The Universe in a Grain of Sand
The art of composing music is at once, a mysterious and yet simple thing. In twelve notes
(and a few quarter tones), repeated over a few octaves, we have all tonal music that has ever and will ever be written. It is so complex and still so beautifully simple that I am amazed at the possibilities and can’t help but think there is a higher power behind such a magnificent system.
On the other hand, things can seem to get overwhelming. Just look at the list of things you have to know to be an effective composer nowadays.
- Basic music theory
- Diatonic Harmony
- Chromatic Harmony
- Atonal/Serial Composition
- Midi and DAWs
- Sampling and making your music sound realistic
- Techniques for creating mood and atmosphere to fit a film
You get the picture. The list could probably go on and on, but ultimately it doesn’t help make progress in reaching the goal by just knowing a list. You need a framework to build your knowledge. The brain does not like small chunks of information that are not connected. I assume that is why mind mapping is so popular. It gives structure to your random thoughts. Sometimes in life the best way to learn is to attempt something “above your level.” With this in mind, I am going to give structure to my learning by writing a Symphony.
“A Symphony Must Be Like the World. It Must Contain Everything.”
I am a huge fan of Gustav Mahler. I have been since I was about 12, when we got our first windows computer and it came with Encarta Encyclopedia 96. This was before we had the internet, so I spent a lot of time just looking up things on Encarta. There was an article about Mahler, and an excerpt from his 1st Symphony, 4th Movement. It blew me away. So I went out and bought the Naxos CD. It changed the way I think about music – the raw emotion and power of his writing, it is still my favorite Symphony, and probably my favorite piece of music.
So it is appropriate that I will use the Symphony as a model for mastering the art of composing music. The Symphony has the potential to teach you everything you need to know about music, if you approach it the right way. It is an experiment, and at the same time, an expression of my inner-self.
“A symphony is no joke.” Johannes Brahms
Breaking it Down, Piece by Piece
So in approaching the symphony, I plan on looking at it as a whole, and at the same time, as a collection of things that must be mastered in order for it to come out sounding good.
You have to know the overall form of a symphony in order to write it. The first movement for instance, is usually in Sonata Form. To understand that, you have to know about sonata form, and tonal centers, why they are important and how they relate. To understand sonata form, you probably need a good understanding of more basic forms, like binary and ternary.
Beyond that you must know how to contruct a period and sentence; still smaller, you need to know how to construct a motives and phrases.
There is a lot to learn, and we’ve barely written any notes.
Rhythm, Harmony and Melody
As with form, it is about both understand the overarching goals – modulation of tonal centers, and overall voice leading – and the smaller details, like coordination of melody and harmony. This is where a composer can spread his wings with variety, as well as with the rhythmic aspects of the music, and truly develop his ideas.
I want to pay special care to rhythm, which I think can easily be forgotten in the world of classical music. Its not just for jazz musicians.
Orchestration and Texture
This will be the fun part – fleshing it out and making it real. But I am not sure how the process is going to unfold. Will I hear a certain melody being “played” by the clarinets, or a certain harmony by the french horns, and put that in from the start? Or will it be a total slugfest just to create balance.
In the past, where I failed in writing a symphony, I think it was because I approached it haphazardly, writing the music and the score at the same time, without an idea.
“A composer does not, of course, add bit by bit, as a child does in building with wooden blocks. He conceives an entire composition as a spontaneous vision. Then he proceeds, like Michelangelo who chiselled his Moses out of the marble without sketches, complete in every detail, thus directly forming his material.” Arnold Schoenberg
I’ve used this quote in the past, but I just love it. We’ll see if I turn out with Michelangelo’s Moses, or a coffee mug made by a 2nd grader for his dad.
Learning the Instruments
I also plan on learning more about the instruments I don’t play. Not just the ranges or typical effects, but what makes them sound good, and what doesn’t. This will probably be a lot of fun as well.
MIDI and DAWs
This will be the most technical aspect that I will have to learn. I have been using notation programs and MIDI since around 1999, but I feel like there is a whole world of possibilities that I don’t understand. The goal in learning it though, is to make my Symphony actually sound good. If it doesn’t sound good as a MIDI file, then I probably won’t succeed in another goal of mine, which is to get it played by a real orchestra. That seems like a gargantuan task at this point, but I think it is doable.
The First Step
Every journey begins with a first step. And our first step is finding motivation. What will this symphony be about?
I’d love to hear some ideas.
- Check out the rest of the Symphony of Enlightenment Series.
- Next in the Symphony of Enlightenment: Musical Inspiration