thoughts on music, design and literature

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Open Forum: Becoming A Composer Pt. 3

Here's the follow up to Danny K's follow question:

I forgot to ask about good harmonies/counterpoint though, so it'd be great if you could talk about that as well in the next post! Listening to Baba Yetu...

As for the harmony question, again, I think you really just have to listen to what you think is good music, and take note of what chord progressions that they use. My own music tends to keep it very simple (although I can get rather complex at times if necessary, like the instrumental buildup section in Baba Yetu when I start on a C-major and end on a C#-minor). The bulk of popular music uses just a handful of chords: I, V, IV, ii, vi, bVI, bVII, etc. (if you don't know what these letters mean, don't worry... unless you're planning on becoming a composer. In which case, if you don't know what these mean, you'd better do your homework.)

I would say, though, that for many composers, harmonic progression is not dictated separately from melody. The way I think is that I come up with melodies AND the harmonies behind them simultaneously. It's not like I say 'Here's a chord progression that I want to write a melody around.' I think it almost HAS to be done simultaneously because most of the time when you choose to write a certain note in a melody, it comes with a contextual harmonic implication as well--that is, it's a high note that wants to resolve, or wants to be stable, etc. After all, a note is given the bulk of its meaning based on the harmonic context it sits in.

I will say one thing, though; you can't write a melody that stays too comfortably within the principal notes of a chord (the one, three and five) without sounding banal and forgettable. I often move to suspended 4ths, 7ths, and 9ths, and then resolve back. Since you're a fan of Baba Yetu, give the main melody a listen and you'll see what I mean. Pay attention to when I land on notes that are part of the chord, and when I don't, both in terms of which bars they're in, and which beats on the bars. And then pay attention to the way I resolve them.

As for counterpoint, if you have any specific questions, please do ask!

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Honda Odyssey "Respect The Van"

I love the music in this spot!

I happen to love humorous retro things.

(Music by HUM.)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Open Forum: Becoming A Composer Pt. 2

Here's Danny K's second question about composing:

Also, is it true that most modern composers, despite having a background in theory, have largely abandoned the idea of harmonic progressions and such similiar 'classical' concepts? That's what my friend (who got a full ride to Oberlin) told me, and I breathed a small sigh of relief. Should I be sitting here wondering what the chord progression in my given movement should be and what cadence I should end it with, or is it normal to just have a keyboard next to me as I compose and punch out chords to see what sounds best as I work?

Yes, it's true, but not quite in the way I think you're imagining.

Modern music in the 20th-century got very avant-garde; and the idea of any harmony at all was poo-poo'd upon as being very antiquated and dated. It was partially a response to the fact that music in the 19th-century had gotten so overly romantic, that 20th-century composers wanted to break as far away from that as possible. Here's an example that I randomly picked off YouTube:

All through the 20th-century, composers were often derided if they wrote music that was too harmonic, sentimental, or generally tuneful. However, while the classical establishment strayed from tonality, the popular establishment (and that includes composers working in film and musical theatre) stayed very tonal, and very romantic. And since public taste has always been for the tuneful, classical music saw its audience shrink to the point that even die-hard classical music fans had a hard time listening to the music of the day, and would prefer just to hear the same old 18th and 19th-century works.

So all of this is to say that, yes, it's perfectly acceptable to write music these days that doesn't follow conventional chord progressions--and in fact, that doesn't use chords at all. HOWEVER, that isn't to say that you shouldn't take the craft of chord progressions seriously. I think that if you're going to make up your mind and be a harmonic, tonal composer (and that's what almost every single film or video game composer is), you should make up your mind to do it well.

But that said, using your ear to determine what chord comes next is a perfectly valid way of coming up with chord progressions. Don't worry about classical issues of voice-leading and such. Just write what sounds good and natural to you.

I'll get to your other question about 'good harmonies/counterpoint' next. If you have any other questions, just ask!

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Open Forum: Becoming A Composer Pt. 1

I recently got an email from a young, intrepid high schooler named Danny K., who asked me a few questions about pursuing an education and career in creating music. So rather than just respond to him via email, I asked him if he would mind if I answered his questions on my blog, just in case other people might find my answers informative or useful. I'll probably break up my response into two separate blog posts, so check back in a few days. So with that in mind, here we go:

I was wondering if you have any tips on composing, how to make memorable melodies, themes, orchestration, etc. just really awesome tips that I could utilize to make better sounding pieces...

The most important thing, I think, is to learn how to use your ears. Listen to as much music that you think is memorable, highly melodic, catchy, etc. and really pay attention to how they construct things. For example, what's the overall shape of the melody? Does it repeat? Where does it repeat? When it repeats, does anything change, or does it stay the same?

I was lucky in that I was born with a good ear. When I hear a piece of music, I can pretty much write down for you most everything that happens in that piece. And so in fact, when I hear music, what I'm actually doing is creating a mental transcription of it in my head. I think that's what helped me learn to write good melodies. Over the course of my lifetime, I've transcribed in my head thousands and thousands of melodies. And after you do that, you pretty much intuitively know what makes a good tune.

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