thoughts on music, design and literature

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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