I listen to lots and lots of music. Old and new. Good and not so good. The old(er) I listen to for a variety of reasons, some purely joyful, and some to dig deeper and learn more about lesser known works by well known composers. The new music is primarily because of my work helping composers of all ages learn and improve their craft.
When you listen to and review as much new music as I do, certain patterns emerge. Yes, there is a great deal of talent out there, but there is consistency among the deficiencies noted. This article shall focus on just one of those deficiencies, how to diagnose them, the persistent reasons they occur, and solutions.
A preponderance of new compositions in the market these days, regardless of style, instrumentation, length, venue, or composer age (or gender), lack durability. These worka don’t seem to hang together, oftentimes drifting around, losing momentum, an arch, and other aspects that elude the Holy Grail of music composition – music that bears repeated listenings. I have termed music of a momentary interest (these days including social justice goals for composer groups that feel left out) as “transactional” composition – nice to hear (or at least parts thereof), but not motivating to listen to again….and again.
Diagnosing The Problem Through Reverse Engineering
A not so perfect analogy to diagnose an apparent problem is an automobile. Some cars are focused on the visual – the paint, body, styling, etc – the surface issues. In music, it’s the melody, about which lesser trained and knowledgeable composers focus in on to the detriment of the musical engineering. Composers that wish to be able to learn how to write better melodies would be best served practicing Species Counterpoint. Learn these skills and in a year or two your melodies will be first-rate.
The process of diagnosis the problem is called diminution, where the reduction of the music implies what might be called a “top down” approach – stripping out the music at the surface (yes, the melody) and dig deeper to find increasingly simple diminutions. Take out the melody (like the passing tones and the rest of the ornamentation), and see/listen to what remains as far as chords and their progressions over a continuum. We hear music on a variety of layers simultaneously, and one way to diagnose a problem is to dig deeper and identify the layers of the music presented. It is then that problems emerge that require fixing. Like an auto, we strip off the body, and start examining the parts and see how they interface, then deeper into parts that may be malfunctioning.
As one digs deeper into the various layers of the piece, it often becomes quickly apparent where the weaknesses are. The progressions don’t work, or flow from beginning to end. This is true for short pieces (like commercial songs) and longer pieces and in any style or purpose (contemporary, jazz, film, avante garde). If it becomes difficult to identify the harmonic structure, chances are there aren’t any to identify, and the problems become acutely obvious. This is painful for composers that have not gone through this exercise, but necessary to able to advance their work and achieve greater artistic goals.
How Is Great Music Architecturally Formulated?
By now it should be apparent to the reader of this article that we are not talking about form (like Sonata, Fugue, Ternary, Minuet, or Pop Song), but what we are talking about here is architecture, the musical engineering and neurological mysteries of human recognition of when it is present, and when it is not.
Talented and skilled composers do not spend all of their time on writing in a layered approach, but almost all unconsciously structure their music on a layered basis. As the music travels through time, skilled composers know exactly where they are architecturally and when they veer off course. The level of musicianship and experience in the study of other great works guide the degree of intuitive capabilities composers bring to the composition and editing process. But they are also acutely aware of where they are architecturally and consciously at any point in the composition and editing process. Another way of saying it is – If you (the composer) don’t know where you are, then the listener won’t know either!
Great music can stand up to a rigorous analytical process (which I am calling reverse engineering in this article) because the composers have applied much more than talent and inspiration to their works. Too much work, you say? Well, maybe composing is not for you.
Style And Musical Architecture
In order to really understand how this works, it is essential to set aside any preconceived notions about art and the human experience. The study of musical semiotics and musical sciences (neurologically) is at a relatively early stage, but we do know that all human brains are genetically wired identically. We have the same starting point, after which our environment effects us………to a point. There are sounds and sequences that no matter how many times we hear them, out brains will reject and are unable to digest.
Many composers, in great frustration, reject the study of music and “rules” as inhibiting their individual artistic expression and experience. For example, composers without access to advanced training or even poor instruction will dig in their heels and insist on a free style approach to composition as a better way and affording broader and more meaningful means of artistic expression. Nothing could be further from the truth. While these broad philosophical diatribes may angularly look good on paper, the reality is compositions without solid engineering will quickly go off the road and into a ditch.
The miracle of the human experience includes the broad expanse of music we can hear and enjoy across time periods, and styles. Our brains are positioned to hear and enjoy musical and architectural splendors from Bach to Takemitsu, Brahms to Britten, Ellington to Britten, and so much more. But music without engineering? It’s like driving without a map, and without a destination. Our brains will reject it.
It’s Not Your Fault – The Great University Deception
Many composers have done their level best to go to school, study, practice, work with professors with doctorates in composition, and much more. Yet, despite these best efforts, a great many composers in the world struggle with their craft. Some of this is the result of a lack of capability – not everyone who wants to compose has the requisite talent to do so. However, for many the skill sets, which are learned, are unavailable due to the deficiencies of teaching and knowledge at the university level. This is a sad state of affairs, and largely due to the tenure system coupled with the enormous profits derived from outrageously priced tuition in many parts of the world, particularly the USA. Young students on the way up lack the tools to evaluate the level and capabilities of professors at schools and universities, the result of which is musical educations that are short on musicianship and long on student loans. I have personally watched the decline in the level instruction in my lifetime while the number of composers has dramatically increased to unprecedented levels. This is a sorry state of affairs, and I can only urge the talented to focus on craft and musicianship and continue to learn throughout your life and career. There still remain some wonderful composers on the faculty of universities worldwide, but not because they have the PhD appended to their names.
Sound Design and Orchestration – Sonic Camouflage
The use of sound design – oftentimes is a camouflage for a lack of structure. Look closely at the music of Debussy, Ravel and Takemitsu – masterful composers with a deep knowledge of composition technique and musicianship, whose greatest contributions may have been the unfolding of sound design as a set of composition techniques. Composers since then imitate the beautiful soundscapes of Debussy’s work, but without the deeper aspects of his compositional prowess. Lots of glitter, but not the gold (welcome to the world of DAW’s, music samples, and production). Debussy’s sound design has been widely imitated for 100 plus years, from Messiaen to film composers of the current day, and many contemporary composers enamored with the sound design or effects of his compositional oeuvre While the music composed is often entertaining and enjoyable for the moment, much of it does not bear the test of repeated listenings. Film directors and music editors, for example have often opted for these surreal tonal landscapes to add “feel” for scenes (i.e. music cues), but when extracted from the picture, the music often doesn’t work that well. Music gets chopped up and moves from cue to cue in a transactional approach, for example without regard to key relationships and architectural issues across timelines. (I could go on for many pages about this)
Music From The Inside Out.
Start improvising. Pick out the ideas that feel right. Develop the architecture as you go along. This requires a high level of musicianship. The really talented composers bring in the architecture and structure as they move along in the creative and editing process, some of which is subliminal (a great inner ear that brings in the architecture) and the rest through conscious analysis and decisions on where to go and how things fit in as the composition process unfolds. Composing on a strictly instinctive level without mindfulness of hierarchical structures and how to manipulate the music is a surefire recipe for disaster. Orchestration and sound design will camouflage a weak composition – such music and the composers that create these works are easily forgotten.
This is very hard to do. It may be the hardest part of the composition process. The achievement of a composition of any length that is well conceived and executed on every level and dimension is very difficult to achieve. It’s very hard work. In my experience and in listening to a huge amount of new music in my daily regimen, I find there are few that can do this. Yes, there are incredible numbers of composers now in the world, more than at any time in world history. If you want to stand out, and make a memorable contribution, do the work necessary to achieve these goals. There are no shortcuts.
One of the great ways of expanding your composition skills is through continued learning. Composers that believe in studying past graduation have a much better chance of succeeding. www.compositiononline.com