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If you're composing harmonies that are not, in the strictest sense, tonal. how do you choose the notes to use.
I'm pretty familiar with the tonal world and all that jazz. So, if you have any ideas, thoughts or methods you have found to be inspiring and working. please enlighten me...
Also, I'm interested in hearing about different resources (books and such) on the subject, if you know any.

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Hello Henri,

When I write atonal stuff, I generally try to keep the harmonies basically uniform throughout by having similair intervallic content in all of the chords. When you think about it, tonal music works the same way (3rds and 5ths in all the chords). So, as an imaginary example, I come up with a cool sounding chord like C-Eb-E-F#-G-B and examine the intervals: that one is three major sevenths (C-B, E-Eb, G-F#) or you could think of it as a Cminor chord with half steps around each note. So you could generate other harmonies based on similair principles, say three minor sevenths(C, Bb, Eb,F, G, A) or a major chord with half step neighbors (say C-Db-E-F-G-F#). In stringing the chords together, I often use independent lines to link them, taking the vertical sonorities and horizontalizing them, making the chords into melodies. You will also notice that in tonal music the intervals that make the chords are also the intervals that the chord progressions follow (fifths and thirds). So if you have half steps and tritones in your chords, move the chords about by the same intervals.
Well, when I write something for my own pleasure, I do not try to write tonally or atonally/non-tonally. Whether one hears something as tonal, atonal, polytonal, etc. is subjective, anyway (although certainly there are some clear trends there). Lots of people hear at least some of my music as being atonal/nontonal or polytonal. I really couldn't care less how it's interpreted--tonally, atonally, whatever. What I care about is that I'm writing something that I like the sound of and that emotionally resonates with me.

The way I choose the notes to use is ALWAYS simply by listening--by what sounds good to me. I do that even when I'm writing in more of a conventional tonal way for a work-for-hire gig. Even in that situation, I couldn't care less if anything I'm doing resembles what other folks have done, what they think is the "right" thing to do, etc.

Now, apparently, for some people, the only thing that tends to sound good to them is stuff that they consider tonal. For them, I'd have to wonder why they'd be trying to write something nontonal in the first place (again unless it's for a work-for-hire gig). If you don't like something, why are you trying to write it?

So I suppose one question we have to ask is what you're writing for? If it's just your own pleasure, do you listen to and like atonal stuff? If you do, those sounds should be pleasant to you, and you're going to pick them out when you're diddling around on piano, or guitar, or whatever instrument you write on.

I'm a fan of a lot of a lot of music that's not traditionally tonal, and I have been since I was young. I would transcribe (well, or just read if it was available) and analyze a lot of the stuff I loved. I'd play around with those melodies, chords, chord progressions, because that's the stuff that sounded the best to me. I was more attracted to it, it emotionally resonated with me more than other stuff.

An important thing to do when you sit down to write is experiment, in a fairly literal way. Stop thinking about any "shoulds" that you have stored in your memory. Play around with your instrument. Think, "What would happen if I played these notes here? How would that sound? Do I like that better than this?" Try to force yourself to experiment in ways that you've never experimented before each time you sit down. Make yourself think of at least one new thing, something you'd never thought of before, each time. If you like the way those things sound, add them to your vocabulary as a composer (and player).

Beyond coming up with some initial stuff that you like the sound of, as a means of economizing ideas (which both makes it less work for yourself and helps you get more mileage out of a smaller number of ideas AND helps make your work more "internally consistent"), analyze the stuff you came up with and liked--for example, analyze the intervallic structures you've got going on both vertically and horizontally. Then start playing around with variations on that--transpose it, invert it, try it in retrograde, try altering intervallic structures as a progression goes on in some systematic way (like say you've got a 6th in each chord, well, try, in your retrograde, say, first lowering the sixth then raising it, then using a double flat then double sharp, etc.--anything you can think of is worth trying)--again, experiment, and try to keep coming up with new ways to experiment here; your only limitation will be your imagination, and you always want to work on making that less limited. But ALWAYS, let your ears and your taste be your ultimate arbiter.
I don't believe there are any composers who write music they think sounds horrible unless they are writing an academic excercise to please their teachers. Telling somebody to use their ear and do what they think sounds good when composing is like telling somebody to use their arms and legs while running...it's sort of a "well duh!" But yeah, if you want to write atonal music you should internalize the style by listening, reading, and playing it so you can train your ear about it. If you use your ear without knowing the style, your ear will most likely cause you to write something tonal because that is what we are most accustomed to, or well, most of us, from the time we are wee bitty babies we hear music on TV, in little wind up toys, from our parents, we learn songs in school, so on and so forth, and pretty much 99.7% of it is tonal.
Before I started getting started in pitched music myself, I had always liked some classical. You know the drill, I could only name three or five pieces I liked, and was lucky if I could name 6 composers, and only knew the names of most of them... I did enjoy hearing the classical station, though... "usually" sometimes, I just had to turn it off, it sounded horrible to me. I didnt know what was up with "those" pieces...

I was hanging out in a book shop a lot one time, and the lady owner always had classical playing. The local chess club met there, like that. She asked me if i was into classical. i said yes, but, that I didnt understand much about it. I explained that there were pieces that I just couldnt listen to.

She said "you mean the dissonance period?" Ididnt know what that was, and said so. So she started saying "do you like this one?" "yes..." "thats so and so..." a while later, same thing... finally I said "no, this sounds like cats dancin randomly on notes" She said "this is from the dissonance period"

I dont know if "dissonance period" is the right word for it, but... i cant appreciate it. I have read articles by "whoever" on the internet, and they will talk about tonal music as if its, I dunno, mary had a little lamb or something. Statements like "I thought we were SO past childish tonality... yet, here we are yet again, with another boring tonal piece..."

I go and listen if theres a link, and it sounds wonderful to me... I dunno... I always wonder if I'm missing out on something great by noot appreciating non-tonal music. I learned a taste for wine that wasnt sugar sweet, some of it anyways... but, could NOT acquire the "mature enough taste" for scotch. I just dont want to be missing out on something great, but, if it sounds like what the book lady described as the "dissonance period", I just have to say no... I just dont want to be missing out on somethin great, the way people talk about atonal music being so much better then "boring tonality"

I just seem to like the way the notes "really ring out...", I guess... the dissonance stuff didnt "ring out"... sounds "flat" or "dull" to me...
There are so many different sounds, i think you really just have to experiment and listen.

I usually stick to chords I know: triads, add6, M7, b5, half diminished, quartal...
I find that basic triads are the most powerful in most situations.

HOWEVER I thiink it was Bach who said that harmony is just a consequence of overlapping melodies.
Also, Debussy will layer different ideas that only sound dissonant when played at the same time.
I would suggest two approaches:
1) get to know very well what jazz players call the "dimished scale". It's a scale built alternating a whole tone and a half tone. Oliver Messiaen classified it among his "limited transposition modes" in that it can only be transposed three times... explore the hidden triads in this scale, for example: in the C dim scale (c-d-eb-f-f#-g#-a-b) start from c/f/a, an inverted Fmajor triad, and go up the scale. You have c/f/a, d/f#/b (Bm), eb/ab/c (AbM), f/a/d (Dm), f#/b/d# (BM), ab/c/f (Fm), a/d/f# (DM), b/d#/g# (G#m). This makes for some interesting harmonic progression already, Now find the seventh chords in it... then explore more complex chords like say c/eb/ab/b/d/f#, anything is good, you can stack every possible combination of those tones. Then draw melodic lines over these chords, or build poliphonic lines, anything... this is widely used in film music...
point 2 is serial composing, but it took too long to write point 1 so I have to procrastinate it until next time! :)
Roberto Soggetti said:
point 2 is serial composing, but it took too long to write point 1 so I have to procrastinate it until next time! :)


I consider serialism to be kind of a science exercise rather than a technique composer could efficiently use to express his ideas in atonal way. However, one might use it to severely limit the endless amount of possibilities which come when you're free from tonal thinking - might be helpful when you're getting started.
Pointilism seems intriguing, though :)


Greg Brus said:
Roberto Soggetti said:
point 2 is serial composing, but it took too long to write point 1 so I have to procrastinate it until next time! :)


I consider serialism to be kind of a science exercise rather than a technique composer could efficiently use to express his ideas in atonal way. However, one might use it to severely limit the endless amount of possibilities which come when you're free from tonal thinking - might be helpful when you're getting started.
Pointilism seems intriguing, though :)

not sure... I agree to a certain extent, but since eventually you are (your ear is) the judge of the final output, the science exercise could turn into an expressive medium for the composer. Plus, it's easy to get pieces done very quickly this way :). Here's an example I did some time ago, as a demo for Wallander's woodwinds. It took about 30 minutes to compose...
http://www.robertosoggetti.com/serialwoods.mp3
That sounded cool Roberto! I think the hardest thing to do when writing atonal music is to bring it to a convincing close. A V-I cadence is sort of like "and they all lived happily ever after, the end." When you take that away you have to focus on other aspects like texture, dyanmics, and "musical gestures" for lack of a better term. Er well, you can write an atonal piece and bring it to a close by slipping into tonal procedures at the end, but that's sort of like cheating, it sounds kind of cheesy, uncharacteristic for the piece. There was one atonal piece I was writing where I did something like that and my wife sort of laughed at me...it came from nowhere. So I went back and thought "using the material I have used throughout the piece, how do I make it end?" I made it build and build in intensity through rhythm and dynamics until it sort of exploded. I'm glad she laughed! Here's the piece. (ya know, listening again, it stilll doesn't quite sound like it "ends")
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Tombo Rombo said:
That sounded cool Roberto! I think the hardest thing to do when writing atonal music is to bring it to a convincing close. A V-I cadence is sort of like "and they all lived happily ever after, the end." When you take that away you have to focus on other aspects like texture, dyanmics, and "musical gestures" for lack of a better term. Er well, you can write an atonal piece and bring it to a close by slipping into tonal procedures at the end, but that's sort of like cheating, it sounds kind of cheesy, uncharacteristic for the piece. There was one atonal piece I was writing where I did something like that and my wife sort of laughed at me...it came from nowhere. So I went back and thought "using the material I have used throughout the piece, how do I make it end?" I made it build and build in intensity through rhythm and dynamics until it sort of exploded. I'm glad she laughed! Here's the piece. (ya know, listening again, it stilll doesn't quite sound like it "ends")

Thanks Tom! I liked your piece, just a bit too long for my attention span :). That would have sounded great on a piano, I think...
Tombo Rombo said:
I don't believe there are any composers who write music they think sounds horrible unless they are writing an academic excercise to please their teachers. Telling somebody to use their ear and do what they think sounds good when composing is like telling somebody to use their arms and legs while running...it's sort of a "well duh!" But yeah, if you want to write atonal music you should internalize the style by listening, reading, and playing it so you can train your ear about it. If you use your ear without knowing the style, your ear will most likely cause you to write something tonal because that is what we are most accustomed to, or well, most of us, from the time we are wee bitty babies we hear music on TV, in little wind up toys, from our parents, we learn songs in school, so on and so forth, and pretty much 99.7% of it is tonal.
I agree it's a "duh!" thing, but that's the answer. Write what sounds good to you. If what sounds better to you is something tonal, write that. You shouldn't write something atonal if you don't like that better unless you have to (and you were overlooking work-for-hire gigs for that). Write something atonal if that sounds better to you when you're tinkering around. It seems obvious to me, but apparently it's not obvious to everyone.
Salvin Cransby said:
There are so many different sounds, i think you really just have to experiment and listen.

I usually stick to chords I know: triads, add6, M7, b5, half diminished, quartal...
I take an opposite approach there. When I'm composing, I try to more or less forget about the chords I know and just experiment with combinations of notes. Once I have chords I like the sound of, only then do I figure out what the most convenient name for them would be (if I'm writing something like a lead sheet, especially--where I need to give players chord names to execute). Working that way, sometimes it's tough to come up with a name, and sometimes you end up having to give different players (like, say, a guitarist and a keyboardist) different chords to play at the same time (warning them beforehand to not be surprised by it), because the chord ended up basically being something like a Cmi/Ma7 over an AMa7(b9) or something like that.

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