How to compose good themes?

Hi everyone. 

I'm new to this forum so I don't know wether this is the right place to ask this or not, but I think it is so I'll go ahead.

After I got myself familiar with the popular classical piano repertoire, I became more interested in composing. Mostly in the late classical style (late Haydn, early/middle Beethoven, etc.). This happened about two years ago. After having composed several pieces in simple A-B-A forms I wanted to go on to some larger scaled works like full scale sonata works. 

However, I got stuck right at the beginning. Whilst simple themes would do just perfectly for the simple pieces I composed before, they simple didn't sit right with me and so I went on analyzing how Beethoven's and Haydn's themes were constructed. What I noticed was that both of them created themes out of sometimes just one motif. I also noticed that this happened more in Beethoven's music than Haydn's. Nevertheless, it also looks like the themes for his earlier compositions are mostly constructed from rhythmic idea, and then those beats where filled in with chord tones of the particular key.

So, I followed this example. Composed several themes every day, but still, none of them were good enough for me, and I couldn't develop a lot out of them. So, I ask you fellow composers and brilliant minds (I hope): How to write themes like Haydn and Beethoven did? Is there any way how we can now?

Thanks in advance!

BW, Marijn

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum

Email me when people reply –

Replies

  • Its not the themes themselves that are good, but how they are treated and developed. You can make any theme sounds great if its developed amazingly. You mention that Beethoven made themes out of motifs which is an apt observation. Beethoven was not a melodist, (most German composers were not with the exception of Mozart). 

    If you look at Beethoven Diablelli Variations, there you will see a theme that even Beethoven hated (he wrote about how much he hated that theme) and how he transforms it with each variation. Even other works of Beethoven you can see he spends more time in the development section and transitions than he does on themes. Because he lives in the transformation of themes and not the themes themselves. 

    That goes for your own themes. You may not like them at first, but try developing them more. People don't fall in love with themes alone, its the entire packages that pulls at the hearts of listeners. Its just the themes that are left at the end of the concert. If those themes were presented naked, they wouldn't have the punch we associate them with.

    But if you insist on studying themes, Italian composers are where you want to look.  

  • Thanks. 

    While I already thought this is what's happening, I still would like to know. Can you write out, in a few steps, how to write a theme in the style of Beethoven's Piano Trio's, Op. 1; Piano Sonatas, Op. 2 and Cello Sonata, Op. 5? 

    Or at least something like that?

    I appreciate your help a lot!


    Tyler Hughes said:

    Its not the themes themselves that are good, but how they are treated and developed. You can make any theme sounds great if its developed amazingly. You mention that Beethoven made themes out of motifs which is an apt observation. Beethoven was not a melodist, (most German composers were not with the exception of Mozart). 

    If you look at Beethoven Diablelli Variations, there you will see a theme that even Beethoven hated (he wrote about how much he hated that theme) and how he transforms it with each variation. Even other works of Beethoven you can see he spends more time in the development section and transitions than he does on themes. Because he lives in the transformation of themes and not the themes themselves. 

    That goes for your own themes. You may not like them at first, but try developing them more. People don't fall in love with themes alone, its the entire packages that pulls at the hearts of listeners. Its just the themes that are left at the end of the concert. If those themes were presented naked, they wouldn't have the punch we associate them with.

    But if you insist on studying themes, Italian composers are where you want to look.  

    How to compose good themes?
    Hi everyone.  I'm new to this forum so I don't know wether this is the right place to ask this or not, but I think it is so I'll go ahead. After I go…
  • One might argue that it starts with concentration on the construction of good musical phrases, which can be turned into good themes, and that THEN one works with the harmonies and development.

    Of course, the question is complex.  Schoenberg's "Fundamentals of Musical Composition" is very good, in that it focuses on this problem, thoroughly, in the first 60 or so pages.  The problem of constructing phrases, and themes.

    The book has been re-issued, and one can purchase it.  However, it's available, in the old edition online for free, at this url.

    Give the site a minute or two, depending on your bandwidth, to download the whole text.

    http://monoskop.org/images/d/da/Schoenberg_Arnold_Fundamentals_of_M...

    I highly recommend this, for the logical and analytical character of the writing.  

    (Of course, for those who know Schoenberg, this sort of text is NOT designed to teach anything about dodecaphonic, pantonal, or serial forms of writing that he was famous for. It focuses on the general content of composition, as a discipline, in a fairly traditional way, as Schoenberg taught the techniques himself, saving his own personal compositional innovations for his advanced students.  These advanced 12-tone serial techniques are advocated and explained in other works). 

    See attachment, for table of contents:

    Schoeberg's Table of Contents .tiff

  • Second Page of the Table of Contents, from Schoenberg's 

    FUNDAMENTALS OF MUSICAL COMPOSITION

    (See attachment, below)

    "If you look at Beethoven Diablelli Variations, there you will see a theme that even Beethoven hated (he wrote about how much he hated that theme) and how he transforms it with each variation"

    Comment: I almost hate to say it, but it shows.  Beethoven hated the theme, and there are reasons he wrote that work which have nothing to do with Beethoven's artistry or the essence of his musical creativity.  It's a lousy piece, the Diabelli variations, from a certain perspective, and not at all exemplary. (Just my opinion, which can be taken with less than a grain of salt).  

    Schoenberg Contents (2).tiff

    https://storage.ning.com/topology/rest/1.0/file/get/8608401693?profile=original
  • Don't use your head. Use your heart. Sing the themes when ever you're doing something with your hands. Like doing the dishes, walking the dog, doing your spinning or tending to your flower pots. If the themes you whistle, hum and sing sticks with you, they are good!
  • Yes, I know, but I firmly believe in what has been done for decades, which is beginning with following what the masters did before you and then aggregate that with your own style as you go.

    Bob Porter said:

    Marijn,

    Just a thought. Why do you want write in the style of Beethoven? He already did that. And he did it really well. Consider writing in the style of Marijn, instead. Don't worry about what Beethoven did. Worry about what Marijn needs to do. You say you write things that you don't like. What does that mean? We all write things that, in retrospect, we think could be better. That's part of the process.

    We can't really help you until you post something that you've written. That's what the forum is all about. 

    In the end, writing is not about following some magic formula. Adhering to an arbitrary set of rules does not automatically generate a good outcome. A computer can spit out music int the style of Beethoven. It follows all the rules. So what. It does not have your spark. Music in the style of Marijn is what we want to hear.   

    How to compose good themes?
    Hi everyone.  I'm new to this forum so I don't know wether this is the right place to ask this or not, but I think it is so I'll go ahead. After I go…
  • There are not "steps" to writing a theme. Characteristics of a "good" theme, according to most counterpoint and theory books, is a theme that ascends to a single climax midway through and descends back to the tonic or dominant. Another characteristic would be rhythmic diversity that isn't too complex or too simple. And a good theme should follow good counterpoint norms with the bass. BUT this is where the rub is, Beethoven often time broke all the conventions of "good theme writing." Most of Beethoven's contemporaries and even Beethoven scholars admit that Beethoven was a horrible composer of themes. Most can agree to just a handful of themes that Beethoven wrote that were conventionally good. Most of his theme were either just scalar motion or arpeggiated triads. Even the examples you gave do this mostly, the few that have some sort of thematic material is mostly just motivic.Thats because Beethoven didnt write themes, he wrote motives. His genius didnt come from being a melodist, it came from his ability to transform any musical material into a compelling piece of art. If you wish to write like them, practice developing the most basic and simple of themes and motives to be compelling. Practice by developing themes from children nursery rhymes (as many of these composers actually did) 

    But to echo Bob, why would you though? We do already have a Beethoven. There were many composers that try to imitate Beethoven, now and even in his own time. But time and everyone has forgotten them because the question of "why do we need two when he gave us so much already" comes up. Comparing yourself to a composers that lived several hundred years before you and lived in much different circumstances than you will only hold you back. Take all those themes you felt weren't worthy to hold up to Beethoven and make music out of them the way Beethoven did but in your own style. 


    Marijn Hartkamp said:

    Thanks. 

    While I already thought this is what's happening, I still would like to know. Can you write out, in a few steps, how to write a theme in the style of Beethoven's Piano Trio's, Op. 1; Piano Sonatas, Op. 2 and Cello Sonata, Op. 5? 

    Or at least something like that?

    I appreciate your help a lot!


    Tyler Hughes said:

    Its not the themes themselves that are good, but how they are treated and developed. You can make any theme sounds great if its developed amazingly. You mention that Beethoven made themes out of motifs which is an apt observation. Beethoven was not a melodist, (most German composers were not with the exception of Mozart). 

    If you look at Beethoven Diablelli Variations, there you will see a theme that even Beethoven hated (he wrote about how much he hated that theme) and how he transforms it with each variation. Even other works of Beethoven you can see he spends more time in the development section and transitions than he does on themes. Because he lives in the transformation of themes and not the themes themselves. 

    That goes for your own themes. You may not like them at first, but try developing them more. People don't fall in love with themes alone, its the entire packages that pulls at the hearts of listeners. Its just the themes that are left at the end of the concert. If those themes were presented naked, they wouldn't have the punch we associate them with.

    But if you insist on studying themes, Italian composers are where you want to look.  

    How to compose good themes?
    Hi everyone.  I'm new to this forum so I don't know wether this is the right place to ask this or not, but I think it is so I'll go ahead. After I go…
  • "Characteristics of a "good" theme, according to most counterpoint and theory books, is a theme that ascends to a single climax midway through and descends back to the tonic or dominant."

    For most of the thoughtful innovative composers, I think the tonic and the dominant have gone out of style, which I say for those interested in the history of music over the last 80 years.  We can at the very least say, such notions have gone out of style, as all encompassing notions, which dictate musical thinking.

    In some cultures, the scale consists of only four set pitches within one octave.  "We" in the West, have prided ourselves in having achieved the ability to listen to melodies written with scales that have a grand total of seven tones!  Astounding.  But with the advent of quarter tone scales, Partch's 42 tone scale, and even microtonality (in Scelsi's music, for example) [not to mention the fact that Indians and Chinese have been flirting will all sorts of microtonality for centuries), many people now know THERE ARE NEW WAYS.

    Composers today don't always avail themselves of these marvelous new possibilities, even though the computer software allows it.

    The only reason the "tonic" and the "dominant" still hold sway is due to the continued timidity of programmers, and the oppressive tendencies of the owners of media, and the gatekeepers of culture.   There is nothing "natural" in the strictures of Western traditional music, pre-1900, whatsoever.   People are largely conditioned.  And you can tell that simply by listening to an Indian Classical Music Station, or a Chinese Classical Station for several hours.  Of course, THEY (the Chinese and Indians) are conditioned to like and accept certain conventions as well; it's simply that the tone glides and pitch bends go far beyond what Westerners are accustomed to.  An Arab 22 tone scale still sounds "exotic" to most people in Europe and the US.

    Of course, no one should "imitate" Beethoven, or try to do so. But people should be inspired by Beethoven, and learn how he innovated within his own context, so that we can innovate within ours.

    The observation that Tyler made

    "Beethoven didnt write themes, he wrote motives. His genius didnt come from being a melodist, it came from his ability to transform any musical material into a compelling piece of art."

    is, I think, precisely true.   

  • "For most of the thoughtful innovative composers, I think the tonic and the dominant have gone out of style, which I say for those interested in the history of music over the last 80 years.  We can at the very least say, such notions have gone out of style, as all encompassing notions, which dictate musical thinking."

     

    Thus the great arbiter of style spoke, but don’t get spooked by it.

    Dominants and tonics have been generated by nature, not invented by composers, so, some composers of the last 80 years may have gone out of (or against) nature, so to speak.

     

    Good advice from both Tyler and Bob there!

    If you find Haydn more melodic than Beethoven it is exactly for the reason that Tyler gives later. He really worked hard in developing a lot of old Croatian and Slovenian folk tunes that he remembered from his childhood.

    Also in general, give credit to the statement that Germany is not the country of melody (although Mozart and Schubert were born melodists, but then again is Vienna Germany? You have to ask yourself).

    So, Italy is the obvious choice. Most Italian composers are naturally melodic, they don’t labor as Beethoven did, they just write melody effortlessly (Rossini sometimes was leaving it to the last night before the premiere to write some of the ouvertures for his operas-no sweat mate).

    Spend a lot of time listening to Vivaldi, a better melodist than Mozart, imo. Bach also did study him, although nearly contemporaries, in order to learn how to design and shape better his melodies and by his admittance he benefited and he applied what he learned to his subsequent works.

    If you are more open minded look at the Mediterranean world as a whole in all its three coast lines, European, African, and Asian, where melody was originally born before the existence of harmony or any need for it and you will find that the recipe of ascending to the climax and then descending is also in existence but only as one of a number of possible modal behaviors and "mode melodic directions" as they are termed, and where also the aforesaid tonic-dominant relations (not necessarily in perfect fifths) were first discovered and expressed in scientific empirical theory and where they are still alive and thriving.

    I leave you with a masterpiece of thematic development in my opinion, Vivaldi's concerto for solo violin in G minor RV 317. Pay particular attention to the slow movement starting at about 4.25 and enjoy when the solo instrument comes in, how in particular all the underlying intellectual frame work is rendered at the service of the emotional content that the composer wants to convey.

    All the best!

     

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApdJZSkAX0Q

  • "Thus the great arbiter of style spoke, but don’t get spooked by it.

    Dominants and tonics have been generated by nature, not invented by composer ..."

    Let's have the proof that dominants and tonics have been "generated by nature."  That's not demonstrable with any evidence, to be sure.  It's a pure myth.  (Though I do love mythology, and think people should hear all the stories).

    As it is, nothing in art is "natural," unless you think Doric columns grow up from the ground like trees, and paint rains down onto canvases from colored clouds in the sky.

This reply was deleted.