Composers have made use of techniques, which Lebetkin calls the “secret sauce” from Bach to Beethoven to Bartok, to Elton John, Lennon/McCartney, now Adele, Fiona Appel, and other contemporary songwriters. The lecture series “What Makes Great Music Great” breaks down musical composition for the general public and entertainment industry professionals to educate and fashion an appreciation for music from classical to commercial markets. The series discusses the compositional techniques that do not appear in textbooks and materials in music schools throughout the world but are fundamental elements of music creation. This is where most composers fall short if they have not learned from those thoroughly familiar with these techniques. You can’t find this elsewhere.
Primary Music Composition Techniques Rarely Taught In Schools:
- 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. For musicians, including composers, Lebetkin goes deeper and identifies 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. This technique will be identified for non-musicians, and explained more deeply in its application to trained musicians.
- 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 song writers, 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)
- Three Dimensional Music Composition – Retrospective contextual hearing, is the human phenomenon of hearing the music of a specific piece (whether single or multi-movement, from commercial songs to symphonies) at a moment in time against the backdrop of the music of that piece heard earlier. People hear music in context, as a continuum, one of the great wonders of the human condition. We hear and absorb musical information much like one would read a book or poem, on multiple levels. In music, this is sometimes called fundamental structure (German: Ursatz), and its two subsets – foreground and middle ground levels. Somewhat analogously, this addresses the overall structure of a work (Ursatz), then a detailed chapter outline (middle ground) and then the words/notes of the piece itself (foreground). These techniques of three dimensional musical composition when applied by skilled and talented composers, regardless of the musical language selected, give rise to this three dimensional listening experience, which when achieved, makes for a more universally absorbed composition that bears repeated listenings and stands the test of time.
The series began with a short lecture to the Kingston Festival of the Arts. To view a preview of Lebetkin’s speaking series on Controlled Repetition, click on video link here: What Makes Great Music Great?