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!

Stop the world, I want to get off!

I’m grateful to a fellow blogger for a comment he made regarding an earlier blog in which I discussed writing for the rhythm section in jazz.

The book has a section dealing with the ‘hardware’ of music – band parts, scores etc. – that used to be so badly presented by some publishers. I often had to enlarge brass band parts printed on small-sized paper with as many as 14 bars to a line! Thankfully, standards have improved, partly because of computer music notation programs which enable composer/arrangers to produce professional results on paper. This is important because, not only does presentation matter in all aspects of commerce but, in music, clear, professional parts with due attention to accents, dynamics etc. will cause players to take a composer’s work seriously and spur them on to greater effort.

In the book there’s a ‘bonus’ section thrown in which deals with problems I encountered during the working day, trying to use earlier notation programs. The mistake I made was to include information that would date so rapidly because I failed to anticipate the rate of progress. Recent program updates enable, for example, multiple repeat bars (the division sign at 45 degrees), which are a common feature of drum parts, especially, to be compressed into groups of bars without losing the bar-numbering scheme. They also offer dynamic editing, where amendments to the score are automatically reflected in the band parts.

Of course, although consistency is essential, we don’t always want scores and parts to be identical in all respects. (Cueing-in instrumental parts in small cue notes can be a useful aid to musicians, with complex, ‘staggered’ entrances, especially in rubato passages.)

Having said all this, many musicians will still use slightly older notation programs (I do) partly because they are, after all, tools and it’s our job to hock with what we’ve got and what we’re familiar with. Added to this, there’s usually a steep learning curve involved with new programs which will deter writers with deadlines to meet. The added features don’t always work perfectly, either. An enharmonic change feature can produce weird results.

One feature that is useful is the ability to swap from single to double staves (staffs). Piano parts in the jazz rhythm section, for example, often spread over multiple pages so that, where chordal work only is required, single staves will obviously take up less room. Elsewhere, it might be desirable to write in full notation (e.g. during ensemble passages) or to cue-in the melody or vocal part in a separate stave.

Most of us will have experienced the difficulty of keeping up with program and computer updates. A huge investment in time is required which is less damaging to larger corporations where groups of employees can be trained in ‘batches’. It’s another example of what people in the USA call ‘small-team vulnerability’.

I recently suggested that, perhaps, too many updates in too short a period of time might be counter-productive but I was immediately slapped down by an IT expert.

‘They’re already slowing it all down’ he said ‘so that you can keep up!’.

Writers on a tight budget might consider MuseScore, a free notation program with playback that works really well. The standard soundfont has been chosen to suit all computers but recent machines will cope with bigger file sizes easily. There are links in the online manual to various fonts but 1.44 sf2 seems to be the best. I tried larger soundfonts but, although strings and piano worked well, the brass and sax sounds were worse, not better. There will be many other fonts but I just haven’t had time to look for them.

MuseScore’s transposition feature is very stable and never produces silly results.

Playback in this program makes certain assumptions (e.g. that an F tuba will be used, whereas the Eb tuba is often used in the UK) so that, no matter what instrument is notated at the beginning of the line, the default sound will emerge. There are work-arounds for this: duplicate the score and transpose the affected instruments to produce a play-back version. It will look wrong on paper because of the automatic transposition facility. If, for example, a trumpet line is copied and pasted into a horn part, the program does the transposition and still plays back at the correct ‘concert’ pitch but it can only do this for instruments that already exist in its list. Nevertheless, MuseScore copes with full orchestral parts with ease so such problems are rare.

The program also offers the facility of sharing scores with others and is open to the insertion of added filters produced by enthusiasts. Upgrades are available on a fairly regular basis.

It saves as Wav., PDF (etc.) and automatically saves an MSCZ version of each file. This, as everyone knows, is the general format used to share with other notation programs. I use a free online facility to convert the Wav. Files to MP3 ready for uploading, which dramatically reduces file size.