Author Topic: Guidance on starting a new work  (Read 327 times)

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Michel.R.E

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Guidance on starting a new work
« on: June 16, 2020, 09:59:40 AM »
(I will start this thread, and go further in depth into the subject as time goes on, if there appears to be interest. Right now I have both time and energy to do so.)

After seeing some of the junior submissions to the forum, and the types of comments that accompanied them, I thought it might be useful to have a short article on how to avoid some pitfalls when writing a new piece.

I'll skip over some of the very early work (coming up with ideas, for example). Let us assume that you have a musical idea, that a theme or motif has been decided upon. Where do you go from here?

A few difficulties tend to crop up for the less-experienced composers.
1) – difficulty with transitions
2) – harmonic stagnation or overly unstable harmony (two issues, but flip sides of the same coin)
3) – squareness / blockiness in the exposition of material
4) – melodic / thematic discontinuity (the impression that material does not belong together)
5) – harmonic discontinuity (an accompanying issue to #4)

1): transitions
“Transitions” includes both large-scale and tight-focus elements. There are transitions from one larger section to another, for example going from the 1st theme of a work into a contrasting 2nd theme. And there are smaller transitional elements, for example moving from the end of the 1st phrase (the “question”) of a long theme into the 2nd section (the “answer”).

A key element here is preparation. You have to look at more than the obvious thematic material. We will examine both large-scale and smaller structure, and the devices that they share as transitional material.

So how does one “prepare” a transition? A simple way of doing so is to fragment material from one section, in such a way that it leads into the next section. One can use motifs from the end, middle, or in some cases the start of a main theme, and create a transition that briefly passes through non-home-centred harmony (whether you are writing music that is blatantly tonal, or more distantly so).

If we are looking at a binary musical phrase, the first thing to examine is does the 2nd part of that phrase start with material that is related to the head, middle, or tail of the preceding section? If the answer to the question starts with a restatement of the question, then maybe avoid using the head of the theme as your transitional material. I say “maybe” because it is quite possible to turn this repetition of the head to great effect. Although, in my opinion, this would better serve used later in your new composition, potentially at the final (or even penultimate) statement of your main theme.

Examine the 2nd half of your theme, where does it draw its intervallic relationships from? This will give you guidance as to what material to use for your transition.

If we are examining a larger form, so the transition from section A to section B of a work, where there is new thematic material, possibly a new tempo, new textures, etc... involved, then we must look at what material from our section A will work best at introducing section B.

In essence, the transition IS an introduction. It should draw your listener into the next section, let them feel that the tale is not finished yet, there is more to the musical story. The same ideas described in the previous paragraphs are applicable here. Examine your theme A, draw from it the motifs, the harmony, the sounds that will best lead into your new theme B. Don't just end theme A in your “tonic” then move to theme B. Let theme A itself lead into the next section. The point of a transition is that it may offer a momentary resting point, but it should not be so comfortable that the musical journey could end there. Imply that there is more. If the texture changes then announce it, subtly, before the actual change. If the tempo changes, then lead into that tempo change.

A transition does not necessarily mean that there will be any sort of stop, or pause. One can smoothly transition into the next section without pause.

« Last Edit: June 22, 2020, 12:01:28 PM by Michel.R.E »
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Michel.R.E

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Re: Guidance on starting a new work
« Reply #1 on: June 17, 2020, 10:51:12 AM »
2) Harmony
Regardless of what harmonic system you adopt for your work, whether it be relatively straight-forward tonality, or harmony that is more abstract and uses a different hierarchical system, there are issues that need to be handled with care.

In the initial part of this mini-guide, I make reference to both harmonic stagnation and harmonic instability. Both are problems regardless of the underlying technique used.

Stagnation
Lets start with the first one, and start by defining what it is that makes it an issue.
I define harmonic sameness (or stagnation) as where the harmony of a section returns too regularly to to its “home” (anchor) point. For example, for a piece in C major, having every single phrase end on the tonic harmony: C major. There is a natural tendency with beginner composers to write in short bursts, note by note. This leads to a degree of impatience which pushes one to seek out a stable point at the end of a phrase. The first point of stability is, of course, the tonic. The issue here is that if the young composer returns constantly to that tonic, there is no sense that the harmony is progressing to a 2nd and 3rd point and so on.

Think of your music as a novel, its story: a quest of epic proportions. Your hobbits begin to leave The Shire, then promptly return to Bag End. Once more, they depart on their grand adventure, make it to Farmer Maggot's field... and promptly return to Bag End for 2nd breakfast. And so on and so forth. And by the end of the 1st book, the One Ring is no nearer to Mount Doom than it was when the book started.
(ok, I give you one guess as to which movie series I watched most recently)

We don't have to be quite so literal when writing our music, of course. There is no urgency to get the one whole note into the fires of Mount Doom. But for a long musical phrase to be satisfying, for that musical idea to draw in the listener, your audience, you have to create a certain degree of harmonic direction and “question”. Nothing forbids you ending the long phrase back at your tonic. This is a perfectly valid approach. But do you think it will be satisfying if every 2 measures of that long theme ends on the tonic?

There was a reason why in standard common practice harmony a phrase was built in two periods: a question that ends on the dominant, and an answer that returns to the tonic. This was (and still is) a very satisfying way to achieve the desired effect.

Of course, now we can consider going further than this. Our phrase can be made up of 3, 4, or more periods, and the harmonic movement does not have to be I – V – I.

(NOTE: here I would interject a short note of warning. To give yourself enough room to fully explore your thematic/motivic material during the development of your new piece, it might be wise to hold back a little bit on the distance you move from your tonic in your opening theme. If this opening theme ends up covering all available harmonic landscapes, then there is nowhere to explore during the traditionally longer development section.)

Instability
This is the 2nd issue I brought up earlier. It is indirectly related to stagnation, being its polar opposite. It's also a little bit harder to pinpoint with a clear definition. So let's try and look at various ways in which it can be both an issue and a quality.

A simple approach to the issue and defining it, for example, would be: making sure that the harmony you are using is consequent. That it has an internal logic. For example, if your entire piece is triadic-tonal, and you include brief passages of pure quartal harmony, there is a strong chance that the quartal harmony will sound erroneous.
You CAN mix harmonic materials from different types of hierarchy, but prepare them carefully. For example, some polyharmony is very closely related to quartal harmony when the polyharmony is spread out vertically to bring out that 4ths and 5ths already present. From a purely triadic tonal approach, you can use suspensions and appoggiaturas to bring in quartal elements that resolve to triadic harmony.

A more problematic instability issue is where the harmony is directionless, or lacks a clear focus as to the direction it is heading. This leads to a sense of pointless meandering. This happens most often when chromatic distant relations are included in the harmony in an awkward fashion. If your harmony is largely diatonic, then to suddenly insert heavily chromatic movement can lead to a disconcerting effect.

Erroneous voice-leading also leads to this effect of instability. An error I see far too often is a non-chord tone in a melody, approached via an upward leap, but that does not then resolve to the correct harmonic tone. Or worse, continues to a 2nd non-chord tone in a new harmony without preparation nor resolution.

This last issue is actually directly related to the use of counterpoint in harmony, as it is one of the foundations of good counterpoint.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"