The Path Towards Compositional Prowess
I make it a point of visiting local music conservatories and universities in cities around the world whenever my work is performed. I do this for the purpose of giving back to others, to offer master classes in composition to composers at the school and community. I have never charged schools for this offering.
On one such four city tour of Turkey a few years ago, a small platoon of composers attended a master class arranged for me to provide, and included several dozen observers and the media from the region. A young boy, about 15 years old, was among this group of composers and was offered up as the local genius composer for me to evaluate and teach as part of the master class.
The young composer came up to the piano, with his score, and played excerpts from a suite for piano. When this performance was over, I asked him to play from the beginning of the second movement, a slow piece of moderate pianistic difficulty. I let him know in advance that I will interrupt him several times for illustration purposes. A few measures in, I asked him to stop, go back to the beginning, and start again, but this time without the score in front of him. “Close the score, please, set it aside, and start again”. Panic in the young man’s eyes. He did so, and I then politely interrupted him again a few measures in. “Now start again, and play this slow piece a major third higher”. He was unable to do it. “The lesson to be learned is that if you cannot transpose your own music without the score in front of you, you have a great deal to do to develop basic musicianship skills – you are not yet ready to compose”.
Music As A Language
Music is, to a large degree, reflective of a set of integrated sound relationships shaped over time. Add rhythm and you have a piece. Add instrumentation (plus samples/sound design) and you have an orchestrated piece, sometimes called a “mockup”. But at the fundamental level of content, music consists of sound and rhythmic relationships, the sum of which is a piece of music. The starting point, or “key of the piece” is irrelevant to the set of relationships within it; key has more to do with performance practices, like range and capability of instruments, vocal ranges, and the physical aspects of playback and performance. There are some that hold forth that choice of key is a compositional element as well, but that is not the thrust of this article.
There are two broad aspects to training your brain to speak the language of music, and they are both mutually exclusive and additive. The first is to learn to play and transpose the music of others; the second is to improvise, the extemporaneous creation of new music. This article is focused on transposition, the first of these two primary steps on the process of inner hearing.
Play and Transpose the Music of Others
Unlike solfege (i.e. “sight singing”), there are no standalone courses at music schools in transposition. Consquently, the curriculumn and learning output at music schools worldwide is very uneven. For example, many (not all) of the music courses at schools offering degrees in media composing are light on musicianship building. Music departments that have de-emphasized musicianship skills (including the ability to play and transpose the music of others) churn out composers with limited capability. I will leave it to another article to dive deep into the underlying reasons for this.
Transposition skills are best developed when running parallel to the course progress in music theory. One learns the manner in which diatonic harmony developed in a logical way over time, and with that, corresponding musical complexity. Choosing pieces for transposition reflective of the times (historical context) is a great way to understand and internalize structural hearing.
Another way is what I and others refer to anecdotally as the Nadia Boulanger approach, which is to focus on Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, learn and transpose as many of the preludes and fugues as you can and stick with it. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough way to improve one’s musicianship skills by embarking on this course of musical action.
Close Your Eyes!
When working on your transposition skills, I recommend learning to play with your eyes closed. Looking leads to physical counting – transposition by the numbers or physical distance. Looking at your hands can be very distracting. Let your brain do the work, and your fingers become an extension of the inner hearing experience. Again, this is a “hearing” experience, and focuses on the internalization of the musical relationships between notes and structural hearing; the fingers become an extension of what one is hearing in one’s mind.
The Road to Compositional Excellence
The path towards excellence in compositional prowess includes the expansion of transpostion skills to a much broader level. One might think of this as the ability to view the entire expanse of a composition as a map of a journey, together with the ability to drill down to review (and modify) smaller segments of a composition.
Nadia Boulanger referred to well composed music as “the long journey”. Felix Salzer referred to structural hearing as “…these organic forces of the musical language, particularly the tonal functions and relationships which form both the generative and cohesive forces of great music…..[the differentiators] between chord grammar (or labeling) and significance, showing that function rather than the ordinary label is really significant. Further distinctions between chords of structure and chords of prolongation, harmonic and contrapuntal uses, and the concept of musical direction provide effective tools for the analysis of music”.
Where Are You?
Advanced transposition skills are one of the stronger set of indicators that are reflective of the capability and readiness of composers to create music that maintains audience interest throughout the listener experience. The ability to absorb and understand the entirety of a musical composition at every hierarchical level is a prelude towards the ability to create one’s own composition that holds together. This goes for any type of music and venue, from fugue to symphony, commercial song to film score, and in all styles and venues.
It is essential for successful composers to speak the language of music fluently, and understand when and how compositions may veer off course and get into trouble. Stated another way, if you don’t know where you are in a piece, then the audience won’t know where you are either.
Steve Lebetkin is the founder of Composition Online, a pioneer in extended learning for professional composers, and the developer of the Mini-Master Class – Live and Online continued learning for composers worldwide. For more information please direct your inquiries to: [email protected]