Hey all,


Lately I've been trying to push outside my comfort zone, and am writing poly tonal music that is similar in style to Bartok, or perhaps Stravinsky.  I have been doing this mostly by ear, and to be honest, I could not explain how most of the harmonies function within the piece.  So, the question is how common is this?  Do fellow composers here write the same way?  My current teacher thinks what I'm writing fits, and is consistent enough in each piece that it doesn't sound out of place, but I can't help but feel a little bit unsettled about it right now.


BTW stay tuned for an upload of one of my pieces (written in this style) to the music dissection page.

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  • When I write, I feel what the next note should be, or what change should come next. And when I listen back to it, it sticks out like a dissonant tone if it doesn't feel right. Usually when I have two lead lines/melodies, the notes are at standard harmonic intervals, but only my preference decides which intervals these are.


    Scientifically speaking, certain intervals are preferred by the human ear, determined by the harmonic content of the note. Basically, if you think it sounds good, so will most of the population.

  • This is common not only in music and is typically related to brain asymmetry. In short terms, left-handed people have right semi-sphere more developed than the left one -- and vice versa, right-handed people have the left semi-sphere more developed than the right one. Left semisphere is responsible for logical thinking (syntax, math calculations, verbal explanations etc). Right semisphere is responsible for emotions, intuition, 6th sence etc. Left-handed people usually make direct, immediate and correct decisions without the need to explain them. You should not be worried if you cannot explain your decisions, although attemps to try this can be useful. Such attempts can be meaningless as well, or even harmful, e.g., attempts to explain how we walk in walking time.

  • The one thought I have had, is that if I understood the theory behind what I'm doing a bit better, It might make composing a bit faster.  Right now writing by ear can be a slow process at times...


    Funny you should mention the Brain hemispheres- I happen to be left handed.  Interesting stuff!

  • ^ Yeah, I think where most object to learning theory is thinking that you have to spit-out what you used - not to mention how and/or why you used it! (In the simplest of terms of course)

    But yeah, something as simple as knowing the circle of fifths/fourths helps on compose faster because of how everything naturally progresses as is the case with music. It flows naturally!

    Which leads me to say that when trying to compose, one shouldn't force things. You may not know or care why IV and V go to I; or why iii-vi-ii-V take you to the I. However, we don't ask ourselves why one goes to two and two goes to three. There might be a logical explanation, but the most logical one - without the logic, is because it's natural.

    Many non-theory based people will tell you because it sounds good - to which they aren't wrong; however, they aren't concerned with the logic behind it - whether they do understand the logistics or not.
    Isn't it natural for a circle to end up where it began - regardless of how much logic one puts behind it?
  • That's a very good question to ask yourself, rather than simply being content with writing whatever simply sounds good (although that works for some, and that's great). The 2 composers I have studied the harmonies of most extensively are perhaps Scriabin and Shostakovich, both of whom used this technique in writing. Often Shostakovich would combine Major with it's parallel minor quite effectively, and one technique I personally find useful is using a V Augmented harmony combined with the submediant minor, since now it acts as both a Dominant harmony function and minor (with others at times as well). Hope that helps and best of wishes! By the way if it interests you feel free to check out my composition I have posted on my page (it's an example of how I've personally used this harmony technique).

  • Two composers l love and listen to on the regular, Ravel and Mendelssohn 

    Two composers who I don't listen to but they know the craft, Webern and Berg.

    All of the above meticulously cared for every note on the page.  Need I say more?

  • I just close my eyes. Then, when I have a song, I write it down. (I kid)

    Actually, my music takes hours upon hours to write because I have to listen to the damn piece over and over and over again from a MIDI playback until I like it. My longest stretch ever on one song was four weeks (spending less than four hours a day), and it only came out to about 3 minutes 15 seconds. Believe me, I am extremely picky when it comes to music. If I write something that I don't like, ain't no one else gonna like it either.

    I believe creativity in general is about love and hate. I wouldn't be on this forum today if I didn't love both the writing process and the works that I have produced. But, I wouldn't be able to show my work around here if I didn't remove what I hated either.

    So, why did I write the notes that I wrote? Those were the notes that were left after I hacked away everything else xP

  • Because I know only these seven notes  :-)


    This is an excellent question, one for anyone who takes the whole problem of musical composition seriously.  For an absolutely FANTASTIC BOOK on the whole subject, I recommend James L. McHard's "The Future of Modern Music:  A Philosophical Exploration of Modernist Music in the 20th Century and Beyond."  (You can find most of it free, online).


    This book completely changed my life, and inspired me to compose.  To put it bluntly, it gave me the inspiration to pursue modern avenues, with confidence and even reckless abandon, without forsaking a belief in the importance of dedication and hard work in music as a craft.  (I have never been tempted to go to the far extremes of John Cage, for instance, though there is much to learn from that pioneer).


    To answer your questions more directly:  First, I do think it is important to be able to explain how harmonies function in your pieces (at least in a very general way) if only for the sake of learning what you yourself are achieving and for the sake of informing others.  I am saying it is "important," but by no means ESSENTIAL.    


    What is most important is a reliance on a deep sense of commitment to a purpose contained within the piece, or embodied by the piece, as you conceive it.  You alter the piece, the scoring, the tempo, the dynamics, the rhythms, the relationships between the different lines of music, the chord structure -- every aspect of the piece -- until it sounds the way you believe it must sound.  You rely on specific rules regularly, but you break them continuously.  You are not a slave to the rules of harmony.   God knows  Bach broke the rules of so called "Bach four part harmony" on a regular basis.   We can look back and see the revolutions in sound produced by such works as Beethoven's Third Symphony, Wagner's Tristan, Stravinsky's Sacre, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Scelsi's Anahit,  Schaeffer's Music Concrete,  Stockhausen's Kontakte, and many more.


    Stravinsky admitted, long after he composed "Le Sacre du Printemps," he really had no idea what laws of music or harmony governed the work.   No one can explain it today. Yet everyone who loves the great music of the twentieth century knows that it is right.  

    If Stravinsky himself could not account for his greatest success, how do you think the rest of us will be able to fully account for our best work?  I do not see how we can.

    If we are not ever able to say to ourselves, "I’m not exactly sure what I am doing," then where is the thrill of creation, where is the spontaneity, which is the life blood of all art?

    You asked, "So, the question is how common is this?  Do fellow composers here write the same way?"  I say, it is essential to go BEYOND whatever it is you think you know about what constitutes "harmonious" sounding music in any given moment.   We have almost what amounts to a sacred duty to go beyond what Bartok and Stravinsky did.   The minimalism of composers like John Adams and his fellow travelers has pushed too many composers into a backwater, so that truly innovative music has become rare.   Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur, Giacinto Scelsi and their kindred spirits actually scared people.   The "public" thought they went too far.   They did not.  (Perhaps John Cage went too far, but let us save that for another discussion).


    People are only now recovering from their fright.


    Some will say this amounts to a recipe for the creation of any kind of noise.   I disagree.


    They are afraid of "dissonance,"  or worse:  "chaos."


    James W. said, “When I write, I feel what the next note should be, or what change should come next. And when I listen back to it, it sticks out like a dissonant tone if it doesn't feel right.”

    It is not the "dissonant" note which sticks out, when you hear your piece a seventh time, and something sounds odd.  (Sorry to take issue with your comment James W.)   It is not the dissonant note, but the WRONG note, and these are not the same thing.


    Didn't Prokofiev, Poulenc, Shostakovich and Milhaud prove once and for all that sometimes the dissonant note is exactly the right note?  

    (Certainly, James, you acknowledge that when you say that YOU decide what the correct interval is, so pardon me if I appear to mischaracterize your opinion).


    I only partially agree with the statement that "certain intervals are preferred by the human ear."

    Perhaps the greatest failure of our musical education system today, in the West, is our lack of understanding of the East.  Messiaen and Scelsi have tried to rectify this, but so far our society has not been able to learn the lesson.

    There are as many harmonious "systems" as there are cultures with different tonal frameworks.  The standard Thai (or Siamese) tuning sounds dreadful (at first) to the Western European ear.  Try listening to a Bach keyboard work played on an instrument with a Siamese tuning, and you will know what I mean.  A Thai work, or an Indian melody played without gliding or pitch bending on an instrument tuned in a Western fashion sounds "just as bad."

    There is no single correct tuning which defines the perfect interval. (If you have access to a Logic program, or similar application, open your tuning adjuster, and count the many alternative tunings, which all have validity in other cultures or other eras).  Compare Pythagorean, Arabic, several dozen Western tuning systems since Handel's time, seven kinds of East Indian tuning (Carnatic and Hindustani) with three different Japanese pentatonic scales, and you have just begun.  

    This is not to say we all need to give up our belief in the octave. 

    The point is, we have to educate ourselves, and this is a constant process.  I have lived for more then seven years outside the US, in countries where "Middle Eastern," "South Asian," and "Eastern Asian" modes prevail. I don't think you have to go to that extreme to challenge and develop your alternative sense of tonality.  Even after immersing myself in such sounds for years, these modes did not sound "normal" to me, until I began compose in them.   And this is how Scelsi and Messiaen and Stockhausen learned about Tibetan, East Indian and Japanese musical modes, respectively.   (Listen to Japanese Classical Music online and then to Stockhausen's Telemusik, to hear an illustration of the principle ). 

    It is mere dogma to insist that the current scale in fashion is the "right" one.  

    We could have a good argument about whether the heptatonic scale is the best one.  Even if we agreed on that, there are almost an infinite number of tunings possible with that scale, with some subtle (and some not so subtle) differences in the distances that constitute a "valid sounding interval."


    As an experiment, listen to this short piece called "waves breaking on a beach expressed in primes."  (See attachment)


    Using the semitone as the basic unit, the scales in this work are constructed entirely from the intervals between the first 20 or so prime numbers.

    Does the "tonality" sound natural or fundamental?

    Since Debussy and Messiaen, such modes should not sound at all strange, put perhaps they still do to some.


    There are laws of harmony, and there are modes that exist, and new modes that can be discovered.

    I am with those who refer to much of what Schoenberg and Webern created as "brown music," but that is because they took such great pains to avoid the creation of any mode at all, when they worshipped at the altar of dodecaphonic serialism.  Every note had to have exactly the same weight in the tone row, and that made the music, for the most part, tiresome.

    Still, Pierrot Lunaire is a great work, but that is because Schoenberg had not yet put himself into the straight jacket of his own system, along with an entire generation of composers who went with him, and only freed themselves gradually from the rigid constraints.

    Music is a spiritual and organic pursuit, not a mechanical one.  

    If we treat it as such, and rely on systems and computers only as aids, we will free ourselves from much frustration.  I speak of that which comes naturally with any attempt to bridge the divide between antiquarian traditionalism and the exciting and unknown future of music.





    Waves breaking on the beach expressed with primes.mp3

  • When I'm writing my music, I never really think why I choose this note and that note and neglect some other notes. I just sit on my keyboard and write. Thanks to MIDI technology that I'm able to make an instant music writing. Just like most of everyone here, sometimes I just "listen" the next notes that I should write, but most of the times I don't. It surely needs creativity and inspiration.

    Prior to writing something, I usually decide what kind of music that I will be writing, what theme and what chord that it should begin. I happened intended to write a "sad" composition, but using major keys, just to know how it will come out. Surprisingly, it came out just okay. At least to me. I can "feel" the sad emotion from it. (it's called "Autumn" and it's available on my personal page here). So, just like you, I have been making my composition mostly by ear.

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