Music is dead. Long live music!

Why is it that some composers find it necessary to abandon us all and move exclusively into the so-called ‘avant-garde’ while others still get the same kick out of their old jazz records as they did the first time they played them? We can’t avoid evolution and I agree with the suggestion that music written hundreds of years ago can’t fully satisfy contemporary ears – there is a limit – but I begin to have problems when I hear people say that ‘conventional’ musical resources are exhausted. I wonder if they are bored with music because they were never really into it in the first place. Every time I hear the first three notes of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ I get the same buzz, and they are just the same note repeated three times over different harmonies.

Try the following experiment: play the F major chord as an arpeggio: f,a,c,upper f, and then come back down again, c,a f. Next, start on the c again and go down to the f and back upwards c,a,f,a,c,f. What do you get? The American National Anthem, of course. Even the next note, the ‘a’ above, is still part of the F major triad. And the reason it all sounds so monumental in character is because it’s so fundamental. In music, as in any other area, economy of means is linked to fitness of purpose.

Nothing illustrates the extraordinary nature of music more than a simple demonstration of this kind. It explains why you sometimes get a fragment of an arresting tune come into your head and find to your dismay that it has vanished for ever before you get time to make a note of it. You may even remember the intonations but, because the added subtlety of the rhythm and accents, or emphasis, is lost, so is the essence and flavour of the tune you just thought of.

So what’s the bottom line here? Simply that any suggestion ‘conventional musical resources are exhausted is nonsense. Pick a pentatonic scale (there are scores of these, in addition to the one resembling the black notes on the piano). Simply by using notes of the scale (*’diatonic’ to your chosen scale) you can arrive at 120 melodic forms of 5 notes each. Please note that your chosen pentatonic scale can comprise absolutely any set of five different pitches. Of course, in real music, some notes would be reiterated, adding further to the variety of forms. Now, consider the added variety furnished by adding rhythm and accent to your palette, as demonstrated by the F major example above.

*The exact meaning of the word diatonic is uncertain due to disagreement regarding its Greek origins. In the book the word is used to indicate that melody and/or harmony use only the notes naturally occurring in a scale (any scale). The word is often used to imply the use of the conventional major and minor keys only. Hybrid forms can also occur. For example, the roots of the harmonies may conform to the diatonic scale, but a free choice of structures may be chosen (or vice versa: the chords may be diatonic but with a selective scheme of root progressions).

7 unit scales are our bread and butter. There are hundreds of these, but our requirement for a scale of 7 different pitches, each with a different alphabet name, limits these to 36 (x the 12 root names of the chromatic scale and their enharmonic equivalents). This is because we require the expanded version of each scale to furnish major or minor 3rds for the purposes of chord formation (or 4ths of one kind or another, as described in the book). Only around 4 of these 7 unit scales are in regular use. Composers should consider the use of the appropriate key signatures with unorthodox scales, which may involve mixing sharps and flats. Computer notation programs can’t cope with this so that it might be necessary to type the signature in as a text object or use an open key, with individual accidentals in all the parts.

Obviously, with more pitches available to us in 7 unit scales, the possibilities for melodic forms are increased considerably (5040 x 36). There are also 6 modal variants of each scale (there will always be 1 fewer modal variants than there are notes in the scale), and we haven’t touched on chromatic melody notes at all, or those commonplace temporary modulations within a tune. On top of all this, what about the different harmonies that can be used? Notice how some of the most expressive standard songs are written almost entirely, or entirely in some cases, with diatonic notes, whereas the harmonies can be as rich as you like. Some fake pianists play these songs on the white notes and fit one of a series of standard “vamps” underneath, relying on the fact that a few chords can, as a desperate measure, be hammered into fitting any tune. The people in my local bar don’t seem to mind a bit.

Please note: modal variants of some of the 36 x 7 unit scales, and other 7 unit scales in their original form, are often identical. The process is still valuable for tonal variation in a composition as, for example, the commonplace change from major to minor, which is a special case of modal transposition in general. The book gives us the power to make use of a far more adventurous range of opportunities.

On the subject of harmony, bear in mind that each scale, whether it is a 3,4, 5, 6 or 7 note scale, furnishes its own set of diatonic chords, which can be arranged in various ways. The 7 note scales discussed here can be arranged consistently in 3rds or 4ths (and 5ths etc., but not usually) with none of the letter names omitted, or skipped over. When using scales other than the familiar major and natural minor modes (Ionian and Aeolian respectively) there will be a tendency to use diatonic melodies and harmonies to ensure that the individual character of the scales is not obscured. Unessential notes will have a marked tendency to be diatonic also (for the same reason). Chromatic figuration is tonally neutral. The Dorian mode was a favourite with the modal players of the 60’s and featured diatonically parallel 7th, 9th and 11th chords arranged in riffs. The only non-diatonic note that fits without special treatment is the augmented 4th (=raised11th).

As stated earlier, we can’t avoid evolution, but style in music is an elusive quality. When I listen to the writing of young composers I am often struck by the difficulty of identifying what it is that makes the music sound so fresh. There is less reliance on the well worn cycles of progressions, but the book deals with many ways of escaping such tyranny. One thing is certain – their music doesn’t rely on recording the contents of a trash can being thrown down stairs for its effect. The King is in the altogether…


Just to bring things closer to Earth, I have noticed that the ‘unessential’ in harmony plays an important role in a lot of contemporary music, especially film music. Basic, and often triadic, harmonies are transformed by the use of anticipations, retardations, single, double (etc.) passing notes and auxiliary notes. Many of these devices can be combined to the point that the vertical structures almost disappear (historically, chords evolved from linear writing anyway). Although this procedure runs against the current tendency in jazz for big modal chords and raunchy riffs, I still believe that it is a way forward (or sideways), it just requires more skill and effort than the average ‘block-scorer’ can provide, and that’s the main reason you don’t encounter it very often.

It’s usually desirable to simplify the harmonic basis of this type of continuity and to avoid the use of too many chords per bar, especially at faster speeds. During the 60’s and later, composers explored the use of extended and added chords – reharmonization – to the limit, and people sometimes get a little fed up with the saturated effect. Henry Mancini’s sumptuous writing for horns/trombones, strings and voices are a superb example of the ‘stacked’ writing of the period at its very best. It still knocks me out.

Another promising area is counterpoint. Of course, the melodic figuration of harmony described in the previous paragraph has a contrapuntal flavour, just as the simplest forms of early 2 part counterpoint resemble a succession of harmonic intervals, and ostinato forms. The labels we use to describe music will often overlap or become blurred. As far as I can see, very few writers have made extensive use of three part contrapuntal lines in the mainstream of jazz, because they can’t do it, that’s why. It’s important to avoid an excessively formal (uncool) approach. Musicians enjoy playing this style because it gets them away from the anonymity of merely providing a series of interconnected chordal tones in block voicings. My biggest hate is the tendency of contemporary writers to voice a frantic soloistic passage for the saxes. It’s clever, in a way, but the listener is always made to feel uncomfortably aware of the awkwardness and difficulty involved. With middle level bands and below, such voicings are rarely played without errors.

With the exception of colouristic and percussive effects, music should always demonstrate a melodic quality in the voicings (a good tip is to play through each voice to seek out the knobbly bits). With jazz counterpoint, this need is brought into sharp focus to the extent that each of the entwined, complementary voices could be taken as the ‘lead’. The use of more than 3 voices in jazz counterpoint carries with it the danger of having to use legitimate-sounding solutions.

Critics will say ‘Oh yes, but new music today will never be really new, it will be more or less a revamp of what’s gone before’. T’aint so. And this is the amazing quality that music has. When you bring together the elements of music – melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, dynamics… the ‘permutations’, for lack of a better word, may be as vast as the alternative futures some physicists believe must all come to pass before everything goes totally pear-shaped.

Another way forward may be to stop thinking in terms of ‘melody and chord sequence’ in our work. A composition may use any of the elements mentioned above as the major component, with the other elements being used in a supportive role. Compositions of pure rhythm are not unknown but eliminating all but one element will not produce anything of lasting value, in my opinion. Some question the need for ‘lasting value’ itself. I never seem to be able to give these riddles enough time.


There are two broad divisions in world music. I call them ‘Composers’ Music’ and ‘Performers’ Music’:

There is the formal European approach, with its emphasis on architecture, and other cerebral considerations, being used to produce a framework for expression and interpretation and there is the extemporised approach favoured by, for example, Indian musicians (of course, Indian music does have its own set of constraints).

Bearing in mind that India had a rich culture when the rest of us were throwing rocks at each other and painting our faces (so what’s changed?) we must be very wary of coming to dogmatic conclusions. I have always believed that extended variations on a theme, so called thematic development, are all too often carried to excess to satisfy composers’ egos and to frighten the peasants away from their exclusive domain. Have you noticed how big and impressive government buildings and churches are? It’s done to make us all feel insignificant. My own tendency, as I get older, is to constrain a work closer to its essence. This may be one of the ways we can learn from the distant past.

Shocked by this view? Well don’t be. Having the courage of your convictions is an integral part of being an artist or composer, providing you have done the required amount of humble soul searching beforehand and providing you have paid your dues in hours of woodshedding. A couple of years ago I caused a colleague to raise his eyebrows at a rehearsal when I criticised the ending of a work produced by one of the great composers. The suggestion that great men and women are 100% great every minute of every hour of every day is obviously ridiculous.


One final word of wisdom from my ‘little red book’:

Do everything you can to rid yourself of competitive behaviour. No matter how good you are someone, some day, will beat you (my brother once did a 4 minute mile in his lunch break). Realizing this is an essential part of becoming an artist. If someone is chasing you with a machete you will have a vested interest in running faster than he is, but your sole motivation as an artist is expression. So freely admire and enjoy the work of your ‘competitors’. Unfortunately, in the commercial world, it is so often found expedient to demonstrate prowess of one kind or another – to play to the gallery. That’s just the way things are. To become really good you also have to be working all the time (to be a pro) and that means having the versatility to accept a wide variety of work, some of which you may not really care for. I once tried to impress this view on my talented son, only to be told that he won’t compromise. He worked in the shoe department in a local store until he saw the light.


5 thoughts on “Music is dead. Long live music!

  1. Wise words. I feel the same way everytime I hear the opening theme to Antarctica by Vangelis, or that opening riff from Raining Blood.

  2. nice post! it reminds me of some points being made in this video:
    i think that although we will never theoretically run out of new music, composers may get caught in the same musical idioms/near-cliches that their predecessors may have written already-and the next choice for them would be to create new, modern music instead of trying to write something completely new or original. however, I would go so far as to say that the majority of someone’s work will never be original – we all build from what we learn from the masters.

    • I sometimes try to predict what will take the place of ‘music now’. It won’t be atonal music in its various forms. Apart from its esoteric appeal to the ‘faithful’ there’s no sign, even after all these years, that it will ever have the kind of broad appeal to exist outside of a vacuum. Significantly, as if to prove me right, it usually occurs where a sinister effect is required, in background music, for example. And, despite my very broad tastes, I can’t listen to the so-called avant garde for too long without changing the channel (hence my latest blog).

      One thing I’ve noticed, there has been a growing tendency for music to abandon the subtle-melody-with-chordal-background approach. Much recent stuff has used quite simple melodic forms, the interest being in the backing figures. Where harmony etc. is more active, especially with unorthodox scales, the music gains from having a melody that is simpler, with more sustained notes.

      There’s also less tendency to use the towering chords approach of Henry Mancini (which still knocks me out).

      We also have to consider that people are only exposed to a generation’s worth of music on a regular basis, so that, after 50, 100 years, anything has the potential to appear fresh.

      Thanks for the input! JM.

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