The graphics (the music written out on piano staff) have vanished so I'm looking into it. If you would like a PDF of the lesson please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For those of you interested in just a few of the things taught in private composition lessons, I have devised this lesson to demonstrate the application of some basic techniques. Those interested in private online lessons please see my contact information at the end of the lesson.
A Demonstration of Compositional Technique
By Dave Connor
The majority of music written over the ages has been governed by the principle of unity or cohesion. Deriving musical material from a limited set of ideas or even a single idea (as in the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) is one such approach that ensures this cohesion. In fact many compositional devices such as: repetition, variation, inversion, elongation, diminution and so on are designed precisely toward this end. With this in mind, I have endeavored to illustrate how one can use very basic musical material and achieve satisfying results quickly and easily by applying a few of these devices. For the purposes of this exercise I will assume the reader understands basic music theory.
Forming The Basic Material
The numbers below and in each example correspond to measure numbers.
1. Since traditional and even much of modern harmony is based upon chords built upon thirds, we will start with two simple triads: C major and D minor (C, Dm.)
2 - 3. Let's extend these chords by adding three additional thirds and form CMaj7 with added 9 and 11, and Dmin7 with added 9 and 11.
4. To alleviate the dissonance between the 3rd and 11th (e and f) in our C chord, will raise the 11th (f) to f#. Our basic chords are now CMaj9#11 and Dmin11.
5. Lets distribute these chords into both clefs by placing the lower three notes in the bass and upper three in the treble. In fact we can now view these chords as stacked triads if only for the sake of seeing them as building blocks that can be treated separately (i.e. Bmin/CMaj and CMaj/Dmin or Bm/C and C/Dm.)
6. A further redistribution of our basic chords has been effected by widening the C and Dm triads in the bass and moving their corresponding upper parts in the treble clef: Bm is now an octave higher and C an octave lower. This is to facilitate our perception of the triads potential distribution, juxtaposition and so forth. Consider that music of interest could be made from the material in any of these six bars.
Beginning With Simple Application
In order to get our ideas down quickly and efficiently we will start with a piano sketch. Many ideas can be noted here such as dynamic markings, orchestration, re-use, or placement in a film such as, possible love theme? or use for chase? Other musical directions such as brass only or add percussion could be added as well. Virtually anything can be added to the sketch to capture ideas you may have and don’t want to lose. Keep in mind these ideas could change significantly in their ultimate presentation. The goal is to move quickly but still create something that is well constructed with real musical attributes and not just a grab bag of unrelated ideas. Let’s begin.
1 - 2. The B minor triad is simply inverted downward over C major held in the bass, announcing our basic material. The evocative extended harmony is the music here.
3 - 4. We now progress to our second chord group. The upper Bm triad has moved as expected to a C triad (bar 3) while in the bass the C chord has moved to Dm (exactly as in our basic material.) A melodic idea was also introduced in the treble clef with two half notes (b down to a.) The "b" was chosen by virtue of the fact that it is the only remaining third we could stack on top of our initial Dmin11, thus forming Dm13. So we are continuously applying the same basic principle we used when creating our harmony even when introducing what appears to be new material in the form of a simple melody. It will sound organic because it is organic. Obviously numerous melodic ideas could work here. Even so, melodies that exploit the harmony tend to strengthen rather than weaken it. Notice also the tune is nicely out of the way of the harmonic bed, filling the vacant upper register. It could be doubled an octave upward and/or downward eventually and placed in various instruments.
5 - 6. We are back to our Bm/C harmony (CMaj9#11.) The half note melody of bars 3 and 4 was tailored down to the f# of the returning Bm chord (bar 5, beat 1.) Bm now simply moves upward in contrast to it's downward entrance in bar 1. The rhythm (quarter notes) is identical but we have made it more melodic in nature as opposed to simply inverting the chord on each beat as in bars 1 – 2. Yet it is unmistakably the descending idea turned in the opposite direction (restatement of material, inverted with slight variation.)
Note: I have doubled the melody (5 – 6) an octave below to strengthen it. I am making some orchestration decisions as they occur to me here. Much of the writing even at this stage can be with specific orchestration in mind but it's not a necessity and highly subject to change, expansion and/or filling in later. This is a sketch.
Development through Harmonic and Rhythmic Change
7 - 8. We expect a C triad to follow the Bm in the treble in bar 7 as in our basic material so that’s exactly what we get. It is the apex of the previous ascending Bm and in fact is going to descend as in our opening but we are now developing our material for the purpose of variety and dramatic effect. So while we gave the listener the expected C chord in the upper voice, the bass has changed to a close relative of D minor: Bb major. This surprise is all the more powerful since it is the first actual change in harmony. It is cohesive since: we still have C major sounding in the upper voice as expected; both the rhythm and direction of the chords are as before; the harmony is still organic (Bb is a third down from D which echoes our original application of adding thirds - except downward and to Bb instead of B.)
To continue: the C major triad (7 – 8) is now alternating with a Bb major triad every beat which is adding forward motion since earlier it was just a single harmony (Bm) moving downward by inversion. Another element has been added which is an ascending BbMaj7 chord in the bass clef at half speed (half notes.) It is simply moving up by inversion just as the original Bm moved downward by inversion. This re-use of a few basic musical devices is all registering with the listener as a very tight, solid, musical tapestry.
9 - 12. The return to D minor in bar 9 sounds logical since it was established so firmly earlier. Its 9th and 11th are emphasized in a passage that is our basic material invigorated rhythmically. It touches on Bb in the melody (bar 10, beat 1) which makes sense since that tonal area was just introduced but I must confess I simply heard the line doing that and wrote it in. Bars 11 – 12 are simply bars 9 – 10 up one step without care as to the new tonal area (E minor.) It is a solid musical device (sequence) and self-justifying.
13 - 15. The momentary departure into a new tonal area (E minor) by virtue of repeating the D minor material of bars 9 - 10 up one tone in 11 - 12 will make the return to the original C major tonality all the more welcome and fresh sounding. Also, whereas I originally split apart my chords into separate triads and even put distance between them as a way of emphasizing their distinct or contrasting qualities, I am now sounding them as a single unit (CMaj9#11 - bar 13, beat 1.) In this climatic passage (bars 13 - 15) C major is now followed by a triumphant D major (bar 14) in a sort of ultimate transformation of our basic material (formerly D minor.) Again we make use of a sequence but at a musically faster rate then in 9 - 10; 11 - 12. “Faster” not only because of the quick 16th notes but because only the first half of the prior sequence is being used (material from bar 9 or bar 11): re-use, variation, shortening. The melody again bends upward to a Bb (bar 15, beat 1) but now as part of an Eb major triad. Eb is then transformed by the Ab in the bass, recalling our initial idea of a chord over a chord (Bm/C and C/Dm) although now Eb/Ab.
16. A familiar descending figure outlining the now Ab sounding harmony is heard although it is a little bent with the augmented 5th of Ab (e) to avoid an overly sweet AbMaj7. Perhaps the "e" is a stubborn holdover from our original C major tonality.
17. Finally we end up where we started (sort of.) B minor over C major is now B major over C minor. By switching the mode of each triad I once again found what I needed in my basic material. No need to hunt for some cool (unrelated) chord for an ending when I may have a solution right in front of me. Explore and exploit your material! Discovery is one of the great joys of composition!
Note: This piano sketch could now be further developed in six or eight staves or even finalized in a small to large orchestral score. It’s not unusual to go from a simple sketch to a reduced score, to a final orchestral score. Jerry Goldsmith’s eight stave orchestral reductions were virtually complete and only needed to be copied into a large score.
Feel free to experiment in any way with this exercise and even post what you have come up with. Those who wish to study privately are welcome to emphasize any and all aspects of this demonstration in their lessons. Beginners who want to learn the foundational theory behind it are also welcome.
Please consider that this is a demonstration and therefore condensed in nature and compressed as far as time. Any of these short sections such as the opening couple of bars could be greatly expanded as far as length and further manipulated by any number of musical devices. It is the approach of mining a basic musical idea in order to create a fabric woven out of a single thread that I am most interested in conveying. I hope that I have succeeded to some degree.
The Complete Sketch