THIS is an Orchestra

I would like to warn the reader that this blog contains opinions that may not be shared by all.

The habit of joining together with other musicians during performances is as old as music itself but the systematic arrangement of instrumental groups, that we now call ‘orchestration’, is comparatively new. It is a feature of formalized European music, other native cultures following a different path, as they do to this day.

The Church used to be virtually the only source of cultivated musicianship and a composer would be obliged to use whatever group of musicians happened to be available, leaving no one aside, and find them all something to do. This pattern continued even when wealthy patrons arrived to help composers pay the rent. The requirements of liturgy also gave shape to early music.

Even when the orchestra, as we now recognize it, began to take shape, a keyboard was still used as the centre of everything, the keyboard player becoming, in effect, the conductor. Combining the keyboard with other instruments limits the keyboard styles available, especially within contrapuntal works, which were common. Anything that emphasizes vertical structures, together with the correspondence of simultaneous down-beats and accents, will reduce the contrapuntal quality of music. A piano or harpsichord would also have helped to keep amateur musicians in tune. They also assisted the assimilation of the music from the point of view of listeners for whom the experience of aurally ‘scanning’ large groups of musicians, spatially separated and sometimes playing different but complementary roles, would have seemed rather strange. We take it for granted nowadays.

Improvements had also taken place in the manufacture of musical instruments, partly to ensure that they kept pace with the increase in virtuosity which, too, increased possibilities. (The clarinet was a recent addition to the orchestra in Mozart’s time).

The string section, because of its huge range and flexibility, became the force that, usually, bound everything together, other instruments being used to give occasional variety and to provide colour.

The orchestra as we know it

When virtually any instrument would be available, as a matter of course, composers could write in a style that matched each instrument’s characteristics. Instruments no longer had to cover a multitude of sins. The majority of attack forms are achievable on most instruments but some instruments lend themselves, for example, to smooth cantabile playing better than others. Woodwinds are capable of lightness and dexterity and feel more at ease when playing at an extremely low volume. Any brass player knows that maintaining a good quality of sound whilst retaining good intonation and clear articulation, at low volumes, requires a lot of practice. It also requires physical and mental flexibility following prolonged loud passages. On the other hand, brass instruments can provide heavy attack forms better than other wind instruments. Woodwinds in the high register sound relaxed but the listener is always aware of the effort involved in playing high notes on brass, which imparts a feeling of power and even aggression.

There is also a natural hierarchy regarding the vertical placement of instrumental sections. It usually feels unnatural to place sustained woodwind harmonies below brass harmonies because of the woodwinds’ comparative lack of sonority but it might, conceivably, be done for special effects. The woodwinds frequently double the brass either in the same register or in the octave (or double octave). Exact doubling is preferred to avoid ‘stray’ notes standing out at the expense of the other parts of harmony. In other words, it will sound as if the parts were supposed to be the same but something went wrong. As sections deviate more in terms of mobility and accent, more freedom will be available.


Harmony, melody, rhythm and instrumental resource are a composer’s most obvious tools but differing degrees of transparency and density are available. Density is also a matter of style; some composers habitually used transparent orchestration, perhaps due to the fact that they had tidy minds and disliked ‘clutter’.  Density can occur incidentally as a result of the failure to handle combined orchestral sections systematically or because the placement of instrumental parts pays insufficient heed to acoustic requirements. Congested voice leading can also bring it about.

I myself have always been less inclined to double individual parts in orchestration in order to obtain different tone colours, preferring a purer style. Nevertheless, individual ‘lines’ are sometimes intended to stand out where the part has a clearly defined shape or tunefulness or where, perhaps, it is thematically linked to something occurring elsewhere in the piece but, generally, I prefer ‘section-by-section’ writing because instruments of a similar tone colour tend to cohere. Anything they perform simultaneously will be perceived to be linked together, leaving the ear of the listener to expect similar sounding instruments to form some kind of acceptable structure in their own right.

The English-style brass band is a good example. With the obvious exception of the trombones, all instruments, from the Eb soprano down to the BBb tubas, belong to the same family, raising the temptation to break down the sections and to treat the band as one whole unit. It is often done to allow arrangements to be playable by varied instrumentations as, for example, when members were absent because of industrial injury or illness or because they were involved in trade union activities. Top level bands will always have a full lineup, where so-called ‘special’ arrangements may be used.

Double stops

I never use double-stops in the string section, especially with the cellos and basses, where they will sound ‘muddy’, because of factors within the instrument itself*, and where they are likely to conflict with trombones in the same register. It is better to reserve them for solo passages.

Whereas fretted instruments, such as the guitar, are tuned to equal temperament, the tuning of unfretted instruments is influenced by just intonation. Some tuning techniques used will naturally lead a player in this direction. This subject is part of the wider problem of acoustics, which requires knowledge of the mathematics involved for a complete understanding.  

The manner in which the two methods are actually combined in music is a different matter. For example, when moving in semitones from c>d the c# will be slightly higher in pitch than its enharmonic equivalent, the note db, will be when moving downwards in the opposite direction, d>c. These are interpretational, not acoustic considerations. Notes moving chromatically ‘lean’ towards the note of resolution. Fixed pitch instruments do not enjoy this luxury. We trombonists do it all the time.

As the music of the 20th century evolved, composers sought to extract new sounds from conventional instruments, eventually being rivalled by electronic effects, which were also combined with the orchestra. Music notation programs now offer some very authentic sound fonts which emulate live instruments very well but there is an important difference: each part of an orchestration may be played by several instruments, giving considerable weight to each part. This is especially true of the strings, particularly where ‘Hollywood’ style divisi styles emulate jazz and big band scoring. The technique requires careful handling.

A typical 20 piece Radio orchestra string section comprises 12 violins (6 first, 6 second), 4 violas and 4 cellos. Frequently only one acoustic bass will be used.  The block harmony style resembling an eight piece big band brass section requires more strings on the top part (melody) than on the other parts, distributed: violins 6,2,2,2,/violas2,2,/cellos2,2 . The fifth voice down (2 violas in this example) will also feature the melody in the octave. Dividing the strings into violins 4,4,4, violas 4, cellos 4 gives a four part block style with the melody in the octave. Here, the powerful support of the cellos playing the melody obviates the need to increase the number of violins on the top parts. Strengthening the melody helps to paper over the cracks that are often present in each part, melodically, in these block scoring styles for strings. With the big band, with one player to each part, the problem is less acute.

Complex divisi writing is divided by desk. There are two players to each desk (music stand).

The book illustrates examples of various string styles, including those that are more typical of string writing.

* I doubt  that anyone fully understands the effect of two or more notes resonating within the body of stringed instruments.


Where’s the tune, pal?

In the book I make the following claim:

In the main stream of conventional music, a composition that is expected to have popular appeal will fail if it does not possess, somewhere during its development, an expressive melody.

Melody is the outer contour or shape that musical rhythms and harmonies present to the world. People remember and recognize tunes. They sing them as they go about their daily routine.

Music doesn’t necessarily require a melody. It’s possible to write purely for percussive instruments, including those of indeterminate pitch, or to use harmony itself as the thematic material.

The standard tunes of the thirties, forties and fifties were characterized by a deeply formal relationship between the melody and the underlying harmonies, or chord sequences. Notes of the melody could be clearly identified, harmonically, and much use was made of the higher extensions of harmony to take advantage of their expressiveness. This was also true of popular music, for a while, at least.

Eventually, songwriters began to separate melody and harmony, producing forms where an arresting background treatment was the main focus, the melody being added almost as an afterthought. The use of the pentatonic scale, for example, which is the major scale with the two most active notes (the fourth and the seventh degrees) omitted, enables a tune to fit almost anything and although this might, at first sight, imply that the artistic ‘currency’ had been devalued, there were compensatory features that restored the balance.

There are many reasons for such changes in attitude but the main motivating force must surely be the desire to avoid what becomes an over-familiar style. Having said this, we know from history that ephemeral changes will eventually see a renaissance of previous styles.

The notes of melody resemble the free movement of particles, forming a trajectory, its vertical co-ordinate defined by variations in pitch and its lateral component resulting from its projection through time. This isn’t an attempt to create a way of looking at things. We can’t help responding in this way and familiar physical forces such as inertia will play an important part in our responses. Kinetic energy, as we all know, is the energy associated with an object’s movement.

Simple forms of melodic movement, such as a sine wave, represented, musically, by a gently undulating melodic form, excite the same response from the listener that he derives from equivalent stimuli in every day experience of the physical world; calmness, low activity, a feeling of tranquillity. It’s possible to express all melodic forms in this way, each with its own effect on the listener’s auditory response.

Due to the importance of vocal music, early melodic forms were restrained with regard to their range, the suddenness with which they changed direction and the size of their melodic intervals. The standards we use to make such judgements as acceptable/unacceptable are also governed by our everyday experiences.

In an age where the family car can attain high speeds in a matter of seconds and where what goes up may never come down, our ideas will inevitably change.

Nevertheless, we maintain an inherent north/south, up/down orientation which may explain why serial music has never attracted a large following.

Melody/axis relationships

Melodic axes govern our response to the motion of the notes of a melodic line. They form a reference frame by means of which motion may be recognised and referred to. An axis may be the key axis or tonic of the prevailing tonality (few tunes remain consistently in one key due to temporary modulations), a secondary axis (see below) or it may be a dominant or other pedal.

The forms of movement may be defined as follows:

Upwards away from the axis
Downwards towards the axis
Upwards towards the axis
Downwards away from the axis

These illustrative ways of looking at melodic forms are very useful. Patterns that consistently move up and away, for example, will seem to us to be more hopeful, positive and energetic.

Secondary axes

Besides the primary, or key axis, a melody will generate other reference points. Notes acquiring a statistical superiority, due to the sum of their durations at each recurrence, will suggest other axes, each having a different effect according to its definition. Notes foreign to the key will have the most radical effect.

Notes attaining higher ‘scores’ in terms of the sum of their durations throughout the melody have a greater affect on our awareness of music and will impart their  individual character to the melody.

The book includes an analysis of melodic structure, sequences and parallel, oblique and divergent axes. There are also detailed examples of song structures and phrase formation, etc.

Melody/harmony relationships

Adding a chord sequence to a given melody and composing a melody to a given chord sequence are opposite sides of the same coin and yet, initially, all musicians approach the subject of the melodization of harmony with more confidence.

There is no single, correct solution.

The original combination of melody and harmony employed by the composer of a song arrives as a complete package, although we may wish to add altered chords, passing chords etc. in our arrangement. The resulting mood or style the composer created was appropriate to the original setting of the song and after repeated listening we become conditioned to the result, regarding it as being ‘correct’.

Entirely different harmonizations may be created for any song, resulting in totally different characteristics. What may be too extreme for a conventional song may work well in another context, for example in background music to a documentary film.

A melody is a series of notes of different pitch sounded in sequence, whereas a chord is a group of any three or more notes of different pitch sounded simultaneously. Powerful effects may be achieved by moving away from the conventional families of chords and their standard progressions and by the use of ‘unconventional’ scales, with their own diatonic* harmonies.

Non-chordal or ‘unessential’ notes

A common difficulty experienced by the beginner, either in harmonizing melodies or in voicing for instrumental sections, concerns the treatment and identification of chordal and non-chordal notes.

Notes that fall on the beat, especially a strong beat, that are accented, or are of long duration (where the melody comes to rest) will most often be chordal.

Situations sometimes arise where it is expedient to regard chordal notes as being non-chordal in order to achieve a better flow of the parts in orchestration.

(Jazz musicians tend to refer to all unessential notes as ‘passing notes’, regardless of their definition.)

The many different kinds of unessential notes are discussed in greater detail in the book.

Composing melodies

We may compose a melody first or devise a chord sequence and fit a melody to it. Expressive and unusual melodies can result from writing a chord sequence first, although both the original chord sequence and the resulting melody may need to be altered as the composition takes shape. If all this appears to be rather premeditated, it’s worth bearing in mind the fact that much of the music we admire may have started its life in a spirit of honest toil rather than a flash of inspiration.

In composition, the germ of an idea may appear out of the blue but we might need to stimulate ideas, especially in the commercial situation where there’s a deadline to meet.

There are a series of techniques we can use:

Compose a melody to a preconceived harmonic progression and then compose another one based on the same harmonies but using a predominance of upper harmonic functions: 9ths, 11ths and 13ths and their ‘altered’ forms. A marked change in expressiveness will result.

Or, choose a very simple diatonic sequence and write an expressive melody to it. This is a useful way of reminding ourselves that we do not have to use every trick in the book to arrive at an interesting result.

Another way of overcoming a fallow period is to write some interesting rhythms and use those as a source of ideas.

*The word ‘diatonic’ should nowadays be understood to mean that the melody and harmony employ notes of the particular scale being used, not merely the major and minor scales.

So what ARE the ‘rules’ of music?

I could open this blog by making a slick comment such as ‘Well, there AREN’T any, actually’.

This isn’t too far away from the truth but, as always, the matter is a little more complicated.

I think I’ll probably be correct if I say that the majority of people approach music theory, especially the theory of harmony, with fear and trepidation. But why is this? We all know that, even in the arts, we have to push our boundaries in order to progress but I’ve always believed that, if we aren’t enjoying ourselves (most of the time), we’re doing something wrong.

Mindful of my own struggle with mathematics at school – partly because it was badly taught – I was determined to breathe some life into the subject of music theory when I wrote the book. I’ve always believed that, to explain something to someone, a person needs a thorough knowledge and understanding of the particular subject. To achieve this, an understanding of the rules-behind-the-rules is required, otherwise we’ll apply them ‘parrot-fashion’, as so many do, even those who should know better.

Music theory, as it is generally presented to us, consists largely of a catalogue of the preferences of prominent composers over the last 300 years or so and as such is obviously not without value. It has always been one step behind practice. A successful theory would embrace the music of the past, present and future. There would be no need for us to say that certain rules do not apply to certain types of music.

Every rule of music has been broken many times by talented writers. The sole criterion is that a composer’s music should demonstrate a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose.

We should never say ‘that is forbidden’ but rather, ‘if you do this, that will happen’. It’s a subtle but important difference. Students of music should be fired by an enthusiasm to write and not feel intimidated before they even start.

The commonest rules of all are those pertaining to parallel intervals, especially the perfect fifth.

The least complex interval is that of the octave, each octave being in a simple 2/1 ratio to the one above or below. The relationship is so simple that we give each note in the series the same letter name but they are not all the same note. Parallel octaves are common where the bass is reinforced in the octave or where the melody is duplicated an octave below. They are also common in counterpoint, where they provide added thickness to voices – even if the lower octave of one voice overlaps the upper octave of another. (The lower octave is perceived to be a reinforcement of the upper notes, rather than a voice in its own right.)

Next in complexity is the perfect fifth, in fact the effect of the fifth is so ‘perfect’ that a succession of them (between the same pair of voices) in a simple, diatonic harmonic continuity will stand out at the expense of the other voices, producing an ugly effect. And yet, to remain true to the above claim regarding a ‘clearly defined, strong artistic purpose’, we will find many instances where consecutive fifths will serve us very well:

Discounting the many stylistic treatments such as those found in rock riffs* and Red Indian, and other, programmatic associations, the effect of large masses of sound in orchestration may be enhanced by having a fifth between the bass (which will not necessarily be the ‘root’) and the note immediately above it in the harmony. In practice, there will most often be an octave between the lowest voices, with the fifth placed above the upper octave.

In the period of Organum parallel fourths and fifths were common. I’m sure no one on here needs to be reminded that a fourth is an inverted fifth.

Successive compound fifths, especially when more than one octave is added to the interval, become more and more harmless the wider the notes of the interval retreat from one another (which applies to other parallels, too).

In other cases, the movement of a parallel fifth will be become virtually unavoidable. Using the substitute dominant in place of the regular chord (Db7>C in the key of C) often provides an example of this.

The ‘rules’ of melody can be even more obtuse

There isn’t space here to deal with this topic in its entirety but a few pointers might help to convey the purpose of this blog:

Regular note resolutions may be overridden by inertial forces in, for example, a scale run. In this context a scale run is one that entails four or more notes moving in the same direction by stepwise motion. Similar principles are involved in sequences and in many other circumstances where repetition, resulting in familiarity, paves the way.

After a leap in either direction, a melody usually turns in the opposite direction but an augmented interval will continue in the direction of the chromatic alteration before resolving. The requirement to turn in the opposite direction will obviously be ignored in ‘real’ music where a composer wishes to create an intensely dramatic feeling of unusually high upwards energy by defying the ‘rule’ and allowing the melody to continue upwards.  Augmented intervals in melody can give rise to awkwardness but where a melody clearly describes an arpeggiated form, e.g. going from the seventh to the third in a dominant seventy type of chord – f > b in C7 – or when it occurs in an augmented chord, many situations are ‘allowed’, although they are best suited to instrumental music. Vocalists find some intervals difficult to pitch (and they’ll usually still sound wrong, even if sung well except, possibly, in a jazz context).

It might be worth pausing, here, to consider that this problem isn’t all one-way. A musically aware, experienced listener will be more tolerant.


Traditional rules regarding note-doubling are too simplistic in an orchestral setting. Apart from the obvious fact that they would place too many constraints on a composer, sections of instruments of a similar tone-colour tend to cohere and are heard as elements of the picture in their own right.


Having learned the basics of harmony, the next important step is to consider the vertical placement of chordal functions. The lowest note practicable in music is c = 16 vibrations per second (two octaves below the bottom c on my bass trombone).  Referring to the harmonic series we find that e doesn’t occur until the fifth harmonic, which takes us to the e below the bass clef, the third of the chord of C major. Placing the the third of any chord below this level will imply the existence of a fundamental that doesn’t exist in performable music. Although our systems of harmony evolved independently, especially with the adoption of equal temperament, the vertical structure of harmony must comply with the arrangement of the harmonic series, with wider spaces low down and closer intervals higher up. (Colouristic effects are likely to use any distribution, of course.) Other, similar, considerations involve the avoidance of placing higher chordal extensions below the seventh. ‘Clustered’ jazz voicings are another matter, of course.

In one of the textbooks I own the chord f-a-c-e in open harmony is given as a C thirteenth chord in a musical example, even though the f (the eleventh!) is just below the bass clef. This cannot be unless, of course, you’re happy with abstract examples that only exist according to ‘root theory’.

High tension chords will benefit in terms of clarity if the octave placement of the bass is correctly chosen. For example, both the natural fifth and the altered fifth may be used at the same time if these considerations are exercised and the ‘offending’ notes are kept well away from each other. The raised or lowered fifth then become the lowered thirteenth or the raised eleventh, respectively.

Isn’t life complicated? Well, not necessarily, when you understand how things really work.

* The riff is one of those terms that has changed its meaning over the years. A riff is a repeated phrase or motif that continues under (or over, or in between) the other parts even in cases where, technically, it doesn’t always fit. It was a characteristic of jam sessions. Nowadays, it is a term often used to describe those memorable heavy rock phrases. Similarly, cool referred to a deadpan style that was characteristic of modern jazzmen seeking to escape the hotter styles of the past. Nowadays it’s used as a sign of approval. Un-cool means it sucks (it’s a lemon, in US parlance).

Footnote: I haven’t used the numeric description of octave placement in this blog because there isn’t really much standardization. Mostly, the octaves are numbered from the bottom up but I prefer the scheme where ‘middle’ c is the starting point and notes above this are numbered with superscripts and notes below with subscripts. Subscripts move downwards numerically.

Key Issues

When I began my musical journey I used to believe that tonality is an indispensable part of music that had virtually always been with us until ‘modern’ composers tried to take it away from us.

And yet a moment’s thought would have reminded me that, until the campaign in favour of equal temperament gathered strength in around 1550 A.D., most aspects of what we understand by the term ‘key’, especially the facility to modulate freely from one key to another, would have been irrelevant. The increasing popularity of instrumental music – something we also take for granted – helped to bring matters to a head. Musical instruments tuned to just intonation were only happy in their ‘home’ key.

Orchestral music, as we now know it, with twelve major and minor scales of equal importance, did not become truly commonplace until early in the seventeenth century but keyboard instruments continued to be tuned to mean temperament (which concentrated on getting the major thirds in tune, the other intervals being tweaked to fit) for at least another hundred years. Historically, the mean system was more commonplace than the just because it was fairly accurate through six major scales and three minor. Straying outside these boundaries produced unpleasant results.

JS Bach wrote a series of preludes and fugues in all twelve major and minor keys and, because he also tuned his own clavichords and harpsichords to equal temperament, was even credited with its invention, despite the fact that the idea had been proposed circa 350 B.C. Spanish guitars built around two hundred years before the time of Bach have also been found with an arrangement of frets that provided equal temperament tuning.

What is important is that tonality, when viewed in this broader perspective, is actually fairly new!

In the previous blog I attempted to justify humanity’s propensity to identify itself with form (and order in general) on anthropic grounds and I’m tempted to go the same route with regard to tonality by suggesting that the tonic operates as a ‘ground base’ (not ‘bass’) thereby simulating our experience (what goes up must come down). There is also the idea that extended works, and even popular songs, embark on a kind of journey before returning ‘home’.

Much of what we take for granted would be impossible without equal temperament: Wagner’s wandering chromatic chord progressions ‘flirting’ with tonality; Debussy’s impressionistic use of the whole tone scale both in melody and harmony.


I believe that anthropic principles also surrounded the decision to defy tonality and that our perception of what is acceptable or unacceptable is governed by prevailing standards of physical efficiency. If I’m right, tolerance of the levels of velocity, volume and range in music, especially, is influenced by the prevailing pace of life, especially with regard to systems of transport. What goes up doesn’t always come down, nowadays and previously unthinkable speeds may be attained in an ordinary family car in a few seconds.  

It isn’t difficult to understand how composers wishing to share their New World perceptions with us became dissatisfied with creating imagery that evoked the pastoral charm of the past.

Schoenberg’s serial music represents the ultimate attempt to create purely musical forms*, devoid of terrestrial associations. Serialism is a specially designed, uncompromising case of ‘twelve tone’ (dodecaphonic) music which, in turn, is a special case of atonality. We can write music using progressions of ‘conventional’ harmonies that doesn’t possess a tonal centre.

In polytonal music, which had already existed for a considerable time, each key will negate the others and is therefore pre-programmed to be atonal in effect.

I suppose the bottom line, in this part of the discussion, is the level of acceptance by audiences. I’m not suggesting playing to the gallery but, on the other hand, composers can’t work in a vacuum. Serial music is written by and intended for the cognoscenti . Audiences have shown little interest in the genre. (Personally, I use atonal techniques for occasional effect, e.g. taking organized chaos to a new level.)

What does the word ‘Diatonic’ really mean?

This discussion would be incomplete without reference to the modes and the many unorthodox scales, all of which are entitled to be called ‘keys’, thereby widening the meaning of the term ‘diatonic’ which, to me, means that the melody and/or harmonies derive their intonations from the particular scale in use (not merely the major and minor scales).

Most musicians are familiar with the modes and pentatonic scale(s) but the number of scale structures is enormous. (I am here regarding any sequential arrangement of three or more notes to be a ‘scale’, all capable of furnishing melody, modal displacements and harmony). There are also 36 seven note scales comprising notes with different letter names (and therefore capable of furnishing a harmony scale of thirds – located on alternate lines or spaces of the stave – when expanded). They sometimes require sharp(s) and flat(s) in the key signature. One way of providing orchestral parts that look familiar is to use the closest ‘standard’ signature and insert the ‘offending’ note(s) as accidentals. The feasibility has to be assessed in each individual case. Having said this, the parts would look no more frightening than, for example, serial parts.

There is also the option to use an open key signature in cases where the number of accidentals would be less than the total number of accidentals/cancellations if a signature had been used. Please note this means an open signature, not (necessarily) an open key.


Nicolas Slonimsky gave us the name but we have to be careful when we attempt to credit an individual with any theory’s origination (science is full of occasions where the wrong person gets all the credit).

[It's usual to give some idea of the origin of words but, although I had a pretty good idea of what the prefix ‘pan-‘ meant, I struggled through articles about gods and kitchen hardware before getting to the truth of the matter. It really does mean ‘all’ – e.g. Pan-European – and the hyphen and second initial cap are omitted as required (Pandiatonicism but Pan-European). So now we know.]

The essence of this style involves free use of the diatonic notes of a scale – the scale of C major was a favourite – in melody, harmony and counterpoint. Chords may comprise freely arranged clusters of notes which are chosen with reference to their particular effect, any similarity with more commonplace structures and their transformations being incidental.  The added sixth, seventh and ninth are common. Piano accompaniment in popular songs expressing tenderness and sadness features these types of chords, although it would be rash to suggest that the style would not otherwise have occurred. The music of Lennon and McCartney also shows evidence of this technique (which would have been entirely intuitive).  In my opinion, their Celtic/Gaelic roots would have played a part, too.

*References to ‘pure’ or ‘absolute’, as opposed to ‘program’, music oversimplify the issue. It is arguable that serial music is free from visual and other imagery but there is always the possibility that other musical forms will invoke sensory perception. Pitch and time, working together in the two-dimensional plane, create inertial effects where a melody, operating trajectorially, actually requires physical principles to be respected, one example being the tendency of inertia in a scale run to override conventional resolutions. Orchestral layering creates a third dimension, with the musical landscape receding into the background. Starting and stopping huge masses of sound in rapid sequence suggests power (overcoming inertia). Power and volume are associated with aggression and, perhaps, masculinity (better stay out of that argument, I think). Other correlations are sometimes ‘by association’; the heroic sound of brass, for example. It’s difficult to avoid programmatic references when using such instruments as castanets, chimes and gongs.

A reminder here, if necessary, that inertia, a term that, colloquially, is most often used in reference to static objects, is also a property of moving objects, which have a tendency to continue in their uniform line of motion until acted upon by an external force. Things like to remain as they are. Here, ‘uniform’ means moving in a straight line at a constant velocity.

Musical Form; why do we need it and where does it come from?

Well, it isn’t compulsory, that’s a fact and when we journey out from the realm of European ‘classical’ (and other) styles we encounter more and more regions where musicians barely give the idea a second thought.

The book deals in some depth with form and the way in which other elements, particularly rhythm, are affected by a chosen scheme but I want to concentrate here on what form is and why (and if) we need it.

I have my own opinion about why form is important to some and not others but it involves an area wherein I have no expertise, so I’ll be brief:

I’ve observed a general tendency among white Caucasians to adopt a premeditated, or ‘strategic’, approach to problems. ‘OK’ we think. ‘We have a problem, so we’re going to do ‘this’ and ‘that’ and everything will be fine’. (The style is also associated with immaturity, especially in politics, where constant meddling in education and health is severely impeding attempts by specialists to effect improvements.)

The alternative ‘tactical’ approach is one I frequently noticed on the many occasions I’ve been invited to Asian weddings, most often within the Sikh community, where I have many friends. Here, people plunge into situations and react to events as they unfold, although they do enjoy a greater degree of support from their close community. This technique, I’ve noticed, is often the one adopted by those who succeed.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both methods.

The intensely premeditated, ‘Western’ approach presumes that we can always anticipate every possible eventuality from a massive list of outcomes – which we can’t, of course. Something always comes along to wreck our plans and we end up ‘thinking on our feet’ anyway.

On the other hand, the plunge-in-and-worry-about-it-afterwards approach can expose us to unnecessary risks and others will always be called in to bail us out.

The point I am making (I hope) is that musical styles will echo cultural attitudes, perhaps more than we realize.

Indian music is largely extemporized, although the melodic forms used are handed down to the musician to a large extent (I don’t want to go too deeply into that here).

In contrast, Beethoven, who I described in my previous post on here as being a supreme musical architect, constantly revised and reshaped his music until he achieved what he was looking for. This comment is not meant to imply that he was without ‘inspiration’, whatever that means. It’s difficult to listen to the ninth without feeling that he was driven by an unusually strong sense of ‘motivation’ (for lack of a better word).

 It would be easy to say ‘Oh well, the architectural approach is one that stems from a more civilized society’ but this idea fails when we consider that many cultures, that were civilized when we in the West were painting our faces and throwing rocks at each other, never developed the desire to adopt a premeditated approach. Music, to them, functions as a foil to the rest of their lives where there are always plenty of problems to solve, issues that they’d just like to get away from, once in a while.

Obviously, there are Indian composers who follow Western ideas just as there are European musicians who have experimented with eastern styles, which does complicate the argument a little, but I’m attempting a broad generalization here, which we have to do when attempting to rationalize ideas in any field involving millions of individuals.

I struggled for long periods of time during the six and a half years it took to write the book (and its revisions) but, when I described form in music, the ideas flowed smoothly and I still like the definition I chose:

When an artist has been concentrating on an area of fine detail in his picture *he can take a few steps back to obtain an overall view of the work. The more he moves away the more he perceives it to be a single, unified whole.

A composer faces a different set of problems. His composition may occupy a considerable period of time and he needs to develop specialized skills to achieve the same end. The controlled arrangement of the components of music to produce a balanced and unified whole as they extend through time is what we refer to as form.

I’ve read accounts that refer to the idea of pattern in music as being ‘borrowed’ from the graphic arts (I was also classically trained as an artist) but I think this reference is inaccurate. Music, too, has shapes and patterns but, because music is a temporal medium, these features are extended through time and can’t be assessed instantaneously. That’s the difference.

Without form, listeners will experience a sense of confusion as they struggle to assimilate a constant stream of changing stimuli and their attention will wander. But the matter is further complicated by the differing degrees of musical awareness, knowledge and experience possessed by various listeners.

Form may also cause us to feel right about ourselves, enabling us to derive comfort in a confusing and potentially hostile world. Repetition, and the re-working of previous passages, provide a reassuring effect, rather like being reunited with old friends.

In studying form we eventually encounter redundant definitions . ‘Fugue form’ is one example. Once a decision is taken regarding the number of voices and their scheme of entry, certain constraints are automatically imposed upon us so that further subdivisions of classification are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, although we may adopt them out of expediency.

The book also attempts to disassociate form, in the abstract, from traditional habits regarding, for example, the distribution of climaxes and key relationships, although it does include a description of symphonic layouts etc. for the sake of completeness.

The function of music within a society will also have an influence on the chosen path. Music that has religious significance will naturally differ from that which is intended to entertain and, especially, impress, by becoming a vehicle for the composer to advertise his prowess.

Of course, the above mentioned differences cannot avoid the simple reality that what works for some won’t work for others. There’s no getting away from all that but, if I succeeded in steering young writers away from unhelpful and constricting stereotypes in writing my book, my efforts will not have been a waste of time.

*The book uses the male gender as standard to avoid complications that can ensue from attempts to achieve a fairer treatment.


Composers will occasionally pause to think about about what they do and why they do it and then get on with their daily business. Some will rarely think about it at all. But it can be interesting to assess current attitudes against the background of what has gone before.

For example, many years ago music was approached more in the spirit of craftsmanship than of art. Composers had more in common with plumbers and stonemasons, which was understandable when we consider that this is exactly how their patrons perceived them to be.

Composers were very often employed as organist or as the composer-in-residence at a royal court or palace. Aware that they were paying out money on a regular basis to someone who earned a living doing what most perceived to be more of a pastime than a job, patrons developed the habit of calling for services to be rendered as and when they pleased. There was also a vague notion of composing as being something that the talented could do almost without thinking, much as we all write a letter.

‘Please write me an oboe concerto by Friday’.


‘And I’ll write another dozen pieces for you next week’.

To cope with demands that made no allowance for ‘inspiration’ or ‘creativity’ composers regularly carried notebooks of unused ideas which could be used or even re-used, with modification. They also jotted down ideas before they disappeared forever. The reason for all this was simple; if they couldn’t meet demand they didn’t get paid.

This would have seemed strange to those who grew up in the post Romantic period. Whether or not people changed their ideas about these matters or, more likely in my opinion, began a counter-reaction (see footnote) to what had gone before, the idea of an artist or musician as being someone driven by divine, unthinking passion became the favourite conception.

Critics also embraced this idea because they could claim, not directly, but by implication, that they and their idols belonged to an exclusive club from which lesser mortals were excluded.

If you have to ask, you’ll never understand’.

Words such as ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ would have been used far more frequently, the idea being that the object of our worship is not merely someone who has lots of ability, like so many others (only more-so), but that they are a race apart, having certain attributes that are entirely missing in lesser mortals. The TV pop talent programs of today are a good example of how convenient it can be to assess people in this way and to leave it at that, especially where money can be made by perpetuating the myth. Time, as always, is the best judge of validity but with popular audiences being so fickle it can be difficult to be sure about anything.

Of course composers, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes and it would be ridiculous to suggest they all changed their ideas to fall in line with the prevailing good-think. In any case, it’s impossible to write a lengthy orchestral composition, with due consideration to instrumental possibilities and characteristics and with diligent attempts to ensure consistency of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic treatment without there being a strong underlying cerebral element to it all.

Even now, many will still believe that conscious attempts to get things going during a fallow period by ‘constructing’ ideas, especially where there’s a deadline to meet (and isn’t there always, one way or another?), are a crime.

Working methods have always varied widely from one composer to another. Witnesses recorded their astonishment at seeing Mozart writing swiftly and without hesitation. Listening to his music, it’s difficult to believe he hesitated over a single note. In contrast Beethoven, the supreme architect, worked slowly and laboriously, with much erasure. There would frequently be little resemblance, in the finished product, to the germ of an idea.

I belong to a forum in which a young composer asked for advice on dealing with a ‘mind-block’. My reply, which drew a compliment from the editor, was as follows:

You’re probably relying too much on ‘inspiration’ (whatever that means). Please believe me the greats didn’t work like that and a professional with deadlines to meet can’t, anyway. I wrote my first arrangements in 1958 and have worked professionally at all levels (ever since I became good enough to, which took a while!). Although we have such things as ‘free form improvisation’ etc. the main stream of ‘conventional’ music involves a thorough understanding of the materials at your disposal. Play around with developing them harmonically, rhythmically, melodically and ‘ideas’ will come bursting out. You won’t use all of them (this isn’t ‘painting by numbers’). And that’s another point; you may be using too many ideas. I absolutely promise you that if you work in the blind belief that your own wonderful abilities will shine out for all the world to see your music will suffer, as mine did in the early days. Composition involves a delicate balance between craft, knowledge and art (and humility)…

Composing at the piano…or not

Another aspect of the composing process involves the question of whether to write at the piano or not. I learned a lot in the early days by transcribing compositions for jazz orchestras and big bands and found that being able to write down the melody, counter melody, lead part of instrumental sections and the string bass part, purely by ear, speeded up the process immensely. By the time I’d done all that, sitting in a chair with pencil and paper, I had a pretty good idea what the chords were doing, too.

But writing by ear and writing away from the piano are not necessarily the same thing. For example it can be very useful, especially in longer compositions, to sketch out ideas on large sheets of plain paper, indicating the rhythms and the general shape of the music in order to get a handle on things. Different colours can be used for clarity and the pitch and harmonies are sorted out later. Another advantage of this technique is that it frees us from inhibitions, especially where overlapping instrumental sections occur, something that cannot be emulated by a keyboard instrument. Having done this, we use our technique and knowledge to make the music work, changing the harmonies if necessary.

Composers always had differing views on this matter and I believe that the style of music they wrote influenced their thinking. In the time of the Bach family those who wrote at the keyboard were disdainfully referred to as ‘keyboard knights’ but it’s worth bearing in mind that Bach’s mechanical style of music lends itself to being ‘engineered’. Once you understand the contrapuntal interrelationships, the resolutions, the inertial properties and the importance of leading tones created, rhythmically, by anticipations, retardations and syncopation, it becomes surprisingly easy to emulate the style, if not the genius.

(This comment could get me into a load of trouble but I can only say things as I see them.)

 Stravinsky, on the other hand, liked to work ‘with the physical presence of sound’ i.e. at the piano.

And yet Delius, who had a remarkable ability to go directly from concept to paper (even when dictating his music to an assistant as his body was steadily destroyed by syphilis), dismissed the music of the European classical composers as ‘scales and exercises’, a view I have a great deal of sympathy with.

It will obviously require more effort and ability to mentally ‘hear’ music involving extreme dissonance or the use of unorthodox scales (especially when polytonal/polymodal) – where we can’t fall back on a familiar language that becomes second nature from daily repetition. But in making judgements about expected standards we will always be imprisoned within our own limitations; no one knows for sure what it’s like to be another person.

There is also the problem that, by placing too much emphasis on aural training, a composer will be constrained to write only that which he is capable of identifying aurally. I know people who are quite happy to spend their lives working in this way because they were taught to do this.

Two world wars and the growth in scientific knowledge heralded an era of positivism, causing many to question religious views, resulting in another counter-reaction, this time away from spiritualism and the related concept of divine inspiration. I recently discussed these matters with the vicar of my church and he made an interesting observation:

‘It always surprises me’ he said ‘that, at a time when we see dwindling church attendance, there’s a growth in spiritualism and the occult in film and TV scripts’.

I had to agree he had a very good point.


A good example of action/reaction comes from the world of jazz where musicians in the early ‘sixties, tired of the flirtation with legitimate forms and the sterility that sometimes ensued, developed the back-to-the-roots movement using a predominance of traditional gospel-type harmonies and a much earthier style of interpretation. The point, as I see it, is that these reactions occur because people get bored rather than that they wish to see evolution go in a certain direction. The problem is that there are few things worse than yesterday’s ‘trendy’.

Putting it across

The book has a section which deals with the importance of clear, ‘logical’ scores and band parts and makes an attempt to arrive at standardization – accents (usually) opposite the stems; instructions to the player, except dynamics,  above the stave (staff) etc.

Music written for recording and broadcasting will generally involve ‘sight reading’. Studio time is expensive and places an even greater responsibility on the shoulders of those who prepare the music on paper.

But this is just a small part of the wider world of communication and the need to ensure we make ourselves clearly understood. The matter is assuming greater and greater significance because of the increasing sub-division of knowledge which is an inevitable consequence of the growth in our understanding of the world we live in.

There is as much technology involved in the tread on our car tyres (tires) as there was in building the entire Model ‘T’ whereas, in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time, it was considered quite normal for someone to be scientist and artist. There wasn’t so much to learn.

I’ve been mulling over this problem for some time but an experience this very morning prompted me to put fingers to keyboard.

Two of us spent around half an hour trying to find the link on my wife’s new Google page to download her emails but without success. Eventually, more by accident than analysis, we found it on the first page we encounter when we click on the Google logo in the Favourites bar. It’s a small link top right.

Google is a good example of the increasing difficulty of ‘keeping up’. Some people I’ve spoken to find Google+ unbelievably difficult to follow, and I find that understanding Webmaster Tools requires a great deal of time and effort, although I manage in the end.

 As knowledge increases, those ‘in the know’ forget what it’s like to be ‘normal’. In many cases, they probably couldn’t write for the novice if they tried to.

Websites, particularly those representing large corporations, are also guilty. Trying to find the link you require can be a nightmare. More than once I’ve been compelled to use the search facility, if there is one.   

I also worked in advertising and PR which is all about ‘putting it across’. We had a rule that the onus is on the communicators to make themselves understood. We always imagined that the recipient of our message had a ‘blank sheet’. We never thought

‘Oh, of course they’ll know this, or that’.

 Advertisers are generally after your money and usually make a greater attempt to ensure they’re reaching us, backed by market research. Where money is involved people really click into gear.

To be completely fair, it’s reasonable, in more esoteric circles, to assume a certain level of competence; you can’t teach ‘down’ to a subject. That would seriously impede progress and, in any case, we all need to read up on an area that’s new to us. But there has to be a limit.

There are ominous implications here: those at the top of society are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the Status Quo. As a result, being able to hide behind an increasingly esoteric level of verbalism, will make it easier for them to achieve their sinister aims.

‘We told you! Don’t you read the small print?’.

Words. Damned words!