Structure and Process, Help Requested

Hi all, I haven't been composing long, a year or so, and whilst I had been relatively pleased with my progress, I've started to notice recurring flaws that don't seem to be going away. I came to realise that this is largely due to a fundamental lack of knowledge of structure in orchestral pieces. I come from a pop/rock/electronic background, a guitarist of many years with a bit of hobbyist electronic music production as well. This, I think, is the root of the flaw I mentioned above. I tend to structure my compositions like popular music - focusing on a verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, for example. Or even just a 'verse' - with looping progressions. After listening to some of my favourite orchestral music in detail (mostly film scores), I came to realise that they don't often follow a pop style structure. They seem to 'evolve' or progress, with little or no repetition, with new phrases added and taken away over the duration. Now, I appreciate that in the case of film scores this is most likely to fit the action in the picture, but classical music is the same, it seems to be written as a 'piece' rather than a series of repeated loops and phrases a la popular music. Not exactly a revelation for most of you, I'm sure, but it was a bit if an eye opener for me. So, that leads me to ask, how on earth do you guys go about writing this kind of music, and where could I learn more about it; books, websites, online courses etc? The pop/rock heritage is so deeply ingrained in me that I naturally gravitate to beginning with a loop of chords, then adding melodies over the top, and then a different progression for the 'chorus', but this always just leaves me with the same result, effectively a pop tune played on orchestral instruments. I'm keen to hear some thoughts and advice on this, also it would be great to hear how you guys write; the kind of process you take. I appreciate that this may seldom be the same process for each piece, but I'm sure you have a comfortable way of approaching each new composition. Many thanks

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  • The pop/rock heritage is so deeply ingrained in me that I naturally gravitate to beginning with a loop of chords, then adding melodies over the top, and then a different progression for the 'chorus', but this always just leaves me with the same result, effectively a pop tune played on orchestral instruments.

    But that's what half of film music is all about these days! :D

    On a serious note, studying scores is always a good thing to do. Preferably with a recording to follow, and it's even better if you get the general idea of the structure beforehand - allows you to focus on the details that make the piece flow and appear coherent. If you also have trouble with constructing a convincing harmonic process that isn't a simple loop, I would start somewhere around early Haydn / Mozart symphonies - their harmonies start pretty boring, too, and they evolve quite nicely as both get older.

  • I recommend starting with understanding of sonata form -- maybe even introductions like

    will suffice. The keys are:

    1) Developing dramatic contrast of the applied material (e.g. melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, registral, dynamical, timbral) in time.

    2) Combining elements of material already applied for generating new themes that logically follow from or conclude something.




  • and there is also the solution of listening/watching a video with analysis of a particular work with tight structure. Picking an early beethoven sonata for that purpose is good and there are plenty of sources if you search on google for "structure analysis". There are a quite a few "forms" used in classical music, but understanding the sonata form is the best start imo. After all you've got the ABA thing shorted out already, coming from a "pop" (ie, rock, techno or whatever) background, and the sonata form is generic enough for you to stretch and bend. 

    Not that the form is just a general guideline, not a strict ruleset. But you might want to pick a piece and use it's structure as faithfully as possible, as a form of personal exercise.

    You might want to study some fundamentals of harmony, it will help you understand the concept of development in classical music. There are many books for that, I like Schoenberg but his style might prove a bit hard to follow.

    EDIT: Greg's suggestion is good, Haydn and Mozart harmonies are a good, simple start. I'd start from piano sonatas, but that's propably because I play the piano. 

  • I was a composition major for a while. I studied Sonata form and looked at scores of scores by the bigs. Ultimately I found it unsatisfying, though I don't mean to denigrate it in any way - many people use it quite happily. After several years of study I gave it up and went into another major. I probably would have given up composition altogether, but everything changed for me when I encountered the music of the band Yes in the early 80s. Some of their works are long form, with very accomplished, sometimes virtuosic performances, and the music is solidly composed, with the advancement of thematic ideas without simply repeating A-B-A pop-song style, as you mention above. The music is lovely and accessible, and it speaks in a modern vernacular, to me much more of our times than most classical music which follows the sonata tradition. As far as composing for film, I have done a bit of this. I found composing for film to be very satisfying, but it is nothing like composing for its own sake. The paramount issue was to get the music to fit what was on screen. Ideas of advancing the melody or structure are there, but are very subordinate to this. In closing, I suggest you listen to Yes (start with "Close to the Edge") to see if their music offers anything. As far as film composers, I would suggest you watch movies from the 60s and 70s which have reputations for outstanding scores, for example, Star Wars, the first episode (what is now billed as episode 4, "The New Hope," but which was originally just called "Star Wars"). Watch how closely and perfectly the music hews to what is on screen - action scenes are enhanced by exciting music, comic scenes are enhanced by amusing music, heroic scenes are enhanced by swelling, charging music. One other example I can think of is Fantastic Voyage, a 60s scifi flick with a first rate score. Again, the music hews closely to what is on screen, enhancing and supporting it.

  • Great discussion Thomas, as I come from a very similar background.

  • Hi Thomas! There are some very good suggestions here, all worth exploring. I have a little different direction to suggest. Consider that the song forms that you're comfortable with are the same original building blocks that all music comes from. It's something about how we organize ideas and there's a whole field of psychological study to it. You don't need to worry too much about that.

    Form comes from the location of cadences. In other words where the end of phrases are. If you take a piece you like but feels too poppy to you and then start playing with the end of each section. Expand the end of the phrase by a bar. The try two bars. Then go back to your original idea and expand the start of the idea by a bar or even just a couple beats. You can then take your original phrase and interrupt it with a snippet from the chorus and vice versa. Start to play with it and just explore it.

    On a fundamental level you're not missing anything. Sonata form and rondo form are all just traditional ways of developing the same verse/chorus approach. Try 2 verses then a chorus then a verse (AABA) or 3 verses then a chorus (AAAB) and repeat the whole thing.
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