Monday, February 27, 2012


The topic of spectral music came up in class today, and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about it.

Let's start by listening to an excerpt from "La Barque Mystique" by Tristan Murail, chosen in part because the instrumentation is very similar to that of the ensemble some of you are writing for (second project, W2012).  This may also give you ideas for textures and roles of the instruments to use in your own composition.

You may have noticed that there appears to be no melody.  The texture changes frequently, but at no point do we get anything that might be described as melody with accompaniment, or homophony.  The instruments often play different material from one another, some of it linear, but it doesn't appear to be contrapuntal in sense of intertwining relatively independent melodic lines.

Instead, we hear a succession of sonorities for the most part, often begun in the piano, with other instruments contributing pitches to the piano's, thereby changing the overall musical colour.  Many of the sonorities are sustained, but there is sections with short bursts of activity, particularly in the piano.

To me, the effect is of many "splashes" of sound colour.

You also may not have heard anything resembling a regular pulse here; it may well be that the performers are feeling a pulse that helps keep them together, but it does not sound like metrically predictable music in any way.

And so, with no melody and no regular pulse, we might well ask, what is it that holds this music together?  The answer is that it uses timbre (sound colour) as its primary organizing principle; it is an example of spectral music.  An even clearer example of this is Gérard Grisey's Partiels, which can be found at the end of this blog.  Have a listen to it now if you like.

From Wikipedia (accessed today; disregard the fact that the second sentence is not a sentence):
Spectral music (or spectralism) is musical composition practice where compositional decisions are often informed by the analysis of sound spectra. Computer-based sound spectrum analysis using tools like DFT, FFT, and spectrograms. The spectral approach focuses on manipulating the features identified through this analysis, interconnecting them, and transforming them.

The spectral approach originated in France in the early 1970s, and techniques were developed, and later refined, primarily at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique [IRCAM], Paris, with the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, by composers such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Murail has described spectral music as an aesthetic rather than a style, not so much a set of techniques as an attitude – that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time". Julian Anderson indicates that a number of major composers associated with spectralism consider the term inappropriate, misleading, and reductive. More recently (2003) the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference redefined the term "spectral music" to encompass any music that foregrounds timbre as an important element of structure or musical language.
Some points of particular interest are:
  1. Murail describes spectralism as an aesthetic, rather than a style, which I take to mean that he regards it as a principle or value within his compositional philosophy;
  2. Murail's statement that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time" makes me think of light passing through a slowly turning prism or crystal,  changing colour gradually and beautifully;
  3. Some composers associated with spectralism consider the term misleading, which suggests to me that different composers define the term differently; and
  4. The Istanbul Spectral Music Conference (ISMC; 2003) definition of spectral music encompasses any music in which timbre is an important element of structure or musical language; this seems significantly more open-ended than the definition found at the beginning of the Wikepedia article (compositional decisions … often informed by the (computer) analysis of sound spectra).
If the idea of composing music in which colour is an important organizing principle appeals to you, then I encourage you to give it a try.  You are free to define spectralism in whatever way you wish, be it the more "scientific," computer sound analysis model, or the more open-ended, ISMC redefinition, or even some other definition of your own making.

One of the wonderful freedoms in composing is that you can define terms relating to your compositional practice in any way that is meaningful for you. Your understanding of these concepts may be spot on, or seriously flawed, but ultimately it doesn't matter as long as you compose good music.  Good music can grow out of an idiosyncratic or even inaccurate understanding of a term or concept, such as spectralism, polystylism, minimalism, etc.

I think it is important for composers, even experienced ones, to constantly find ways to increase our compositional vocabulary (knowledge of techniques, devices, and styles), and trying a variety of compositional approaches such as spectralism, polystylism, etc., in whatever way we understand these terms, are ways of doing this.

Below are more videos of what could be considered to be spectral music (the first might not be considered spectral by some, but it is certainly an example of #4 above):

Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)

John ChowningStria (1977)

Iancu Dumitrescu - Cogito/Trompe l'Oeil (part 2/2)

Want to learn more? Read Introduction to the Pitch Organization of French Spectral Music, by François Rose, in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 6-39.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


(From Wikipedia; accessed 2012-02-12):
 Polystylism is the use of multiple styles or techniques in literature, art, film, or, especially, music, and is a postmodern characteristic.

Some prominent contemporary polystylist composers include Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Colgrass, Lera Auerbach, Sofia Gubaidulina, George Rochberg, Alfred Schnittke, Django Bates, Alexander Zhurbin, Lev Zhurbin and John Zorn. However, Gubaidulina, among others, has rejected the term as not applicable to her work. Polystylist composers from earlier in the twentieth century include Charles Ives and Eric Satie. Among literary figures, James Joyce has been referred to as a polystylist. Though perhaps not the original source of the term, the first important essay on the subject is Alfred Schnittke's essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music (1971)". The composers cited by Schnittke as those who make use of polystylism are Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Edison Denisov, Hans Werner Henze, Mauricio Kagel, Jan Klusák, György Ligeti, Carl Orff, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henri Pousseur, Rodion Shchedrin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Slonimsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky, Boris Tishchenko, Anton Webern, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann
I don't find this definition very helpful.  Is polystylism applied to the use of multiple styles within the same piece — this is how I understand the term — or the use of multiple styles in different works?  If it is the latter, than I think the term is so widely applicable that it becomes meaningless; it would be difficult to name any composers whose style did not change during the course of their creative lives.

Composers have often written in different styles for different occasions; one style for church music, another for chamber music, and perhaps even another for "showy" pieces like concerti, or for theatrical works.  Bach's music has been described as a "fusion of national styles" (Manred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 1947), referring to his melding of the styles of the two dominant musical cultures of his time, Italy and France, with inherited German practices to create his own unique musical style.

In the early baroque period Monteverdi and other composers wrote in two distinct styles, referred to as prima practica (the older, polyphonic style of Palestrina) and seconda practica (the more modern homophonic and monodic styles, the use of basso continuo and freer dissonance treatment), also called stile antico and stile moderno.  Even late-baroque composers like Bach (in the B minor Mass) and Handel sometimes wrote in the antico style, as did Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (in the Missa Solemnis).

Schnittke's list isn't much help either; if Boulez, Webern, and Pärt are polystylists, are there any composers who aren't?

Here's what I think is interesting about the concept of polystylism for composers of our time:  There is a huge range of musical practices (styles, genres, techniques) coexisting in the world today.  The inspiring part is that, as a composer, you can draw from any of these if you wish, AND you can even find ways to make multiple genres coexist within a composition, if that appeals to you.

This is a (limited) list of "non-popular" music genres, from Wikipedia:
  • Art music: classical music and opera.
  • Music written for the score of a play, stage musical, operetta, zarzuela, film or similar: Filmi, incidental music, video game music, music hall songs and showtunes. 
  • Ballroom music: tango, pasodoble, cha cha cha and others. 
  • Religious music: gospel, Gregorian chant, spirituals, hymns and the like. 
  • Military music, marches, national anthems and related compositions. 
  • Regional and national musics with no significant commercial impact abroad, except when a version of an international genre: Traditional music, folk, oral traditions, sea shanties, work songs, nursery rhymes, Arabesque, Chalga, Enka, Flamenco, indigenous music and Mor lam sing.
As for popular music genres, there are so many that understanding or even listing them all is probably impossible, with lots of overlap between some genres, and disagreement about the definition for many.  Nevertheless, somewhat trusty old Wikipedia has a list of popular music genres that you can check out here, if you wish, broken down into the following main categories:
  • African 
  • Avant-Garde 
  • Blues 
  • Comedy music 
  • Country 
  • Easy listening 
  • Electronic 
  • Modern folk 
  • Hip Hop & Rap 
  • Jazz 
  • Latin American 
  • Pop 
  • R & B 
  • Rock 
  • Ska 
  • Other
Borrowing elements of the popular (or even unpopular) music of one's time has been part of compositional practice at least since the middle ages, so you wouldn't exactly be blazing new trails if you chose to do this today.  What I believe is different nowadays, however, is that we are aware of many more genres of music than was ever the case previously, thanks to communications technology such as radio, television, and especially the Internet.

Many young composers studying in universities are experiencing something akin to the prima practica and seconda practica of the early baroque period, wherein they write (or listen to) music in any of the many popular genres for bands they might be in, or write songs for solo performance, or charts for jazz performance, and then switch to another mode of composing for their contemporary classical music composition courses.


Just kidding.  I think it is wonderful that multiple musical practices coexist (variety is the spice of life, and all that), but the point of this blog is that it is also fine and natural to explore ways of combining multiple practices in the contemporary classical music you write.  And vice-versa too, if you can figure out a way to make that work.

There have been many classical composers who were influenced by jazz — here is a limited sampling of some of them — but the influence has gone the other way as well, with jazz artists such as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock all having cited the influence of classical music on their own practices.  Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain has jazzy versions of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and de Falla's El Amor Brujo.

Just for fun, have a look at Wikipedia's list of popular music genres some time, and see if there are any there that you could reference in some way in your next composition.  How about a little African highlife mixed with modes of limited transposition?  Or lo-fi, or psydeco, or elevator music, or video game music, or Eurodance, or downtempo, or or new jack swing, or …

Well, you get the picture.  There are a lot of musical genres out there, and if you find any of them musically interesting, consider incorporating aspects of these genres into your compositions if you wish.

Postscript — My response to some great comments:

Nice to see that this has engendered a discussion!

Joe (AKA "soup") writes about the importance of internal consistency in a composition, and while that is a fine principle (it seemed to work pretty well for Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and possibly composers whose last names did not begin with B as well), I'm not sure that polystylism necessarily works in opposition to internal consistency.

After all, as I referenced above, Bach blended different national styles within compositions; the fourth keyboard Partita begins with a very French "Ouverture," followed by a German Allemande, a Courante that is a French dance, but this one seems to be a French/German/English hybrid, an Aria that sounds Italianate to me, a Sarabande, a dance said to have originated in Spain, although this one doesn't sound very Spanish to me, a Menuet, which is dance of French origin (although once again, I'm not sure how French this one sounds; it could be Italian or German), and a Gigue, a dance originally from England, but, when spelled this way, is French.

Is there "internal consistency" within this Partita? I would say yes, definitely, but perhaps the consistency operates on a deeper level (harmonic language, the consistent technique of Bach's musical language), whereas the stylistic differences perhaps operate more on a surface level.

Joe also mentions risks; composition involves risks, but they are of relatively minor consequence. Every composer fails a lot. If you try something and it doesn't work as expected, you just try it again, and keep at it until you are satisfied, after which you move on to the next challenge. 

I don't know that polystylism increases the risk that a composition will be lacking in internal consistency very much; I think that composers for whom internal consistency is a priority will find a way to incorporate it into their music, whether they write polystylistic music or not.  Put another way, "internal consitency" refers to a lot more than style, although it can refer to style as well, of course.

If you like the idea of polystylism AND you also like the idea of internal consistency, you can find a way to combine the two.

For those who haven't already heard it, here's a link to "Dream Dance," a piece some have called the finest piano composition since Greek antiquity (admitedly, the people calling it this are my kids, and I told them to say that if asked). It touches on different styles as it bops along (Gershwin, Glass, Bach, Haydn, Scott Joplin, and even some Clark Ross in there somewhere), and I *think* it has internal consistency!

In response to Richard Ford's comment, thanks for sharing your thoughts!  It's always a thrill when someone I don't know leaves a comment.  You raise an important point: Just how important is "internal consistency" anyway?  I suspect every composer would have their own take on this, but the point is that we should at least ask the question from time to time; we don't have to follow centuries of classical music tradition if we don't think that tradition speaks to us or our audiences. 

Thanks to all commentators so far, and further comments always welcome!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Writing for Chamber Ensemble

As mentioned in my previous post, for your second and "major" project this semester, you have the choice of writing for band or small chamber ensemble.  Today's post has information on the second option.

Length: 5 minutes minimum

Difficulty level:  Writing for professionals frees you to write more challenging music than would otherwise be the case, but it is still of highest priority (both for the purposes of this course, as well as more generally) to write idiomatically for instruments.  Most professionals don't mind playing challenging music if it is written idiomatically (and if the challenges make musical sense to them), but they don't tend to like playing music that is poorly-written or poorly-notated.  A pragmatic consideration is that the higher the difficulty level, the lower the number of ensembles that would be able to play your music.

Instrumentation:  The Ora Ensemble consists of flute, violin, cello, and piano.  You should write for all instruments in the ensemble, although sections of your composition can feature different combinations within the group more prominently if you wish.

Deadline:  12:00 noon on Monday, 9 April, 2012 (this is both the course deadline and the ensemble's deadline).  This is for the score AND parts.  This is a firm deadline; late submissions will not be accepted.  This is eight weeks from tomorrow's (Monday's) class.

Reading:  Your work will be read by the Ora ensemble shortly after submission, possibly towards the end of that week.  The date of the reading needs to be finalized, and when it is I will announce it here.

Performance:  There is a chance that the Ora ensemble will perform one or more works in a concert in April/May (date TBA).

Copies:  I require one bound copy.  I would expect that the ensemble would like at least one bound copy and parts as well, but possibly they would like four bound copies plus parts (i.e., one copy for each member).

Other information:
  • Scores should be printed on both sides of the page.   
  • The following information should be included in the score (usually on the left hand page opposite page one of the music):  
    • Duration;
    • Instrumentation (instrument list in score order);
    • Notes to the performers (if applicable); and 
    • Program notes.
  • It should be a single movement, showing development of your musical ideas (i.e, not multiple movements).
  • More information to follow.
Other posts that you may find interesting and useful:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writing for Wind Band

For the second project this term, you have a choice between writing a piece for wind band or writing a piece for a reading by the Ora Ensemble.  Today's post has information about the wind band project (and is an edited re-post of my 27 Feb. 2009 entry).

Length: 5 minutes minimum

Difficulty level:  Grade 3-4, if submitting it to the Gower Community Band "Terra Nova" Competition.  For the purposes of this course it can be of higher difficulty, but be aware that doing so might disqualify your piece from consideration for the Gower competition, as well as for the CBA competition, if you plan on entering either of these.

What do those grade levels mean?  Good question!  After researching this on the Internet for the better part of an hour, I was unable to find an "official" explanation of grade levels, but PLEASE correct me if there is such a document, and I will post it to this blog immediately.  In the meantime, below are links that explain grade levels, but note that these explanations differ from one another.  The third has many recordings of pieces at different grade levels, which might help give you a sense of what particular grades of concert band music sound like:
Chart of Band Instrument Ranges for levels III and IV, according to Saskatchewan Band Association:

  • These are written ranges, meaning that transposing instruments (Cl., Sax., Tpt., Hn.) will not sound as written.
  • Be aware that not all notes within the ranges of these instruments are equally easy to play.  The most comfortable notes for brass players are usually within the lowest octave above their fundamental note (for Bb tpt. it is Bb; for F hn. it is F, etc.); if they have to play notes in the highest portion of the ranges above for protracted periods they tend to experience lip fatigue.  
  • Source:, page 19.
  • I created this chart myself; in cases of any discrepancies between my chart and the SBA ranges, go with their ranges.
  • Thanks to Jason Caslor for drawing the SBA guidelines to my attention.
  • Other band associations or publishers may have slightly different ranges for these levels, but this at least gives you something to go on.
SBA Available Dynamic Levels:  The same publication cited above lists (on page 15) six available dynamic levels for level IV:  pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, along with cresc., decresc., morendo, sfz., fp.  Frankly, my feeling is that this range of dynamic levels should suffice for almost any kind of music you want to write.

Available Articulations:  The SBA publication cited above references articulations (with a code: FO#3), but does not appear to explain what the code means (it claims to do so on page 6, but I could find no explanation on that page).  In any event, I would suggest limiting yourself to the following articulations:  Staccato (.), Accent ( > ), Tenuto (—), Tongued (notes not under a slur are normally tongued individually), and Slurred (but use common sense in your slur patterns; irregular patterns are probably not feasible at this level).

SBA Available Meters:  2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 5/8, 7/8.  I would guess that if 5/8 and 7/8 are available, 5/4 and 7/4 would also be meters that level IV bands could handle, but I could be wrong.  I would also guess that, while the listed meters are available, frequent meter changes could move your composition beyond levels III and IV.

SBA Available Note Values:  All note values from 16th to whole note, with dots on eighth notes or larger.  Triplet 8ths and triplet quarters also available.  As with everything else, common sense is necessary here; there are combinations of these values that can make for very tricky rhythms, and too many contrasting rhythmic patterns happening simultaneously can also be tricky, possibly raising the level of your composition beyond III and IV.  Syncopation and hemiola are listed as being available, again within common sense.

Instrumentation:  See information posted on the main School of Music bulletin board.  For that matter, read all posted information about the competition before you begin.

Deadline:  12 noon, 9 April, 2012 (this is both the course deadline and the Gower deadline).  Note that the deadline if you write for the Ora Ensemble is the same.

Reading opportunity:  Dr. Jason Caslor has agreed to schedule readings of your concert band compositions on 28 March, 2012.  I am guessing he would like score and parts at least a couple of days in advance of that reading, but I strongly encourage you to aim for this deadline; this will allow you time to make changes/improvements before you hand in the final version.

Copies:  The GCB Terra Nova Program requires four bound copies; I require one.

Other information:
  • Scores should be printed on both sides of the page.   
  • The following information should be included in the score (usually on the left hand page opposite page one of the music):  
    • Duration;
    • Instrumentation (instrument list in score order, including number of divisi required, such as "Flutes 1, Flutes 2, Flutes 3," etc.);
    • Notes to the conductor and performers (if applicable); and 
    • Program notes.  Note that the GCB Terra Nova Program requires program notes.
  • The GCB Terra Nova program also requires that the composer's name not appear anywhere on the score (this information, along with contact information, should be submitted in a sealed envelope accompanying your submission).  
  • The copy you submit to me should have your name on it.
Here are my suggestions:
  1. Compose using "short score" format. Essentially, this means writing something that looks like it could be piano music (i.e., written on treble and bass clefs), or possibly 3-5 staves per system, possibly assigning different staves to different groups within the band. This gives you better control of the composing process. It's much easier to get a sense of the form and create longer lines when you can see more of your music on a single page (such as 4-5 systems of music on one page), as opposed to one humungous system per page.

  2. Write annotations on on your short score indicating instrumentation for particular sections or lines of music if you have something specific in mind. For example, you could write "clarinets and flutes in octaves" over a line, or "brass" over a chorale-like chord progression.  If you don't have specific instruments in mind, no need to do this; just figure it out later when you are orchestrating.

  3. I've had teachers insist that it is best to begin 'orchestrating' ('bandating?' 'bandifying?') your score after you have completed the previous two steps, but there is no rule about this; there are advantages to orchestrating as you go as well (i.e., composing a few pages in short score, then scoring them for band, then continuing the short score version for a few more pages, then orchestrating, etc.).

  4. Try to avoid the temptation to "overscore" (which means to use thick textures by default). There is nothing wrong with having sections of your band piece with rests in the majority of the instruments.  Overscoring — writing a dense and confused score — is a mark of an inexperienced/insecure orchestrator, so try to be bold and consider including at least some transparently-scored sections, so that tutti textures will have greater impact when they occur.  On the other hand, thinly scored band music can sound less effective than we had imagined because it is more challenging to play, especially for less accomplished players; weaknesses within sections are more exposed, something that is a consideration when the performers are at an intermediate, amateur level. 

  5. Since you have a wide variety of instruments at your disposal, consider using colour, texture, or density as organizing principles.

  6. Bear in mind that most music fits into foreground-background (prominent-supportive) roles, or foreground-middleground-background roles. Work hard at not confusing the listener as to what they are meant to be hearing most prominently.

  7. Are there some techniques or styles you've heard (or heard of) that you'd like to try? Minimalism, world music, fusion, klangfarbenmelodie, etc.? Sometimes a good way to begin is just to pick a style or technique that interests/excites you, and then run with it.

  8. How do you feel about a plan?  The longer the work, the more a plan comes in handy, so consider formulating one.  Remember that you can always change your plan as you go.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (® 2012-February)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

Feel free to browse these — clicking on any blog title will take you to that page. You may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing, including suggestions for what to do when you are stuck. They are loosely organized by topic.

Originality and Art
Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
How Important is Originality in Art?
Is Originality a Detriment in Art?
Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art?

Argh! I'm Stuck!
Strategies for Becoming Unstuck
Creative Angst... Welcome to the Club!
Oh, the Pain of it all!

Atonality – What's in a Name?
Why Atonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!
Atonality = Noise?

On Composition (Miscellaneous Topics)
How Much Theory do You Have to Know to be a Composer?
Bob Ross, Empowering the Masses, and Fear of Failure
On the Perception of Progress
I Love it When a Plan Comes Together
You Might be a Composer if …
The Ross (née Heisenberg) Uncertainty Principle, and Other Musical Dichotomies
How to Become a More-Skilled Composer
Talent? Skill? What's the Difference?
Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity
Express Yourself? Really???
Writing a Play; an Analogy to Composition
Keep? Discard?
Notation Software Woes
Musicworks Magazine

Composition Issues (10-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!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

10. Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity

Thematic Growth, and other Technical Considerations
Thematic Growth (1)
Thematic Growth (2; Simon's Guest Blog)
Thematic Growth (3)
A Sampling of Post-1900 Materials of Music; See Anything You Like?
Things to Consider when Composing for Piano

Nuts and Bolts; Score Details, etc.
On Musical Detail (1)
On Musical Detail (2)
On Musical Detail (3)
What is a "Fair Copy?"
Jessica's Tips on Writing for Youth Band
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
Project 5: Write Three Character Pieces for Solo Piano
Project 6: Choice of Text Setting, or Genre Recontextualization

Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music
"Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope"
On the "Hatred" of Modern Classical Music Due to the Brain's Inability to Cope
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (1)
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (2)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?

This is a question that I am sometimes asked, and it came up recently in a conversation I had with Karim Al-Zand, the visiting composer for our recent (January 26-28, 2012) Newfound Music Festival.  I won't attempt to quote him from memory, but my sense of the conversation is that he felt that it was very helpful for a composer to have good music theory skills, and I happen to agree, so I thought I would explain my reasons.

What is meant by Music Theory?

"Music theory" may refer to any of the following:
  • Analysis (structural, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, Schenkerian, set theory, phenomenological, psychoacoustic, stylistic);
  • Orchestration and instrumentation;
  • Under "music theory," our university also lists rudiments, aural skills (ear-training), keyboard harmony,  and jazz theory;
  • Harmony and counterpoint (renaissance counterpoint, baroque counterpoint, common-practice harmony, late-romantic harmony, 20th-century techniques).
By way of comparison, "art theories" cover a variety of topics such as theories of the nature, functions, and effects of art,  mimetic theories, procedural theories (abstraction, expressionism, formalismminimalism, naturalism, romanticism, symbolism), expressive theories, formalist theories, processional theories, aestheticism, theories of organic unity, and pragmatism.  Click this link to read more, or do a Google search of "art theory" and browse some of the results.

"Theory," when applied to music, often has a very different meaning than when applied to art!

Breaking it down…

With the understanding that "music theory" refers to a wide variety of topics as listed above, how much theory do you have to know to be a composer?

Let's break it down by topic within the wider category of music theory:

Analysis is an attempt to understand how music works using a variety of methodologies.  Analytical skills are important for composers on at least four levels:
  1. Discovering how other composers' music works is one of the best teaching tools there is for the development of a composer;
  2. Analysis of others' works can stimulate the creative process by giving you ideas of things to try in your compositions; 
  3. Analytical skills are essential in achieving a deeper understanding of your own music — this understanding can help you make the most out of your musical materials, and can help get you unstuck when you feel as though you've run into a compositional brick wall; and
  4. It is easy to lose perspective while composing, because the experience can be so subjective.  Analysis of one's own music is one method of introducing some semblance of objectivity into the equation.
Orchestration and instrumentation:  Instrumental ranges, the ways in which instruments change tone colour in different registers, how to write idiomatically for different instruments, extended techniques, types of bowing, how different instruments sound in combination with one another, how to create different textures — it's all stuff composers should know.

Rudiments: As the name suggests, this refers to the study of the fundamental aspects of music, such as key signatures, time signatures, scale types, chord types, and accepted notation practices. But many composition students struggle at times with incorrect notation of rests and rhythms, and illogical enharmonic spellings. It's basic, it's boring (to some), but it's essential knowledge for composers.

Aural skills are among the most important skills a composer can have. It is useful to be able to hear an unusual chord, chord progression, tune, rhythm, etc., and to be able to quickly transcribe it, which might spur a creative impulse such as using some aspect of your transcription in your next piece, or to be able to quickly transcribe your complex musical ideas.  This skill is essential when rehearsing your music; if someone plays wrong notes or rhythms, you need to be able to hear this instantly and correct the problem.

Keyboard skills:  Almost every "great" composer that you learn about in music history since the piano's rise in prominence in the late baroque era was regarded as an outstanding keyboard performer.  This suggests that keyboard skills are (or at least were) extremely important and useful for composers, but are they essential?  To answer that, it would be helpful to know why so many great composers were great pianists.  My guess is that there were at least three reasons:
  1. Being a skilled pianist enabled composers to perform their music for others, even if the music was not written for piano, such as a symphony.  Nowadays, you can use computer technology to make approximate realizations of your music for others, but in earlier times, the piano was the best way to do this; and 
  2. Being an accomplished pianist was a great asset in the development of composers because it enabled them to hear realizations of their own compositions long before computer technology existed that could fulfill this role.  
  3. Being a skilled pianist facilitates score study of works by other composers.  Nowadays we can listen to recordings while studying scores, but even so, you discover things by playing (or, in my case, hacking) through a score that you don't necessarily get any other way.
The fact that there are many successful composers in the world today who are not piano virtuosi illustrates that exceptional keyboard skills are no longer essential for composers, although I believe it is very useful for any composer to have some keyboard competency.

Harmony and counterpoint:  In order to become a skilled composer, do you really need to master Bach-style harmony and counterpoint, or renaissance counterpoint, or late-romantic harmony, or many 20th-century techniques?  Some people may tell you that John Cage and Iannis Xenakis didn't know any of this stuff, and they became two of the most important composers of the 20th century!

But how true is it that "they didn't know any of this stuff?"  Wikipedia tells us that Cage had piano lessons as a boy, although he was apparently more interested in sight-reading than developing virtuoso technique (but note that lots of sight-reading is great training for a composer!).  He studied for two years with Arnold Schoenberg (who Cage apparently "worshipped,"), and also with Henry Cowell.  However, Cage claimed to struggle with harmony:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall." (Pritchett, James. 1993. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge University Press; p. 260)
Wikipedia tells us that most of Cage's compositions from the 1930s are "highly chromatic and betray Cage's interest in counterpoint."  The importance of structure was stressed to him by at least one of his mentors (Richard Buhlig). Cage drew upon an impressive variety of extra-musical influences, including art, architecture, Zen Buddhism, philosophy, and mathematical formulae. He may not have developed the deep mastery of traditional (i.e., "common-practice period") harmony and counterpoint that we associate with practically all other composers, but he did have some training in these areas with some pretty impressive composer-teachers!

Iannis Xenakis studied architecture and engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, and was subsequently employed at Le Corbusier's architectural studio in Paris, working on a number of projects, perhaps most famously the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier (Hoffmann, Peter. "Iannis Xenakis", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy).

Phillips Pavillion, Brussels World's Fair (1958), 
bearing an uncanny resemblance to a nun's fancy cornette and habit (below):


But he also had musical training, having studied notation and solfège as a boy, and having sung works by Palestrina, Mozart, and other composers in his school's choir.  [One of the best ways to learn renaissance counterpoint, by the way, is sing Palestrina, so this in itself represents a kind of training.]  While working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis also studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with a variety of teachers.  However, when he asked Messiaen if he should continue his studies in harmony and counterpoint, Messiaen famously recommended against it, something he apparently did with no other student.
I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. [...] He is of superior intelligence. [...] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said... No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music. (Matossian, Nouritza. 1986. Xenakis. London: Kahn and Averill; p. 48)
Both Cage and Xenakis had training in harmony and counterpoint, although it was arguably less rigorous than the training received by most composers of classical music, even in the 20th-century.

The fact is that so many composers were well-trained in harmony and counterpoint, even among the avant-garde of the 20th-century, might suggest that these are probably still important skills to master for any composer.

But was this cause or effect?  Did skills learned as students in harmony and counterpoint contribute to composers' later "greatness," or were "great" composers such good musicians, even when they were students, that they naturally did well in these subjects, whether or not they applied this knowledge to their mature compositions?  We can't know for sure of course, but my hunch is that, for most composers, the harmony and counterpoint learned as students probably informed the development of their mature style, and made them better musicians.

If you studied harmony and counterpoint and did not do well, I do not suggest that your future development as a composer is irrevocably compromised, however.

For one thing, you can go back and study this stuff again.  I did poorly on most of my Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) theory exams until I began my studies in composition, mainly because the material didn't seem relevant to me, and I had no background in classical music.  When I began studying with Dr. Samuel Dolin, he basically said, "harmony and counterpoint are relevant, but you won't know why until you become good at them."  Since he had trained so many good composers before me, I figured he knew what he was talking about, and I dedicated myself to becoming more skillful in these areas.

For another, the fact that at least a few composers without extensive training in harmony and counterpoint went on to do very well for themselves would suggest that this training may not be as vital as was once considered to be the case (and probably still is in music schools and conservatories).

But I still think it's important and useful to become as skilled as possible in harmony and counterpoint because subsequent experiences as a composer have convinced me that Dr. Dolin's advice was 100% right.  And for that I remain forever in his debt.


How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?  
  • Think of the many aspects of music theory as a toolkit; the more tools (skills) you have, the better equipped you are to be a composer.
  • It helps to know a lot!