Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Sampling of Ideas and Techniques for Composing


  1. Modes of limited transposition (Messiaen’s term), 
  2. Non-Messiaenic modes of limited transposition (e.g., modes that repeat every 2 or 3 8ves)
  3. Non-Western scales (e.g., pelog, slendra (Indonesia),  Hejaz scale (middle east, and flamenco; AKA Phrygian dominant scale, Jewish scale), Indian scales, etc.)
  4. Octatonic scale (A.K.A. “diminished scale”)
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale
  7. Any other made-up, or synthetic, scale


  1. Added-Value Rhythms
  2. Additive Rhythms
  3. Cross Rhythm
  4. Eastern European (asymmetrical; 2+2+3, 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+3, etc.), West African, and other world rhythms
  5. Free (“timeless”, no sense of pulse)
  6. Isorhythms
  7. Jazz (?)
  8. Mixed meters ( 3/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 7/16 |, etc.)
  9. Motor rhythms (continuous motion)
  10. Non-retrogradable
  11. Nonretrogradable Rhythm
  12. Polymeters
  13. Polyrhythms
  14. Polytempo
  15. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  16. Tempo fluctuations (i.e., sudden/gradual tempo changes, metric modulation)


  1. Various programmatic moods, such as aggressive, pretty, wistful, playful, demented, nervous, sad (various kinds), numb (catatonic), angry, fearful, etc.
  2. New jazz, third stream
  3. Fusions; combining popular music genres (rock/electropop/trance/hippety-hop, etc.) with various post-tonal art-music devices
  4. Minimalism (repetitive (trance-inducing); sparse and static (trance-inducing))
  5. New simplicity
  6. Borrowing/adopting elements of music from other cultures: Japan, Eastern Europe, India, etc.
  7. Expressive (romantic) versus Non-expressive (mechanistic)


  1. Any systematic (or non-systematic) approach to harmony not rooted in tonality
  2. Clusters
  3. Extended and non-tonal tertian harmony (e.g., Scriabin’s “mystic” chord)
  4. Extended instrumental and vocal techniques (multiphonics, prepared piano, etc.)
  5. Graphic notation
  6. Hindemith’s approach to harmony (from The Craft of Musical Composition)
  7. Indeterminacy, aleatorism, controlled aleatorism
  8. Klangfarbenmelodie, texture-based organization
  9. Microtones
  10. Mixed media
  11. Modulation
  12. Motivic unity; set theory (post-tonal); using a limited number of specific intervals
  13. Music without melody
  14. Nihilism, Antimusic, Decategorization, Biomusic, (what the heck do these terms mean?)
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal)
  16. Planing
  17. Pointillism
  18. Polyrhythms
  19. Polystylism
  20. Polytonality, polymodality
  21. Quotation
  22. Saturation (Ligeti, industrial music)
  23. Serialism (“total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres)
  24. Serialism (pitch)
  25. Spectral music
  26. Any combination of the above


Kim Codner said...

I feel that everything in hear is so valuable. If you're ever stuck for an idea, come to this list and voila! Thanks for posting this information!

Personally when I write piano pieces (I guess it's because I play the instrument, and everything I write begins there first), that I don't ever have a specific technique to go about writing the piece. I basically sit down and play. And if I like it, I write it and expand upon it. Seems weird but I find if I don't try to do something formulaic like plan it out first, it will be written better and with more of my personality into it.

However on the other side, sometimes when I do this, I play piano styles that suit my mood... and then if I leave a piece and come back to it, it's sometimes difficult to get into that same state/mood again to continue writing. I've learned to fix this a little by making a story to my pieces, and then if I rethink of what the story was, I can go back to my piece, rethink about it, and get right back into it. It's been working for me since this summer and hopefully can help someone else! Woot!

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for posting this! It's so helpful. Sometimes when I'm writing a piece I forget all the different ways and things I can use in a piece.

A. Rideout said...

I think this list is great. It would be cool for a class, or on your own personal time to try to write a piece a week or bi weekly using each of these techniques. I think it would keep the composer on there toes, learning different styles and how to write for them. I also think that it would make the composer go places they have never gone and make them think outside the box... to try to write something they are uncomfortable with. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece or anything that would be performed in public it would just be an awsome challenge and great way to learn.
I wish I had enough time to try and accomplish writting in styles that I have never given much thought towards, maybe thats what I will do this summer.

Aiden Hartery said...

Usually whenever I begin to compose it is at the piano in some way, shape or form. I am fairly comfortable and proficient at it, so ideas come pretty easily at the piano. Usually I'll just start playing something. Maybe I'll pick a key/mode, try typical progressions, then change them, etc.

For my pieces with the piano project, I tried to pick one thing and stick to it as the main structure or building blocks. My first piece had polychords, the second trills/tremolos, and the forth a hand/direction and rhythm pattern.

Trying to compose a piece with different ideas or techniques was both challenging a fun, and I will use different and more exotic techniques with future compositions.

David said...

Like Kim said last year this is like an "instant ideas" list. I've used a lot of these ideas in my previous compositions. There are actually a couple of terms that I don't even know the meaning of, "cross rhythms" being one of them hah. This got me thinking that it may be interesting to try to incorporate what I think the meaning of it might be and see what happens. I've actually done similar things to this in the past. Mostly out of ignorance more so than intelligence. Sometimes I'd start a piece thinking I was creating a certain thing or following a certain form and then finding out that what I thought I was doing was actually not at all what I thought it was. Makes for some neat ideas though, then you can say "Oh of course! I meant to do that!".

Bekah Simms said...

I think I'm the first of this year to comment on this blog post!

I love this list. I think we spend so much time in theory looking at stuff that's either clearly in a major or minor key that we sometimes forget all the other sound areas at our disposal - even if we see them all the time in our rep!

Personally, I love experimenting with modes because a lot of them have a "folkier" feel; the possibilities for "beauty" and traditional melodic material are there, but with just enough spice for it to sound intriguing.

Synthetic scales are also a lot of fun! I usually think of Bartok whenever I hear one (probably because of the similarity to Eastern European folk modes) but once you find one that really resonates with you, you can use it to create a pretty distinct sound :)

Luke said...

I've bookmarked this page! Although this list isn't exhaustive, it has so many ideas for how to get something down on paper - which is sometimes the biggest challenge. Often we don't think of little things that can be used to expand and idea, but there are ones that often come to mind, expansion and dimunition, inversion and retrograde, echo, repetition, transposition, the list goes on and on. If we open our minds to other possibilities, we can most of the time find something we hadn't previously considered. Most composers sit at a piano and start fiddling around and eventually find something that's worth writing down. One tool that I have began to use more recently is the audio to midi processor in Ableton Live 9. My instrument of choice is the violin, which has limited capabilities in some cases, but more expansive ones in other areas. I find it useful to compose something on the violin, play it into my computer, and have Ableton spit out a midi file that I can import into Finale and play around with until I like the way it sounds. The wonders of the 21st century!! I have found this to be a very effective method of starting and developing a musical idea, and with some of the techniques talked about in this post, I will be armed with some more ideas for how to develop my compositions.

Colin Bonner said...

Seeing all of these techniques in one list I am stricken by how narrow my own methods of composition are. from past experience, when I've tried to use anyone of these techniques it has been because it was required for an assignment. In these cases I've always tried to (maybe stubbornly) keep a foot on my familiar turf of conventional sonorities and common musical structures. This list has challenged me to more adventurous. It seems like a worthy goal to try to compose of couple of short, maybe minute long, "experiments" trying these different techniques as a way to branching into less familiar territory.

As a smaller side note: scales are awesome. I think that coming up with an interval series or pitch collection is always helpful starting a composition :)

Robert Humber said...

This list is awesome. It is quite amazing just to see how many approaches you can take to composition.

Usually I start with an idea of the sort of harmonic language I would like to use, maybe I have a quick motif or two in my head. Often I will have a mood that I'm looking to accomplish. From there, I fiddle around on the piano for a little while to find some inspiration and eventually begin writing.

I'm wondering if any future commenters or you (Dr. Ross) would like to share how you usually prepare to write. Do you go in with very clear instructions of what techniques (ex. pointillism), which scales or modes, etc. you are going to use? How much just happens in the process of writing and how often is your finished product way different than you had imagined in the beginning of the process?

Again, really interesting and helpful list, Dr. Ross.

Nader Tabrizchi said...

This blog provides some great ideas for composing in lots of detail! I especially like your points on different techniques that can be incorporated into a composition. I usually start by writing chords many of which might be clusters. Following this I start breaking them down into smaller four or five note chords and write a melody which incorporates them into it. During this period I start inserting articulations and dynamics where they sound surprising or nice to me, and where I think they work best. Also, there are quite a few techniques here on your list which I have never heard of before. To me that is exciting because I can go and learn even more techniques which can help widen my range of knowledge in composing. I also like your information on musical character. I usually enjoy writing a thick texture during the opening of a piece usually in a kind of determined approach of style and sound. I follow it up by exploring the wider range of the instrument sometimes incorporate a light playful mood, or maybe even a sad mood at times. I also really think I should check out this combination or fusion of genres you talk about in this post. I think something like that really stands out as fascinating and it really makes me curios about experimenting with it! Being able to combine two or more different genres into one is most certainly something I will look at doing in the future!

Hannah Wadman-Scanlan said...

Wow I wish I had found this post at the beginning of the semester! There has been so many times where I’ve been stuck for an idea or a technique to switch things up. It’s funny because we have such a broad list of techniques available to use, but it’s so easy to get stuck and feel as though we’re out of ideas. Having a physical list like this is so useful, especially since it covers off so many categories. Sometimes I feel we just need to be reminded of the different possibilities because it can be easy to box yourself into using only a handful of rhythms or textures. This is a great source for inspiration– like I said, I wish I had found this earlier!

Kristin Wills said...

These are all good techniques to experiment with, and writing short, simple pieces based on them can be a good exercise. I find it particularly interesting to use unusual or synthetic modes. When you write in a completely original new mode, it can be interesting and challenging, because there are no predetermined rules for how the harmony works, and how the chords should resolve. This forces you to come up with these rules yourself, which, in my experience, leads to the piece being more organized overall.

Duncan Stenhouse said...

This list is extremely interesting and valuable. I feel like I myself as a composer have not even heard of many of these (especially under the section labeled techniques) and can't wait to look some of them up and try to learn new ways to make my music more interesting. I find that before this course I had mainly messed around with rhythmic concepts, odd meters and extreme changes in time signatures but after taking the intro to comp course I have found myself fascinated with alternative scales. This summer I will not be doing much back home and so I have challenged myself to explore new modes and scales by writing at least 15 short pieces for piano in non traditional scales or modes to broaden my musical horizons and stretch myself as a composer.