Among the various dictionary.com definitions of the word Adhesive, the one that relates most to the world of music is about the Physics “of or relating to the molecular force that exists in the area of contact between unlike bodies and that acts to unite them.” If one thinks of two consecutive sounds (or chords) as un-united and unlike bodies, we then need something to unite them in a way that we as humans can hear, digest, interpret, and enjoy. Without that, a musical composition can sound like a series of unrelated sounds that brings great displeasure or unbearable listening. No amount of sound design, effects, orchestration, rhythmic tricks and manipulation can overcome a disjointed series of sounds offered as music. The music fails.
Common tones are among the least understood composition techniques in music. Simply put, common tones tell us how many common tones are retained when a set of tones (or chord) is followed by another set, or chord. An example is a note shared between two chords in a chord progression. Common tones are a consideration in the study of voice leading, particularly for harmony and counterpoint.
I of course agree with the obvious note counting aspects of the analysis of tones that are common to consecutive chords and how the various musical lines travel along (i.e. voice leading) for this type of analysis. This is generally the end of the road for musicians and composers in traditional study. It misses the point entirely of what the purpose of common tones serves and its direct relationship to music composition.
Common tones are a musical adhesive, or “glue”. It keeps the music together and prevents it from falling apart. If it is absent, or removed, from musical passages, whatever is there is “un-united”. This musical adhesive is a close conceptual approximation to a physical experience, only in sound. It matters not so much as to what the content is of the two objects that are being joined as much as the effect of being joined. Composers can get a bit lost in the loftier goal of originality and creativity by attempting to ignore traditional rules of composition, including voice leading, harmony, serialism, and more, and at the expense of music whose purpose is to move the human spirit. Glue is a musical adhesive as firmly grounded in music composition technique as the physics “of relating to the molecular force that exists in the area of contact between unlike bodies and that acts to unite them.”
Moving The Glue Around
Moving the glue (or common tone) to a different register (or place) “un-glues” the music that it seeks to join. So, whereas on paper one is looking at and doing the math in a set theory analysis, the issue of common tones as an adhesive is actually physical – the common tone must be precise – one cannot transpose it to a different octave (i.e. registration) and expect it to be effective. This is yet another example of why the serialists are so off base – notes are not only unequal to the human ear, but the registrations are as well. One cannot move the musical adhesive to a different octave as the same note and expect it to be musically effective to the listener in the joining of musical chords and/or passages. To be clear, the underlying reasons for this are neurologically based, and are not the subject of this writing. We are at the infancy of the study of musical semiotics and how and why we hear the way we do. For now, though, advanced composers need only to understand what musical glue is and how to most effectively utilize it in their work.
A question arises as to how to effectively change registrations for a music glued together by a common tone without losing the emotional effect or even to create or prompt even greater musical interest. The answer is what I call pause and leap (up or down an octave). This is an advanced composition technique. The way this works is that the common tone, or glue, between two movements is held (the note is tied) or repeated between the two musical events, and then on the offbeat the common tone moves up or down and octave. This specific composition technique results in a moment of musical interest and can be very exciting. The musical adhesive gives the listener not only something to hold onto, but the repeats that note but in another registration. All of the issues of musical language, style, harmony, set theory, serialism and other variants have no bearing whatsoever on the effect of this on the human experience. Oh, and yes, this includes pop songs, jazz, music for film, and everything else.
Back In The Day
Schools and conservatories that require in depth study of Species Counterpoint often cannot describe what compositional benefits and skills are to be derived from this type of study. They simply do it and carry on a course curriculum from generation to generation. Students that attend schools without the study of species counterpoint graduate without much of a real foundation in music and the human experience, a frequent state of affairs with many of the media composers of the day. The late Nadia Boulanger, probably the most important composition teacher of the twentieth century, required graduate composers that traveled to study with her to focus in on species counterpoint exercises as part of their daily regimen. It helped these already professional composers fill in the gaps in their musical education and embed composition skills that were weak or lacking in their arsenal of techniques, no matter how innately talented.
Species Counterpoint and Musical Glue
What does this have to do with musical glue you ask? Plenty. One of the significant benefits of species counterpoint is the skillful use of common tones in the polyphonic musical fabric of the passages. The glue is utilized within all the voices on a staggered basis, and as part of the diatonic musical language of species counterpoint.
Once composers get the hang of how glue works within the species counterpoint environment, they are then ready to apply this technique to other forms of musical language, thought, and expression. The choice of musical language is unrelated to the effective use of musical glue as an essential composition technique that so dramatically affects the human experience of listening to music. The absence of a musical adhesive can often have a striking effect on the success or failure of music. Conversely, too much of a good thing is also counterproductive towards the human listening experience.
Pick Out The Best Parts
I have long held that books and treatises that portend to promulgate the study of composition techniques are anything but what they represent. Most are theory books, studies of counterpoint (including species), set and serial theory (studies of musical languages), and more. Within these books are composition techniques scattered around, but generally miss the mark. Just try and listen to an hour straight of the music of Palestrina, the father of species counterpoint. There are reasons why Palestrina’s music, though contrapuntally perfect, is rarely performed, as it is lacking in composition techniques necessary to maintain musical interest.
I must confess that when I see a bowl of mixed nuts and raisins, I pick out the best parts. It is the same with composition techniques, there is a large variety to choose from and they are not all that good.
Composition techniques are to be used carefully, and culled from the composer’s bag of tricks and applied with great deliberation and taste throughout the glorious process of creation, the creation of music that moves the soul and adds to the joy of those that choose to listen….repeatedly.