Composition Technique vs. Harmonic Technique

How They Differ And Why It Makes A Difference

It started more than 100 years ago. The endless fascination with the expansion of tonality – what to do and how to combine the twelve tones of the chromatic scale in new ways. Depending on who you are talking to, Wagner’s tonal expansion led to Schoenberg’s tonal decimation, and then an intellectual cottage industry of academics staking tenured positions through the establishment of their new harmonic systems. Another group of composers that included Bartok and Britten went down a different path, and deliberately focused on the combination of expanded/organized harmonic languages combined with the application of traditional composition techniques dating back to Haydn.

Somewhere along the way the lines became blurred, somewhat deliberately, between the technique of harmonic language and the technique of musical composition. They are not the same. The two rely upon one another that when done well, make for wonderful music for people to hear and enjoy. However, when either is weak, audiences lose interest. One without the other is like a one-legged stool that quickly falters, and down you go.

What Works, What Doesn’t, And Why

It is only over the last 10-20 years or so that neuroscientists have begun to understand how human brains are structured and able to process information, including musical information. The field of neuroplasticity is a huge and complex area (and in its infancy), but it begins to explain the distinctions between the “hard wiring” of human brains (the universal genetic codes we start with) and from there how are brains are elastic – that’s where the “neuroplastic” comes from. (Parenthetically speaking, the late composer Gabriel Fontrier did the initial work on how we hear in the early 1950’s under a Ford Foundation Grant)

Today, musical scientists like Mark Reybrouck are digging deeply into the field of musical semiotics and helping us understand how and what we hear “naturally” and what is learned through the re-routing and development of neural pathways on an individual basis and then across large cultural expanses.

What we know so far is that the human brains are adaptive from a neuroplastic perspective to a point, but no amount of artistic dialogue about expression and how the world will eventually catch up to an artist’s chosen path of expression is a given. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and won’t.

Here’s an example. When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring came out, there was a significant public pushback. Now 100 years later it seems tame and one wonders what all the fuss was about. Well, look at what happened since then – the public became used to the music and its gestures. The reasons are that many composers picked up on the harmonic techniques of Stravinsky and the neuroplastic pathways of society adapted to accept and enjoy the expanded expression. Also, and of equal importance, the compositional techniques utilized by Stravinsky were based in the work of Haydn. These techniques are part of the hard wiring of all of us. More about this later.

Now look at the atonal work of composers in the same time period in which the harmonic palette was abandoned and replaced completely. One hundred years later humanity’s neuroplastic capabilities still are unable to absorb these changes, and this music remains and will always be beyond the reach of the human experience. But the other problem is that many of the composers who composed in this manner (and still today) have a one-legged stool – only harmonic language while ignoring (or unaware) of fundamental techniques of composition. Again, such techniques are unrelated to harmonic techniques.

Composition Technique And Musical Semantics

Leonard Bernstein had it right in the second and third Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973. Bernstein draws upon the work of Noam Chomsky and speaks to the issue of universal grammar – formal universals that describe genetically inherited types of rules of the human mind, regardless of language. Bernstein describes how we digest music from a genetic perspective, regardless of language. He points out that there are some 4,000 languages in the world, but our ability to apply genetic grammar is what is essential in his analogy to Chomsky’s work in human linguistics.

What this means to us from a musical perspective is that, analogously, the harmonic language selected by composers in their work has little to with the application of genetically embedded universal grammar (i.e. “composition technique”). This set of principals in the hands of able composers combined with a choice of musical language can result in digestible and enjoyable music, regardless of the choice of language – well, almost. (The musical language must also be digestible or the one legged stool will still fall down!).

Composition Pedagogy

So, let’s take a look around academia and the books that are available and see what is out there. If one excludes books and treatises on composition whose focus is on musical language (harmonic choices) and the composers who teach the next generation, there is not much left. Yes, there is plenty of material on form, like sonata, fugues, rondos etc., but what about musical syntax, semiotics, grammar or variants? Very little. Good luck finding a book on this.

What about all those composition teachers and professors at schools, universities and conservatories around the world? Do they not know about composition techniques?

Some of them do. Many do not. The ones that do were fortunate to learn this great art from a teacher that passed on this knowledge to them and can in turn pass this on to the next generation of composers. Unfortunately the disintegration of tonality and substitution of a variety of questionable musical languages spawned several generations of composers without a foundation in compositional grammar; language became the complete substitute. And today, commercial composers are in too many instances short on composition technique and long on sound design.

Composition Techniques – A Brief Primer

The literature on harmonic and contrapuntal techniques is vast. The literature on musical syntax is light, to say the least. Therefore it would be impossible to describe in this short article the detail of compositional “grammar” that is deserving of at least an entire book on the subject.  However, here are some of the highlights, each of which could become a chapter in a book on composition techniques.

  • Controlled repetition – Once, Twice, Three times you’re out. The art of repetition of notes, phrases, and other short musical gestures developed by Haydn and Mozart. These make or break techniques can be learned to enable non-musician adults to better understand why they enjoy certain pieces and why others miss the mark.  This is where craft begins and ends, and where art and genius take over.
  • Temporization – is like a roadside rest on a long journey. This musical and compositional technique provides listeners with a brief break, almost like “active rest” in a difficult workout, so that the music continues without interruption but in a way that allows the listener to emotionally take in what they have heard before moving on to the next moment of musical interest.
  • Staggered Melody – Melody, whether played or sung (and in any register) is almost invariably accompanied by one or more instruments. There are three ways in which this occurs: 1) Melody first, then accompaniment 2) Accompaniment, then melody 3) All together (“tutti”). This technique applies to music of all styles and genres, from classical to the most contemporary of commercial and popular songs of the day. The compositional technique of Staggered Melody is the one most often omitted from composition classes at universities throughout the world, a frequent deficiency of pop songwriters, composers of scores in media, and throughout the remaining market. When unrecognized, the result is music that is lacking in an unidentifiable way, particularly by those involved in music creation and/or production to then improve. When addressed, the differences are striking.
  • The “Sounds” of Silence – When the music stops, the beat goes on. It’s all about heart. We all have a heart, which beats in pairs, so when you think the music has stopped, your beating heart takes over. Learn, for example why it’s so difficult to dance to a waltz. Two legs, three beats. Do the math.
  • Where is Sound? Why Schoenberg Lost His Footing – Ever wonder why all humans hear music in much the same way? Music in the brain – the overtone series, the structural foundation of Western music, is hardwired and the brain creates its own sounds that may not appear in a music score. It’s magic! It also rejects sound combinations that the brain is not wired for, hence where atonality fails.
  • Sound Kernels – The “real” new musical language of the last hundred years that works. After Richard Wagner stretched tonality to the breaking point, composers went into two directions in the race to provide listeners something to hold onto and prevent drowning in a meaningless sea of sound. Some composers reached for organized pitch structure (like twelve tone tonality and serialism), but others, like Bela Bartok created little worlds (“Mikrokosmos”) that became the foundation for new integrated and completely accessible languages that only apply to a single musical work at a time.
  • Glue – What keeps a piece from falling apart at the seams? Glue! The use of common tones to support chord changes in the music is essential for musical continuity. Music in any style that lacks at least one note that is common to the next chord or change in the music will fall apart. It can be quite disturbing to listeners; they will be unable to verbalize why, but they will sense there is something wrong and the music doesn’t hang together. This principal of music composition is essential for the enjoyment of music in any style, whether classical, film, commercial songs, or any other venue. This is how we hear and enjoy.
  • Just The Right Next Note  – The Principle of Musical Inevitability, the Holy Grail for composers, is the ability to compose music that when heard by listeners impresses as a series of perfect choices from beginning to end.  From the initial idea to the final note, this is a “wrap around”  technique for which each traditional composition technique constitutes the grammatical and syntactical tools for the language of music,  then applied to improvisations in an organized way until the achievement of a completed composition.  Great composers hear music and make choices based upon their best perception of the human experience and how we hear music – vertically (a moment in time), linearly (moving forward),  and contextually retrospective (current sounds in relationship to what has been heard previously)

Who Is To Decide What Is Art?

Over the years there has emerged in our society this strange idea that the great composers of commercial and serious music were better off without the rules that stifle creativity. By and large those that espouse these ideas are those that haven’t made the effort to learn craftsmanship. Pure laziness. When peeling the layers back of those whose examples of great achievement that aren’t musically trained we see that those with significant training are just behind the scenes. Lennon/McCartney had George Martin, Duke Ellington had Billy Strayhorn, and many more examples.

There is great talent in the world, much of it unshaped. Learning one’s craft will enable those with talent to write a better “book” in any language. Or musical composition.

Violin Concerto


This concerto was composed in November 2016 – January 2017.  In this work, I continue to develop techniques of an expanded harmonic language that began with Brahms then carried forward successfully by Bela Bartok (in his first violin concerto), then later by Samuel Barber in his great violin concerto. The expansion of tonality must be mindful of the integration and verticalization of melody in a way that is clearly accessible to the masses and touches the human spirit. In order to connect with the world through music, composers must make effective use of the techniques of musical composition (a separate body of knowledge from harmonic techniques) developed by Haydn and passed down through the ages.

I hope that this work is worthy of those that take the time to listen.


Concerto for Soprano Saxophone, Vibraphone, and String Orchestra

Composed in September, 2016


Based in part on the music of Brazil

I. Proclamation
II. Canción del Corazon (Batucada)
III. Congo-Angola, for Dandalunda

Congo Angola, for Dandalunda is an ancient religious song from the Congo Angola religious cult of Central Africa. The thematic material of this song was adapted for use in this concerto movement.

African religious music is a major part of Bahia, one of 26 states of Brazil. The religious traditions of the Congo Angola cult of western Central Africa, which is an integral part of the Bahia culture. Bahia is often spoken of as the “Rome of the Africanos”.

A principal of belief system of all of these groups is that the “destiny of the Universe is in the hands of deities that are everywhere the same, though the names they bear vary from region to region and from people to people according to the language that is spoken. The destiny of man, who is but a modest part of this Universe, is ruled by the same gods……” by Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits

Elegy For String Orchestra

Originally the second movement of Sextet for String Quartet, Double Bass, and Harpsichord.

Revised and orchestrated on October 20, 2016

Scored for double string orchestra or divided orchestra (stage left and stage right groups)


Just The Right Next Note – The Stuff They Don’t Teach In Music Composition School

Just The Right Next Note

The Stuff They Don’t Teach In Music Composition School

I recently came across a facsimile manuscript of a Beethoven work for a chamber group, filled with cross outs, crowded changes, extended musical staves with additional notes and margins, a calligraphic mess. Beethoven’s sloppy scores containing ingenious music are the stuff of legends. But what does this tell us about the compositional process?


Beethoven Manuscript

The hunt was on. Beethoven was searching for Just The Right Next Note (or passage), not satisfied with a musically correct one, but the very best choice. Yes, the key word here is choice; the mathematical possibilities of choices for next notes or passages is seemingly endless, but consistently making the best choices along the way is the make or break goal. How is that achieved? Keep reading.

It wasn’t until I learned to compose effectively with modern music notation software (i.e. word processing for music notation) and in my late period that I began to understand why the Beethoven sketches are so sloppy. In order to compose music that has real drive and what I call the Principal of Musical Inevitability, it takes an enormous effort to find the most exciting notes to follow all the notes that have come beforehand. Manual transcription is very difficult to achieve during the compositional process. The pen or pencil gets in the way. Modern notation programs make it easier to find just the right next note to follow and notate (and save) the choices more quickly. Herr Beethoven, I get it – the struggle was writing it down as quickly as you heard it. Mozart was the exception – doing all the sketching and simultaneously in his head. There are no Mozart sketches, only final scores. For those of us composing at a high level (particularly late in life composers) there are very few sketches. The preponderance of composition and editing takes place in silent thought.

The Principle of Musical Inevitability

The Principle of Musical Inevitability, the Holy Grail for composers, is the ability to compose music that when heard by listeners impresses as a series of perfect choices from beginning to end. From the initial idea to the final note, this is a “wrap around” technique for which each traditional composition technique constitutes the grammatical and syntactical tools for the language of music, then applied to improvisations in an organized way until the achievement of a completed composition. Great composers hear music and make choices based upon their best perception of the human experience and how we hear music – vertically (a moment in time), linearly (moving forward), and contextually retrospective (current musical sounds in relationship to what has been heard previously)

The Compositional Technique For Achieving Musical Inevitability

First things first. Before one can consistently compose exciting music that maintains continued interest from beginning to end, a composer must be facile and at ease with the Primary Techniques Of Composition (Hint – they have little to do with harmony!). With these syntactic tools firmly under control, here are the steps that embrace this essential technique:

  1. Playback of the score composed thus far in your mind (not physically or electronically. Understand and feel the musical and emotional gestures, whether motivically, short phrases, or large movements. Keep all that precedes the moment at top of mind (including multi-movement works).
  2. Let your mind’s ear take you to the next note and section, while maintaining a keen awareness of all your compositional tools at all times.
  3. Edit, edit, and edit some more.
  4. Come back another time and listen again with a fresh ear (in silence). Keep editing.

Tension And Release Sensitivity – Not The Kind You Would Think

The concept of tension and release is generally associated with the cadential resolution of a dissonant chord to a consonant chord. But there is another type of tension and release that advanced composers are especially sensitive towards, particularly as directed towards the goal of achieving Musical Inevitability.

Skilled composers look at tension and release across time horizons and in an adjusted manner. They look at how and when to crank up the tension AND BY HOW MUCH, and in relation to what has occurred previously in the music. This is really complicated stuff, and composers rely heavily on instinct to identify and relate to the peaks and valleys. Composers are looking at and identifying the depth of the valleys preceded emotionally, the heights of the emotional peaks that are to come, and measure/grade them to maintain drive, avoid disinterest, establish and mini and grand arches, and work towards the final resolution through release to end the piece. This is not mathematical, but it is very much a part of the conscience creative process and planning.

In multi-movement pieces, this is even harder to achieve. Each movement, film cue, song, aria, instrumental interlude, must work on its own as an independent/standalone work. However, to compose effective music for a large scale work, whether symphony or film music, the composer’s challenge is to plan for and execute a broader and more complex scheme to relate all the movements (or film cues) in a way that takes into account deeper retrospective and contextual experiences across timelines and that are emotionally cohesive. This is not easy to do.

The Joy Of Composing Music That Is Inevitable

I have been listening to, studying and composing music for my entire adult life. The joy of musical composition is the processing of making the best choices, from music written before each moment, to select just the right next note or phrase and move the piece forward beautifully. And then to do it again and again until the piece is finished. This feeling is the wonderful joy of creation for me and composers before me that we reach for in our creative lives; it is why we are here and what drives us to write the very best music that we can. We know when we listen to a completed work that has been gestated and birthed from us when we have achieved a sense of inevitability, and it’s wonderful.

Piano Concerto

Composed in the summer 2016, this concerto continues on my path towards reaching broader audiences in the twenty first century.

Click on the image to hear this concerto.




Cycle of the Earth – The Complete Ballet Recordings on Youtube

Cycle of the Earth (Youtube Playlist)


Cycle of the Earth is a ballet for symphony orchestra. It is a musical and dance work reflective of the earth’s life cycle. The ballet traces the earth’s environmental experience from its origins through the Ice Ages (where the music of the ballet begins). Mankind defiles the earth, which results in the premature destruction of life on earth. The earth devours its visitors (mankind) and returns triumphantly to the next Ice Age.

Cycle of the Earh

The movements of the ballet are:

I. Ice Age Dance
II. The Sea
III. Garden of Eden (in three scenes)
IV. The Epitaph of Seikilos
V. The Earth Devours Mankind
VI. Ice Age Hymn

Civilization – Epitaph of Seikilos (Fourth Movement) From Cycle of the Earth A Ballet for Symphony Orchestra by Steven Lebetkin

Click here to listen to the Youtube recording:

Civilization – Epitaph of Seikilos (Fourth Movement)

From Cycle of the Earth
A Ballet for Symphony Orchestra by Steven Lebetkin

“While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.”

Wikipedia Quote:

The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The epitaph has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100, but the first century AD is the most probable guess. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone, a stele, near Aydın, Turkey (not far from Ephesus). It is a Hellenistic Ionic song in either the Phrygian octave species or Iastian tonos. While older music with notation exists (for example the Hurrian songs), all of it is in fragments; the Seikilos epitaph is unique in that it is a complete, though short, composition.