Follow the guidelines below. Be able to play this in class.
  1. Write a progression of 12 to 16 chords of your own invention for piano, using only whole notes and solid (non-broken) chords.

  2. No octave doublings.

  3. None of the chords should sound like an obvious sonority in functional harmony. Read these blogs to understand why:

  4. Any chord that sounds like it might have some distant relationship to tonal music (like Vb9 with an added 13th in an unusual inversion) should not function as it would in tonal music (i.e. the chord above should not “resolve” to anything resembling a I or vi chord).

  5. The chords should sound connected in some sense; avoid giving the impression of a random series of unrelated sonorities. On the other hand, the sense of connection need not be obvious.

  6. There should be a gradual increase in harmonic tension to a specific point, roughly 61.8% of the way through the progression(!), followed by a corresponding decrease in tension to the end. This proportion (61.8 : 31.2, which is the same as 1.618 : 1.0 or 1.0 : 0.618) is called the golden mean, or golden ratio, or phi, and is related to the Fibonaci Series (click links to read more about these).

  7. No chords can be re-used, although they may be re-voiced. Note that the same collection of notes can have greater or lesser tension depending on the voicing.

  8. Vary the number of notes in each chord to suit the desired tension level; avoid using four-voice chorale-style texture exclusively.

  9. Explore the possibility of using different registers on the piano, either simultaneously in the same chord (hands widely spaced apart), or as a means of contrast from one sonority to the next, or as a means of contrast for subsequent variations.

  10. Use a very slow tempo, in order to allow the listener’s ears to take in the uniqueness of each sonority before moving on to the next one.

  11. Do not introduce dynamics yet; the increase in tension should be principally effected through harmonic means, not through dynamic control. Perform your chord progression without dynamic inflections.

  12. Your primary composition tools should be your ears and instincts; when comparing chords x and y, which one feels like it has greater tension? However, if you study each chord you write to determine its intervallic content (do a Best Normal Order analysis and a Vector analysis, if you like), this information may be used when constructing new chords, or when altering existing chords for future variations. Each chord should sound “right” to your ears. Atonal music does not have to sound unpleasant, but almost all music is based on principles of tension and resolution, and your challenge is to do this within an atonal idiom.
When you play your chord progression for the class, we will each assign a "perceived tension level" score to each chord, notated on a sheet of paper, where 0 = no tension, and 10 = highest possible tension. This will be followed by a short discussion in which class members will be asked to identify the chords of greatest and least tension, and discuss any general trends with regards to tension in the chord progression (for example, you may find that the tension level increased substantially from chords 1 to 4, then took a dip for chord 5, then stayed the same for chord 6, then spiked (increased substantially) in chord 7, etc.).

  • Week 1 will be spent creating the chord progression.
  • Week 2 will be spent fine tuning it (based on feedback received in class), introducing rhythmic values to each chord (not all whole notes; try to create a sense of “timelessness” or unpredictability through notated rubato), considering the possibility of repeating a chord for rhythmic purposes or of re-using a chord, adding dynamics and articulations, marking in phrasing, and creating a melody.
  • Weeks 3, and 4, will be spent creating a new variation each week.
  • Week 5 will be spent creating the final copy of the score to be handed in, as well as a recording. The recording is normally made during the class recital, date TBA.
  • Note that the work you do each week does not have to be handed in (until the composition is complete), but it does have to be played in class.
Read "Project 1; More Details" when you have completed your chord progression.

→ Curious about what is required in order to create a "well-prepared score"?
Read the following to find out:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Originality a Detriment in Art?

I think originality is an essential element in art, but in my previous entry I suggested that there are many examples of great art in which the degree of originality is arguably not very high, but this does not seem to detract from the value of this art, or its impact on us.

Today I will go a step further and suggest that originality, and the power of art to move us, may exist in a kind of inverse relationship; that is, a groundbreaking, highly original work of art may be less likely to move us than a work that uses techniques and conventions with which we are familiar, albeit in a somewhat original way. Or, put another way, if someone makes up a beautiful poem in Klingon language, most of us are unlikely to be moved by it unless we know Klingon. Which, alas, I do not.

But first an explanation of why this topic interests me.

I post my music at, a site where anyone can upload their music for the purposes of getting feedback from others. I like it a lot; it is very welcoming to people who make the effort to be involved, which I suspect is true of all on-line communities.

In addition to written comments, you can also vote on others’ music (although some artists choose to disable this option for their submissions, preferring to receive comments only). The voting system goes from 1 to 10 in four categories, one of which is “originality/creativity,” which is explained as follows: “Has this artist created something unique or pushed the musical boundaries?”

The answer to this question is clearly “no” for every piece I have ever heard there, including my own music, if one understands “unique” to mean "highly unusual or rare," "the single one of its kind," or "radically distinctive and without equal" (definitions I found at Fear not, gentle reader; I do not therefore go around MacJams giving scores of “1” in this category. I do what I suspect most voters do; I give high scores to music that doesn’t sound too much like a blatant rip-off of something else, and medium scores to music that does. Being Canadian, my genetics prevent me from giving low scores.

In any event, the existence of this voting category at MacJams got me thinking about the meaning of “originality/creativity” (which I see as two separate categories, by the way, but that is a discussion for another day) and the importance of originality in the evaluation or creation of art.

The other reasons that this topic interests me are that (a) I am a composer, and it’s an issue that is on my mind whenever I write music, and (b) I am a composition teacher, and an idea that I try to communicate to students is that being overly concerned with the originality of one's creations may be dangerous, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

On the other hand, it seems to me that at least some originality is essential if one does not wish to write music that sounds like somebody else's. As with so many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance.

And so, to answer the question posed in today's blog entry, originality (by which I mean the quality of uniqueness, being significantly unlike anything else that exists) can indeed be a detriment in art if one of the goals of the artist is to express something that others can understand. In spite of this, it is an essential aspect of art. Perhaps it can be said that a little goes a long way, but too little goes nowhere at all!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Important is Originality in Art?

I think many people would suggest that originality is an essential ingredient in art. As an example, an excellent copy of the Mona Lisa, virtually indistinguishable from the original, might be valued at a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars, whereas if the actual Mona Lisa is as close to priceless as is possible for a painting. Two identical works of art; one original and iconic, the other a reproduction, but the first is much more highly-valued than the second by virtue of its originality.

This looks like the Mona Lisa; the actual painting, however, is in the Louvre behind bullet-proof glass.

But there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art. Many artists have created numerous variants of the same, or similar, things — consider Monet's approximately 250 paintings of water lilies (as well as his series of paintings of Poplars, Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Mornings on the Seine, and the London Houses of Parliament), Degas' extraordinary penchant for dancers as a subject (more than half of his vast output of paintings, drawings, and sculptures is devoted to the activities of the ballet dancers and dance students), or Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers — all highly regarded, but, thematically, not particularly original.

Two of the 19 paintings from Monet's "The Houses of Parliament" series. All are the same size, and from the same perspective, but show changes in lighting and hue at different times of day, and in different weather conditions.

If you enjoy visiting art museums, there is a reasonable chance you may have seen Rodin's "The Thinker," his most famous work, and one of the most-recognized (and most-satirized) sculptures ever. The original was 27.5 inches high, but there are over 20 additional casts of the work in various sizes, most of which were executed by his apprentices, as I understand it. Their lack of originality does not prevent them from being prominently displayed (and hence valued) in museums around the world.

"The Thinker," Rodin. At least 20 casts were made of this sculpture.

The paintings in Monet’s Houses of Parliament series are similar – each is of the same subject, viewed from the same vantage point, and on the same size canvas -- and dissimilar – each view represents a different time of day (which alters the lighting), and different atmospheric conditions (hazy, foggy (or smoggy), and different cloud formations). The point, as it relates to originality, is that Monet did not attempt to paint a series of completely different (and therefore highly original) paintings; he wanted to paint the same thing repeatedly in slightly different ways, and we value each individual painting highly nonetheless.

These examples, and many others, suggest that the role of originality in evaluating art may sometimes be relatively minor.

Stravinsky is supposed to have said “good composers borrow, great composers steal,” [ 1 ] which is itself an adaptation (or theft?!) of T. S. Elliott’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” from Elliott's essay on English dramatist Phillip Massinger (1920). It is a clever line, the merits of which are of course debatable, but for me the point is that artists frequently influence one another; part of the way many artists discover their own voices is by emulating, or appropriating, to varying degrees, aspects of the work of others.

Music is filled with elements common to different composers within an historical period, and sometimes across periods. When we study tonal harmony, we learn that in the "common-practice period" (roughly 1700-1900, in Europe), there were guidelines governing the way in which chords progressed. These guidelines have numerous restrictions as well as some freedoms, but the fact that there are guidelines of any sort means that originality in chord progressions was not highly valued.

Composers in the "common-practice" period made widespread use of a limited selection of musical forms, chief among them sonata form, as well as rondo, binary, ternary, and theme and variations. When we study sonata form, we marvel at the many nuanced differences we find in different compositions, even though the big picture form is the same. Other common elements include the use of Alberti bass accompaniment figures (although it had numerous variants), an extremely-limited selection of cadence types (virtually every composition from that period ended with an 'authentic' (V-I) cadence), common phrase lengths (especially 4-bar phrases) and phrase-structures (although numerous exceptions can be found), and writing for commonly-found ensembles such as the string quartet.

And yet, despite the restrictive nature of these common elements, thousands of wonderful works were written. There is originality to be found in all great (or even good!) works to be sure, but, as with Monet’s parliament paintings, the differences are often fairly nuanced.

1 Although there are numerous attributions of this quote to Stravinsky all over the web, I have not come across any that cite a source for it. It seems entirely possible that he said this, but I would like to find out if he actually said or wrote this… If anyone has a citation for this quote, please let me know. Of course, it might also be a sentiment that hacks the world over like to attribute to a famous composer in order to justify theft of intellectual property.

Originality — Does it have any role in art?

Compare these two songs (you may have to wait a few seconds until they load):

Someone posted the first of the above videos in a forum thread on, a site where musicians give each other feedback on their musical creations, and the title of the thread was "Lazy Songwriting."

The artist in the first video, MPHO ("pron. MM'POH") sings a song over the instrumental tracks from Martha and the Muffins 1980 hit, Echo Beach (the second video above). MPHO uses different lyrics and a different melody, and there are a few other differences, but it would appear that a substantial portion of MPHO's song uses the actual instrumental tracks from Echo Beach, or instrumental tracks that are so close to the original as to be indistinguishable from it.

The issue is this: Is this lack of originality in "Box N Locks" (the title of the MPHO song) problematic, perhaps to the point of dismissing MPHO as a plagiarist, or do we applaud the creativity of MPHO in taking tracks from an existing song and coming up with a new treatment?

(Let us assume, by the way, that MPHO has acknowledged the debt her song has to Echo Beach, and that the owners of Echo Beach are receiving the royalties due them from MPHO's treatment of their instrumental tracks. I do not know if this is actually the case or not, but I am more interested in the ethical issues here than I am in the legal ones.)

Now, before we get too caught up in questioning the ethics of "Box N Locks," consider the following:

(Incidentally, the above video is itself based on a pretty famous YouTube video called "4 chords, 36 songs," so the idea for this video on unoriginality is itself unoriginal.)

… In case you were not willing to listen all the way to the end of the previous video, the gist is that it plays portions of 65 pop songs all based on the same progression of four chords: I-V-vi-IV (in the key of C, this would be C-G-Am-F, repeated frequently). The list is hardly exhaustive; there are many more songs that could be added to that list.

There are numerous other oft-used chord progressions in songs too, like I-vi-IV-V (e.g., C Am F G), and the ever-popular I-IV-V (e.g., C F G), or I-IV-V-IV (C F G F), or I-V-IV (C G F), I-iii-IV C Em F), etc.

When I was a jazz guitar student, my teacher gave me a chord progression to learn for improvisation practice called "Rhythm Changes." After a few weeks, it occurred to me to ask about the origin of the name, and he told me that the chord progression came from the 1930 Gershwin song,  I Got Rhythm, but it has been used in hundreds other songs as well. The Wikipedia article on this progression calls it "ubiquitous" in jazz music, and adds that by writing a new melody over its chord changes, thereby creating a composition of a type known as a contrafact, a jazz musician could claim copyright to the new melody rather than acknowledge Gershwin's inspiration and pay royalties to his estate.  [Read more about it here if you like.]

Tunes and lyrics can be copyrighted, but chord progressions can't.  If a songwriter's objective is to write a "hit," it would be virtually impossible to write a chord progression in which large portions have not previously been used in various other songs, and copyright law reflects this. Thus, when it comes to chord progressions, originality does not play a very large role in many musical genres (pop, blues, folk, jazz).

There are, of course, exceptions; I don't think the chord progression in John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" had been used before the 1960 release of the album of the same name, but, many have used this chord progression for other songs since then, to the extent that jazz musicians refer to it as Coltrane changes. If you aspire to be a jazz musician, you pretty much have to learn to play and improvise over this in every key (and at a break-neck tempo!).

The title of this post — "Originality - Does it have any role in art?" — is mostly tongue-in-cheek; I suspect that most would consider it to play an essential role in art, but, as I have suggested elsewhere (see my next blog entry), its importance may be overrated. 

If I were a pop musician and, in the course of writing a song, discovered that my chord progression was one that someone else had used, it would seem foolish (or at least impractical) to conclude that I ought not to continue writing that song because of its lack of originality. I suspect that the odds would be extremely slim that most songwriters could ever come up with a truly original chord progression while remaining rooted in the functional tonality used by virtually all pop songs.

If you concern yourself too much with the challenge of creating a truly-original chord progression in pop music, you might find it very difficult to finish a song. On the other hand, if everything you wrote sounded very much like the music of others, you might have a hard time carving out a niche for yourself that distinguished you from others. But would this would stand in the way of establishing a successful career in pop music? I doubt it.

I would argue that originality has an essential role in art, but it can be an impediment to the creative flow for an artist to become overly concerned with it (as I have written in another blog), and so perhaps the most practical approach would be to focus primarily on writing the music you want to hear, but with at least some awareness of the need to make that music personal, thereby distinguishing it from the music of others.

And if by "original" we mean "completely unlike anything that has been composed before," we would be hard-pressed to come up with truly original music, and if we did, it seems likely that it would be so strange that few could relate to it. Incidentally, I would never suggest that you "shouldn't" write original/unusual music for this reason; write what you would like to hear, and if it is highly bizarre, so be it!

I listened to a YouTube video several months ago of a Beatles rehearsal of "I'm So Tired," a John Lennon song, from the "white" (i.e., untitled, except for the group name) album, where Paul was singing the tune in a goofy kind of way, but what struck me most about it was that the chord progression for the first line of the song was I-vi-IV-V — a ubiquitous progression in 1950's "Doo-Wop" music — whereas in the album version (sung by John), the second chord is VII (yup, a major chord built on the leading tone). A small thing, perhaps, but the use of the VII chord is highly-unconventional, and gives the song a significantly-different feel:

One of the things that makes Beatles songs so musically compelling for me is the occasional use of unexpected chords, while not going so far beyond expected conventions as to alienate listeners.

Here is the album version, where the second chord in verses is (usually) a major VII:

DIGRESSION ALERT!  Incidentally, "Sexy Sadie," another Lennon song from the "white" album, also starts with a I (G) and moves to major VII (F#) for the second chord, but the third chord is iii (thus it's G - F# - Bm), which makes the second chord a V of iii:
G - F# - Bm - C - D     Sexy Sadie, what have you done? You've made a fool of everyone,
G - F# - C -D               You've made a fool of everyone,
G - F# - F -D                Sexy Sadie, what have you done? 
There is nothing particularly unusual about a secondary dominant (V of iii), but in the second line above, the VII (F#) chord is not a secondary dominant: G - F# - C -D; following a major VII with a IV is quite unusual (extremely so in classical music!). 
Continuing, the third line above begins with: G - F# - F - D, which is another unusual progression (particularly the first three chords of I - VII - bVII - V). 
The chord progression in each line is similar, but varied slightly and unexpectely each time, and it avoids the ubiquitous Doo-Wop progression that could have been used.

To conclude, borrowing is integral to many musical traditions, perhaps all of them. One manifestation is the re-use of chord progressions as discussed above, or in a standard 12-bar blues progression and its many variants. In jazz, playing standards — albeit in your own, somewhat original way — is a common practice. This is also true of folk music.

And the practice is not confined to borrowing chord progressions; other examples include:

  • Melodies; despite the fact that they can be copyrighted, melodic phrases, fragments, and ornaments are frequently re-used.  
  • I understand that in rap and hip-hop music it is common to borrow (i.e., appropriate) "beats" and entire sampled sections of other songs. 
  • Along similar lines, a very popular YouTube video is on the "Amen Break," a drum fill used in countless R and B and rock songs. 
  • Classical music uses a relatively small selection of cadence formulas, as well as numerous other commonly-used progressions, accompaniment patterns, devices (such as sequences), and textures.

Of course originality matters — I become annoyed when I hear something that sounds like a blatant rip-off of something else —but a little bit can go a long way, and obsessing over it can be a creativity-killer. So don't!  ;)

BONUS COVERAGE! Here are two more videos (thanks to MacJammer "Elevator Funk" for pointing out the relationship between these two songs):

→ De La Soul - "Me Myself And I" (1989)
→ Funkadelic - "(Not Just) Knee Deep" (1979)

Commentary from Wikipedia:

["Not Just) Knee Deep"] is considered a classic by many and has been heavily sampled by many artists. Hip hop group De La Soul sampled the intro to the song in their hit "Me, Myself, and I", which reached #34 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #1 on the R and B Charts.

Also LL Cool J ("Nitro"), Above The Law ("Never Missin A Beat"), Tone Loc ("Funky Cold Medina"), MC Hammer & Deion Sanders ("Straight to My Feet") and Snoop Dogg ("Who Am I (What's My Name)?"), G-Funk Intro and his unreleased track "Do U Remember". Geto Boys sampled the intro for "Homie Don't Play That". Dr. Dre also sampled the baseline beat for his song "Dre Day". The Black Eyed Peas also used the beat behind it to remix their hit single "Shut Up". X-Clan sampled the song in Funkin' Lesson. It was also interpolated in the song "Get Away" by Bobby Brown.