I want to ask the question that was suggested in another thread because I think it's important. The question is: How should an inexperienced composer who wants to write dissonant and rhythmically complex music learn how to do that?

I've been writing and playing music a long time but I'm basically a beginner at 'classical' composition. I can read score at an intermediate level. I know basic theory and have some experience with extended harmony and odd time signatures and syncopation. I can write four part harmony and I have a basic understanding of counterpoint. I haven't spent much time on orchestration. I do spend time studying scores and listening to a variety of composers. I can write basic pieces that mimic (poorly) composers of the baroque and classical period.

So my question is: What else should I be doing, what is the next step? I don't post music here because lately I haven't much time to write anything; and to be honest, the level of bickering and personal attacks on this site in the past at least makes me think that it is a waste of time.

But I'd like to hear any thoughts or suggestions.

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  • "We all call the same wavelength of light the color blue, and we all react to harmony positively and to dissonance negatively".  

    Hey Lawrence,

    Whilst I understand your point, this somewhat blithe, subjective conclusion just can't be entirely accurate. Acceptance of dissonance in an artistic and positive sense - as a norm in music - is common enough but I do accept that there is inevitably a certain amount of elitism in this - it doesn't make atonality wrong or  invalid in any way though.

  • All very exciting and well-constructed Mike!

    By listening to the beginning of the "atonal noodle" I had a strong impression that I was in well-known ground, i.e.. Maqam Sabah zemzeme (or zamzam) which is rarely used on its own. Of course the presence of Eb in the 1st hexad, cancelled quickly the Hijaz element of Sabah, but still it retained for me the feeling of eastern modality. I guess, what I'm trying to say is that it gave more the feeling of modality rather than strong atonality.

    I also like very much (although I hardly ever use it now a days) the idea of building chords on 4ths (perfect or otherwise) as very liberating from tertial harmony.

    I give the following link for Sabah Zemzeme (in its original tessitura of D).

    http://www.maqamworld.com/maqamat/saba.html



    Mike Hewer said:

    Ingo (and MM),

    I was going to give MM some ideas in her waltz thread about how one might go about orientating oneself in an atonal environment. Having spoken to her she is more than happy for me to post here as it relates directly to this threads original question. She has kindly consented for me to use the first note of the cellos in 'Scintilla of a waltz'  as a starting point, so here goes.

    Please find attached a pdf and a mp3.

    This exercise took me about 20 mins from start to finish and is but one way of many, many approaches to atonality and I hope some others chime in with more ways to find promising material, justify choice and create rigour and expression.. It is best to view this technique as a search tool, to hunt out and find music you like. The beauty of this method is that you are exerting some control over what is ostensibly random choices, even in the setting up of the technique. Lateral thinking will yield even more ways to hunt out material, especially if one starts applying transposition, mirror techniques, more dissonant intervallic structures etc.

    If you listen to the mp3, there are 2 very, very brief improvisations on the material found in the pdf. Perhaps you will be able to hear the beginnings of a rhetoric that could continue - one that is open to fantasy, free will, originality and one that could potentially kick the second law in the ass. (btw sorry for the glitch in the recording).

    mikehewer.com

  • That is fair Socrates. I did consider mentioning modal techniques too, but felt there was enough to start exploring with.

    although my examples of harmony are consonant-ish, more extreme dissonance is only an accidental or two away.

    Love that link btw, your point about western bias is well founded imo.

  • Mike,

         What you are doing in this exercise is interesting because the notes of the chords are spread out and thus avoid dissonance, somewhat like the effect of quartals.  It would be possible to integrate chords like this with tonal melody similar to the Messiaen piece.  But this is for the future.  I'm not done with old fashioned tonal harmony.
     
    Mike Hewer said:

    Ingo (and MM),

    I was going to give MM some ideas in her waltz thread about how one might go about orientating oneself in an atonal environment. Having spoken to her she is more than happy for me to post here as it relates directly to this threads original question. She has kindly consented for me to use the first note of the cellos in 'Scintilla of a waltz'  as a starting point, so here goes.

    Please find attached a pdf and a mp3.

    This exercise took me about 20 mins from start to finish and is but one way of many, many approaches to atonality and I hope some others chime in with more ways to find promising material, justify choice and create rigour and expression.. It is best to view this technique as a search tool, to hunt out and find music you like. The beauty of this method is that you are exerting some control over what is ostensibly random choices, even in the setting up of the technique. Lateral thinking will yield even more ways to hunt out material, especially if one starts applying transposition, mirror techniques, more dissonant intervallic structures etc.

    If you listen to the mp3, there are 2 very, very brief improvisations on the material found in the pdf. Perhaps you will be able to hear the beginnings of a rhetoric that could continue - one that is open to fantasy, free will, originality and one that could potentially kick the second law in the ass. (btw sorry for the glitch in the recording).

    mikehewer.com

    How can I learn to write atonal music?
    I want to ask the question that was suggested in another thread because I think it's important. The question is: How should an inexperienced composer…
  • Given your description of your background I find myself wondering if you're ready to compose atonal music. OTOH, atonal music is very different from composing tonal so maybe being ready should not be a concern. In my mind you should be comfortable with extended chromaticism, well beyond secondary dominants and augmented sixth chords.

    But if you're not interested in learning that stuff there are a number of books on 20th century harmony. I studied the Persichetti book in college but that was 40 years ago. I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are lots of books, some of them remarkably expensive. You might try a used book store first, I found Stefan Kostka's Materials and Techniques of Twentieth Century Music at Half Price Books for $10 about a year ago. Good luck.

  • Hi Steve- I think you are correct in that I'm not ready to go all out composing in a difficult form that I'm not very familiar with. It would be more logical to work on some of the intermediate steps in a more traditional fashion. But I haven't been very systematic in my studies to this point and I'm curious about a lot of things, so to my twisted way of thinking I'm willing to jump ahead and just get my feet wet and then fill in some of the gaps as needed. And honestly I'm not totally devoted to 'atonality' per se, I'll probably end up with a blend of whatever catches my ear as I go. Thanks for the book suggestions!


    Steve Chandler wrote:
    " Given your description of your background I find myself wondering if you're ready to compose atonal music. OTOH, atonal music is very different from composing tonal so maybe being ready should not be a concern. In my mind you should be comfortable with extended chromaticism, well beyond secondary dominants and augmented sixth chords.

    But if you're not interested in learning that stuff there are a number of books on 20th century harmony. I studied the Persichetti book in college but that was 40 years ago. I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are lots of books, some of them remarkably expensive. You might try a used book store first, I found Stefan Kostka's Materials and Techniques of Twentieth Century Music at Half Price Books for $10 about a year ago. Good luck."
  • Thank you Mike for the example, I will look at that more closely. Your playing here reminds me of some of the jazz pianists of the sixties before they discovered electricity.  This thread has produced a lot of information and different view points and the off topic discussion is excellent as well.

    Mike Hewer said:

    Ingo (and MM),

    I was going to give MM some ideas in her waltz thread about how one might go about orientating oneself in an atonal environment. Having spoken to her she is more than happy for me to post here as it relates directly to this threads original question. She has kindly consented for me to use the first note of the cellos in 'Scintilla of a waltz'  as a starting point, so here goes.

    Please find attached a pdf and a mp3.

    This exercise took me about 20 mins from start to finish and is but one way of many, many approaches to atonality and I hope some others chime in with more ways to find promising material, justify choice and create rigour and expression.. It is best to view this technique as a search tool, to hunt out and find music you like. The beauty of this method is that you are exerting some control over what is ostensibly random choices, even in the setting up of the technique. Lateral thinking will yield even more ways to hunt out material, especially if one starts applying transposition, mirror techniques, more dissonant intervallic structures etc.

    If you listen to the mp3, there are 2 very, very brief improvisations on the material found in the pdf. Perhaps you will be able to hear the beginnings of a rhetoric that could continue - one that is open to fantasy, free will, originality and one that could potentially kick the second law in the ass. (btw sorry for the glitch in the recording).

    mikehewer.com

    How can I learn to write atonal music?
    I want to ask the question that was suggested in another thread because I think it's important. The question is: How should an inexperienced composer…
  • I have to agree with some of Steves' post, atonal writing is advanced, not only technically, but also aesthetically and emotionally and imo one should have a firm grasp of some technical matters in order to express oneself fully in a mature way. Others will probably disagree, but for me, the more one understands underlying principles - and in that process of understanding (learning, practising, listening and experiencing over time), has gotten used to dissonance and what one likes and dislikes - then the more potent and original their expression will be as the methods are over time, naturally curated to your proclivities. This seems as self-evident to me as does practising scales on a piano to improve your performance.

    That said, the exercise above is a good one to play with for beginners in atonality because it can generate any level of consonance to dissonance depending upon your initial choices, whilst giving you a firm justification for said choices and allowing you to explore atonality with a good degree of certainty, rather than a haphazard or serendipitous wondering what comes next and why. It's not that I think chance is bad btw, I just feel it is more potent when it is informed and besides, technique does not preclude fantasy, it encourages it.

    Let's hope other atonal practitioners chime in with some specific examples of working , because techniques can take so many forms and approaches and although I could post more ways of doing things, it'd be nice if others could contribute.

    @Lawrence

    Give it time.....:-) Yeah, quartals in this example, which could rest well in an expanded tonal setting, but things get more interesting with a different set of notes and chordal formations. This was just a proof of principle.

  • Hi MM,

    Yes, this technique and its variants is ideal to find transitioning material but has to be adapted. This technique when used in the correct manner, actually encourages wandering astray, but can also guarantee a certain amount of homogeneity and inevitability if so desired. In answer to your questions....(other answers are available)

    1)- it is logical to develop a system from the strongest part of the music, but not essential. Underlying concepts are also used, for example you might find a sequence of 3 or more intervals from a theme that have promise as a motivating principle. This sequence of intervals could be the basis of chord building or perhaps as a fundamental root progression for zones of harmony over a longer timespan, or for use in sequential work, or to create synthetic scales from - you get the idea. It is about finding a principle that can act as a justification for what you find as you search.  The principles you establish do not have to be rigorously upheld neither, because sometimes when searching there will be a "lucky find' (Stravinsky), a lovely chord perhaps or a nice hook which may then suggest a new way of organising.  It is also about how you adapt any technique  to suit your own way of working and about how you invent technique to suit your aims. This is called literally invention and is a compliment to technique.

    2) - The extra 2 notes were arbitrary, why not add 3 or 4 more? Why not project the original 4 notes into another key and add them to the scale then build chords, or use the scale as one zone of interest then modulate in a modal fashion by altering one or 2 notes of the scale by a tone or semitone to lead to another zone of notes - a bit like adding f sharps in c to start gravitating to g. This second zone might be a mirror of the scale transposed or in retrograde or a brand new mode, etc.

    The hexad could well be used because if you think about going from a to b in a transition, then it might make sense not to have any of the material in b sounding before you arrive there. So logically the first hexad ( 6notes) might develop a little by adding one or 2 notes from the missing 6 notes and be gradually contaminated by the second hexads notes. Or as I demonstrated, perhaps you could add a tone or two that is common between both hexads and use them as a pivot between the 2 zones (hexads) of sound. This way, the transition will be more graded and less abrupt. Another way might be to take say 4 notes of the hexad and transpose and/or mirror them until you arrive smoothly at your destination, so yes transitions within the transition are possible too. These are generalities though and by no means exhaustive or even appropriate! -  just meta ways of thinking about solving problems. You have to decide also on what is going to generate the transition, is it harmonic,melodic or rhythmic impetus or any combination thereof....or even an abrupt juxtaposition.... phew.

    3) - Absolutely. Unless you devise symmetrical hexads, the intervallic structure is different and  exploitable. Your ears and/or technical artifice should hunt for the clear differences and utilise them because they can provide the contrast that will delineate sections. If you develop  hexad 2 with chord structures different to hexad 1 for example and if you manipulate impetus as described above, you will find a wealth of usable music. The contrast can be further heightened with transpositions, modal alterations etc....whatever sounds good - the techniques are a means to an end, but once you find music you like, they can then underpin it and give it consistency.

    Remember, invention is the key when finding principles to act as (loose) rules and any mixture of processes can work. Serialism is a glaring omission so far in this thread and application of home devised matrices is another organising method. I sometimes employ quasi serial techniques but prefer to think vertically and in zonal areas when organising out of keys, but my writing is often then contrapuntally based. Whatever you use, be led by the sound and your instinct, not the theory.

  • I wonder if any of you would like a less cerebral approach to so-called "atonal" music? 

    I would like to suggest that music that has no tonal center and does not use functional harmony is a lot less complex than the previous discussions have implied.  I actually believe that it's a lot easier and more enjoyable to write than the rule-bound tonal music.  Some of my youngest students (the under 9 crowd) are writing appealing music that our competition judges called "atonal" and yet audiences liked it as well.  It's just what they hear naturally before they get too trained and too educated  ;-)   I have three brothers with perfect pitch and exceptional curiosity - one loves tonal, one loves what he calls dissonance, and one is gradually finding his preferences.  I'm letting each follow his impulses and teaching them what I consider to be the basics of composition, even more so than melody and harmony.  Contour and shape, contrast and continuity, moving toward something and then arriving, building tension and releasing it - all these things and many more apply equally well to the different categories of music, and have parallels in daily life. 

    I used to use "in the head" constructs and abstract rules for my music, similar to what Mike is describing.  I loved that stuff thirty or more years ago, but I'm afraid the resulting music didn't satisfy my humanity.  Now I like to think more like a child, like an innocent hearing the world around me. In more recent years, I have turned more and more to nature or poetry or pictures or stories to "hear" what I want to write down.  I find so-called atonal music to be a natural form of expression.  The sounds I hear around me - birdsong, rhythms and contours of the wind or rain, the exciting sounds of a new house being built -  are not arranged in 4/4 or 3/4 or anything/4 nor do they use functional harmony.  I find that if I really listen and pay attention, the resulting music appeals to audiences and satisfies my humanity, even though it may be called "atonal".  I prefer to just call it music.

    Here's an example of a piece that was performed and recorded by the late pianist Greg McCallum.  The entire Suite, "American Triptych" is a three-movement piano virtuoso solo based on American folk tunes.  The middle movement, "Hush-A-Bye" is based on night sounds and two American lullabies.  My "study" for this involved going outside every night and listening.  It was spring and there was a little pond next door where various families of frogs congregated.  The frogs, the night crickets, the repetitive call of one bird - these took the place of tone rows, intervallic structures, hexads and suchlike.  I had a wonderful time writing this piece, and will never forget the magic of those nights of listening.

    The structure I wanted was simple - the night sounds gradually hint at and finally culminate in quotes from the two lullabies, which soon drift back into the songs of the frogs, crickets and birds.  Pretty simple stuff, really.  Audiences in the US, England and Scotland seem to resonate to this piece, and I'm happy with it as well.  These sounds are universal, even if you don't know the particular lullabies.

    Hush-A-Bye audio file
    Hush-A-ByeScore.pdf

    For those who prefer nature and stories and poetry and pictures to complex rules, there is plenty of source material all around you.  Listen, absorb and write, without trying to force it into Western rules of either tonal or atonal origin.  You might be pleasantly surprised! 

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