New Composition Techniques

Over the weekend I learned three new fantastic techniques for classical composing (or any writing for that matter).  All three I had heard before, but never made the connection until I saw the notes written out before me.  I’d like to share them with you today.

1.) Planing chords (thanks to “The Planets” by Holst)

I don’t know if this is the technical term per se, but it’s a logical name for the technique.  In the opening movement of Holst’s “The Planets,” we hear steady pulsing rhythm in 5/4, droning on G.  After the brief opening, the brass and winds transition between a variety of major and minor chords above this G drone.  There’s nothing diatonic here – it’s all about this unique textural sound.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in ‘major’ and ‘minor’ that our scope of musical material gets tunnel visioned into repetition.  It’s important sometimes to do away with traditional scales and harmony, and use your ear to develop what you think sounds appropriate for the piece.

2.) Octatonic scale (thanks to all John Williams’ scores)

When I first heard about the octatonic scale, it was described in an extremely technical and confusing manner, which shut me off of it for awhile.  When I dove back into it over the weekend, I looked more closely at its construction.  Simply put, it is an 8-tone scale made up of two 4-note minor sequences, seperated by a half step.  For example, an octatonic scale starting on D would include a D minor sequence (D-E-F-G) and an Ab minor sequence (Ab-Bb-Cb-Db).  It can be re-written enharmonically as: D-E-F-G-G#-A#-B-C#.

It’s primary function creates a great note selection for use over a fully-diminshed 7th chord.  But it’s also a great device for developing thematic sequences.  Start a minor sequence in the key of D, transition into Ab (or G#), and at the end of that sequence easily find yourself back in D.  Or, for some more fun, you can lead your theme up to Eb and start all over on a new octatonic scale.

3.) The “Petrushka” chord (thanks to Igor Stravinsky)

This is a very well known development from the great Stravinsky, but it’s something that I just learned about recently.  No deep explanation here: the Petrushka chord is two separate major chords, spaced a tritone apart.  For example, you’d have C major (C-E-G) and F# major (F#-A#-C#).  Depending on the chord inversion or voicing, this can really give you some interesting sounds.

Music is always ripe for new developments!  I’m looking forward to experimenting with these techniques in my next work.


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