Monday, October 17, 2016

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

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

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

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

What does it mean?

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

1. The clock is ticking.

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

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

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

The clock is ticking… Get busy!

2. Art is eternal. Or is it?

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

Then there's music…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: Experimentation is Perilous?

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (2)

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

One way is to superimpose triadic structures in order to create sonorities that would not normally be found in tonal music; perhaps the most famous example of this is Stravinsky's "Petroushka" chord: A combination of F# major and C major chords. Another Stravinsky example comes from the Rite of Spring, in the section called "Augurs of Spring/Dances of the Young Girls," which features a strongly-rhythmic repeated chord and irregular accents; the chord is E major in the lower strings (spelled enharmonically as Fb), and Eb7 in the upper strings.

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

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

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  - -  -  -  -

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

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

Have a listen; discussion to follow:

Dreary, isn't it? ;-)

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1)

1. Post-Tonal Harmony

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

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

2. Atonal Harmony

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

3. Pitch Centricity

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

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

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

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

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

5. Tonal Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. And That's Not All!

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Sept/2016)

Welcome to another year of composition studies! I wish you much growth and success on your journey to becoming a better composer.

My primary motivation in creating this blog was to provide a forum in which a variety of composition-related topics could be explored and discussed in greater depth than is feasible in the classes I teach at Memorial University. While this was created for my students, comments may be left by anyone. Periodically, spam-bots leave comments, usually characterized by their enthusiastic brevity, followed by a link of some sort, kind of like this: "Great post! It really made me think. Check out DezynerSunGlassez.con for fantastic deals!"

Other times the spam-bot leaves some incredibly long-winded word collection, possibly copied from some obscure technical manual. I have no idea what the point of any of these spam posts is, but, if you see a comment that even vaguely resembles spam, do not click on any links, and let me know about it asap.

I get an automatic notification anytime someone leaves a comment, no matter how old the post, so, feel free to comment on very old posts if the topic interests you.

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. Entries relating to class business – reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc. – are omitted.

Links are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing.

→ Exploring the Creative Process; Struggles and Solutions ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

→ Planning ←

→ Playing With Expectations; Musical Dichotomies ←

→ Composition Techniques 

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Atonality; What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music and Marketing ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series that started this blog) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in assessing compositions that emerge from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.
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 is 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 / More is more
7.2. Always leave them wanting more / Give them what they want
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot / There's a sucker born every minute
7.4. There can be too much of a good thing / If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.
8.1. Three models for the role of a composer
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

→ Composition Projects ←

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Finding Your Own Voice; Tonality, Atonality, and the Composer's Toolbox

We had a discussion yesterday morning in our composition seminar about topics that I suspect most composition students think about from time to time, such as:
  • Why are we restricted to writing post-tonal music?
  • If the music nearest and dearest to my heart is tonal, then shouldn't I be writing tonal music?
  • If a composer (or any artist) is obliged to be true to themselves, shouldn't they be free to express themselves in any way they wish?
I have written about this before – please visit the links below, if interested – so I am repeating myself to some degree, but here are my thoughts on these questions:
  1. Every university course that I know of has content restrictions. Here are just a few examples from Memorial University's music course offerings:
    • Renaissance counterpoint;
    • Baroque counterpoint
    • The four-semester sequence of Harmony & Part-writing courses (which we call "Materials of Music").
    • Jazz Theory and Arranging.

    The stylistic restrictions in these courses are fairly strict, but, in my experience, students do not typically question why they are not allowed to write country, rock, or hip-hop songs, for example, in Renaissance Counterpoint, or Jazz Theory. I think song-writing courses covering country, rock, hip-hop, death-metal, or any of the myriad of sub-genres of popular music would be great to have, and they already exist in many universities. I'd love to see them at ours, but the point is that any course is circumscribed in some way.

    Students usually understand that stylistic restrictions are inherent to course content, and, ideally, their desire to take the courses listed above is motivated by a desire to learn how to write music under such restrictions.

    Of course, more pragmatic motivation for choosing courses is often in play as well, such as the course being required for their programme of study, or the course is in a convenient time slot, or all other theory electives were full, so they had to take the only one that wasn't full, etc.

  2. There are, however, courses in which stylistic restrictions are not explicitly stated in the title or calendar description. One is "Materials of Music," cited above. Looking at the Memorial University 2015/2016 calendar, other examples include:

    • "Principal Applied Study requires one hour per week of individual instruction (vocal or instrumental)." This refers to weekly private lessons. No stylistic focus is specified.
    • "Functional Keyboard I is an introduction to practical keyboard skills for students whose Principal Applied Study is not piano or organ. Functional accompaniment, transposition and score reading are emphasized." 
    • "Chamber Music requires the ensemble to prepare and perform a recital of x-y minutes of music. Each ensemble receives z hours of coaching in preparation for the performance."
    • … and many, many others, such as Small Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Instrumental Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, AccompanimentContemporary Music/Improvisation Ensemble ("contemporary" could mean "any music of our time," but it actually means, "classical music of the fairly recent past," in which "fairly recent" is open to interpretation by the course instructor), etc.

  3. Despite the unspecified stylistic restrictions in the above course titles and calendar descriptions, students taking these courses probably understand that they carry with them some stylistic restrictions, because our School focusses mostly on classical music in the broadest sense of that term (which includes contemporary classical music).

  4. Another course in which stylistic restrictions are not explicit in the title and course description is composition, whose calendar description is as follows: "Composition Seminar provides intensive composition study for students whose Major or Minor is Composition."

    So, while it is possible to deduce from this description that any style or genre of composition is fair game, I would just point out that this is not the case in any of the other courses mentioned above; students taking Principal Applied Study, for example, usually understand and accept that they will be more likely to learn the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Clifford Crawley, etc., than country, rock, death-metal, etc. music as part of their performance studies. Again, this is not to suggest that non-classical music has no value, because it obviously does; it is a reflection of the stylistic focus at our School of Music, which is primarily music of the classical tradition. However, we also have a thriving ethnomusicology programme, as well as some courses in popular music, but I would very much like to see more offered in the future. This may even come to pass in the near future, because our newly-appointed (starting Fall, 2016) Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology, Dr. Harris Berger, is among other things, a leading scholar in the area of heavy metal and rock music.

  5. Another factor in this discussion of stylistic restrictions is that they are to some degree a reflection of the professor's areas of expertise. Ideally, teachers teach what they know, and, for most of our professors, what they know is primarily classical music. Of course, teachers can be adaptable as well, and if I were told to teach a course on a topic beyond my comfort zone, like writing a Broadway musical, I'd take what I already know about writing for voice, writing for orchestra or band, combining voice(s) with instruments, setting text expressively, etc., and learn everything I could about the structure and conventions of Broadway musicals (about all I know at this point is that they generally have two acts, and that the first usually ends with an unresolved conflict of some sort), and then do my best with the course, hopefully learning more along the way.

  6. In all courses at our university, professors must distribute a course outline or syllabus during the first week of classes. In addition to communicating the marking scheme and general structure of the course, these usually contain more information about course content and objectives than is found in the university calendar. This is where you would learn, for example, that our study of baroque counterpoint focusses primarily on the music of J.S. Bach, with occasional references to other baroque composers. You would also learn that there is, unsurprisingly, no way to master the compositional styles of J.S. Bach in a one-semester course, and so the objectives are more a matter of trying emulate specific aspects of his style, such as binary dance-suite compositions, inventions, and fugues. 

  7. For our course, Composition Seminar, the outline usually states that the focus will be on writing "post-tonal" music. My reasons for this include the following:
    • For most of the past century, the majority of highly-regarded classical composers (and yes, "highly-regarded" is a problematic term, since informed scholars can disagree as to the relative merits of any given composer; I am referring to the composers we learn about in textbooks and more recent composers who do not yet appear in textbooks, but whose music is widely played and celebrated) have been writing post-tonal music, and, since this is a composition course for contemporary classical music, I strongly believe that students should learn explore at least some of the many techniques for writing post-tonal music;
    • The requirement to explore post-tonal techniques often results in students moving beyond their personal comfort zones, meaning that for many, writing tonal music is comfortable and safe, while writing post-tonal music is less so. I believe that moving beyond our comfort zones in a safe, supportive environment is where we often learn the most.
    • It also seems likely that, if students were not challenged to move beyond their personal comfort zones, then some would be unlikely to explore post-tonal techniques, which I would regard as a glaring omission in their development of composition skills.
    • I think many, possibly most, students may not fully understand what is meant by "post-tonal" music, and think the term is the same as "atonal," or even "12-tone" music. It is much, much more than this; it is a remarkably open category; the only thing it isn't is tonal
      • I pasted below a sampling of scales, techniques, and idioms associated with post-tonal music; the options are both plentiful and varied. Not only that, but the list is in no way complete; there are many other approaches to post-tonal composition beyond those listed. In addition, there are approaches that haven't been conceived yet, just waiting for someone like you to think of them.
    • I am of the firm conviction that writing post-tonal music can improve the quality of any tonal music students may write in the future. For students that embrace the challenge of writing post-tonal music, it opens their creative options to include techniques and sonorities that they otherwise might not have considered when writing tonal music.
    • Many composition students have indicated a desire to write music for film or video games. For such students, the more techniques they know, the more effectively they will be able to score for film (or video games, although I confess to not knowing much about this genre of music).
    • I have tried different approaches to the teaching of composition over the past 30 years, and this method works, if students are willing to buy into it. 
    • There are over 20 student comments on a previous blog entry I wrote on this topic, all of which are positive. Many express an initial discomfort with trying to write post-tonal music, but conclude with views similar to this one: "Intro to composition has completely opened up my ears to accepting tonalities that I otherwise would not have heard beauty in!"  
    • One of the most compelling reasons I advocate writing post-tonal music is that when I have allowed tonal composition, the results have generally been disappointing, albeit with some pleasant exceptions along the way. Possible reasons for this include the following:
      • It is very hard to write tonal music that (a) sounds original, and (b) doesn't sound like a poor imitation of some tonal music composer.
      • Despite having taken four semesters of tonal harmony and analysis before starting the first semester of composition seminar, as well as one semester of counterpoint for some, many students who have chosen a composition major did not do particularly well in these tonal-practices courses, and, unsurprisingly, their tonal writing has often been problematic (forbidden parallels, poorly resolved sevenths, doubled tendency tones, odd chord progressions, clearly wrong notes that the student was apparently unable to hear despite playing the file numerous times in Finale or some other music notation programme, etc.).
      • Our ears are so accustomed to tonal music of the highest quality that when we write tonal music of significantly lower quality (as our first attempts almost invariably must be), it just does not sound very good. Again, to be fair, there have been exceptions, but not very many.

  8. None of this comes from an elitist, "Who Cares if You Listen," antipathy towards tonality and love of "academic" music, whatever that might be. I grew up playing rock and folk music, then studied jazz guitar for a few years, and only began studying classical music in my 20s. One thing led to another, and I eventually got a doctorate in composition and became a professor, but I never lost my love of rock and many other kinds of music as well. I remember very well my first reactions to Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and even Bartok… Much like the protagonist in Dr. Seuss's famous book, Green Eggs and Ham, I did not like them, Sam-I-Am!

    Fortunately, I had teachers that (a) helped me to better understand the music I didn't like, so that I grew to not only gain a better appreciation of that music, but to actually enjoy it as well, and (b) exposed me to compositional approaches that I either knew little or nothing about. Therefore, as I see it, an important part of my role as a composition teacher/facilitator is to challenge students to consider compositional techniques, approaches, and possibilities that they may never have tried before. Usually, in trying these new things, students find some they like, but whether they like them or not, they can develop a better understanding of new (to them) techniques.

    This is where the "composer's toolbox" analogy comes in; the more you know, in terms of compositional techniques and approaches, the better equipped you will be to express your uniqueness through music, and the better equipped you will be to write for stage, film, television, or video games, should you ever have that opportunity.

    Most of us want to express something deeply personal through our music; we are better able to do this with a wide array of compositional techniques and approaches in our toolboxes than a limited selection. If you were a writer but your vocabulary had only 100 words, it seems likely that you would find this limiting your ability to express the subtleties and deep thoughts you might wish to express; if you had a vocabulary of 60,000 words, it seems likely that you would be better able to express yourself in an effective and nuanced way.

    Most of the music I have written in about the past twenty years is in some way tonal, with a number of exceptions as well. It is clearly where my heart lies, but I don't think I would find it very interesting to only write tonal music. Moreover, I could not have written any of the tonal-based compositions that I really like unless I had spent years developing skills in a variety of post-tonal techniques.

    Most students appear to have little interest in my music – not complaining, just observing – but if you would like to listen to a few of the tonality-based compositions I wrote just to see where I am coming from, here are a few links:

    Dream Dance (A wild, virtuosic, perpetual motion joyride; 2007)
    Domenico 1° & 2° (Two sonatas inspired by Scarlatti; 2009)
    Last Dance (Juno nominated slow tango, called "haunting and beautiful" by Jon Kimura Parker; 1999)
    iPad Riff Recontextualized (Based on a Steve Reich riff appropriated by Apple for an iPad commercial, 2010)

A student in our class made a great point yesterday about uniqueness not being something we need to strive for, because we are already unique; what we need to strive for is mastery of a sufficiently-large selection of skills so that our uniqueness is not restricted by our lack of skill.

Here's what I wrote about uniqueness in "If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take), a blog post from May of 2014:
It is often said that no two people (or snowflakes) are exactly alike, which suggests that the combination of qualities that make up your personality is unique. I believe this to be true, but I think it is also true that we all share many individual qualities, and thus it seems to me that while everybody is unique, nobody is 100% original. 
In a similar way, if we compose regularly and often, while constantly striving to improve the work we produce, we will naturally reach a point wherein the uniqueness of our personality is manifested in our music without a self-conscious attempt to make it so, although our music will share various characteristics with other music, and this is the way it has always been.
This brings us to the second and third questions at the top of today's post, which touch on what I would consider to be an artistic imperative: An artist is obliged to express themselves in whatever way they believe works best. I strongly support this. However, as I wrote above, part of my role as a teacher, as I see it, is to get students to try new things, thereby giving them more tools with which to express themselves. Besides, there are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music; in this one, I ask them to write post-tonal music, which opens the door to a seemingly-infinite range of possibilities.

I have given explanations of why I usually require post-tonal harmonic language and practices in previous posts – links below. The third one in particular addresses this issue, and has generated a high number of comments, all positive (so far!).

Other posts on this topic:
Express Yourself? 
"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)
Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant! 
Atonality = Noise?Jess Blenis Guest Blog on Atonality

Here's that list I alluded to earlier of post-tonal techniques and compositional approaches; hopefully, you will agree that there are lots of options to choose from, and it's not by any stretch an exhaustive list! This too is borrowed from an earlier blog post (Jan. 2010):

  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;” this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale (this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  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. Polymeters.
  12. Polyrhythms.
  13. Polytempo.
  14. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  15. 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.
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal).
  16. Planing.
  17. Pointillism.
  18. Polyrhythms.
  19. Polystylism.
  20. Polytonality, polymodality.
  21. Quotation.
  22. Saturation (e.g., Ligeti's "Atmosphères," industrial music).
  23. Serialism (pitch).
  24. Serialism ("integral," or “total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres).
  25. Spectral music.
  26. Any combination of the above.

Postscript – My responses to two student comments:

A student writes: "as a composition student, I feel that I should not be told to not write tonal music."

• Do you feel you should not be told to play classical music by your applied instructor? I suspect not, so why suggest that your composition professor should not impose restrictions on what you write? See points 1, 2, 3, 4 above. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding on why I impose technical restrictions on what students write in my composition courses.
The same student writes: "if [my music is] tonal-ish sounding and it's decent sounding and I am enjoying what I am doing, then shouldn't I be allowed to do so? After all music school is supposed to be fun after all and if I am told that I can't write what I want to as a composer that's kind of a drag."
• You are allowed to write (and of course enjoy!) whatever you wish when composing purely for yourself, just like you are allowed to perform anything you like – country music, heavy metal, folk, hip-hop, etc. – on your own or in bands (as a lot of our students do; they play gigs in bands downtown on weekends), but, just as your applied instructor has the right to limit the stylistic choices in the music you perform for credit, your composition instructor has the same right to restrict stylistic choices.

• The suggestion that music school is "supposed to be fun" needs to be examined. I'd like to think that there is some fun to be had in any course I teach, but I suspect my colleagues would disagree with your statement. I would suggest that music school is supposed to be a place where professors teach you new things about music, and students work hard to learn these things. Again, there is sometimes fun to be had, but that's not the overarching objective of music school. When I was a student, there was always a great sense of satisfaction when I felt I had learned or accomplished something in music school, but it invariably resulted from a lot of hard work, which, while I didn't mind it most of the time, I would not really describe as fun.

- - - - - - -
A different student writes: "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music” [quoting my blog]  I disagree with this point. There are lots of university courses in which we interact with tonal music (ex. history), and there are lots of university courses that have us writing shadows of tonal music, with exercises in harmony and counterpoint classes that are intended to improve and demonstrate aspects of that music. However, I cannot think of a single university course (never mind “lots” of them) that requires students to write full, original, tonal compositions."
• I did not write, "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write full, original, tonal compositions." Quite obviously this would be false, although there is a course being introduced in the 2016-2017 year that will lead to the composition of a complete, classical-style sonata form movement, and I highly recommend this to anyone wishing to write "full, original, tonal compositions."

• I do not see how one can disagree with the statement that there are several courses that require students to write tonal music; these include the four semesters of harmony ("Materials of Music"), 16th-Century Counterpoint, and 18th-Century Counterpoint. Counting only these courses, it means that in 6 of the 8 semesters of a 4-year degree, students can take courses with a strong tonal music writing component. Perhaps a better way of stating my point is this: In almost every course that involves writing music at our university, the harmonic language is tonal; I would assume that this is even true to some degree of Jazz Theory, since jazz theory is mostly an evolution of tonal music theory. There is only one course in which the focus is on selected post-tonal techniques ("Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music"), and I'm not sure how much music writing goes on on that course, as opposed to analysis, which is its usual focus.

• Is this a good balance or not? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on one's views of the value of developing skills in post-tonal music for composers; I have listened to a lot of contemporary classical music over the past thirty-five (or so) years, which has informed my view that this is not an adequate balance between tonal and post-tonal skills in the training of composers, which is why I advocate and facilitate the development of skills in post-tonal music.  

• Incidentally, I have frequently supported students wanting to write music based in some way on tonality, but the condition I impose on this is always the same: Explore ways of doing something new and different with tonality, or figure out how composers (such as Debussy, Górecki, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Wolf, etc.) who pushed tonality to its limits or in new directions did so, and borrow or adapt some of their techniques.