If you want to grow, you need to start measuring.
This has been at the back of mind for a while now. For the last 6 months, I’ve been deep into the art of learning… analytics and data science of all things.
But what is clear is that in order to improve quickly, you need to start measuring something.
Just look at business, sports, or medicine. They are all measurement based. They are scientific.
But composition hasn’t been very scientific until now, but I think it could be.
I am also not saying here that music is scientific. It really isn’t. But composition is not music, and it has the possibility to apply the scientific method to it.
What is science and scientific method?
If we step back and ask ourselves what is science and the scientific method I think we’ll have a clearer idea what I mean.
Science is not physics, or biology. It is more about an idea that we can observe the world, creating hypotheses, and then most important, testing those hypotheses with more observation.
What you observe, and how you test is critical. The goal is to actually move the ball forward, not confirm your preconceived notions.
One of the best ways to do this is to falsify your hypothesis. This is straight from wikipedia article on falsifiability.
A statement , hypothesis , or theory has falsifiability (or is falsifiable) if it is contradicted by a basic statement, which, in an eventual successful or failed falsification, must respectively correspond to a true or hypothetical observation.
When you see someone throw around the term pseudoscience, what they really should be saying is that the “science” in question lacks falsifiability.
The example they give is that all swans are white.
If you see a black swan, then you know the statement “all swans are white” is not true. It’s been falsified.
This doesn’t tell you about every possible color of swan. Just that they aren’t all white.
The difficult part is how to apply this to composition.
Getting Away from Useless Questions
How do I compose? How do I write a good piece of music? Who is the greatest composer? What is the secret sauce?
These all seem like valid questions to ask ourselves, and they are not useless completely. But after a while they become problems.
Let’s start off with “How do I write a good piece of music?”.
How do I write a good piece of music?
I want to pick this apart, and hopefully by the end, we’ll have something falsifiable, and something to measure.
The first problem I see is the word “good”.
Good is loaded with too many meanings, and so it’s about as meaningless as it comes.
We can take replace it with something else. Here are some ideas that come to mind:
- Competent (sounds like good, but more arrogant).
- Long (needs to be qualified).
- Theoretically sound (feels good, but it’s about as useless as good, and more arrogant than “competent”).
- With functional harmony
- With a melody that observes the traditional rules of voice leading
- That other people will recognize as correct given the traditional rules of voice leading, harmony, and melody (hmm, this gives me an idea about measurement. Measuring listener response).
- For a specific instrument based on the style of a specific composer (getting a little closer).
- Unique (this will probably be very difficult to measure).
Once again, piece and music. They are not too clear either.
Piece could be:
- Piece in small ternary form (I like this because it is flexible, relies on specific formal definitions, and but can be argued. Small ternary form is just a three part form that is about 16 measures with an A-B-A’ scheme).
- Maybe piece should be a smaller fragment. Maybe it should be chord progression.
- A progression that modulates, and uses specific harmonic devices such as modulation, applied dominant, modal borrowing. I mean we can go on and on.
If we put this together, I come up with a much bigger question, that has a much smaller answer:
How do I write a piece of music in small ternary form that others recognize as correct given the traditional rules of voice leading, harmony, and melody for a specific instrument based on a specific composer or style for a specific instrument that incorporates a progression that modulates, and uses specific harmonic devices such as modulation, applied dominant, modal borrowing?
Turning the question into a falsifiable statement
Now if I want to be scientific about this, I need to make it something I can test. Because the paragraph of text above is kind of difficult to read, I am going to put it in a list.
- Writing a piece of music in small ternary form.
- That follows the traditional rules of voice leading, harmony, and melody.
- For a specific instrument.
- Based on a specific style (read: the tendencies of a specific group of composers).
- That incorporates harmonic progressions that use specific harmonic devices (functionality, modulation, applied dominants, modal borrowing, standard schemas) and melodic devices (following tendencies, ornamentation, motives, specific kinds of repetition, tropes, etc.).
- Will cause others to recognize that piece as good.
1-5 are really just constraints. They limit the playing field.
The most important part of the question I think is the last part (number 6).
You can measure this. You can measure it by asking other people. This is actually a common way to measure.
Let’s give it a try. Here is a piece by Jeremy, one of my students.“Piano in G” by Jim1989
Jeremy is basically doing 1-5 above. Now it’s your turn. Is this piece good, given the constraints in 1-5.
Getting more fine grained
The problem here is that a piece is actually quite difficult to write (I sense another thing to replace good – “feel easy”).
It also takes a long time, and so the time from action to measurement is long.
If we focus on just two of the constraints.
That incorporates harmonic progressions that use specific harmonic devices (functionality, modulation, applied dominants, modal borrowing, standard schemas) and melodic devices (following tendencies, ornamentation, motives, specific kinds of repetition, tropes, etc.).
What’s cool about this, is that we can actually take out any one of those elements. And then ask more people the same question. We could if we wanted create a bunch of different versions of the same piece and then ask people to vote, and see which piece gets the most good votes and bad votes.
This get’s me excited because I can think of many things I would want to test here. And they are all falsifiable.
What if you don’t know how to compose anything yet?
Shameless plug here: Take my free course, The Vocabulary of Composition. This will give you the tools to put those ideas into practice.
So what if you can’t write a piece yet?
You need to start smaller. Start with something you can handle.
I think a great place to start is with chord progressions. They have built into them many of the things that you need to learn in order to write a piece that meets all those criteria above.
They are also the tastiest part of composing.
Who doesn’t love a good chord progression.
If we want to take is full circle, I should falsify this last statement:
Memorizing chord progressions and learning to transpose them in your mind will reduce the time it takes for you to finish pieces in small ternary form?
That’s it for now. This post is an exploration of an idea, that is just starting to grow in my mind.
Luckily my father conducted medical research for years, so I will be developing this more, and eventually hope to start running studies on the improvement of composers.
Until then, start looking for ways to falsify your ideas… and sign up for my free course.