Category Archives: Music composer

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

Universal method to compose music (1)

Is it possible to learn to compose music or is it only a gift you possess or do not possess ?

This question is probably worrying more than one musician or beginner. Music must seem strange or mysterious to those who only know music by listening and appreciating it. How to line up notes, rhythms and chords to create such a harmonious set of sound ? Then you say to yourself you will never get there. STOP ! Such an attitude is just the same as asking yourself why you can not write Japanese poetry if you never learned Japanese. It is a matter of steps : to go up the ladder, you start on the first rung, not on the tenth (which would also seem impossible to reach).

ARPEGE has always answered this question in a categorical way : Yes you can learn to compose music, no matter how not talented your are. Now the practical difficulty is to design a method that will work for everybody and that would be flexible enough to:

  • embrass all musical styles (from classic to hard rock, indian music to acousmatic music,…) and all inspiration forms,
  • be accessible to any person, even without musical background

I believe such a method is possible and must be formed by a well ordered series of steps, mastered one after the other. Even if the tools of Pizzicato today are still limited compared to a “universal and ideal method”, I think that such a method, to be effective, shoud at least contain the following elements:

  1. A regular listening to various musical styles
  2. A good understanding of what sound is and how its fundamental properties influence the musical auditing impression
  3. A good understanding of the written musical language in its most common form : the music score
  4. The learning and practicing of a musical instrument, progressively in relation to the score (reading and writing of scores for the instrument)
  5. The practical study of one or more music software and also the music keyboard (if it is not your main instrument)
  6. The progressive practice of music composition, on the grounds you learned in the above steps, first based on simple and structured methods
  7. A practical study of the various music composition theories (harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, serial music,…)
  8. The listening and practical analysis of application examples of those musical theories or any other creative method
  9. A progressive development of one’s own musical universe, of one’s own composition method build on the basic understanding one has acquired from music
  10. The musical creation work itself : your career as a composer, including learning how to disseminate your music and make your compositions known.

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I don’t mean that to compose you necessarily need to learn or master all these points. Not at all. But someone who would study a practical, complete and progressive method based on all 10 points above could not help but really publish his own CDs, no matter how not talented he was before beginning. The purpose of ARPEGE is to create such a method, the Pizzicato software being the tool to reach it.

You can assume that if you really want to compose something personal and that would be well received and really have success, you will need to put the expected effort on it. The easy way does not exist. You need to work on it and persevere. Stable successes are based upon work and a full understanding of the subject, like in any other areas.

It all depends on the goal you have. Is it to entertain yourself, to impress friends, to really understand music, live it and create it, to expresse yourself through it and in full knowledge, to publish your own CDs, to become a professional composer ? Each goal is possible and valid. Just be honest to yourself : what is your goal ? Then apply the necessary method to reach it.

The point is, if you know nothing about music and you really want to become a composer and successfully publish your CDs, do not expect to reach that with a “magic wand”. An important work is waiting for you. But the path and the results will be of high value to you : you will understand music and will be able to express yourself with it.

The “Professional” or “hobbyist” aspect does not necessarily enter into consideration, because even a hobby can be practiced with the greatest care. The real question is “How much do I want to understand music and create my own music ?”. By using an easy and/or automatic composition software, you will enjoy it, you will be able to learn music and make some nice personal compositions. Such softwares may bring you a lot of things. But don’t expect the result of it to become number one in the charts or to be selected as the music of a success film.

You may also envision things by steps. Your goal may increase with your knowledge. If in the beginning you only want to better understand music and entertain yourself, do just that. If you get more involved in it, increase your goal and study music further.

Our long term project is to give you the possibility to reach those goals, with tools contained in Pizzicato (present and future releases), with more progressive, personal and specific music courses.

Next, we will look further into the 10 above points, while also orienting you to already existing resources in Pizzicato and on the Internet. Until then, take the time to define your own musical goals…:-)

Dominique Vandenneucker

Designer of Pizzicato.

Managing sounds to compose music

We saw the various possibilities offered by a sound card, as well as the methods used to generate sounds.

While working with a MIDI software (like Pizzicato), it is useful to select, collect, handle and play instruments sounds with which you want your scores and composition played. How ?

I suggest the use of the SoundFont standard, created by the Creative Labs and Emu companies. It is a well known sound format and you can find lots of sound libraries, some free and some to buy. Let’s see the practical steps to select your sounds, create a bank and assign them so that Pizzicato can play your scores with your sound selection.

The first phase is to select your sounds. This needs to steps : find sounds and listen to them. To find sounds, use your prefered Internet research tool (Google, Yahoo, Msn,…) and enter keywords “Free SoundFont”. You will rapidly find numerous sites with SoundFont instruments and effects. Some are good, some are bad. You must then listen to them and test them.

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For this, you can use the Virtual Sampler 3 software. You can download its demo version at http://www.maz-sound.com/index.php?show=product&id=2 Once installed, you may open a SoundFont file and listen to the sounds with a musical keyboard displayed on the screen.

When installing the software, specify that you want the “Speedsoft Midi Cables” installed. With them, Pizzicato will be able to send the notes of your score to Virtual Sampler 3. These “virtual cables” may then be selected in the Pizzicato Option menu, Midi Setup… and set in the MIDI output.

You may proceed as follows to select your sounds :

  • Add a directory in your hard disk for the sound files you download, for instance C:\SoundFonts\Download
  • Use a search engine to find sites offering SoundFont files
  • Download a sound in your directory. SoundFont files have the “.sf2” extension
  • Start Virtual Sampler 3 and click the “sf2” button in the middle of the screen.
  • Using the opening dialog, select the downloaded file
  • The sounds contained in the file appear in the main part of the screen. By clicking a sound, you may then listen to it by using the musical keyboard displayed on the screen. If the sound looks good for you, move the file to another directory, for instance C:\SoundFonts\My Sounds
  • Continue to select your prefered sounds for each instrument family you use,…
    The next step is to assemble those sounds into a personal sound bank that can be used by Pizzicato (or by any MIDI software).
  • The idea is to take each sound you have individually selected and create a unique SoundFont file (.sf2) that contains them all.

For this purpose, you may download the free software “Vienna SoundFont Studio 2” on the Creative Labs site at (http://www.soundfont.com/downloads.html ). This software lets you create a sound bank and fill it with sounds from various other banks and then save them in one unique file.

The main problem is the correspondance between MIDI and the created SoundFont file. The Vienna software lets you assign a Preset number (0 to 127) and a bank number (0 to 127). First assign all sounds to bank 0 and for the preset, respect the General Midi numbering (you can find the list at http://www.bluemax.net/techtips/Midi/Midipatchnum.htm but be aware that some user interfaces use a number from 1 to 128 and some others between 0 and 127; subtract or add 1 accordingly).

For instance, if you find a good violin sound, assign it bank 0 and preset 40 (41 minus 1 for the violin, see the list). In this way, you stay compatible with General Midi and the MIDI files you create or open stay standard on the sounds used.

If you create an extensive sound bank, for instance by adding 10 different violin sounds, keep the same preset but use other values than 0 for the bank number, while keeping the 0 bank for the default violin.

While doing this, write carefully on paper the sound table (preset, bank and instrument name), because you will need it to create a compatible synthesizer for Pizzicato.

To use the Vienna software, read the help section of the help menu. This program also helps you to create Sound Font files starting from any Wav or mp3 file.

Once your SoundFont file has been created, you need to play it with Pizzicato or a MIDI software. If you have a recent SoundBlaster card (from AWE 64 up), you may use the utility program of the card to load your sound library into the card, because the card has an integrated SoundFont player. For details, see the documentation and the online help of the card (Start, Program, Creative) to know how to load a file into your card.

If you do not have a SoundFont compatible card, you may use a SoundFont player software. Virtual Sampler 3 does this, but there are others too. Search for them on the Web with expressions like “SoundFont player, SoundFont reader”. In any case, the software must give a direct MIDI link, i.e. adding a MIDI output port in Windows so that it can be used by Pizzicato or any MIDI software.

In Pizzicato, the last step is to select the MIDI output (Option menu, Midi Setup…) which corresponds to the SoundFont compatible card or to the MIDI output going to the SoundFont player software.

For the Pizzicato Light and Beginner versions, the only possible synthesizer is the General Midi, so you need to respect the General Midi preset numbering as exposed here above.

Fot the Professional Pizzicato version, you may create a new synthesizer which answers to the various sounds assigned to the non zero bank instruments. Refer to the lesson on synthesizers on the screen help or on our site at page http://www.arpegemusic.com/manual/EN630.htm Use the list you have prepared while selecting your sounds in Vienna.

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The use of the various softwares renders the task more complex and what we described here is not a simple procedure. We envision tools to create your personal SoundFont files so that Pizzicato may handle itself this sometimes complicated task of assigning presets and banks. This article was designed only to give you the main steps of the process so that you can personalize your sounds and use them with Pizzicato.

Concerning sound banks, if your needs are high regarding the orchestral instruments quality, you may orient yourself to the EW Symphonic Orchestra software which contains an impressive quantity of orchestral recorded samples. The software exists in various versions between 300 and 3000 $US. You may find information at http://www.soundsonline.com/sophtml/details.phtml?sku=EW-161 The demo files show the quality of the sound result. It seems that the software uses a personalized sample player and needs a powerful machine.

Dominique Vandenneucker

Designer of Pizzicato.

Music composition, rules and inspiration

Approaching music composition is a goal that lots of musicians or non musicians would like to realize. Is there a systematic method which, if followed to the letter, would make it possible for a person to compose?

Musical inspiration is not really explained by theory. It is simply the creation or combination of sounds in an original way, with a specific goal or simply for fun. If the result is appreciated by others, those can always try to explain why it sounds well, why it is well built, etc. But this “afterwards” explanation can be misleading, because one could conclude from it that the musical work could have been deduced from the theoretical explanation, whereas it is the reverse that occurred.

If it was only related to logic (whereas it is related to esthetics above all), it would be all right to assemble all musical theory rules and integrate them in a software. The computer would then be able to have inspiration. Unfortunately, its “inspiration” will be limited to copy, modify or combine the inspiration of those who, by their esthetic sense, succeeded to really create and whose works allowed to deduce rules of musical theory.

Therefore, do not fall into the trap: inspiration is above theoretical rules. In other words, if you like some measures of your musical composition, keep them even if these measures do not satisfy any theoretical rule at all. The process of music evolution is thus the following: inspiration makes it possible to create musical works. When these works are appreciated, people deduce from it some theoretical rules or musical construction systems. Then these systems and rules are studied by others. Where the latter fail, it is when they think that they will have the inspiration only by studying these systems of logic. They forget to place their share of esthetics in it, the essential source of musical inspiration and sound effects.

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Do not fall either into the opposite trap of rejecting all rules. Rules can guide you, especially when you lack experimentation in composition.

One could look at music as a succession of distinct, small or great sound effects, assembled to form a more global sound effect: a musical work. For example, the passage from a G7 chord to a C chord: it is a sound effect in the field of combination of several sounds. It produces a sound effect that the ear generally appreciates and it produces a specific atmosphere. Similarly, each sequence of two chords is a sound effect. The use of such or such rhythm is a sound effect. Combining two instruments creates a sound effect. Each one of these small effects can combine to create a larger sound effect, which is then characterized by a specific personality.

A melody is only a set of notes in a specific rhythm sequence, each one being a specific sound effect. The combination forms a melody, recognized among all others.

Thus music is a construction of sound effects sufficiently personalized so that a piece is unique and distinct from the others, while communicating what its composer wished to communicate.

The spirit of composition is thus to create sound effects to express something. Any method which produces that is a valid method. If a musician plays by ear and if, by research and work, he methodically manages to isolate the various sound effects of his instrument and if he can then selectively produce them in a sensible way according to what he wants to express, then one can say he composes music.

Let us break this into three phases:

  1. The methodical location of sound effects
  2. The possibility of selectively reproducing them according to what you want to express
  3. The coherent construction of musical work

The sound effects can be located in various ways. Listening to lots of music with an attentive ear will help you. But to do only that is likely to make phase 2 very difficult, even impossible, because you still cannot connect the sound effect to what you need to do to produce it. The practice of an instrument will be complementary, because it lets you associate the desired sound effect to the technique to produce it. Listening and playing will give you basis for inspiration, but you also need some ability to synthesize and listen so as to mentally classify and integrate the various effects your instrument can produce.

Phase 2 is more active. It implies that you have something to express, to write into music. You can start from almost anything (an emotion, a landscape, an idea, an atmosphere…). Then the trick is to find, in the sound effects you assimilated, the right combination that expresses your message and which is specific to you. It is your capacity of choice and creativity.

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Phase 3 requires more experiment and comes gradually. It concerns the ability to develop a coherent work, where every element goes well together. It is the link that will bind the ingredients. One needs a link between the various passages of your work. This link can be rhythmic, melodic or be based on combinations of sound effects. Start with relatively short pieces before writing a whole symphony.

These three phases are interdependent. Only the practice of composition will help you to refine these three phases.

The purpose of any musical rule should be to help the composer to combine sound effects while helping him to free his musical imagination and stimulate his inspiration. Three types of rules could be met, corresponding to the above described phases. And the software tool can be very helpful in this direction. The current version of Pizzicato music software (see http://www.arpegemusic.com) already offers various tools. The next versions will continue in this direction, the goal being to help you to compose.

Dominique Vandenneucker

Designer of Pizzicato.

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