How to comfort the Western ear

Every year Mike Verta discusses music from starting composers for a day. This year you can listen to Mike Verta Unleashed 6

A common error composers make is writing: disruptive, not understandable music or drop dead boring music. The first mistake is common because composers get used to their own music or bored with their music soon. The second mistake is taking vertical, orchestrational, development for horizontal, harmonic, development. Using digital orchestra patches, the sound is so great, that you don’t get bored, but you should.

As you see, somewhere in between lies the perfect composition: not too many changes, not too little changes. And the Western ear is trained to be comforted by particular trademarks:

  1. A predictable chord progression: I IV V I
  2. A 4-bar system
  3. An AABA Form
  4. Preferably no key or metre change.
  5. Common orchestration and dynamics. The less contrasts the better.

Of course, when you do all that, you get very predictable, and since a composer wants to create something new, there is always a tension between what the composer wants and what the audience can understand. Nobody likes a smart-ass, especially when she is a composer.

The listener wants the composer to take his/her hand, comfort them, lead the way to an exciting new destination and bring them back home safe.

These guidelines helps the composer doing that:

  1. Use a common metre: 4/4
  2. Use a key that is comfortable for the musicians instruments.
  3. Use a 4-bar system.
  4. Repeat the motive and change is a little the 3rd time. Teach the motive to your audience before you start playing with it.
  5. An AABA form is comfortable.
  6. Add enough time for people to process all that musical information.
  7. When you use an unfamiliar motive or chord progression, teach your audience that first by repeating it clearly.
  8. Choose and repeat a rhythmic element. It helpt when this is part of your motive.
  9. Choose a constant orchestration in the middle range, so the audience can hear them clearly in a comfortable range.
  10. Don’t disrupt your music with sudden dynamic or/and orchestrational changes.
  11. When you make a big change, repeat it, so people will understand it was not a mistake.

Last summer I learned using a different FORM: this form is based upon the Fibonacci numbers instead of a 4-bar, repetitive system. This music sounds very different, but is still coherent because it is hold together by a strong, repeated motive and rhythm element. Every 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34th bar you can change something, but the piece won’t fall apart. Set up in a good way, this form packs the motive in many different styles together in a very tight way. But it doesn’t offer a normal 4-4-4-4- bar system.

Still, it must be possible to combine these two ways of working by splitting a 4-4 bar system into a 3-5- bar system. this way a traditional song can become a natural part of a piece set up in a Fibonacci FORM.

I am going to test this by writing a composition for strings and tuba-euphonium ensemble. Combining the comforting 4-bar phrases with the surprising fresh Fibonacci FORM. And on top of that of course my favorite energy curve. Let’s hear what that will do ….

By Anneloes Wolters


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