I have been told that these thoughts might better be discussed on a brand new thread (rather than under the topic of “Major and Minor Modes interchangeability”). On that thread it was suggested that there are, in essence, two methods of composition. One method was to write a melody and add accompanying chords; the second was to conceive of specific chord progressions first, and then overlay the melodic content.
I would suggest that there are basically an almost infinite number of ways to write music, rather than two essential methods. Most of the ways I am thinking of may or may not be facilitated by the traditional straightjacket thinking about chord progressions, or even the traditional notion of a melody accompanied by chords.
Since we live in the 21st century now, we need not rely primarily on the techniques of the 19th or even 20th century. The use of computers to compose and create music is mainstream now, and we can avail ourselves of the basic kinds of software that exist. There is a nice book called “Music Theory for Computer Musicians,” which can help, and which also teaches the basic concepts of melody, harmony and rhythms, as well as the various modes, in relation to the techniques that are applicable to most standard composer software. Even so, such books may be too closely tied to a traditional outlook, which is terribly out of date. It might be very crucial for younger composers (or for all composers), who are involved in study, to be very careful in avoiding the taint that might come from too much immersion in stultifying exercises. I cannot praise highly enough James L. McHard’s “The Future of Modern Music: A Philosophical Exploration” which awoke me from what I would call my musico-metaphysical “dogmatic slumber.”
There are unlimited numbers of ways to begin composing which can free one from stultification. If the goal is actually to create something new, and to rise above the tired and outmoded musical idioms of our age and Western civilization, then our desire to innovate and be original can know no bounds. One can do, if one likes, the very opposite of what is commonly recommended. A composer can (rather than simply composing a melody) take a huge block of sound that appears interesting (a large number of notes) and dump them into a series of tracks, the way a sculptor puts a quantity of clay on a table. Then the musician can take certain notes out, discover latent rhythms and harmonies that already exist in within the mathematical constructs that make up all music. This is by no means a random procedure, any more than the movements of the hands of the sculptor are random, though chance discoveries may occur which would be less likely with a traditional approach. There is an interaction between the composer and the material, the mass of sound, which has a kind of life of its own. And this is simply one idea, pioneered by composers like Xenakis, Penderecki, Stockhausen and Ligeti.
One can do the exact opposite of what I outline above, and just explore the infinitesimal harmonics and overtone universe surrounding one single note, as Scelsi has done, following Tibetan and South Asian models. Melodic content and harmony can evolve and develop from that exploration. If you play the piano, or have a computer interface with a keyboard, you can improvise, not simply with the harmonies and the melodies and the chord structures, but with a pitch bend setting, that gives you unprecedented freedom from traditional tonal constraints. All your improvisations can be recorded on your sound file, and even if out of 20 minutes of improvisation, you get one “beautiful” melodic – harmonic event that last a few seconds, you may achieve more than you could in the performance of dozens of “exercises.” You edit out and destroy what you don’t like, and keep the remainder.
Knowledge of the basics of chord progressions and traditional harmony are not without their use. It helps to be able to create a variety of scales—not just Western, but also Indian, Japanese, Javanese, Chinese, African—in order to be able to juxtapose a variety of sound textures that can have original harmonic characteristics. But above all, I would say the act of composition has priority in and of itself, above the study. And the study is done, as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, as the acquisition of series of set procedures and lists of rules that keep one in a very, very small domain of sound possibilities. As a general rule, one could posit a system whereby for every ten hours of actual compositional activity, there is one hour of study, and even that study is done with an eye to altering the rule, deliberately breaking the rule, to see if one can produce something that is original, in accordance with a contemporary theory of “sound-based composition.”
Even if one uses the traditional rules of chord progression as the basis of a composition, the software allows us a tremendous amount of freedom, with regard to systems of automation (which far from making a work sound mechanical, actually free the work up from boundedness and potential monotony). In other words, the pitches can be bent on any instrument (call it portamento, if you like); tone glides can proceed as quickly and as slowly as one likes, within any individual melodic line, or as the broad harmony of a work—so that you have something much more dramatic and interesting than a standard modulation from major to minor, or from one key to another. What I am discussing here is not, in any sense, “atonality” (a la Schoenberg, Webern or the young Boulez) but would better be termed an evolution of “polytonality.” We can call it something more: “multi-tonality” or “mega-tonality,” where the tonal quality of the work shifts into new and uncharted (and often delightful regions) which will always sound as new, or as familiar, as one likes—due to the extreme number of possibilities.