Music 16D Composition Project

Getting Started

For the final composition/performance assignment you have been assigned to write a piece for two players, to be performed by yourself and one classmate, no less than 32 measures long. The piece may be in either jazz or classical harmonic language, and should follow good classical principles of counterpoint, harmony, and voice-leading as discussed in class. Every note in the piece should demonstrably belong to a particular intended chord or should be a properly-handled non-chord tone: a passing tone, neighbor tone, suspension, or appoggiatura.

This page will give some ideas and suggestions for planning your piece and for getting started.

One important first step is to know the capabilities and limitations of the instruments for which you are composing. You can get some basic information about each instrument online from sources such as Wikipedia, of course, but more thorough and informative information is available in orchestration textbooks by such authors as Samuel Adler, Alfred Blatter, Kent Kennan, and Bernard Rogers, as well as composers Hector Berlioz and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. You should also consult with your performing partner, who can demonstrate the instrument to you and can recommend instructive scores for you to study.

This composition is a creative project, so I encourage you to try to write a piece you find pleasing. But even more importantly, it's a demonstration of the theory and techniques you've learned in this class, so I suggest that you start from that standpoint. Specifically, use what you know about strong harmonic progressions, good voice leading and counterpoint, correct use of non-chord tones, and good formal structure. (See past assignments.)

You might also decide to model your composition on an existing composition that you admire. That doesn't mean to plagiarize, of course, but you can identify specific concepts, techniques, or structures that you think are strong in the model piece, and think of ways to transport those strengths to your own composition. If you do that, you should identify the piece that is the model for your own work, and give credit to the composer. (See examples below.)


1. You may recall that we studied the harmonic progression and of two movements -- the Sarabande and the ensuing Double -- from J.S. Bach's Partita in B minor for solo violin. We then composed melodies based on the harmonic progression from the A section of those movements. Thus, you were employing the proven strength of that chord progression, but you were writing a completely original melody that conforms to that progression.

This example demonstrates imitative two-part counterpoint for soprano and tenor voices (or treble and tenor instruments) in a pseudo-Baroque style based closely on that same progression by Bach, but that uses no actual melodic material from his compositions.

The numbers above and below the music show what chord tones (1,3,5, or 7) are being used in each melody; non-chord tones are indicated with letters (P, N, or S). In between the two staves, the numbers indicate the interval between the two voices. Pay particular attention to three things: 1) the vast majority of the notes belong to the chord that we want to imply; if too many notes do not belong to the implied harmony, we risk implying something different from what we intend, 2) the vast majority of the notes in the lower voice are roots and thirds of the implied chord; use of the fifth of the chord in the lower voice is mostly avoided, except as a momentary part of an arpeggiation, so as not to imply 6/4 chords, and 3) the intervals between voices are mostly thirds and sixths which tend to imply the chord most strongly; fifths, while strong, have a somewhat more "hollow" sound (less "sweet") and are thus used more sparingly, and dissonant notes such as seconds and sevenths -- even fourths, which are mostly used as contrapuntal dissonances in this style -- appear only as correctly employed non-chord tones.

2. Using the standard theoretical chord progression model of tonic->transitional->predominant->dominant->tonic, improvise at the keyboard until you find a chord progression that you like and consider strong. You might also let yourself be guided by some known formal idea such as "establish the tonic key, modulate to a closely related key, then modulate back to the tonic." That chord progression can then become the skeletal structure upon which you compose the actual music. Adhering closely to that strong chord progression will help ensure similarly strong progress in your composition.

In this example, I decided to start in a minor key, modulate to the relative major key by the end of eight measures, then modulate back to the tonic minor key by the end of sixteen measures. The idea was to make something like a mini-exposition of a mini-sonata form. So I chose a classical-style chord progression that fulfills those criteria. The chord inversions are not always crucial, and the voice leading is just to show some of the potential melodic relationships inherent in the progression, but this can serve as the skeletal basis for future compositional decisions.

Next, I decided to compose sixteen measures of a two-part piece for viola and cello according to that chord progression. Normally I would compose both parts simultaneously, but as it happens, in this instance I first composed the upper part, trying to write a cantablile melody while also making the chord progression fairly evident by the notes I chose. (Thus, arpeggiations and thirds predominate.) Then I composed the lower part, emphasizing the other pitches needed to make the chord progression clear, while also following the three counterpoint principles described in example 1 above. Although the chord tones, non-chord tones, and intervals are not all marked in this example as they are in example 1, if you analyze the piece -- comparing it to the intended chord progression -- you will see that the same principles are followed quite rigorously. (I decided to change one chord as I composed the cello part. Can you spot it? In measure 5, I used a ii° chord in place of a iv chord; in this situation, sandwiched between two i chords, either can serve the neighbor function to the tonic chord.)

Because of its relatively simple rhythms, its very direct harmonic progression, and its extensive use of thirds and arpeggios within the melodies, this piece evokes a pseudo-18th-century sound, even though it's not directly modeled on any particular piece or composer of that era.

3. If you're not experienced composing for piano, you might not have a good idea how to write idiomatically for the instrument. The best way to learn is to study scores for piano and solo instrument or for piano and voice. (Solo piano scores are instructive, too, but writing a part that is intended to be accompanimental rather than soloistic is a subtly different task.)

One solution that works well in music that is strongly based on a chord progression is simply to find an interesting arpeggiation pattern and use that pattern repeatedly for each chord. The chord voicings should still exemplify good voice-leading rules between the notes of the arpeggios, just as if they were written as block chords. One masterful song composer who used this technique to good effect is Franz Schubert. Study how he uses a particular arpeggio pattern -- in this case each arpeggio includes a passing tone -- in Gretchen am Spinnrade, noticing how the chords still follow good voice leading principles. Another prime example of a repeated arpeggio pattern for accompaniment is Schubert's Ave Maria. Again, notice how expertly he handles the voice leading. (There are parallel octaves in the left hand, and between the uppermost and lowermost notes of the right hand, but those are just to enrich the timbre, and are not meant to be independent voices in the texture.) Notice also how he uses 4:6 and 8:6 division relationships between the voice and the piano (straight sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes in the vocal part), thus making the voice seem to have a certain independence from the constant sextuplets in the arpeggio pattern.

In this example I composed what I thought was a Schubert-like Romantic-style chord progression, used a triplet-based arpeggiation pattern, and wrote four phrases of a melody that includes a mixture of triplets with straight eighth and sixteenth notes similarly to that of Schubert's Ave Maria. Thus, this beginning of a song borrows those three techniques from Schubert, but uses my own chord progression, my own melody, and my own voice leading choices. It's clearly strongly reminiscent of Ave Maria, but in its details it's an original composition.

Above all, if you're composing for piano, try out whatever you write on a piano to get a good sense of the register, timbre, and playability of what you've written.

4. Here is another example of an arpeggio pattern on piano, accompanying a flute melody. In this case I composed the melody and the accompaniment simultaneously, but I made some particular decisions beforehand. I decided to write something in 5/8 meter, deliberately just to avoid the overused 4/4, 2/4, and 3/4 time signatures. I also decided to make the flute melody very sustained and rather static, changing notes only infrequently, and I decided that the harmonies should include seventh chords and could even suggest ninth chords, giving the music a more twentieth-century sound.

Notice the clear two-phrase 8+8-measure structure. The bass line descends chromatically from the tonic to the dominant note which then becomes the mediant note of the relative major. Arrival on the tonic in the relative major begins a second eight-bar phrase that parallels the first phrase, both in terms of the flute melody and the harmonic progression with chromatically descending bass line. There are many notes in the piano that could be interpreted as the ninth of the chord, but they also invariably resolve to the chord root, so they can also be interpreted as suspensions from the preceding chord. Because the ninths are treated so "classically", and because of the heavy use of chords in inversion, the piece sounds more classic-Romantic than it does impressionist-jazz. I associate this sort of neither-classical-nor-jazz hybrid sound with television theme music.

5. In a standard jazz tune, the harmonies tend to change every measure rather than every beat, the chords are more commonly in root position (inversions are generally used less frequently than in classical/Romantic music), and seventh chords are the norm, often with upper extensions such as ninths and thirteenths. The same technique as shown in the previous examples -- composing a chord progression as the basis before composing the melodies -- is equally appropriate for the jazz harmonic language. In jazz, different conventions of voice leading and non-chord tones frequently apply; for example, parallel motion of intervals or even entire chords is much more common, and notes that would be considered non-chord tones in classical styles are often considered upper-extension chord tones in jazz. For the purpose of this assignment, if you want to use jazz-based harmonic language, see how classically you can compose the voice leading within chord changes, and how classically you can treat the melodic tones that would be considered dissonances relative to the basic triads.

Here is a jazz-based example, a few measures of a duo for alto saxophone and bass in jazz style. The chord progression that underlies the four-measure solo bass introduction uses a commonly-used "turnaround" progression: IIImin7-VImin7-II9-V7 (iii7-vi7-V9/V-V7 in classical terminology). The next eight measures then use a similarly straight-ahead progression: Imaj9-IIImin9-VImin7-II7-V-Vimin7-IImin7-V7-Imaj7. Notice how the melodies are written to imply good voice leading between the (imagined) underlying chords, the counterpoint is written to emphasize consonant relationships between the voices, and dissonant relationships are resolved by step to consonant tones. Here is the same example, with the alto sax part properly transposed. If you were to generate an alto sax part in which you expect the performer to improvise over the chord changes, you would want to include transposed chord symbols in the part.

Notice also how some additional pitch and rhythm complexity is notated in both parts with grace notes, slides, and notated rubato. Particularly in jazz, but even in classical music, it's worth considering how you might better notate your true musical intentions. Don't always be satisfied with the simplest form of an idea that comes to mind or the simplest notation of it; instead, listen carefully to the imagined sound, to determine what's really the best, most accurate, and most descriptive way to notate it.

6. If the saxophone melody of the previous example were to be accompanied by piano instead of the bass, there's a wide variety of styles a pianist might employ. A repetitive arpeggio pattern such as we saw in Schubert songs is not likely to sound stylistically correct in jazz. Here are a couple of examples of possible piano styles for the four-measure introduction. A fairly progressive and adventurous piano introduction might include many dissonances not directly related to traditional chord theory or handled in a classical manner, but it's also possible to imagine a more conventional piano introduction in which extensions or non-chord tones are treated quite classically. Your composition might fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but for the purpose of this assignment, you should plan to hew more closely to the conventional solution. It won't sound as hip as it should to truly be considered jazz, but it will be a good exercise for you to see the relationships and differences between classical harmonic theory and jazz practice.

In all of the above examples of actual music, notice that some basic initial tempo and dynamic information has been provided. In your own composition you should provide even more detailed dynamic information than that, and you should provide as much additional performance instruction as possible for rubato, articulations, techniques, timbre, etc. Rather than simply composing pitches and rhythms without particular attention to how they'll sound on a particular instrument, listen carefully to imagine how they truly sound on the intended instrument, and provide as much additional information as might be needed to tell the instrumentalist exactly how you want it to sound.

This page was last modified November 21, 2012.