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.