Monthly Archives: April 2015

How to combine several melodies (1)

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.

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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.

Dominique Vandenneucker
Designer of Pizzicato music composition and notation software.

The universal method to compose music (2)

What did we found ? Oh yes, an universal method to learn how to compose music…!

So if you systematically apply – with perseverance – the 10 points listed last month, you should then be able to compose your own music and to successfully publish your CDs. Let us analyze those points in details.

Point 1 is “A regular listening to various musical styles”.

This seems elementary: if you want to compose music, first listen to music. But let us be more explicit about the reasons behind this.

A language is constructed with basic elements and those simple elements are structured into more complex forms, themselves being assembled according to various rules and practices. For the English language, the basic elements are the 26 letters. Words are more or less rigid constructions based on several letters. Phrases are structured with words and various rules apply to construct them. Phrases are then assembled into paragraphs and chapters to finally constitute book.

At each construction level, rules apply. But one observes that those rules are less and less restricting as one goes up in the construction level. For instance, when constructing a word with letters, there is little freedom. Writers sometimes create neologisms, but this is quite limited and it takes time to expand these new words into culture and finally the rule that strictly applies is to take only the words from the dictionaries. At the level of phrase building, there is much more freedom because one can combine all existing words, so long as the grammar rules are followed. These grammar rules are sometimes slightly bypassed to create style effects, as in poetry and song lyrics. When we get to the level of a book structure, rules are very general and the form is free. Rules may be found on how to introduce and present a story, but the story itself does not have rules because it comes from the writer’s imagination and it is there that the writer expresses his/her art and that his/her personality really appears.

In the case of music, a similar type of construction may be observed. Basic elements are notes, rhythmic values and various sonorities used to play (violin, piano, trumpet,…). Notes and rhythmic values are limited in numbers. Notes are combined into chords, chords progressions and melodies. Even if chords can be built in vast quantities, their numbers is practically relatively limited. These chords and melodies are combined to form a full orchestration and into various chorus, verses or symphonic movements for instance. Here also, the basic rules are more restrictive than the higher level construction rules.

What do we observe in this analysis? With the complexities of constructed forms, the associated rules become more general, less restrictive and the author’s or composer’s imagination may even better express itself. Technique becomes progressively art. In this context, we could define art as the ability to communicate a message in a form that respects the commonly accepted communication conventions by the receiver of the art work and in a form that will be appreciated by the receiver.

The expression “commonly accepted communication conventions” simply means what people may understand and accept in terms of communication. Example: grammar rules are part of the commonly accepted communication conventions. Somebody speaking by inverting all words of the phrases would be badly understood by others. He would be progressively rejected and excluded by others because one would not understand what he says. In the music area, he would not have success, because the people would not understand his music and would not buy his compositions.

This does not mean that rules need to be known explicitly by the author. Somebody who can not read or write but who can express phrases correctly is applying the commonly accepted communication conventions but without necessarily knowing the grammar rules, the verbs, the subjects, complements,… He has learned to structure his phrases by practice, trials and errors. It is like a kid learning to speak. In the beginning he is not told the correct grammar rules but he is corrected each time. He eventually is able to speak correctly by duplicating the phrases he hears and then by adapting them intuitively to what he wants to say and by combining phrase parts. He assimilates the rules without knowing them explicitly.

This is an interesting fact to note: one can assimilate a communication technique without knowing the rules explicitly, just by listening how others use it and then trying it oneself and progressively correcting the errors and the wrongly understood communications.

The method is not simply a copy of what you heard. It is an intelligent copy, taking into account the numerous phrases heard and adapting them, cutting them and combining them in a thousand ways to structure the phrase that will express what you want to communicate and that will be in a form asked by the receiver so that he can understand it. The process may be long and may need a lot of trials, errors and corrections. This learning method is based on observation and intuition, because one creates oneself unexpressed intuitive rules that are then used to express one’s communication.

So you will find music composers who do not know music rules explicitly. By practicing, listening and trying, they could intuitively assimilate the rules on which music is constructed. They are able to express themselves and may have great success in doing so.

On the other hand, you will find people who, while perfectly knowing numerous theoretical rules, did not succeed assimilating them in their musical intuitive practice and who do not compose or whom compositions do not reach people. They do not succeed in composition because in our above definition of art they did not add their own message to the technique that they nevertheless very well master. Composition becomes then a theoretical and intellectual exercise and no message is associated to the technical practice.

On this basis, ARPEGE presently develops a theoretical inspiration model for musical composition. The principles of this model are based on the fact that each musical element or musical structure may create an effect upon the auditor. This set of effects may be described as a personal musical data base. We will come back to this next month in more details.

This is why point 1 “A regular listening to various musical styles” is so important while learning music composition. By listening to various music, you assimilate new possible musical effects and they accumulate into you personal musical data base from which your inspiration will draw.

Dominique Vandenneucker

Designer of Pizzicato music composition and notation software

Sheet music of the public domain or under copyright, derivative works – some technical and legal issues resolved by orchestra and choir directors , the help of music software

Copyright, public domain, derivative works in general

The copyright is a legal framework that provides an author the right to control how his/her personal work is used, including the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, adapt, display and perform it. A copyright can protect musical works, as well as sa oftware or a database.

At the contrary, the public domain includes all works who are not protected by a copyright, for different reasons – the work was published before there was a copyright law, the copyright expired or was lost.

The legal status of derivative (= adapted) versions of public sheet music is generally a source of questionment for orchestra and choir directors because sometimes original versions of these derivative works can be difficult to find and in that case it is hard to say if the original work and/or some derivative work is/are or not under copyright.

Actually, to be protected by copyright, a new arrangement of pre-existing work must contain more than some ‘cocktail pianist variations. Something of substance must be added making the piece to some extent a new work with the old song embedded in it’ (Kraslovsky & Shemel, This Business of Music, 1995).

Sheet music and the public domain, what to do to make perform a derivative work in a legal framework

The type of questions that orchestra and choir directors plus music concert organizers must resolve before some performance is:

  • When was the sheet music written? In which country?

  • Is the sheet music a derivative work? Is it an arrangement?

  • Is the sheet music a collective work?

  • Does the sheet music include public domain elements? (ideas, melodies, titles, musical forms, etc)

For printing, as derivative works are written arrangements of an original piece of music created by a specific composer, they cannot be printed and sold as sheet music by other persons without a licence from the composer (who may charge a high fee for it or refuse to grant it). So it is necessary to ask for permission and pay a fee if the original work is not in the public domain.

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Sheet music arrangements and derivative works, the help of music software

I must indicate that composers who want to create a derivative work can find a great support by using Pizzicato music composition and notation software ( because it includes a lot of intuitive features which will help them to develop their creativity around specific pieces of music.


Francoise Delsaux

Arpege Music

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