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):

SCALES:
  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.

RHYTHM and METER
  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).

MUSICAL CHARACTER, IDIOMS/GENRES
  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).

TECHNIQUES
  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.

9 comments:

Flutiano said...

“There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music” . . . 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. If we are not allowed to write tonal music in composition seminar, the only class that I can think of that we are even able to write original tonal compositions, if we so choose, is orchestration, where we are given the opportunity of either arranging or composing an original work (and are highly encouraged to arrange).

Of course you write renaissance counterpoint in renaissance counterpoint class, and jazz music in “Jazz Theory and Arranging.” That is what the course is about. However, composition seminar is called just that, not “Post-Tonal Composition.” While I understand the pedagogical reasoning for requiring the use of post-tonal techniques, I do not understand a requirement for exclusively post-tonal creations. (Also, your requirement for exclusively post-tonal composition is not made clear from your course outline; it would have been beneficial to me if I had understood that from the start. I had been planning on, and really excited about, working on a large work based in tonality. It looks from the outline like the only requirement is at least five minutes, with recommendations regarding instrumentation.)

You also say that “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.” Why does that not extend to tonal-music writing skills, as well? Should we graduate not feeling comfortable writing in a tonal style? Or do you think that we should rather do our tonal-music-writing learning and practise in our free time? I hope to continue writing my piano trio this summer, however I feel like it is too bad to not be able to have the guidance of regular feedback to work on tonal music that we get for our other compositions.

Thank-you for making this into a blog post so that I could read your thoughts, spend some time thinking about them, and comment with my reactions. It is true that there are a lot of possibilities within the realm of post-tonal music. There just is not the opportunity to hone skills in writing tonal music.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

After completing his undergraduate degree, Stephen Sondheim, one of the most innovative and influential composers in musical theatre, studied with Milton Babbitt, who is renowned for his intensely avant-garde compositions. In an interview with James Lipton, Sondheim said on the subject of his studies with Babbitt, “I asked him if he would teach me atonal music. He said, There’s no point until you’ve exhausted tonal resources for yourself. You haven’t, have you? I said, No, and I suspect I’ll never want to. So I never did study atonal music.”
Stephen Sondheim's music is often quite dissonant, frequently beautiful, commonly described as strange, and very rarely anything short of brilliant. It diverges substantially from the work of other composers, particular of other composers of musical theatre, and his compositional voice is instantly recognizable.
It is also, with few or no exceptions, tonal. Expanded tonality perhaps, but tonality nonetheless. It is not Bach, or Mozart, or Brahms, or Beethoven; it is definitively Sondheim, not a second-rate rehash of past genius, but skilfully crafted, original, innovative music with a unique and modern voice.
Sondheim is not alone in the creation of new and relevant tonal music. Indeed, there is tonal music being written today that never would have been written 300 years ago, or 200, or 100, or 50, or 20. Outside universities, tonality has continued to grow, change, and evolve.
This is why I have concerns about the requirement that all music composed in this course be post-tonal. Tonality need not be imitation of the past; tonality can be and is a living tradition with room for new voices.
I am very glad I have studied post-tonality. It has expanded my compositional options. Had I worked solely in the realm of music I was comfortable with, I never would have grown as a composer and would be writing tired, mediocre music. I have more techniques available to me now than I have ever had in the past. However, I am growing increasingly aware of the nature of my own compositional voice, and what helps and hinders me in my expression of it. When I put on shoes, I can tell if they're uncomfortable because they're new and haven't been broken in yet, or if they're uncomfortable because they don't fit or are on the wrong feet. In the same way, I know myself well enough to tell if I am rejecting a compositional technique because it is new and strange to me, or because it isn't truthful to who I am, what I wish to express, and how.
For this reason, considering the limited time left available in my degree, I believe I would benefit most from critique of my works that are in my own current style, to help me develop my craft in the idiom in which I plan to compose. Having gained experience in a breadth of styles in the preceding semesters of my degree, I would rather deepen my skill with my own style instead of becoming a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
That isn't to say that my music will necessarily be tonal. Indeed, I very much enjoy employing quartal harmonies and extended techniques, among other post-tonal elements, in my works. But a great deal of my music is strongly influenced by expanded tonality, and I would be disappointed to have to reject quality creative ideas or take pieces in a less satisfying direction simply to avoid tonal influences. While the world of post-tonality is certainly vast, the restriction on tonality can result in detrimental limitations; after all, while there may be twenty-five other letters in the alphabet, the absence of “e” in a novel would be quite a restriction, despite still having 96% of letters available!
I appreciate the continued dialogue on this issue, as well as my continued education in all aspects of composition as I expand my toolbox and refine my craft.

Josh McCarthy said...

First off, I can respect all of these different techniques of post-tonality, including pointillism, serialism, microtones, etc., but as a composition student, I feel that I should not be told to not write tonal music. I understand if what I am writing is incorrect tonal music, in that case it makes sense to tell me to stop, but if it's 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. But like I said I do respect all styles of post-tonality, and am willing to try and write with each technique once, but if I get a great idea (to me) and present it in class, I shouldn't have to be afraid to whether or not I'll be bashed for doing something that sounds even the slightest bit tonal. And even if it happens to someone else and you have to witness it, it's still very demotivating. I digress. This blog was helpful in opening my eyes to expansive realm of post-tonal music, maybe I'll work with clusters next.

Robert Humber said...

Personally, one of my pet peeves is the word 'atonal' because I hear it used so... annoyingly. (And yes, maybe I just have a stick up my arse)

Examples:

'That was so atonal!!! (about something in any way dissonant)
'I hated that because it was atonal'
'I don't want to write atonal music because I don't like it'

I love post-tonal music. It's something that I, like Dr. Ross stated, began music school not understanding. I was used to rock music, soundtracks, Mozart era classical, etc. I remember hearing 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste' for the first time and it blows me away because it sounded so nonsensical at the time. Now I hardly hear dissonance, it's just beauty.

I can say that if I was a composition teacher I would force my students to try implementing post-tonal techniques and I would be rather strict about it. I think it presents a huge learning opportunity, more than anything to expand your musical knowledge and dive into a beautiful world of new possibilities in an art form like no other. If someone wants to study music but feels completely satisfied with taking a huge portion of music crafted at the highest level and not even giving it a chance, I would question their love for music as an art form. I feel kind of 'elitist' saying that but I stress that I personally came to music school with hardly any musical training other than a good ear and a deep love for what little music I knew. As far as classical 'style' music went, I knew Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, Dvorak's 9th, Peer Gynt Suite and a whole bunch of film and video game music by composers like Joe Hisaishi, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Koji Kondo, John Williams, Austin Wintory, etc. I came to school not as a lover of performing, or even really composing (I like the 'idea' of composing). No, I came to school as a listener.

Aren't we all listeners? So why avoid 100 years worth of mastery? Like a painter who refuses to study a painting made within the last century?

And what makes you think we should treat a music degree as 'just a bit of fun'. Don't we want our art form to be taken seriously? Do English majors feel the right to skip over, say, Shakespeare because it's not as much fun? No, because Shakespeare is crucial to the development of literature. If you want your major to be taken seriously, you can't refuse to learn and open your mind to new concepts. People will be 4 years into a music degree and write the exact same music they were writing in Grade 12... congratulations?? Even if they were writing good music in Grade 12, what is the point in this?

Back to atonal/post-tonal debates, it's interesting that Sarah-Beth mentioned Sondheim. I turned pages for a Sondheim show this summer and was blown away by the interesting harmonies! I would call him 'post-tonal'. He writes beautiful, unique music, and it's post-tonal. Even the stuff I've written I would describe as post-tonal. I am still a sucker for a good melody/triadic harmonies but I can at least say I have experimented with some kind of post-tonal technique in all my music, something that you wouldn't find 200 years ago.

Robert Humber said...


Here's some examples of beautiful post-tonal music that is more accessible. I'll explain why I think they are post-tonal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDooOkdU_q8

Einojuhani Rautavaara - Symphony 7

Get lost in this. Listen with good speakers. This is colorful, atmospheric, spacious, rooted in tonality, accessible. This is one route you can go with post-tonality. Hear how masterful this is? Guess what? Rautavaara has experimented with many different techniques throughout his life including twelve tone composition. This complete understanding led him to write in this mature, gorgeous style.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2_myiVxCqU

Henryk Gorecki - Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

If you have patience, I advise listening to this whole piece. It is very long and repetitive, but possibly one of the most emotionally charged pieces I have ever listened to. Colossal, slow build to a heart wrenching climax and then dies out again in this first movement. It is minimalism at its best, an eight part canon in the strings. This piece is not traditionally tonal (and I would say Dr. Ross would be happy enough if someone wrote this). Gorecki developed this style of composition over time after lots of experimentation with much more dissonant, complex harmonies... hmmm.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPAfxSFVMj4

Vladimir Silvestrov - Postludes

Another transcendent piece of music worth checking out.

'Oh, come on Robert. This is tonal'.
Yeah maybe so. I don't know that it is though. Yes, I hear standard harmonies and melodies. But listen to how it is presented. It sounds like Brahms floating on a cloud, free of the dimensions of time. Everything resonates and suspends a little longer than it should and we can attribute this to how expertly and uniquely Silvestrov orchestrates this, with very free metre and quiet subtle strings leaving little silvery puddles of resonance around the piano and cello. I haven't heard anything like this, and for this reason it is very interesting. And guess what, Silvestrov has often written avant-garde music which applies this same kind of timelessness.

ALL OF THE GREATS APPRECIATED THIS STUFF TOO!

More examples of post-tonal beauty that comes to mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYmC0Z6x7KQ

Charles Ives - Concord Sonata

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdyStHXL9W8

Bela Bartok - Piano Concerto 3

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b4-rXhKpMM

Maurice Ravel - Piano Concerto
Even look back as far as Ravel to find some very extended tonality...

Don't get me wrong, I love more extreme examples as well, like Ligeti, Penderecki, Berg, etc. it's just important to see different examples of how to be unique.

I just hate seeing people taking for granted this opportunity to learn new things about something they love. To each their own.

Emery van de Wiel said...


"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."

-This is a very good point. I definitely struggle with not expanding my tonal language when writing pieces, and often reach the mental block of "why should I" (aside from marks) this is a very convincing reason I will take with me to the keyboard. Perhaps this is what my piano writing needs to make it more interesting and sound less bland.

Stephen Eckert said...

I think that as a university course, it is necessary for students to both follow and respect course outlines and imposed restrictions. Write tonal music on your down-time, I am sure that either composition professors would be happy to help you or consider looking at the piece and suggesting ways to improve if you were to ask privately. However since the assignments that are given say to use post-tonal techniques then that is what is required. Also, I firmly believe that whatever sounds a student enjoys in tonal music is totally and completely replicable within post-tonal contexts. There is actually a very interesting sound world involving the suggestion of tonality but lack of affirming harmonic motions. I would suggest to those wanting to write exclusively tonal music to search for tonal-ish harmonies that do not conform to strict tonal hierarchies, these often create significantly more beautiful (to my taste) sonorities that are impossible within the barriers of tonality. Post-tonal techniques are certainly necessary tools that composition students ought to learn.

Alison Petten said...

In taking this course, I assumed that it would be largely, if not completely, consisting of post-tonal techniques. That being said, I was very nervous in the beginning, not having composed post-tonal music before and only having performed a very small amount of it. The article "Who Cares If You Listen" that you mentioned in the article is actually an article I cited in a paper in a previous semester and I really didn't quite grasp the concept until I learned and performed music without a tonal center. I completely agree with the idea that post-tonal music really isn't written to please a large audience, and is more geared towards that person that composed it and the musicians that perform it. I think that is the biggest obstacle with post-tonal music. Whenever my friends ask to listen to my compositions, I'm usually hesitant to show it to them and I always begin with the disclaimer "it's post-tonal!". It is easier to enjoy post-tonal music when you accept that you will not get validation from your audience and start to accept that self-validation is where most of the fulfillment comes from in this type of music.

Josh McCarthy said...

Hello again. After finishing my final semester of my degree. My eyes have been opened even wider than before in terms of exploring the realms of post-tonality and all it has to offer. I still struggle with coming up with ideas that happen to be post-tonal, but when I do I get excited because I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to being for once instead of just where my tonal mind leads me. I probably should have visited this blog more often during the years because it actually is very helpful, especially this one because of the MASSIVE list of post-tonal techniques, such as scales, rhythm and meter, and musical characters. I read through this list every time I come here, and I instantly have ideas brewing in my mind as I read each and every one of these techniques. Shame. I hope that people read this comment and don't make the same mistakes I did in taking this blog for granted just considering it work, it could have saved me a lot of hassle throughout the past two years.