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

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