I've been composing musical scores for a little over 4 months now, and I've found that a good rule of thumb to making an interesting sounding score is to incorporate the tonic and the dominant notes of the current key as skillfully as possible. For instance, if I'm writing in A, the tonic and dominant are A and E respectively. If I'm writing in E, the tonic and dominant are E and B respectively. I've had numerous conversations with a fellow composer, a guitar player, and, from what I've gathered, the tonic and the dominant are the two most powerful notes you can use in any given diatonic scale. Then, once you've established for the ear what these notes are, you can play around with them via half-step pitch changes in sequence, which opens up numerous possibilities for the music.

Now, this has been an observation of mine as well as a tried composing technique. I don't know if it concurs with established music theory or not because I've never formally studied music theory. I just think that I may be onto something.

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  • Though the tonic/dominate relationship is a staple of tonal music. I found more interesting tonal music doesnt use that relationship, or if they do, they do it in a way that is more interesting. I say this because for almost a century the tonic/dominate relationship ruled over music and now we live in a world outside of a common practice period. After a while the tonic/dominate relationship can be over done and with so much music behind us that used that relationship so much, I find it more interesting when a composers can find a way to end a musical phrase without defaulting to the tonic/dominate relationship.

    Yeah, theory says that its the standard way to end a musical phrase or end a piece with a dominate going to a tonic chord, but theory isn't a compositional tool, its a analytical tool. It doesnt make your music less interesting if you decided to drift from the tonic/dominate relationship, in fact it might make it more interesting. Just keep that in mind

  • Also think about the dominant chord - the pull of the dominant 7th to the tonic in a final cadence.

    Do what jazz people do an find chords which act like a dominant. but are more interesting - eg instead of G7, G, B, D, F,  try using B diminished - B, D, F and maybe even B, D, F, Ab - which is B diminished 7th.

    You can see how it's a similar chord to G7, but will make the music more interesting.

  • Congratulations, you've discovered the magic of the T-D axis (otherwise known as the "axis of evil")!  All on your own even, it's like you're a genius!

    Just having a little fun with you Noah, but tonic and dominant is a quite basic concept, I'd suggest getting yourself a standard music theory text (like Kostka&Payne, Aldwell& Schacter, they're all good) if you've become interested in such ideas.  Don't be afraid of or think you're too good for the dreaded music theory.  Well, be wary of thinking there is one single theory of music and all else is theory-less.  That's sort of like "the white man's lie": Everybody has an accent except for me, or everybody has "culture" except for white, Indo-European males.  For example, the notion that T/D is old hat and what makes music more interesting is to be saturated with complex harmonies is another theory about music.  Theory is simply a way of thinking about music.  Not any a specific way, there are multiple theories.  Since your hero is Mozart, I'd say looking into the standard variety, the one most refer to as "Music Theory", ie. the theory of the "uninteresting" common practice period would be a great idea.

    Tyler, there's a great article by Joseph Dubiel called "Composer,Theorist, Composer/Theorist" that you may find interesting (in the compilation Rethinking Music).  He maintains (and I agree) that all composers use "music theory", and that they are disillusioning themselves if they claim not to use it.  If you are defining "music theory" as what you learned about as an undergraduate then you may or may not use that, but you are using one theory or another every time you compose.  The notion that theory is merely a "tool for analysis" is like saying ropes are only for climbing.  Many old books which we today think of as theory books were actually written as composition/improvisation manuals (figured bass treatises, lists of musico-rhetorical figures, counterpoint texts and so on).  The key book here is Joel Lester's Compositional theory in the Eighteenth Century.

    And Adrian, apparently you like Jazz.  Maybe Noah doesn't?  Using the sonorities you suggest may make you like his music more, but that won't mean his music will somehow be universally more interesting.  Mozart is pretty damn interesting if you ask me.

    Apparently I'm becoming a grumpy old man!

  • I don't want to champion music theory too much here though.  If you approach its study too rigidly you end up writing rigid, academic music. I fell into that trap myself and wrote some pretty awful stuff, trying to fit square pegs into round holes and other such cliches.  But in general, knowledge is good, just as long as you realize that you really know nothing.  Ohmmmm.

  • Well, theorists (and I mean that nicely because this was my foundation) ...

    When you start out when dealing with chord progressions, they start off with the I (Tonic) IV (Subdominant) V (Dominant) being that they are the most common chords found in 99% (just go with it out there)

    Most of the time, these are major. The reason being due to the Ionian Mode or Major Scale

    I ii iii IV V vi vii (dimished) I (I-IV-V = Major) (ii-iii-vi = minor) vii = diminished

    These qualities come from knowing intervals. Chords of greater value work the same way.

    However, these can also be minor. i-iv-v

    If I were to play a simple chord progression using both keys:

    C Major: C (I) F (IV) G (V) and A minor: a (i) d (iv) e (v), the V/v in both keys would resolve to their respective I/i

    I'll explain more about this later, but to Tyler's point:

    I think the V-I while over-done is so because it's familiar; however, some don't realize that you can use subsitution. This technique is used in Jazz and other genres - predominately when arranging a piece. (I say predominately because I'm an arranger who does get stuck; however, straying from the "natural progression" doesn't work for me.

    I mentioned Jazz because it has what is called the tri-tone substitution method.

    It's where you build a chord that is a tri-tone away from the conventional chord.

    A tritone is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth from whatever the root is.

    C, tri-tone away = F# or Gb
    Db = G or Abb
    And so on up the scale

    Once you find the root note, build that same chord.

    C7 ------> F#7, Db7 -------> G7 vice-versa and so on.

    Using these in progressions allows for slides or steps preventing you from having to jump from chord to chord.

    A simple extended ii-V-I (G-C-F) The same progression with substitution: ii-bII(flat two)-I This progression would sound better as a seventh or ninth. (Gm9-GbMaj9-FMaj9) Notice how I'm walking/sliding down. Sounds alot smoother as well.

    This doesn't mean that you can't do ii-V-I; however, you will need to invert these chords so they still sound as if they're sliding. If playing with both hands, tritone substitution is a gift and not just with chords, but bass lines as well as they also slide. This would be certainly applicable when playing a string instrument. (Bass, Guitar, Violin, etc) With chordophones, it's chromatic scaling.

    The reason these substitutions work is due to "target" or "guide" notes. 99% of the time done with 7ths or greater (which look and sound like sevenths still, but that's another argument)

    C7 = C, E, G, Bb (which is the V in F)

    Gb7 = Gb, Bb, Db, Fb (Not E natural) which is the bII in F

    The tones you are looking for are the third and seventh. They exist in both chords, but in different spots. What are such in C7 have swapped places.

    So, actually, hard cadences do NOT have to be used to make a definite closing.

    Here's a good way to look at it: As long as you get home (I/i) or at least have the listener think you're getting there (iv-v-iii-VI-ii-V) no matter how short or long the route (not too long, of course)

    Tyler is right in that one needn't always be so uniformed; however, if you one who plays or writes by ear, it's hard to avoid it. That's like leaving out the eighth note in a scale. I'm sure most know that there are really seven notes; however, just playing seven doesn't sound finished if played by itself while in context (ie: Coda = Major 7th chord, finish running the scale) sounds spectacular!

    While I understand being in that box for so long, limits you somewhat, you do have more possibilities in that box than you think. As with music which I'm sure you know, you only learn the rules, so you can break them later; however, no matter how far out there you go avoiding some kind of rule is impossible.

    Analysis, yes. However, you do have to know what you're doing. You may not care, but that is also another topic for discussion. (Not saying you don't, Tyler) And ear players do learn theory; however, ear players have more freedom as opposed to sight-readers. That isn't to say they don't trip up, but if they can and often do trip and walk (the really good ones do it purposefully)

    Improvisors are sight-readers, too, but there's only alot less stuff to look at and process.

    An ear player will often tell you, go with what sounds good and while that is 99.9% conventional, so be it. If anything, with the conventional tools (ho-hum progressions), you can come up with unconventional ideas. Experiment and see what happens.

    Rome was not built in a day
    This domain may be for sale!
  • A good professor once stated: "Any chord can go to any chord".

    I then spent four years,

    disregarding modulation,

    using a basic major and minor chord flow chart,

    using modal interchange,

    using the modes of the scales;

    the scales of major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, and harmonic major,

    using basic chord substitution chart,

    extending the above concepts:

    "I've concluded that anything can go to anything".

    Still something quite wonderful about a tonic dominant relationship!

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