Changing tones are two non-chord tones that are on either side of a chord tone, to which they resolve.
Reverse Neighboring Tones
A reverse neighboring tone is preceded by a chord tone that is a major or minor 2nd above or below it, and it is followed by a skip to a chord tone.
An escape tone is a non-chord tone that moves from a chord tone by a skip (some sources say step) and proceeds to another chord tone by a skip.
Chapter 8 is a great primer on the various types of accompaniment: Oom-pah, Alberti Bass, etc.
Chapter 9 is another chapter about harmony and begins by introducing three special chords:
I decided to combine these three special chords in the following mini-composition:
When an isomelody and an isorhythm are in sync and repeated persistently, they create an ostinato. "Ostinato" is the Italian word for "obstinate."
Isomelody and Isorhythm
An isomelody is a series of pitches that differs from a standard row and a 12-tone row in the following ways; each tone may be used only as originally given (123456; not 1112234566), and octave forms of the tones are not allowed.
An isorhythm is a rhythm that is repeated consecutively.
If an isomelody and an isorhythm are in sync, this is called an ostinato (more on that in Chapter 7). If they are out of sync, they will create patterns that diverge and converge.
Here is my isomelody and isorhythm combined (plus accompaniment):
12 Tone Row
The development of the 12-tone row is associated with Arnold Schoenberg and 20th century contemporary music.
To construct our 12-tone row (sometimes called a note row, series, or set), we're going to order the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale to create a 12-tone melody/series. This is called the "prime form." We can repeat our tones consecutively, but we must always keep the order of successive pitches in the row intact. In addition to the original row, we will utilize the retrograde, the inversion, and the retrograde of the inversion.
This was not my usual modus operandi - I had fun experimenting! Beep boop!
A brief interlude from all the Russo posts:
In March, I was lucky enough to assist Minna Choi and the Magik*Magik crew with a livestream performance of Max Richter's "Recomposed" at the Merced Theater. Here is a tiny snippet from the show! Soloist - Liana Bérubé / conductor - Ming Luke. Enjoy!
In Chapter 4, we explore small/large themes!
First, we will start with a motive (also called a motif, cell, or figure): a series of tones that are distinctive, but incomplete - usually 1-2 measures long. A small theme is usually comprised of 3-4 motives. Russo suggests arranging our motives in a question/answer format, e.g. abac, where a and b pose a question and a and c answer the question. An example of a large theme might be two of our small themes back to back, e.g. abac/abac.
For this exercise, we're going to write an AABA large theme where the three A sections are made up of abac. The B section will be eefg. The B section should contrast with A sections and will contain the highest tone to help give the melody a pleasing arc.
In the last part of Chapter 3, we learn about musical addition, subtraction, context, and subfigurations!
Addition & Subtraction
When you add tones (e.g. passing, neighboring, anticipation, ornamentation, and/or auxiliary tones) to an original theme, this is called Addition. When you delete tones from your theme (and replace with rests and/or lengthen previous tones), this is called Subtraction.
Changing context in the musical sense is not so different from changing context in other realms! You can change the "context" of a melody by reharmonizing it (changing the chords), using different orchestration, tempos, dynamics, articulation, etc.
After a little poking around on the interwebs, it appears that the term subfiguration isn't widely used in the lexicon of composerly terms, but is essentially breaking a theme into separate identifiable figures that you can then transpose, reiterate (etc.) to create new material.
I had an inordinate amount of fun exploring these transformation tools by creating a theme, chopping it up into smaller figures, improvising at the piano, etc. Definitely a song-seed for my next album. Happy listening!
In the next part of chapter 3, we learn about different kinds of rhythmic transformation!
Rhythmic Transformation: "a theme's rhythm is changed in order to vary it from previous statements."
Displacement: a phrase can be started on a different beat, e.g. instead of starting on beat one, try starting your phrase on beat two or the and of two. And/or, you can change the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4, etc. This type of rhythmic transformation works best with some kind of accompaniment.
Augmentation (can be regular or irregular): the lengthening of the time values of the notes of a melody. Sometimes, composers use this device to add dignity, majesty, or climax to the end of a section or piece.
Diminution (can be regular or irregular): the shortening of the time values of the notes of a melody. This technique can introduce a sense of urgency/tension to the music.
Reiteration: when you repeat some of the tones in your phrase.
Here is a breakdown of when/where I utilized the aforementioned types of rhythmic transformation in "A Dog! A Panic In A Pagoda!" (so named in honor of one of my fav palindromes):
I had fun using pitched percussion for this exercise: marimba/vibes/piano!
In the next part of Chapter 3, we will learn about musical addition, subtraction, context, and subfigurations!
Chapter 3 is all about transformation! It details the different types of melodic transformation and rhythmic transformation - more tools to add to our composer tool box! Transformation is useful because it can stretch out ideas and give you more material to play with. Today we will focus on melodic transformation and create a theme and variations.
Inflection - the adding or subtracting of accidentals
Inexact Transposition occurs when you inflect notes from an exact transposition.
Retrograde - all tones and rhythms are the same, but in reverse.
Palindrome - a melodic phrase that reads the same backward and forward.
Exact vs. Inexact Inversion - exact inversions mirror original lines (ex. a major 6th up becomes a major 6th down), and inexact inversions mirror the interval numbers, but sometimes a major interval becomes a minor interval and vice versa.
I'm concurrently working my way through The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler, so I decided to feature the woodwind section in today's musical example. Here is a breakdown of when/where I utilized the aforementioned types of melodic transformation. I took the liberty of changing a few time signatures and pitches here and there (marked with an asterisk) to make this exercise slightly more more musical/readable.
Exact Transposition: m.41-48
Inexact Transposition/Inflection: m.45-52
Exact Inversion: m. 31-40 (except bassoon)
Inexact Inversion: m.21-30 (again, I left the bassoon alone)
Disclaimer: I was in a bit of a rush to finish this before work, so I apologize for the misspellings! Gb instead of F#, etc. Cheers! -H
I look forward to exploring the different types of rhythmic transposition in my next blog post! Stay tuned!
Passing tones move by major or minor seconds between two chord tones that are a third apart.
According to Russo, a neighbor tone is a non-chord tone that is a major or minor 2nd above or below a chord tone, preceded by a skip or a rest. According to other sources, a neighbor tone occurs when you step up or down from the chord tone, and then move back to that same chord tone.
According to several sources on the interwebs, auxiliary tones are essentially neighboring tones. For Russo's purposes, aux tones are non-chord tones that move away from a chord tone by a major or minor second and return to that same chord tone - no preceding rest or skip necessary.
Anticipation tones belong to the chord that follows and are repeated when the following chord "arrives".
As a warm up for sabbatical times, I’ve decided to finish working my way through William Russo’s book Composing Music before 6/1. It’s been a great primer so far and will be fun for my students too!
In exercises 6-9, Russo invites you to create smooth voice-leading between diatonic/non-diatonic chord progressions by redistributing chord tones. Ideally (but not necessarily), students should be familiar with all twelve major and minor triads and their respective inversions before tackling this part of Chapter 2.
Russo posits this rule: major triads move freely to other major triads, and minor triads move freely to other minor triads.
For this next piece, I have constructed a progression of 16 chords that adheres to Russo’s Basic Rules for Mixed Progressions. If you are curious about these rules, check out page 20 in Composing Music.
*Side note: I’ve decided to pause the fantasy/story-telling element of these posts until some of my younger students catch up with the material, but don’t let that stop you from creating your own stories to accompany these exploratory tunes!
A wintertime collaboration retrospective
Before I wholly dedicate myself to sabbatical prep, I wanted to share the fruits of a fun side collaboration (Twilight Fox™) with my friend Vincent Favilla. Vince wears many hats - psych professor, programmer, artist, musician - and he likes to explore the intersections of his talents/interests! In a recent bout of experimenting with AI music creation, he generated a cache of works for solo piano and gave them to me for editing/recording. You can read more about Vince's thoughts and experience with AI here - Open To Experience!
Here is one of our co-creations, "Wheels of Time":
For those of you who expressed interest in the nuts and bolts of my learning journey, I've provided a general outline for the current vision below. And if you are a joyfully curious composer/friend/nerd and would like to work through any of these books with me, yay (!!), and let's do it!
Anything/everything else is icing on the learning-cake, e.g. wrapping up any/all music-related Udemy courses, binge-listening to podcasts about composers/orchestration, etc. Cheers, all! I’m excited!
In lieu of grad school, I have decided to embark on a DIY deep dive into the study of composition and orchestration. In order to carve out large blocks of time for uninterrupted learning and creating, I am taking a sabbatical April-Dec.
During this time, the Musical Test Kitchen Blog will serve as:
1. A repository for my sabbatical prep (April-May) and eventual output (June-Dec)
2. A daily/weekly retrospective/summary/synthesis of my studies and creations
3. A fun (for me!) way for me to share and keep track of my explorations and progress.
If you like, stay tuned for more music-related musings. Homemade syllabus coming soon!
King Edrevol is so moved by your musical performance with Ceridwen that he has to wipe away a tear before clapping. You think he is awfully sensitive for someone with a bloodstained reputation, but you barley have time to muse on this before Ceridwen speaks.
“Your lordship, in exchange for room and board, I will consent to your request to stay for a fortnight in order to better acquaint your new bard with the customs of your court and general music theory.”
The king looks satisfied. “Very good, Ceridwen. Thank you. A few more tunes if you please, and then I would like you to introduce our new bard to the court lions.” Edrevol's eyes twinkle mischievously.
Ceridwen bows to Edrevol before turning to face you. She whispers - “For our next song, use only major and minor triads derived from the D Major scale.”
You nod, ready your harp, and begin to play.
*Side note: Russo recommends doing exercises 3-5 in the key of C for beginners, but I chose to mix things up by playing around in D major. I also took liberties by inverting my triads, adding a melody, etc.
O Ignee Spiritus (O Fiery Spirit)
In May of 2019, I gave a talk/performance at Pixar Animation Studios about nine extraordinary women composers and their music, and the first composer I introduced was Hildegard of Bingen. Here is a partial transcript of my presentation:
"Hildegard was born in Germany and was a nun, an abbess, and a polymath: a doctor, philosopher, scientist, poet, and a Christian mystic (she was famous for her visions!) - and she has one of the largest musical repertoires of ALL medieval composers, male or female!
As the 10th child of a noble family, Hildegard was given over to the church. During Hildegard’s time, nunnery’s were centers of intellectual learning run for and by nobility, so nuns (Hildegard especially!) had a huge amount of influence on politics and religion."
I went on to talk about Hildegard's rockstar-ness: politically and otherwise. For example - she would allow her nuns to perform her music while wearing glorious white shimmering garments and crowns!
One of the pieces I played was an abridged piano adaptation of Hildegard's “O Ignee Spiritus.” I thought it would be fun to sing this song in its entirety. The english translation is enough to make me weak in the knees! Here is one of my favorite lines:
Yet in your hand you always hold the sword
to cut away
the deadly apple offering
its blackened heart
You can visit the Hildegard Society's website if you would like (you will like!) to read the entire English translation and/or check out the full sheet music. A big thank you to Kathleen Mead for her assistance with the Latin pronunciation. If there are errors, they are mine - not hers!
This week, I gave a talk about composing music to the 6th graders at the Julia Morgan School for Girls. A big thank you to Phil Gorman for inviting me to speak!
Here were some of the take-aways:
You don’t need to have magical powers to create music. You don’t need expensive instruments or training. You can use your voice or whatever instruments you have on hand. If you don’t know how to read or write sheet music, you can create your own notation methods with a pencil and paper and/or you can make audio recordings of your compositions.
Start small! Give yourself one or two parameters (i.e. notes or chords or tools) to play with, and stay inside your self-imposed box until you feel ready to branch out.
Learning how to compose is like learning a new language. Set aside a little bit of time each day to practice your craft.
Don’t throw anything away if you can help it. I have always had a hard time with this one, but you never know when one of your less than perfect compositions will become the seed for a newer, better song that you will love. Hide your half-baked ideas in the bottom of a filing cabinet or on an external hard drive if you must - but try not to pitch anything.
After the talk, I had this thought:
There are plenty of people out there who think that an overabundance of “bad art made by amateurs” is going distract attention away from “good art made by experts.” I am not one them. I might argue that there is plenty of good art made by amateurs and bad art made by experts…but I am not the art police. The perceived “quality” of art is completely subjective, and I believe that art is for everybody. Very often, it is a pleasure to make art, and a pleasure to share it – just ask anybody who has watched a two-year old scribble with unabashed delight. Creating art can provide catharsis for a troubled heart, a universal language, a connection to the past, and sometimes a bridge between our hearts and minds that would not otherwise be available to us.
In closing, try not to label your art (or art made by others) as “good” or “bad.” And do not be afraid to make something new!
Chapter 2 begins with an explanation of major and minor triads, diatonic chords, chord symbol notation, and a preliminary exercise which requires students to practice writing out the tones of various chord symbols.
For ex.2, we will construct a song in three parts using two-chord progressions using major and minor triads in the key of C. Part one will explore chords that are a perfect fourth and/or fifth apart. Part two will explore chords that are a second apart, and part three will explore chords that are a third apart.
In order to sugar coat this info for the kiddos, it’s time to return to our hero’s journey…
The straw pallet is comfortable, but you sleep fitfully and dream that several hungry lions are chasing you. When Shella comes to collect you the following morning, she points to one of the harps on the wall. “Bring that one. It is Ceridwen’s favorite.”
Who is Ceridwen, you wonder? You obediently dismount the harp from its place and clutch it to your chest. Your anxiety begins a long, slow crescendo as you follow Shella back to the feast hall from yesternight. The chairs and tables and hordes of people are gone. Only Edrevol and his mysterious guest are present.
Shella gives you a gentle nudge forward, and you to kneel before the king.
Edrevol turns to the hooded figure by his side. “Ceridwen, allow me to introduce our new court bard. Bard, meet your predecessor, Ceridwen. Please rise.”
So! The former court bard wasn’t fed to Edrevol’s lions! You feel a wave of relief as you stand.
“Would you do me the honor of accompanying me while I sing?” Ceridwen asks, stepping forward and pulling back the dark hood to reveal the kind eyes of a girl who looks to be about your same age.
You bow low in assent and do your best to play along with Ceridwen’s tuneful singing.
*Footnote - Russo recommends doing this exercise in the key of C for beginners, but I fudged a little and chose Db to mix things up. Song lyrics for my example-piece are courtesy of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).
In Composing Music, Ch.1 Ex. 4-8 introduce students to the first three modes of the major scale and familiarize them with William Russo’s General Rules and Basic Note Values. If you are curious about these tenets/tools, check out the book!
For my own nerdy pleasure, I gave myself a more comprehensive modal exercise with fewer restrictions by improvising 84 modal tune-lets, i.e., a tune for every mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of the 12 major keys. If you have an hour to spare and enjoy noodling, I highly recommend trying this! It’s been a good 15+ years since I’ve done this, and it was fun to see how my piano playing has evolved over the last decade or so.
In my next post, I will start Chapter 2 and continue adventuring with the kids! In the meantime, here is link to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. If you are need of some inspiration and cheerleading in the creative living department, read this book!
When I was a youngster, it was considered cool and maybe even essential to suffer for your art. I was told that nothing I played or wrote would be any good until my heart got broken. Maybe this is true, maybe not…but I wish I could go back and tell that person that whether my art is good or bad (or whether my heart is intact or in bits) is beside the point. I make art/music for the same reasons that most people watch Netflix or share a delicious meal with friends: for pleasure, self-soothing, and connection with others.
It felt nice to read Big Magic and have my feelings validated. This book was like a big hug from a friend. Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert!
The guard doesn’t speak. She leads you down a deserted path to a row of small huts behind Edrevol’s castle. She stops at the threshold of the last hut and turns to address you. She speaks in straightforward tones, but you detect a hint of an accent and something else...sympathy?
“Here are your new quarters. Inside, you will find several instruments that were left behind by our former court bard. Make use of them. The king is expecting a visitor tomorrow at noontide, and you must be prepared to entertain them with a song. My name is Shella, and I will be coming to collect you when the sun is at its highest peak.”
She departs, leaving you to wonder what happened to the former court bard...
The inside of the hut is surprisingly homey. There is a fireplace, a small table and chair, a bookshelf, a sleeping pallet, and several ornately carved stringed instruments and flutes hanging on the walls.
You take down a small harp with five strings, and begin to compose a song using a row. In music, a row is a group of tones that are always used in the same order. Tones may be repeated and/or used in other octaves.
Here is your chosen row:
Using only these two rhythms, create a tune for your impending noontide performance!
Luckily for you, King Edrevol likes your first performance so much that he decides to spare your life and declares to the revelers at the feast, “we have a new court bard!” The Lorac burst into a communal uproar, hooting and banging their tankards on the long wooden tables. A chant begins from the back of the feast hall and is taken up by the entire congregation – “One more song! One more song!” It seems you have no choice. You take a deep breath, and begin.
You discover that by controlling the amount and speed of your breath, you can vary the octave of the four tones of the Imperial Flute, and you decide to use only the following two rhythms:
A melodic cell is a small group of notes that can be played in any order, in any octave.
When you finish your song, a chorus of throaty cheers and stamping boots erupt from the onlookers. You are shocked to see Edrevol wipe a tear from his hairy cheek. The king brandishes a lacey kerchief and dismisses you with a hardy nose-blow. The audience returns their attention to their vittles, and you are unsure of what to do until one of the king’s guards beckons for you to follow. She leads you away from the smoke and hubbub of the feast and out into the fresh night air.
The Imperial Flute
In the hopes of capturing the imaginations of my students and keeping them engaged as we work through our Composing Music textbook, I will spin a Scheherazade-esque tale that requires the students to create/perform new compositions that will get them out of tight scrapes.
Author William Russo provides the seed for our story in the very first paragraph of Chapter 1:
You have been captured by the Lorac, a bloodthirsty clan ruled by the notorious King Edrevol. Unless you are able to impress the king with your Imperial Flute skills, you are told in no uncertain terms that you will become cat food for the court lion!
The Imperial Flute can only play four tones, and Edrevol is partial to songs in 5/4. Therefor, you must create/perform a song at the feast tonight that is limited to the following tones and rhythm:
Pitch limitation and rhythmic limitation are useful compositional tools! By limiting your choices, you can focus on one thing at a time and prevent feelings of overwhelm that can sometimes arise when you’re looking at a blank page or trying to decide how to proceed with a composition.
My private teaching practice has taught me that kids (and most grown-ups!) are usually much more willing to attempt song-writing if I give them bite-sized writing prompts and game-ify the process instead of giving them free reign right off the bat. The initial boundaries help them feel safe to experiment and explore without fear of failure, and they also love to test those same boundaries when they get tired of their limited choices!
I have tasked myself with staying one step ahead of my students as we work our way through William Russo's book, Composing Music:
"Aimed at those who have some knowledge of music but not formal training in composition, this concise introduction to composing starts right in with a brief composition exercise, then proceeds step by step through a series of increasingly complex and challenging problems, gradually expanding the student's musical grammar."
Yes, please! Let's go!