Sunday, September 18, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1)

"Post-Tonal" harmony refers to harmonic practices not based on tonality that emerged since the end of the nineteenth century.

Basically, this includes any variety of atonality, such as free (i.e., non-serial) atonality and serialism, but, at least in my definition, it could also include music based on Messiaen's modes of limited transposition (or other constructed modes), quartal and quintal harmony, bitonality (provided it does not sound like tonality with chord extensions), and even the use of chords borrowed from tonality, but not used in a tonal context. A longer, but by no means comprehensive, list can be found in an earlier blog post I wrote (A Sampling of Post-Tonal Techniques and Ideas for Composition), and there are many on-line sites with information on this topic.

"Atonality" is included within post-tonality, but it tends to be defined more narrowly. Here is the opening paragraph of Wikipedia's article on Atonality:
Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another (Kennedy 1994). More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments" (Forte 1977).
To be clear, my definition of post-tonality is considerably less restrictive than the opening sentences of the Wikipedia article above, which appear to preclude the possibility of pitch-centers in atonal music (although they use the term "tonal center," which could mean "pitch center within a tonal context").

The idea of pitch centricity is of course inherent to tonal and modal music, but I would argue that it is also relatively common in atonal/post-tonal music. Accordingly, I often encourage students to write some variety of post-tonal music with pitch centers, and to use different pitch centers within a composition, borrowing the concept of modulation from tonality without actually writing tonal music. A fellow composer and long-time friend of mine, Omar Daniel (who teaches at Western University), once told me something along the lines of, "the biggest problem I see in student compositions is an unwillingness to modulate," by which he meant change pitch center, not change key.

Also, some might preclude the use of standard triads from tonality (major, minor, diminished, dominant sevenths, etc.) in atonal or post-tonal music; I do not, or, to state it without the double negative, I think it is fine to use harmonies borrowed from tonality in post-tonal music, as long as they are removed from their hierarchical context within tonality (explained below). Indeed, that's what today's blog is about! But before beginning, if we're going to say, "post-tonality refers to music that is not tonal and which came after tonality," let's come up with a definition or description of what me mean by tonality:

Tonal Harmony

Tonality refers to a systematic approach to musical composition using major and minor scales, based on:
  1. Relationships between notes, such as contextual attractions or tendencies (e.g., leading-tone resolution in dominant harmony (^7-^8));
  2. Resolutions of perceived instabilities (e.g., chord 7ths, suspensions, and other non-chord tones); and 
  3. Hierarchical chord-flow practices (e.g. pre-dominant to dominant to tonic class).

Common Chord Progressions Found in Tonal Music; A Chord-Flow Chart

"Hierarchical chord-flow practices" in tonality refers most generally to the chords that establish a key center, namely dominant – tonic harmony, and predominant – dominant – tonic harmony, which is the basis of the following chord-flow chart, as found in Tonal Harmony, by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne (McGraw-Hill):

By the way, this is a diatonic version of the chart for major keys, but it is virtually identical in minor keys. Chromatic variants of the above chords usually function as their diatonic versions, so bIII functions as iii, bVII functions as vii°, bVI functions as vi, etc. Also, there are exceptions to this chart found in the music of many composers of tonal music; the chart is a pedagogical tool, meant to represent the chord-flow options that are usually found in tonal music.

Does this mean chord progressions that do not follow the above chart are post-tonal?

Not necessarily; V - IV - I is a relatively common pop and blues chord progression that is not represented in the chart, but it's clearly tonal, and there are other exceptions as well (another common one is bVII - IV - I). The following progression, in which every chord after the second does not follow the above chart, would still sound tonal to most people, because it starts and ends on I, and it consists of a C-major scale with a triad on every note:


Combining and Recontextualizing Chords to produce Post-Tonal Sonorities; You won't BELIEVE #3!

I argue that post-tonal music can combine triads (or seventh chords, or ninths, etc.) found in tonality if they produce sonorities that are clearly not tonal and/or are not used within a tonal context. Here are some examples; make sure you play the audio file below each example to hear what they sound like:

1. This is based on the combined C major and F# major chords (i.e., two major chords whose roots are a tritone apart) found in Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911); I added a three-note figure with two additional pitches (Ab and D) at the end, because I like the sound:



2. This begins with a C7 chord, upon which four additional pitches based on a B° triad are added:



3. This starts with a D7 that becomes a D9 on the third beat of the bar; a G#m chord with a major seventh and major ninth is superimposed:



4. The last example is not based on triads. It is based, instead, on quartal harmony. However, unlike quartal harmony in which every note is a perfect 4th above (or below) the previous one, this has three groups of superimposed fourths, the last two of which begin a major second lower than the previous note. Quartal or quintal harmony that is based entirely on stacked perfect 4ths or 5ths tends to sound harmonically ambiguous, at least to my ears, which is why I tried something different:




I encourage you to experiment with superimposing different chord combinations, notating the ones you like and/or find to be of potential use in your compositions. Feel free to borrow any of the examples above as well. You don't need to limit yourself to chords, either; you can start with a chord and then add to it different notes or scalar passages that happen to sound good, and help recontextualize the chord so that it no longer sounds like a traditional tonal sonority.

But Wait! There's More! (Post-Tonal Harmonic Progressions)

Another, albeit more challenging, way to present tonal chords in a post-tonal context is to create progressions that consistently and deliberately do not follow the above chord-flow chart, and do so in such a way as to prevent the establishment of a clear tonic chord. If you try this, you may find that it is a surprisingly difficult task to create a chord progression that doesn't sound "wrong" to your ears.

This may be because each individual chord in such a progression (typically major or minor chords) carries with it a strong tonal association; when the chords do not "behave" (or progress) as we expect them to, it can be jarring. In the previous examples where chords were superimposed, they formed new sonorities that did not convey any real tonal implications

Something that is somewhat along these lines occurs in Giant Steps, a John Coltrane jazz composition so seminal that its chord progression is known as the "Coltrane changes;" it is required learning for any gigging jazz musician. While rooted in tonality, it has some remarkably unexpected chords along the way, tonicizing roots that are each a major third apart (the roots therefore outline an augmented triad): Eb - B - G - Eb - (B). The tonicizations are effected through a series of chord substitutions said to be based on  ii-V-I harmonic progressions in each key, but the substitutions are so striking that, aside from the V7-I cadences, you may find it very difficult to hear it as a ii - V - I:




If you experiment with this idea – constructing chord progressions using major or minor (and possibly diminished and augmented, with or without chord 7ths) chords that avoid any hint of a ii - V - I progression, and, by extension, any hint of tonality, you will probably discover the difficulty of doing so. If you do come up with any you'd be willing to share, please do so in the comments section!

Here's one attempt; some of it uses chromatic-mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with no notes in common), some uses mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with one note in common), and there are some non-tertian root movements as well. To my ears, it succeeds in avoiding being tonal, but does it succeed as a useful chord progression?




And That's Not All!

While this last approach above can produce useful results, I find that a much more satisfying and rewarding approach is to write a progression of non-tonal harmonies, each of which would be the result of sitting at a piano and just trying different harmonic sonorities until you find one you like or consider to be useful, and repeating this until you have perhaps 12-16 chords. If you'd like learn more about this approach, it is described in greater detail in this blog post: Project 1: Writing an Atonal Theme and Variations. In my experience as a teacher, it has produced some of the best work I have heard from early-stage composition students.

One of the keys to growth and improvement as a composer is to be willing to try new things, so I encourage you to try these and many other approaches as well.

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1)

"Post-Tonal" harmony refers to harmonic practices not based on tonality that emerged since the end of the nineteenth century.

Basically, this includes any variety of atonality, such as free (i.e., non-serial) atonality and serialism, but, at least in my definition, it can also include music based on Messiaen's modes of limited transposition (or other constructed modes), quartal and quintal harmony, bitonality (provided it does not sound like tonality with chord extensions), and even the use of chords borrowed from tonality, but not used in a tonal context, which is the topic of today's post, and which includes music examples with audio playback intended to give you some sense as to how this can be done.

You can find a longer, but by no means comprehensive, list of post-tonal options in a previous post (A Sampling of Post-Tonal Techniques and Ideas for Composition), and there are many other sources of information on this topic on the Internet, should you wish to explore them.

"Atonality" is a variety of post-tonality, but it tends to be defined more narrowly. Here is the opening paragraph of Wikipedia's article on Atonality:
Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another (Kennedy 1994). More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments" (Forte 1977).
To be clear, my definition of post-tonality is considerably less restrictive than the opening sentences of the Wikipedia article above, which appear to preclude the possibility of pitch-centers in atonal music (although they use the term "tonal center," which could mean "pitch center within a tonal context").

The idea of pitch centricity is of course integral to tonal and modal music, but I would argue that it is both available and even relatively common in atonal/post-tonal music. Accordingly, I often encourage students to write some variety of post-tonal music with pitch centers, and to use different pitch centers within a composition, borrowing the concept of modulation from tonality without actually writing tonal music. A fellow composer and long-time friend of mine, Omar Daniel (who teaches at Western University), once told me something along the lines of, "a big problem I see in student compositions is an unwillingness to modulate," by which he meant change pitch center, not change key.

Some might argue against the use of standard triads from tonality (major, minor, diminished, dominant sevenths, etc.) in atonal or post-tonal music; I do not, or, to state it without the double negative, I think it is fine to use harmonies borrowed from tonality in post-tonal music, as long as they are removed from their hierarchical context within tonality (explained below). Before delving into ways of doing this, if we're going to say, "post-tonality refers to harmonic practices not based on tonality that emerged since the end of the nineteenth century," let us first clarify what we mean by tonality:

Tonal Harmony

Tonality refers to a systematic approach to musical composition using major and minor scales, based on:
  1. Relationships between notes, such as contextual attractions or tendencies (e.g., leading-tone resolution in dominant harmony (^7-^8));
  2. Resolutions of perceived instabilities (e.g., chord 7ths, suspensions, and other non-chord tones); and 
  3. Hierarchical chord-flow practices (e.g. pre-dominant to dominant to tonic class).

Common Chord Progressions Found in Tonal Music; Chord-Flow Chart

By "hierarchical chord-flow practices" in tonality we mean chord successions that establish a key center, namely dominant – tonic, and predominant – dominant – tonic harmony, which is the basis of the following chord-flow chart, found in Tonal Harmony, by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne (McGraw-Hill):

By the way, this is a diatonic version of the chart for major keys, but it is virtually identical in minor keys. Chromatic variants of the above chords usually function as their diatonic versions, so bIII functions as iii, bVII functions as vii°, bVI functions as vi, etc. Also, there are exceptions to this chart found in the music of many composers of tonal music; the chart is a pedagogical tool, meant to represent the chord-flow options that are usually found in tonal music.

Does this mean chord progressions that do not follow the above chart are post-tonal?

Not necessarily; V - IV - I is a relatively common pop and blues chord progression, but V - IV is not an available option in the chart, even though it's clearly tonal. Another common progression in popular music is bVII - IV - I, but bVII to IV is not an available on the chart. The explanation for these and other progressions found in pop/blues/jazz music but not available on the chart is that it is an attempt to represent typical chord progression possibilities found in European classical music of the tonal era (ca. 1650-1900), and while pop/blues/jazz chord progressions often follow this practice, there are many cases where it does not.

As another example, consider the following progression, in which every chord after the second does not follow the chord-flow chart, and yet it would probably nevertheless sound tonal to most people, because it starts and ends on I, and it consists of a C-major scale with a triad on every note:


Combining and Recontextualizing Chords to produce Post-Tonal Sonorities

As suggested in the second paragraph of today's post, I would suggest that post-tonal music can combine triads (or seventh chords, or ninths, etc.) found in tonality if they result sonorities that are clearly not tonal. Here are some examples; make sure you play the audio file below each example to hear what they sound like:

1. This is based on the combined C major and F# major chords (i.e., two major chords whose roots are a tritone apart) found in Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911); I added a three-note figure with two additional pitches (Ab and D) at the end, because I liked the sound:



2. This begins with a C7 chord, upon which four additional pitches based on a B° triad are added:



3. This starts with a D7 that becomes a D9 on the third beat of the bar; a G#m chord with a major seventh and major ninth is superimposed:



4. The last example is not based on triads. It is based, instead, on quartal harmony. However, unlike quartal harmony in which every note is a perfect 4th above (or below) the previous one, this has three groups of superimposed fourths, the last two of which begin a major second lower than the previous note. Quartal or quintal harmony that is based entirely on stacked perfect 4ths or 5ths tends to sound harmonically ambiguous, at least to my ears, which is why I tried something different:




I encourage you to experiment with superimposing different chord combinations, notating the ones you like and/or find to be of potential use in your compositions. Feel free to borrow/steal any of the examples above as well. You also don't need to limit yourself to triadic constructions; you could start with a chord and then add to it different notes or scalar passages that happen to sound good (but which are not triadic), which help to recontextualize the initial chord so that it no longer sounds like a tonal sonority.

But Wait! There's More! (Post-Tonal Harmonic Progressions)

Another, albeit more challenging, way to present tonal chords in a post-tonal context is to create progressions that consistently and deliberately do not follow the above chord-flow chart, and do so in such a way as to prevent the establishment of a clear tonic chord. If you try this, you may find that it is a surprisingly difficult task; the resulting chord progressions can often sound "wrong" to our ears for an unsurprising reason; the use of tonal sonorities carries with it an expectation in the listener that they will progress in a typical tonal way, and when they don't, it can sound jarring.

In our previous examples, the superimposition of chords resulted in new sonorities that did not convey any strong tonal implications (although one could use at least some of them in a tonal composition as well, provided they "resolved" in a way associated with tonal music).

Something that is somewhat along these lines occurs in Giant Steps, a John Coltrane jazz composition so seminal that its chord progression is known as the "Coltrane changes;" it is required learning for any gigging jazz musician. While rooted in tonality, it has some remarkably unexpected chords along the way, tonicizing roots that are each a major third apart (the roots therefore outline an augmented triad): Eb - B - G - Eb - (B). The tonicizations are effected through a series of chord substitutions said to be based on  ii-V-I harmonic progressions in each key, but the substitutions are so striking that, aside from the V7-I cadences, you may find it very difficult to hear it as a ii - V - I:




If you experiment with this idea – constructing chord progressions using major or minor (and possibly diminished and augmented, with or without chord 7ths) chords that avoid any hint of a ii - V - I progression, and, by extension, any hint of tonality, you will probably discover the difficulty of doing so. If you do come up with any you'd be willing to share, please do so in the comments section!

Here's one attempt; some of it uses chromatic-mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with no notes in common), some uses mediant relationships (two triads a third apart with one note in common), and there are some non-tertian root movements as well. To my ears, it succeeds in avoiding being tonal, but does it succeed as a useful chord progression?




And That's Not All!

While this last approach above can produce useful results, I find that a much more satisfying and rewarding approach is to write a progression of non-tonal harmonies, each of which would be the result of sitting at a piano and just trying different harmonic sonorities until you find one you like or consider to be useful, and repeating this until you have perhaps 12-16 chords. If you'd like learn more about this approach, it is described in greater detail in this blog post: Project 1: Writing an Atonal Theme and Variations. In my experience as a teacher, it has produced some of the best work I have heard from early-stage composition students.

One of the keys to growth and improvement as a composer is a willingness to try new things; I encourage you to try these and many other approaches as well.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Sept/2016)

Welcome to another year of composition studies! I wish you much growth and success on your journey to becoming a better composer.

My primary motivation in creating this blog was to provide a forum in which a variety of composition-related topics could be explored and discussed in greater depth than is feasible in the classes I teach at Memorial University. While this was created for my students, comments may be left by anyone. Periodically, spam-bots leave comments, usually characterized by their enthusiastic brevity, followed by a link of some sort, kind of like this: "Great post! It really made me think. Check out DezynerSunGlassez.con for fantastic deals!"

Other times the spam-bot leaves some incredibly long-winded word collection, possibly copied from some obscure technical manual. I have no idea what the point of any of these spam posts is, but, if you see a comment that even vaguely resembles spam, do not click on any links, and let me know about it asap.

I get an automatic notification anytime someone leaves a comment, no matter how old the post, so, feel free to comment on very old posts if the topic interests you.

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. Entries relating to class business – reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc. – are omitted.

Links are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing.


→ Exploring the Creative Process; Struggles and Solutions ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

→ Planning ←

→ Playing With Expectations; Musical Dichotomies ←

→ Composition Techniques 

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Atonality; What's in a Name? ←


→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music and Marketing ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series that started this blog) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in assessing compositions that emerge from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What is it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.
7.1. Less is more / More is more
7.2. Always leave them wanting more / Give them what they want
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot / There's a sucker born every minute
7.4. There can be too much of a good thing / If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.
8.1. Three models for the role of a composer
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds
8.5. Don't obsess
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities

→ Composition Projects ←

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Finding Your Own Voice; Tonality, Atonality, and the Composer's Toolbox

We had a discussion yesterday morning in our composition seminar about topics that I suspect most composition students think about from time to time, such as:
  • Why are we restricted to writing post-tonal music?
  • If the music nearest and dearest to my heart is tonal, then shouldn't I be writing tonal music?
  • If a composer (or any artist) is obliged to be true to themselves, shouldn't they be free to express themselves in any way they wish?
I have written about this before – please visit the links below, if interested – so I am repeating myself to some degree, but here are my thoughts on these questions:
  1. Every university course that I know of has content restrictions. Here are just a few examples:
    • Music students taking renaissance or baroque counterpoint courses learn how to write music in the styles of those periods. 
    • Similarly, the stylistic focus of "Jazz Theory and Arranging" is self-explanatory.
    • Harmony courses (called "Materials of Music") provide instruction in writing and analyzing tonal music, focussing on the musical language and voice-leading practices of the "common-practice period," ca. 1700-1900. Depending on how the courses are structured, they may also include an introduction to post-tonal practices as well.

    The stylistic restrictions in these courses are fairly strict, but, in my experience, students do not typically question why they are not allowed to write country, rock, or hip-hop songs, for example, in Renaissance Counterpoint, or Jazz Theory. I think song-writing courses covering country, rock, hip-hop, death-metal, or any of the myriad of sub-genres of popular music would be great to have, and they already exist in many universities. I'd love to see them at ours, but the point is that any course is circumscribed in some way.

    Students usually understand that stylistic restrictions are inherent to course content, and, ideally, their desire to take the courses listed above is motivated by a desire to learn how to write music under such restrictions.

    Of course, more pragmatic motivation for choosing courses is often in play as well, such as the course being required for their programme of study, or the course is in a convenient time slot, or all other theory electives were full, so they had to take the only one that wasn't full, etc.

  2. There are, however, courses in which stylistic restrictions are not explicitly stated in the title or calendar description. One is "Materials of Music," cited above. Looking at the Memorial University 2015/2016 calendar, other examples include:

    • "Principal Applied Study requires one hour per week of individual instruction (vocal or instrumental)." This refers to weekly private lessons, and, since our School of Music is understood to be a school of primarily classical music, I would guess that students understand that 
    • "Functional Keyboard I is an introduction to practical keyboard skills for students whose Principal Applied Study is not piano or organ. Functional accompaniment, transposition and score reading are emphasized." 
    • "Chamber Music requires the ensemble to prepare and perform a recital of x-y minutes of music. Each ensemble receives z hours of coaching in preparation for the performance."
    • … and many, many others, such as Small Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Instrumental Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, AccompanimentContemporary Music/Improvisation Ensemble ("contemporary" could mean "any music of our time," but it actually means, "classical music of the fairly recent past," in which "fairly recent" is open to interpretation by the course instructor), etc.

  3. Despite the unspecified stylistic restrictions in the above course titles and calendar descriptions, students taking these courses probably understand that stylistic restrictions are generally understood or implied due to the fact that our School of Music focusses mostly on classical music in the broadest sense of that term.

  4. Another course in which stylistic restrictions are not explicit in the title and course description is composition, whose calendar description is as follows: "Composition Seminar provides intensive composition study for students whose Major or Minor is Composition."

    So, while it is possible to deduce from this description that any style or genre of composition is fair game, I would just point out that this is not the case in any of the other courses mentioned above; students taking Principal Applied Study, for example, usually understand and accept that they will be more likely to learn the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Clifford Crawley, etc., than country, rock, death-metal, etc. music as part of their performance studies. Again, this is not to suggest that non-classical music has no value, because it obviously does; it is a reflection of the stylistic focus at our School of Music, which is primarily music of the classical tradition. However, we also have a thriving ethnomusicology programme, as well as some courses in popular music, but I would very much like to see more offered in the future. This may even come to pass in the near future, because our newly-appointed (starting Fall, 2016) Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology, Dr. Harris Berger, is among other things, a leading scholar in the area of heavy metal and rock music.

  5. Another factor in this discussion of stylistic restrictions is that they are to some degree a reflection of the professor's areas of expertise. Ideally, teachers teach what they know, and, for most of our professors, what they know is primarily classical music. Of course, teachers can be adaptable as well, and if I were told to teach a course on a topic beyond my comfort zone, like writing a Broadway musical, I'd take what I already know about writing for voice, writing for orchestra or band, combining voice(s) with instruments, setting text expressively, etc., and learn everything I could about the structure and conventions of Broadway musicals (about all I know at this point is that they generally have two acts, and that the first usually ends with an unresolved conflict of some sort), and then do my best with the course, hopefully learning more along the way.

  6. In all courses at our university, professors must distribute a course outline or syllabus during the first week of classes. In addition to communicating the marking scheme and general structure of the course, these usually have more information about course content and objectives than is found in the university calendar. This is where you would learn, for example, that baroque counterpoint is primarily focussed on the music of J.S. Bach, and few if any other baroque composers are ever mentioned. You would also learn that there is, unsurprisingly, no way to master the compositional styles of J.S. Bach in a one-semester course, and so the objectives are more a matter of trying emulate certain aspects of his style, including learning how to write a fugue. 

  7. For our course, Composition Seminar, the outline usually states that the focus will be on writing "post-tonal" music. My reasons for this include the following:
    • For most of the past century, the majority of highly-regarded classical composers (and yes, "highly-regarded" is a problematic term, since informed scholars can disagree as to the relative merits of any given composer; I am referring to the composers we learn about in textbooks and more recent composers who do not yet appear in textbooks, but whose music is widely played and celebrated) have been writing post-tonal music, and, since this is a composition course for contemporary classical music, I strongly believe that students should learn explore at least some of the many techniques for writing post-tonal music;
    • The requirement to explore post-tonal techniques often results in students moving beyond their personal comfort zones, meaning that for many, writing tonal music is comfortable and safe, while writing post-tonal music is less so. I believe that moving beyond our comfort zones in a safe, supportive environment is where we often learn the most.
    • It also seems likely that, if students were not challenged to move beyond their personal comfort zones, then some would be unlikely to explore post-tonal techniques, which I would regard as a glaring omission in their development of composition skills.
    • I think many, possibly most, students may not fully understand what is meant by "post-tonal" music, and think the term is the same as "atonal," or even "12-tone" music. It is much, much more than this; it is a remarkably open category; the only thing it isn't is tonal
      • I pasted below a sampling of scales, techniques, and idioms associated with post-tonal music; the options are both plentiful and varied. Not only that, but the list is in no way complete; there are many other approaches to post-tonal composition beyond those listed. In addition, there are approaches that haven't been conceived yet, just waiting for someone like you to think of them.
    • I am of the firm conviction that writing post-tonal music can improve the quality of any tonal music students may write in the future. For students that embrace the challenge of writing post-tonal music, it opens their creative options to include techniques and sonorities that they otherwise might not have considered when writing tonal music.
    • Many composition students have indicated a desire to write music for film or video games. For such students, the more techniques they know, the more effectively they will be able to score for film (or video games, although I confess to not knowing much about this genre of music).
    • I have tried different approaches to the teaching of composition over the past 30 years, and this method works, if students are willing to buy into it. 
    • There are over 20 student comments on a previous blog entry I wrote on this topic, all of which are positive. Many express an initial discomfort with trying to write post-tonal music, but conclude with views similar to this one: "Intro to composition has completely opened up my ears to accepting tonalities that I otherwise would not have heard beauty in!"  
    • One of the most compelling reasons I advocate writing post-tonal music is that when I have allowed tonal composition, the results have generally been disappointing, albeit with some pleasant exceptions along the way. Possible reasons for this include the following:
      • It is very hard to write tonal music that (a) sounds original, and (b) doesn't sound like a poor imitation of some tonal music composer.
      • Despite having taken four semesters of tonal harmony and analysis before starting the first semester of composition seminar, as well as one semester of counterpoint for some, many students who have chosen a composition major did not do particularly well in these courses, and, unsurprisingly, their tonal writing has often been problematic (forbidden parallels, poorly resolved sevenths, doubled tendency tones, odd chord progressions, clearly wrong notes that the student was apparently unable to hear despite playing the file numerous times in Finale or some other music notation programme, etc.).
      • Our ears are so accustomed to tonal music of the highest quality that when we write tonal music of significantly lower quality (as our first attempts almost invariably must be), it just does not sound very good. Again, to be fair, there have been exceptions, but not very many.

  8. None of this comes from an elitist, "Who Cares if You Listen," antipathy towards tonality and love of "academic" music, whatever that might be. I grew up playing rock and folk music, then studied jazz guitar for a few years, and only began studying classical music in my 20s. One thing led to another, and I eventually got a doctorate in composition and became a professor, but I never lost my love of rock and many other kinds of music as well. I remember very well my first reactions to Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and even Bartok… Much like the protagonist in Dr. Seuss's famous book, Green Eggs and Ham, I did not like them, Sam-I-Am!

    Fortunately, I had teachers that (a) helped me to better understand the music I didn't like, so that I grew to not only gain a better appreciation of that music, but to actually enjoy it as well, and (b) exposed me to compositional approaches that I either knew little or nothing about. Therefore, as I see it, an important part of my role as a composition teacher/facilitator is to challenge students to consider compositional techniques, approaches, and possibilities that they may never have tried before. Usually, in trying these new things, students find some they like, but whether they like them or not, they can develop a better understanding of new (to them) techniques.

    This is where the "composer's toolbox" analogy comes in; the more you know, the more techniques and approaches to composition you have tried, the better equipped you will be to express your uniqueness through music, and the better equipped you will be to write for stage, film, television, or video games, should you ever have that opportunity.

    Most of us want to express something deeply personal through our music; we are better able to do this with a wide array of compositional techniques and approaches in our toolboxes than a limited selection. If you were a writer but your vocabulary had only 100 words, it seems likely that you would find this limiting your ability to express the subtleties and deep thoughts you might wish to express; if you had a vocabulary of 60,000 words, it seems likely that you be better able to express yourself in an effective but nuanced way.

    Most of the music I have written in about the past twenty years is in some way tonal, with a number of exceptions as well. It is clearly where my heart lies, but I don't think I would find it very interesting to only write tonal music. But I could not have written any of the tonal-based compositions that I really like unless I had spent years trying to get good at post-tonal techniques.

    Most students appear to have little interest in my music – not complaining, just observing – but if you would like to listen to a few of the tonality-based compositions I wrote just to see where I am coming from, here are a few links:

    Dream Dance (A wild, virtuosic, perpetual motion joyride; 2007)
    Domenico 1° & 2° (Two sonatas inspired by Scarlatti; 2009)
    Last Dance (Juno nominated slow tango, called "haunting and beautiful" by Jon Kimura Parker; 1999)
    iPad Riff Recontextualized (Based on a Steve Reich riff appropriated by Apple for an iPad commercial, 2010)



A student in our class made a great point yesterday about uniqueness not being something we need to strive for, because we are already unique; what we need to strive for is mastery of a sufficiently-large selection of skills so that our uniqueness is not restricted by our lack of skill.

Here's what I wrote about uniqueness in "If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take), a blog post from May of 2014:
It is often said that no two people (or snowflakes) are exactly alike, which suggests that the combination of qualities that make up your personality is unique. I believe this to be true, but I think it is also true that we all share many individual qualities, and thus it seems to me that while everybody is unique, nobody is 100% original. 
In a similar way, if we compose regularly and often, while constantly striving to improve the work we produce, we will naturally reach a point wherein the uniqueness of our personality is manifested in our music without a self-conscious attempt to make it so, although our music will share various characteristics with other music, and this is the way it has always been.
This brings us to the second and third questions at the top of today's post, which touch on what I would consider to be an artistic imperative: An artist is obliged to express themselves in whatever way they believe works best. I strongly support this. However, as I wrote above, part of my role as a teacher, as I see it, is to get students to try new things, thereby giving them more tools with which to express themselves. Besides, there are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music; in this one, I ask them to write post-tonal music, which opens the door to a seemingly-infinite range of possibilities.

I have given explanations of why I usually require post-tonal harmonic language and practices in previous posts – links below. The third one in particular addresses this issue, and has generated a high number of comments, all positive (so far!).

Other posts on this topic:
Express Yourself? 
"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)
Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant! 
Atonality = Noise?Jess Blenis Guest Blog on Atonality



Here's that list I alluded to earlier of post-tonal techniques and compositional approaches; hopefully, you will agree that there are lots of options to choose from, and it's not by any stretch an exhaustive list! This too is borrowed from an earlier blog post (Jan. 2010):

SCALES:
  1. Modes of limited transposition (Messiaen’s term).
  2. Non-Messiaenic modes of limited transposition (e.g., modes that repeat every 2 or 3 8ves)
  3. Non-Western scales (e.g., pelog, slendra (Indonesia),  Hejaz scale (middle east, and flamenco; AKA Phrygian dominant scale, Jewish scale), Indian scales, etc.).
  4. Octatonic scale (A.K.A. “diminished scale;” this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale (this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  7. Any other made-up, or synthetic, scale.

RHYTHM and METER
  1. Added-Value Rhythms.
  2. Additive Rhythms.
  3. Cross Rhythm.
  4. Eastern European (asymmetrical; 2+2+3, 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+3, etc.), West African, and other world rhythms.
  5. Free (“timeless”, no sense of pulse).
  6. Isorhythms.
  7. Jazz (?).
  8. Mixed meters ( 3/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 7/16 |, etc.).
  9. Motor rhythms (continuous motion).
  10. Non-retrogradable.
  11. Polymeters.
  12. Polyrhythms.
  13. Polytempo.
  14. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  15. Tempo fluctuations (i.e., sudden/gradual tempo changes, metric modulation).

MUSICAL CHARACTER, IDIOMS/GENRES
  1. Various programmatic moods, such as aggressive, pretty, wistful, playful, demented, nervous, sad (various kinds), numb (catatonic), angry, fearful, etc.
  2. New jazz, third stream.
  3. Fusions; combining popular music genres (rock/electropop/trance/hippety-hop, etc.) with various post-tonal art-music devices.
  4. Minimalism (repetitive (trance-inducing); sparse and static (trance-inducing)).
  5. New simplicity.
  6. Borrowing/adopting elements of music from other cultures: Japan, Eastern Europe, India, etc.
  7. Expressive (romantic) versus Non-expressive (mechanistic).

TECHNIQUES
  1. Any systematic (or non-systematic) approach to harmony not rooted in tonality.
  2. Clusters.
  3. Extended and non-tonal tertian harmony (e.g., Scriabin’s “mystic” chord).
  4. Extended instrumental and vocal techniques (multiphonics, prepared piano, etc.).
  5. Graphic notation.
  6. Hindemith’s approach to harmony (from The Craft of Musical Composition).
  7. Indeterminacy, aleatorism, controlled aleatorism.
  8. Klangfarbenmelodie, texture-based organization.
  9. Microtones.
  10. Mixed media.
  11. Modulation.
  12. Motivic unity; set theory (post-tonal); using a limited number of specific intervals.
  13. Music without melody.
  14. Nihilism, Antimusic, Decategorization, Biomusic.
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal).
  16. Planing.
  17. Pointillism.
  18. Polyrhythms.
  19. Polystylism.
  20. Polytonality, polymodality.
  21. Quotation.
  22. Saturation (e.g., Ligeti's "Atmosphères," industrial music).
  23. Serialism (pitch).
  24. Serialism ("integral," or “total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres).
  25. Spectral music.
  26. Any combination of the above.


Postscript – My responses to two student comments:


A student writes: "as a composition student, I feel that I should not be told to not write tonal music."

• Do you feel you should not be told to play classical music by your applied instructor? I suspect not, so why suggest that your composition professor should not impose restrictions on what you write? See points 1, 2, 3, 4 above. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding on why I impose technical restrictions on what students write in my composition courses.
The same student writes: "if [my music is] tonal-ish sounding and it's decent sounding and I am enjoying what I am doing, then shouldn't I be allowed to do so? After all music school is supposed to be fun after all and if I am told that I can't write what I want to as a composer that's kind of a drag."
• You are allowed to write (and of course enjoy!) whatever you wish when composing purely for yourself, just like you are allowed to perform anything you like – country music, heavy metal, folk, hip-hop, etc. – on your own or in bands (as a lot of our students do; they play gigs in bands downtown on weekends), but, just as your applied instructor has the right to limit the stylistic choices in the music you perform for credit, your composition instructor has the same right to restrict stylistic choices.

• The suggestion that music school is "supposed to be fun" needs to be examined. I'd like to think that there is some fun to be had in any course I teach, but I suspect my colleagues would disagree with your statement. I would suggest that music school is supposed to be a place where professors teach you new things about music, and students work hard to learn these things. Again, there is sometimes fun to be had, but that's not the overarching objective of music school. When I was a student, there was always a great sense of satisfaction when I felt I had learned or accomplished something in music school, but it invariably resulted from a lot of hard work, which, while I didn't mind it most of the time, I would not really describe as fun.

- - - - - - -
A different student writes: "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music” [quoting my blog]  I disagree with this point. There are lots of university courses in which we interact with tonal music (ex. history), and there are lots of university courses that have us writing shadows of tonal music, with exercises in harmony and counterpoint classes that are intended to improve and demonstrate aspects of that music. However, I cannot think of a single university course (never mind “lots” of them) that requires students to write full, original, tonal compositions."
• I did not write, "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write full, original, tonal compositions." Quite obviously this would be false, although there is a course being introduced in the 2016-2017 year that will lead to the composition of a complete, classical-style sonata form movement, and I highly recommend this to anyone wishing to write "full, original, tonal compositions."

• I do not see how one can disagree with the statement that there are several courses that require students to write tonal music; these include the four semesters of harmony ("Materials of Music"), 16th-Century Counterpoint, and 18th-Century Counterpoint. Counting only these courses, it means that in 6 of the 8 semesters of a 4-year degree, students can take courses with a strong tonal music writing component. Perhaps a better way of stating my point is this: In almost every course that involves writing music at our university, the harmonic language is tonal; I would assume that this is even true to some degree of Jazz Theory, since jazz theory is mostly an evolution of tonal music theory. There is only one course in which the focus is on selected post-tonal techniques ("Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music"), and I'm not sure how much music writing goes on on that course, as opposed to analysis, which is its usual focus.

• Is this a good balance or not? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on one's views of the value of developing skills in post-tonal music for composers; I have listened to a lot of contemporary classical music over the past thirty-five (or so) years, which has informed my view that this is not an adequate balance between tonal and post-tonal skills in the training of composers, which is why I advocate and facilitate the development of skills in post-tonal music.  

• Incidentally, I have frequently supported students wanting to write music based in some way on tonality, but the condition I impose on this is always the same: Explore ways of doing something new and different with tonality, or figure out how composers (such as Debussy, Górecki, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Wolf, etc.) who pushed tonality to its limits or in new directions did so, and borrow or adapt some of their techniques.