STRUCTURE YOUR MUSIC
by Professor Terry Dwyer
Getting the Right Material
So – you are ready to start a new piece, and wondering how to get started.
Either way, do not complete the harmony and other full details as you go along: this will slow you down so that you lose sight of the big picture. Compose the main thread (melody, possibly a few other things of importance) from beginning to end, then go back and fill in at leisure. It would be a pity if you started off with a fairly long stretch in full detail, only to discover that you could not find the right continuation.
- Approach 1: create a theme you like, write it down, and then try to progress from there (“What do I do next?”)
- Approach 2: plan the entire piece in rough (you may even know what form you will be using) and start to fill in the details until it all appears.
But how do you know if you have the right material? One way that has always served me well is simply to see what happens as the initial sketching-out of the piece proceeds. If things get totally stuck, I know I am simply working on the wrong material, so I tear it up and start again.
Perhaps you cannot even find a good starting theme? Try this method: pretend that everything we do in music has an extra-musical meaning, e.g. telling a story, depicting a scene or mood, or suggesting an object. It is not true that music is much good at doing this, and certainly not with any certitude that all listeners will understand what you mean, but by temporarily pretending it, you can often get started. For example, a piece intended to be lively and outgoing would probably use ascending motion: scalewise if moderate in intention, leaping if more ambitious. So pretend that you are trying to depict a quick start, perhaps a race, including the starter’s pistol, or the appearance of a jack-in-the-box, or even a rocket taking off. Funnily enough, several 18th century composers used a cliché called the Mannheim Rocket, including Mozart and Beethoven.
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, Finale
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 1, 1st Movement.
I am not saying that these composers thought of a rocket when devising the motive, even less that we should think of a rocket when hearing the music (Mannheim Rocket is only a convenient nickname): once the music is under way the only things that matter are 1) its inherent energy, 2) its memorableness, 3) the further use that can be made of it later in the composition.
One can make use of other supposed meanings to help you get started; here is a short table:
Some formula (don’t rely on them too much)
Major triad = happiness
Minor triad = sadness
Diminished triad = drama
Augmented triad = mystery
Top note of major or minor chord is:
Major 3rd = sweet
Minor 3rd = sad, strong
5th = non-committal, waiting
Root = final, positive
Upward = positive, aspiring
Downward = resigned, accepting
Oscillating by leap = restless
Oscillating by step = floating, spinning
Trill = shaking, trembling
General pitch area
High = bright, light, ethereal, remote,
Low = sombre, dark, earthy, heavy,
Medium = neutral, normal, human
RHYTHM: Time Signatures
Duple/Quadruple = strong, masculine, plain
Triple = feminine, graceful, rounded
Compound = lively, playful
Crusic (beginning on 1st beat of bar)
= static, heavy, self-sufficient
Anacrusic (beginning on weak beat)
= dynamic, searching, moving forward
Mostly equal = steady, solid, (boring?)
Mixed unequal = active, restless, (fidgety?)
Soft = mysterious, unemphatic, sleepy,
Loud = emphatic, clear, strong
Medium = non-committal
Silence = suspense or restfulness
(depends on context)
emphasises what follows
Exercise: Look at each of the following themes, and say what mood you think they are expressing. Choose from the alternative answers below.
Match each of the above with one of the following descriptions:
(Answers at the end of this lesson)
- Rough, violent
- Light, insubstantial
- Amorous, languid
- Gently seeking
- Elusive, slippery
- Solemn, portentous
The immediate continuation can offer either contrast or similarity. See the above Mannheim Rocket themes from Mozart and Beethoven for an example of each.
It may be a good idea to thwart the listener’s expectation in this regard, provided the composer makes up for it.
Given this opening, how would you expect the next bit to go?
I would have expected this:
But Mozart (in his Piano Quartet in G minor) gives us this:
Both the opening and the almost completely contrasting continuation get repeated (with slight variation), so everything balances out in the end.
Secondary themes in the first main section should contrast in some way, yet feel compatible with the opening. This can often be achieved by having a new melodic contour, but using similar time-values to the opening (perhaps mixed up).
Tchaikovsky: Symphony 4, 1st movement, first main theme
Secondary theme (note the similar rhythm, but also the rising contour, and the different articulation (rests instead of ties, lack of slur on some notes).
Themes in the episodes should offer a contrast, slight or strong is your decision. But note carefully that it is usual to adopt a new key for these. If you are writing atonally or semi-atonally, you may have a problem here: find some other way of heightening the contrast.
Relationships between themes
One way to achieve the marriage of Unity and Variety is to create contrasting themes (even themes some distance apart in the music) which nevertheless are tied together by hidden similarities. This can be the consistent use of a melodic interval, or a persistent rhythmic cell, or whatever else you can devise.
Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 1st theme
Same, 1st theme of Second subject
Note: a) the first four bars of the 2nd subject are an intervallic expansion of the first four bars of the 1st subject; b) The second half of the 2nd subject theme spells out pitches of the first half, in a variant; c) the bass at this point is a free inversion of bars 1 & 2.
Rossini: Overture, The Thieving Magpie, first Allegro theme
The first bar of this later theme is a melodic inversion of the first bar of the earlier one; the second bar has a similar rhythmic feel (feminine ending), and the next two bars are similar.
Whatever your opening theme, it should arrest the attention and make the listener sit up and want to hear more. (One commentator has said that it should “grab you by the throat”!) It should certainly be memorable, and evocative maybe. The continuations should also arouse interest, either by their resemblance to the opening or by their contrast. (Resemblances make for extra unity; contrasts make for extra variety. Make sure you don’t get too unbalanced in either direction. In other words, compensate later in the piece.)
One significant fact of good opening themes is that they are seldom, if ever, marked mezzoforte. Usually forte¸ to attract attention boldly, or piano or even pianissimo, to attract attention subtly. (In his major works, Beethoven very frequently begins his expositions piano and his recapitulations fortissimo.)
Answers to Mood exercise above
Since the examples were taken from well-known works, the title may be enough to indicate the mood; however, I will give my own assessments anyway.
- Sibelius, Finlandia (6)
- Holst, The Planets, Mercury (5)
- Ravel, Mother Goose, The FairyGarden (3 or 4)
- Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade (6 or 1)
- Mendelssohn, Overture, Midsummer Night’s Dream (2)
- Handel, Messiah, Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron (1)
No amount of “realism” in depicting moods, scenes or whatever will of itself make your piece worthwhile. Whilst it may be interesting to suggest or depict things in music, that is not what music is about. The true meaning of music lies in the creation of beauty in sound by its inner relationships and by its meaningful construction, not by how realistically it depicts things which are outside music. In fact, about the only things it can depict nearly realistically are cuckoos and thunder; all else is a crude approximation. No bumble-bee ever sounded like Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece, no steam train ever emitted noises like Honegger’s Pacific 231, and there is certainly no ladies’ choir on Neptune. Only when your music is worthwhile as music will you have succeeded. By all means use the representation tricks to create themes, but keep that fact to yourself. However, music can usually convey a generalised mood, and it is legitimate to use whatever tricks you can learn to convey the mood you want. If you feel a piece is unsatisfactory without knowing why, maybe there are conflicting moods instead of harmonious ones; or maybe even the same mood has been kept on for too long…..