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What is your process on analyzing and fully understanding a piece?

Say you have a client who tells you, "I want you to make me an original music. But I want it to sound like John Powell's This Is Berk from the movie How to Train Your Dragon." And you have access to the score of it. What do you do? What is your process and how do you try to understand a piece? I think being able to write an original music that sounds like the one you're analyzing means you at least understand something about the piece. What do you look for? Instrumentation? Key? Form? Harmony?

Share your tricks. Every reply is appreciated. Thanks in advance!

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But if a client says this, what he means is he wants the piece to sound TO HIM like Powell's whatshisname. YOUR understanding of the key elements in the source may or may not be relevant, but generally relying fully on your own analysis can very well become a road to disaster. You wrap up a new masterpiece which you're certain sounds pretty much like Powell while also being original and all, and then the client says this is not at all what he wanted. But it does sound similar... to you, not him. :)

I believe a much safer way is to pester the client himself and try to get him to give you as much data as possible. The source piece, the one I should imitate, what is it like? How would you describe the mood? Is the light-hearted adventurous feel the most important thing, or should we make it more dark but retain the high level of energy? That transition 2 minutes in, is it supposed to be funny like that? etc etc etc

Mind you, talking about actual musical elements (instrumentation, harmony, god forbid keys or form!) can get pretty dangerous. Best case scenario, the client has no idea what you're talking about and tells you just that. Worst case, he think he has some idea and then gives you answers that don't make sense to you, or even worse, they seem to make sense, only he actually means something completely different from what you're hearing. And then you wrap up a masterpiece... you know that part already. :)

Talking to non-musicians is an art.

Being an amateur who composes just for fun, I probably shouldn't answer this. But my instinctive reaction is, why would I want to pretend to be someone else? And why would someone want me to? If they want so and so, they should try to get so and so. If they want me, they're going to get me.

Hi Greg and Michael!

Thanks for answering! You two made good points. And I want to ask you two or anyone who reads this: What if you want to sound like an artist to expand your "range" or just really understand what's happening in a piece for fun or you need to explain a certain piece to a class? What would you do? What is your process to analyze a piece?

(From the book "Complete Guide To Film Scoring by Richard Davis")

Alf Clausen, Emmy-winning composer for The Simpsons, strongly believes in the need for musical curiosity and study. He speaks about this issue in relationship to writing songs in different styles:

Students' questions are always very pointed about "How do you do this, how do you do that, how do you write these styles, etc." My response is to ask, "Have you dissected the popular songs of all the eras to find out what makes them work? Have you analyzed them to find out what the chord progressions are, what the melodic tricks are, what chord tones on what chords created a certain sound in a certain era? And can you sit down and write a song in that style because you have spent hundreds of hours dissecting those songs?" And they say, "Not yet." Well, I have. I have spent thousands of hours dissecting and playing those songs. It's a matter of craft, it's a matter of study.

Whatever works. for some, analysis works. for others, it's more intuitive. Study will help you pass courses. but only listening, with an artist's ear, will really help you become a composer.

Because when a director has a movie with a temp track and it's a temp track he likes a lot, he doesn't actually want the composer to create "something new". He wants that exact piece that's already in the movie, done again. Since he can't just steal the music from another movie and put it in his own, he needs to hire a composer and make him write stuff that's as close as possible to the source he loves so. And then the composer needs to be careful not to get sued for blatant copypasting. :)

michael diemer said:

But my instinctive reaction is, why would I want to pretend to be someone else? And why would someone want me to?

I do get that. Makes me glad I only compose for fun.

"Perhaps something can be learned by examining how Prokofiev arrived at the music in his "classical" symphony. Did he study Haydn for this exercise?"

Off the top of my head, I would suggest the following.  Prokofiev disliked both Haydn and Mozart, and the work was written almost as a satire, and to demonstrate that he could play the neo-classical game.  By that point in his life (he was writing opera when he was 9 years old), Prokofiev probably didn't need to "study" any particular symphonic score to "imitate" or to mock Haydn.  He probably had a large number of the Mozart and Haydn symphonies "in his head," so to speak by that time.  In fact, he was probably sick of them.  His restless modernist impulse wanted to lay the ghosts of classicism to  rest, once and for all, at least in his own mind, and he never composed any comparable neo-classical work again. His next major work was the incomparably complex and dissonant Symphony No. 2, which even he felt was difficult to understand and perform correctly.  it's still "too modern" for most people.  There was no going back to classicism after that.   He chose rather to veer back and forth between his own brands of vigorous and sarcastic modernism, and a slightly neo-Romantic style, with a modern bite (epitomized in Romeo and Juliet, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, and the later ballet, The Stone Flower, his last major work).  Although he continued to use the classical symphonic forms for his symphonies, sonatas and concerti, the content was usually avant-garde and progressive harmonically within his own contemporary context, even at times, in the USSR, when the pressure was on him to moderate his harmonic excesses and his so called "formalism."

I agree on the whole with Fredrick's recommendation given at the end of his post.



Fredrick zinos said:

 Perhaps something can be learned by examining how Prokofiev arrived at the music in his "classical" symphony. Did he study Haydn for this exercise?

I always thought the best way to analyze a piece of music was to sit down in a room with someone who has an excellent sound system. Gather together a very small group of people, as few as two or three, maybe as many as four or five. These must be people who truly love music.

Put on a piece of music. We would often play one movement from a Brucker, Mahler or Shostakovich Symphony. Anyone could ask for a a passage to be stopped, played again, or over several times. Comparisons were made solely on the basis of what was heard. Scores were very seldom employed. "Analysis" was not abstract, but philosophical, in terms of what the composer was trying to convey: in other words, the issues of orchestration, tempo and dynamics were all analyzed, but always in relation to some teleological concern, some metaphysical or naturalistic aspect of the music itself. Ecstasy, joy, enjoyment, pleasure, emotional impact, intellectual forms were all matters of serious concern. Scherzos in symphonies were examined carefully, and the nature of the "joke", and the humor conveyed was always important, so the discussions were often light hearted and informal, so that any aspect of emotional impact could be discussed with laughter or even incisive cynicism, and narrow methodological concerns would not constrict conversation. Arguments were frequent, but always in spirit of mutual respect: these were musical analyses performed amongst friends.

Occasionally there were "contests," where very, very short excerpts (previously recorded) of classical works were played, and people were asked to guess from aspects of style and content who was the composer and which work was played. These would be usually less than a minute or minute and a half long. Conversations would ensue about how the answer was "guessed" or surmised, what sonic evidence was used, how "close were erroneous answers, and so on.

Genuine analysis was both precise, but also free flowing, in the spirit of a Platonic dialogue.

Analyzing is the Deductive method. The Osmotic, or intuitive way, is to simply listen to lots of  music. I do so constantly. At times the radio is playing while I am actually composing. By listening to so much music, your brain forms over time a rich palette of colors. You reach a point where you just hear that what you need at a certain point is a clarinet in the clarino register, or the incisiveness of a saxophone. Or a particular chord or modulation. At least that's what my brain does. I realize that other people may have different styles of learning. Again, all that matters is results. You can walk, get a hit or get hit by a pitch. They will all get you on base.

As an expert in opinion Juls, I will add my 2 cents;

I think key is the least important of the 4 items listed.

High on my list would be the particular style of musical

phrasing that I think is the 'signature' of each individual

composer.

Also, I would pay attention to not only the instruments used

but how they are used in conjunction with the rest of the

orchestration, i.e. solos, in unison and cadences.

To this day there are still some pieces I hear of Beethoven's

early works  that I thought Mozart wrote.

He obviously went on to define himself.

For what it's worth I hope this helps.   RS

Fredrick said,

"This is a good way to analyze listeners impressions of a composition but I doubt if it sheds any light on the compositional technique of the composer. Analysis of composional technique is a pretty well accepted way of understanding how the composer made the piece sound the way it does. If a student hopes to emulate those sounds, they should look at the compositional techniques used to create them."

I think you are right, Fredrick. The type of analysis I outlined is limited in value, in exactly the way you described. You are right to say it will not shed much light on the "compositional technique of the composer," I believe. I suppose what I described will mostly enhance one’s skills in the area of “music appreciation,” rather than in the specific area of compositional techniques.

There is one area in which I might respectfully differ from you, at least in a small way. I am hearing from many people here how unpleasant so many “composition courses” actually are. What I describe is a method to try to penetrate to the “essence” of a piece of music, the philosophical essence, the metaphysical or even the phenomenological total quintessence of the aesthetic product (pardon the extravagant phraseology). If one can discover or describe through discussion, dialectic or verbal interchange, what makes a certain symphony so extraordinary, or even transcendent, this will provide enormous INSPIRATION for the potential composer. The inspiration itself may provide the motivation for pursuing with enthusiasm what you rightly point to: the actual nuts and bolts approach to the practical mechanics to be mastered during an act of composition.

Your attitude-- as you describe it-- could be the natural corrective to an over-enthusiastic, hyper-romantic, formlessness, which may be totally divorced from practical efforts to create a composition that works.




Fredrick zinos said:

This is a good way to analysize listeners impressions of a compoeition but I doubt if it sheds any light on the compositional technique of the composer. Analysis of composional technique is a pretty well accpted way of understanding how the composer made the piece sound the way it does. If a student hopes to emulate those sounds, they should look at the compositional techniques used to create them.


Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:

I always thought the best way to analyze a piece of music was to sit down in a room with someone who has an excellent sound system. Gather together a very small group of people, as few as two or three, maybe as many as four or five. These must be people who truly love music.

Put on a piece of music. We would often play one movement from a Brucker, Mahler or Shostakovich Symphony. Anyone could ask for a a passage to be stopped, played again, or over several times. Comparisons were made solely on the basis of what was heard. Scores were very seldom employed. "Analysis" was not abstract, but philosophical, in terms of what the composer was trying to convey: in other words, the issues of orchestration, tempo and dynamics were all analyzed, but always in relation to some teleological concern, some metaphysical or naturalistic aspect of the music itself. Ecstasy, joy, enjoyment, pleasure, emotional impact, intellectual forms were all matters of serious concern. Scherzos in symphonies were examined carefully, and the nature of the "joke", and the humor conveyed was always important, so the discussions were often light hearted and informal, so that any aspect of emotional impact could be discussed with laughter or even incisive cynicism, and narrow methodological concerns would not constrict conversation. Arguments were frequent, but always in spirit of mutual respect: these were musical analyses performed amongst friends.

Occasionally there were "contests," where very, very short excerpts (previously recorded) of classical works were played, and people were asked to guess from aspects of style and content who was the composer and which work was played. These would be usually less than a minute or minute and a half long. Conversations would ensue about how the answer was "guessed" or surmised, what sonic evidence was used, how "close were erroneous answers, and so on.

Genuine analysis was both precise, but also free flowing, in the spirit of a Platonic dialogue.

Hey Everyone!

Thank you so much for all your help. I have read everything and it's quite a lot to take in and actually do it. Some are completely new to me but I'm still open to doing them. I'll try them out and see which methods I would enjoy the most. I'll be going to a film scoring school (yay!) so hopefully I'd be able to do these methods religiously to help me progress as a composer. Again, thank you so much for your time and effort in helping me.

Have a great day everyone!

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