Rhythm is my business

A while ago I was standing in a bar with my son and a group of his friends. The juke box was pulsing out its message at very high volume. Now, I have very wide musical tastes and sitting in a trombone section right in front of five trumpets for much of my musical life means I’m no stranger to volume, either but my younger comrades perceptively picked up on the fact that I was approaching the boundary of my comfort zone. ‘Oh well, at least it’s got rhythm’ one of them reminded me, beating his fist on the bar top in time with the music to emphasise the point.

I didn’t want to wreck the atmosphere by pointing out that the thud, thud, thud of the music, which sounded like someone building a chicken pen, was merely the continuum, or scheme of reference, which gave meaning to the rhythms, so I simply said ‘That’s just the beat, not the rhythm’ and left it at that.

The most comprehensive treatise on this subject was surely the one written by Russian-born Joseph Schillinger who eventually landed in the USA and rose to the position of teaching some of the most respected musicians and composers around at that time, including George Gershwin.

Joseph has tended to be on the fringe of music education because, amongst other things, he attempted to create mathematical systems controlling ‘art production’ (to cut a long story short). For example, he claims that, had J.S. Bach been aware of his system, he would have achieved more consistent results! Such statements alienated many with the result that relatively few musicians, to this day, have availed themselves of the wealth of information and advice that is actually to be found in the two volumes that, together, comprise the ‘Schillinger System of Musical Composition’. I’m not sure if these books are still in print but I understand that Schillinger courses still exist.

If readers can ignore the naïve positivism that, to be fair, was typical of the era between the two great wars, there’s a wealth of important ideas and information in this publication. There are, understandably, in a monumental work of this kind (that had to be collated by editors after his early death), a number of errors in the text, including a couple of entire sections that are out of order. I shall be pleased to convey those I found to interested parties. It will save them a lot of time.

Joseph discovered that what we call ‘rhythm’ is the result of interference patterns between different periodicities. I still read statements that ‘we don’t understand rhythm’ (or words to that effect) but I’m convinced that he was right about this.

He goes on to show that rhythm not only governs individual phrases but it also gives shape to the order of formal sections, movements etc. Rhythm can also be serialized by means of permutations and patterns that give meaning to a subject that can become hopelessly subjective in the wrong hands. Do we go ‘doo-wap-be-doo-wap’ or should it be ‘der-doo-wap-be-doo-wap’? The point is that, relying purely on intuition, we might do it one way and then, later, do it another. Was there a reason for this or did we just not notice? The ‘choice’ might be governed by all kinds of circumstantial factors and this, to my tidy mind, just aint good enough.

My earlier blog on WordPress might be worth reading at this point: http://composerarranger.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/musical-form-why-do-we-need-it-and-where-does-it-come-from/

Google comes up with a wealth of information about Joseph Schillinger which will serve the reader better than this ‘introductory’ post, in fact there’s a very fair and, in my opinion, accurate assessment on Wikipedia.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons with architecture when discussing musical form. Of course, music is a temporal medium, which raises important differences right away but the superstitious tendency to believe that music (because it is so abstract in nature) belongs in the realms of the inexplicable has done much to damage our efforts.

My own book is a hands-on, musician-to-musician journal that expects readers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty but those who choose to approach the Schillinger System should realize that it is a scientific work and, as such, every statement has to be rigorously justified, sometimes with pages of lengthy examples. My only warning would be to avoid the belief that using the system is a short-cut to success (which Joseph never claimed!); a composer’s work still requires content, a word that I hope will suffice in the present context.

More than anything else, the system streamlines many down-to-Earth problems. For example, it becomes easy to predict when two or more schemes in composition will ‘come out even’. In fact, temporal planning becomes so manageable that it’s easy to understand why the system was so popular in Hollywood.

At the end of the day we shouldn’t think of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ because Shillinger’s work represents a theory and theories, as we all know, remain in force until they are superseded. The most quoted example is Newton’s inverse square law of gravity. This theory evolved in the 17th century and is still used today every time we launch a spacecraft or put a satellite into orbit. We had to wait around 300 years for a man of equal stature to point out that the theory is required to be relativistic.


Passing chords and all that jazz…

[Passing chords and the related subject of unessential notes in general are treated in detail in the book. The purpose of these blogs is to try and achieve a deeper insight into problems that usually appear in the A – Z of music-writing.]

Jazz and ‘dance band’ arrangers of old were obsessed with voicing styles and substitute chords. Many writers of the time felt that success lay in the skilful use of such features as, sometimes, it did. In fact, effective arrangements often use fairly orthodox treatments. It’s just the happy coincidence of all elements that ‘clicks’ with the listener. It’s also possible to write effective arrangements in which the rhythm or percussion instruments steal the limelight.

Nevertheless, the concept of ‘passing chords’ became an important feature of voicing styles for instrumental sections and ensembles. And it is important; I’m not saying otherwise. But there’s no simple formula for success. From the simple harmony exercises we all learn about early in our studies to the rapid flurries of strings and woodwinds used in more ‘advanced’ arranging different criteria have to be met.

Very slow ballades in the jazz environment will frequently feature a chord change on every beat or even under each note of melody, in which case there won’t be any ‘passing chords’ as such, whereas up-tempo music is characterized by simpler, more streamlined harmonies. Rapid chord changes have the effect of slowing the music down. (The basic chord sequence of the old standard ‘Limehouse Blues’ has a chord change every four bars for most of its duration.)

Inexperienced arrangers first encounter difficulties where there are two or more notes of melody to each chord. Decisions then have to be made regarding whether to designate a note to be either chordal or non-chordal and, to add to the problem, smoother voice leading can sometimes be achieved by treating a chordal note as being non-chordal.

Part of this process involves identifying the nature of ‘unessential notes’ – a useful term from ‘straight’ harmony I still use a lot. Jazz musicians tend to call all unessential notes ‘passing’ notes, regardless of their function but there are many types.

Another decision that has to be made is whether or not to allow reiterated notes in the voicing. This, again, is tempo-related. The more rapid the music becomes, the more important it is to write in a way that allows all voices to (approximately) follow the contours of the lead voice or melody. Slow the music down and the requirement for harmonic fullness takes priority.

Most of the time passing chords function as ‘chord changes within chord changes’ where harmonies used to voice passing chords will retain their conventional interrelationships. Whereas the chord sequence of a composition will have a rudimentary rhythm of its own, chords tending to change, say, on the bar or half-bar, the voicing of a melodic line will involve chords of shorter duration which are designed in such a way that the result doesn’t undermine the underlying harmonic sequence of the piece. So, basically, it’s the same thing over a shorter time-span. I’m tempted to say ‘only the time element has changed’ but that isn’t strictly true; as mobility increases, the need for smoothness in the parts increases, too. It’s all basic physics, really. Bodies moving at great speed can’t accommodate all the nooks and crannies they encounter.

Usually, passing chords will be chosen that use a minimum of notes that are foreign to the key. Where this can’t be done the diminished chord will always save us (this is because any diminished chord can be used as the starting point to modulate into any other key, both major and minor). In the context of good old four part ‘block’ harmony, we’ll use the diminished seventh chord in which, as everyone knows, the seventh appears in the guise of the sixth of the chord. (It’s already minor so if we flatten it again it becomes diminished.) The use of diminished chords in this way is especially successful in minor keys.

Where the lead voice or melody moves semitonally, all voices may move in exact parallel, particularly at fast speeds. This doesn’t prevent us from using a more conventional passing chord that permits the same semitone movement in the melody. The result may be stronger.

An interesting situation involves voicing a lead-in or ‘run-up’. These phrases are often harmonically un-motivated. The method is to write the last chord in such a way that it moves smoothly into the first bar of the following section of the piece, using an appropriate chord ‘shape’ (open or close harmony) and then to work backwards in each voice, following the contour of the lead voice but using only notes of the prevailing tonality, without considering the type of chord that results in each vertical ‘cross-section’ of the music. Other methods will seem clumsy, especially as the tempo goes up. Sometimes, a lead-in will anticipate the tonality of the approaching bar, especially in an ‘abrupt’ modulation. More adventurous arrangers can use such a voiced run-up over the top of sustained chords that are bringing the existing passage to a close. The clash will be tolerated by musically aware listeners and the ‘coming together’ at the end of it all creates a powerful tension and release effect. In music, we’re only concerned with where we’re going, which is the source of the surprise element.

As stated above, effective arrangements can be written using very simple effects. We don’t have to use every trick in the book. Nevertheless, in heavily-scored ensembles, the ability to combine sections skilfully is very important. Having said that, a powerfully written ‘bottom end’ involving middle and low pitched instruments will tolerate many apparent ‘transgressions’ aided by the difference in tone colour of the various instrumental parts. Passing chords in the upper parts are accommodated fairly easily by the simpler forms lower down. There is always a physical correspondence in nature and, in this context, it feels right for the lighter, upper parts to enjoy more freedom.


Musical Taboos

I believe many young composers are constrained by unnecessary inhibitions that develop during the learning process. I know I was, in my early days. My previous posts have dealt with some of these – parallels etc. – but there are others. Again, it’s important to establish an ‘overview’ which is where one of my favourite expressions once more comes in handy, which claims that our work must have ‘a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose’. It’s a catch-all argument, in a way, as long as the music lives up to the claim. It’s also a very powerful notion, because these Taboos can have a damaging effect on our efforts. A still, small voice, somewhere in the back of the head, suddenly steps up and whispers ‘You can’t do that’ and, without realizing it, we can find ourselves abandoning a course of action before it even begins to develop.

Crossed voicing, etc.

Textbooks on four part harmony teach us, correctly, to be wary of crossed parts. The main reason for this is that the linear flow of a harmonic continuum is disturbed when, say, a tenor part resolves to a note in the succeeding chord that is higher than, say, the alto part. In reality, crossed voices are always a sign something has gone wrong.

This advice is sound enough where the harmonic continuity is strictly homophonic (i.e. the vertical ‘cross-sections’ of all parts involve a sequence of similar durations). But where a continuity features melodic figuration of harmony involving split duration groups (greater mobility), it becomes very important to carry through the ‘logic’ of each part even if, by doing so, we have to cross an adjacent voice. Failure to do this will be disturbing to a performer, too, because the melodiousness of the part is adversely affected (it will feel wrong). The listener might also notice*, particularly where a non-homogenous group of instruments is employed (each part will stand out even more clearly).

*This is a difficult area. Although a listener may not necessarily be able consciously to identify and classify an error it doesn’t mean that his perception of ‘quality’ isn’t disturbed. Life for the critic would be very difficult were this not the case.

A similar ‘rule’ warns against overlapping parts where, for example, the top note of a pair of voices resolves down in such a way that the upper note of the two ends up being lower than the bottom note had previously been. I do this occasionally in energetic bass parts, either doubled in the octave or in perfect fifths (or both). Bass parts frequently leap about in this way. Extra force and energy can be generated by so doing.

Undesirable overlapping will most often occur in the case of inner voices. The top voice will generally be the melody, which is ‘given’, and the bass has the freedom just outlined, providing it remains at the correct distance from the other parts, in line with acoustic requirements (it stays out of the way).

Block harmony styles that are prevalent in jazz and early dance bands are a different matter. Because the voices are compressed to the max, decisions regarding part progressions are largely predetermined. Added to this, the linear movement of individual lines is disguised, especially since this style of orchestration mainly involves ‘choirs’ of homogenous instruments. This doesn’t mean that voice leading is unimportant; block harmony, although simple in principle, is capable of considerable refinement but traditional resolutions are often lost in the ‘blend’.

Exposed Octaves and Fifths

In the interest of brevity I refer the reader to the many texts on this subject regarding the traditional view. The opinion is commonly held that contemporary writers should not be unduly concerned by them but I’m not so sure, personally. Becoming used to something often involves a process of becoming insensitive, also. (Familiarity breeds contempt.)

The point I wish to make here is that, once more, effective solutions may involve a breach of the ‘rules’. A typical case would be in ‘doo-WAP!’ figures, where the exposed intervals give added weight to the target notes, enhanced by a rapid crescendo.

The bottom line in discussions of this nature is that we need a clear idea of what we’re trying to achieve and we need to possess knowledge of the dynamic forces that shape, not only music, but also actual physical systems in motion. This does not necessarily mean that music does not possess attributes that extend beyond the merely physical. It might but it might not. No one knows. I’ve had a number of fruitful conversations on here with Jonathan L Friedman and others on this subject:


Note Doubling

The most discussed rule of doubling is probably the one regarding doubling the third of a major chord. There are so many exceptions to this rule that it is easier to refer to the only situation where doubling this function is objectionable, which is where the harmony comes to rest. Even here, I bet I could write a piece of music where even this transgression is allowable.

In orchestral arrangements, because instruments of a similar tone colour tend to cohere, mixing the various instrumental sections in the overall ensemble will frequently give rise to irregular doubling.

My very first post on here dealt with a common situation where doubled thirds are essential (in fact ‘permitted’ cases are virtually all unavoidable):


Chordal extensions

Another taboo is the placing of higher chordal extensions below lower ones but, again, this can work. In jazz arranging, I’ve more than once placed the ‘major seventh’ (i.e. b in the chord of C) below the root (c in this example), especially in the final chord of the composition.  In this case, it would be positioned a major 7th interval below the top note c, with the other voices adapted to suit the occasion. The result is rather spicy but it works well in the right circumstances (style). Placing the 13th below the minor seventh (a below b flat in a C7 chord) is usually a no-no unless it occurs in rapidly executed block harmony, probably in one of the open position distributions. Sometimes smooth voice leading will lead us to such choices and the ‘offending’ note might be the melody duplicated in the octave, in which case it’s OK except, in some musical environments, when sustained.

The above examples feature those I could bring to mind at the time of writing. There are others but the ‘bottom line’ of this post is that unnecessary complications can occur as a result of the dogmatic approach that is so often used, when attempting to rationalize guidelines. As described above, situations where breaking a ‘rule’ is permissible often involve musical situations where the result is unavoidable anyway and expressive results can be achieved by wilfully flouting the rules.


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.