Today let us try to assemble and explain some rules regarding the way in which various melodies may be combined.
Traditionally, these rules are learned the hard way in harmony and counterpoint. Learning and applying them may take you years of practice. But I am afraid that if you work only with these techniques for years, while not also trying to compose by yourself on a free basis, you will not compose at all. But sure, you would receive a music certificate.
I have nothing against learning classic harmony and counterpoint the way they are taught in most public music schools (in fact I am doing it right now, just to take a new viewpoint on it so as to assemble the most important rules they convey). They can be learned extensively by people who want to reach a full knowledge of music. But they are only a path to composition, not a goal in themselves. So the error is maybe to consider them as the end purpose and in such a way, they can become a no through road.
In these articles, we will try to focus on practical aspects, with music composition as the main purpose. So do not consider the following as a counterpoint or harmony course, because it is not.
Counterpoint and harmony are basically a series of rules and exercises that you do step by step. In the exercises, you must apply the rules exactly and any violation is considered as an error (even if you like it when you hear it).
Counterpoint examines how two or more melodies will interact and sound correctly together. Harmony examines the way chords may be sequenced. They are complementary even if their exercises have sometimes rules that are contradictory (for instance in counterpoint, you should never use twice the same note in sequence while in harmony you may do so). Both introduce some arbitrary rules that may only find their explanation in their origin: they were designed for the human voice. For instance, some intervals are prohibited (7th in counterpoint) mostly because they were difficult to sing. The exercises are still done with the purpose of being sung by two, three, four or five human voices.
We can imagine that people who invented or contributed to counterpoint and harmony were just trying to isolate the rules of music so that others could just follow those rules and create music that sounds nice. By taking existing music that sounds good, they would then try to isolate the rules which that music was obeying. By examining a big quantity of nice sounding music, we could maybe find a set of rules that are common to all of them. However, this does not mean that another music would then also satisfy them. Inspiration and imagination are the first sources of music. And the fact that you find a music beautiful is the only valid criteria for that music, as far as you are concerned.
Rules may be used to avoid combinations of notes that “most people” would consider discordant or to advise note combinations that “most people” would consider harmonious. But the final effect of a certain note combination is often dependant upon the context where it is expressed, by the instruments that play them and also by the signification, the emotion and the atmosphere the composer is trying to establish. This means that you could take some note combination out of its context and those notes would sound poorly, while in their context, they make sense and are expressive. The point I want to make is that rules are only a guide. They are not the “music Truth”. The real “music Truth” would be “Do I like that music? Do other people appreciate that music? Does it express something to them?”. So the first thing is to keep that in mind when you study music rules. From that, we deduce our first music composition principle:
1. In composing music, personal appreciation is far superior to any rule. Rules are a substitute for pure inspiration.
This does not mean that rules are bad, they are not! This only means that if you find a musical pattern you like, then there is no need to check if it complies with a set of rules. This would be like eating something you like and then asking somebody else if you should appreciate it or not.
While learning classic harmony and counterpoint, a logical mind could be amazed about how the various rules may seem arbitrary and unrelated, even if they are applicable and useful. Here, at Arpege Music, we believe there must be another level behind all these rules. A level where all these rules could be explained and deduced from a very limited set of principles. Have these principles been discovered somewhere? I don’t know, but they probably lie in the field of acoustics and frequency analysis. What I mean is a set of basic principles that could answer all the questions in the field of harmony, melody, chords and instrumentation. Why does a melody sound well? Why do some chords combine well and others not? Why some instrument patterns in orchestra sound better than others? Why do “parallel fifths and octaves” often sound poorly? There must be a set of natural principles that could answer all these questions. When they will be found and expressed in an easily, understandable form, we will then be able to understand music from its real substance.
Until then, let’s be more practical. We know by experience that combining notes into chords (as explained in our previous articles) gives us harmonious results. This is backed up by the rules of acoustics and harmonics. A chord is a set of notes, with some harmonics being in common. Harmonics are multiples of the main note frequency. They make up the timbre of an instrument (why a C note played on a trumpet does not sound like a C note played with a flute).
When we play several melodies together, we can observe that they will sound pretty well if their harmonic contents will have frequencies in common. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that they form a chord. We can express this principle as follows:
2. When playing two or more melodies together, their main notes should form a chord.
When we say “chord” here, we mean the most common harmonious and pleasing chords (triads, seventh,…) that have enough harmonics in common. When we say “main” notes, we mean the notes that make up the frame of the melody, the most important notes of the melody.
How do we apply that? First, you need to know how a chord is built, otherwise you will not be able to establish if the notes of your various melodies fit into an existing chord. This is probably the most difficult aspect, as it requires some practice to “see” the possible chords in the various melodies.
Designer of Pizzicato music composition and notation software.