Exercises from Composing Music: A New Approach/Chapter 1: The Cell, The Row, and Some Scales
Result: I Hang Up My Harp
Exercise concept: Pitch limitation, using a restricted set of tones for a composition. This will be the basis for many exercises.
- Compose a melody. Use only the tones E4, G4, A4, and B4.
- Use 5/4 meter and only the rhythm quarter, quarter, quarter, half.
- Choose measures to use more than once, either separated or adjacently. This will unify and shape the melody.
- Omit one or more tones in some measures. Study the melodic relationships between all the tones.
Title concept: Russo gives this exercise a backstory. Your captor, Edrevol, ruler of the Lorac, will let you live if you write a melody for the Imperial Flute that pleases him. The flute can only play the four tones of the exercise. The tune ended up kind of mournful, so I imagined the player consumed by longing for home. That reminded me of Psalm 137 where the Jewish people are lamenting their exile. The title is a reference to verse 2. I'm not sure Edrevol was pleased.
- Restricting your resources really does help. I didn't feel overwhelmed with options, and I was able to pay closer attention to the few components I had.
- I was surprised at how interesting the exercise was. Within the restrictions I still had some freedom to explore and be expressive. More on that in the points below.
- I was aware of harmony. This was part of the surprising interest and was one of the ways restrictions helped me learn. I found out how even a simple melodic line can imply a harmony and how pursuing an implied harmony can make the melody more interesting. In this case I thought of A as the most harmonically interesting note, because the others were part of the tonic triad, so I made sure to land on A occasionally rather than using it only as a passing tone.
- Adding dynamics, articulation, tempo, and a title really does make it look and feel more like real music. It was also the hardest part for me, other than the tempo. At first I tried making the first note of most phrases staccato and slurring the rest of the phrase, but that seemed possibly weird. I also didn't know how long I should make the phrases. So I opted for simplicity and just slurred all of each measure as a separate phrase. On dynamics, at first I wondered why it wouldn't just be obvious to the performer, but since I was supposed to put something, I tried to notate my sense of the melody's general trends rather than micromanaging the dynamic changes, and I found I had to somewhat exaggerate what I was feeling. I guess my intuitions about dynamics aren't very pronounced.
- I like how Russo drops us into less-basic situations like 5/4 meter. I would've started with a very traditional 4/4. But I get the impression Russo wants us to know we're in the 20th century (at the time he wrote the book), and we have a lot of musical possibilities.
- The rule to repeat measures was helpful. Repeating anchored the melody so it wasn't wandering all over the place while also drawing out the variety that comes from positioning. For example, measures 7-8 are the same as 3-4, but 7 feels different from 3 because they're coming off of different statements in the previous measures. Measure 8 feels more like a repetition of 4, I assume because we've reached enough distance from m. 6.
- I have the sense I'm using typical melodic techniques, but I don't know what they're called. With four notes to work with, I can't really do sequence or retrograde. But the general idea is to repeat some of the elements while varying others. For instance, in m. 2 I repeated m. 1 but changed the second note. In m. 10 I repeated m. 6 but changed the first note. At this point I'm doing this by feel, but later I'd like to understand why these variations feel right (or why they're actually wrong). Watching myself use these techniques was another part of the surprise interest.
Result: Dance, Lydia!
Exercise concept: The cell, a limited set of pitches, available in every octave.
- Compose a melody. Use only the tones F, A, B, and C, in any octave.
- Use 4/4 meter and only these rhythms: (a) four eights, two quarters; (b) two quarters, two eighths, quarter.
- Use some measures more than once.
Title concept: I pictured an extended family gathering where a father is playing a lively tune on his violin while his young daughter dances around the room. The exercise is in Lydian mode, so ...
- Lydian is my favorite mode that I've learned about. There's something about the raised 4th degree.
- Deciding on the staccatos was hard. I still don't trust my intuitions about how the articulation should feel, and I haven't paid enough attention to it in other people's music.
- It gets a little lost in line 2. Measure 7 feels extraneous.
- I'm glad we had two rhythms to work with. Rhythm can easily make a song feel monotonous, and having two gave me an extra, small degree of freedom in which to exercise choice.
- I had to remind myself to use other octaves, and they seemed to help the melody. In m. 4 the upper octave gave the melody somewhere to go so I could use something like a sequence. In m. 10 the lower octave let me use a downward motion to complement the upwardness of the previous measure while letting me use a nice leading tone to move upward again to the C4, which feels like it belongs there.
- It's funny how these little exercises get stuck in my head. I think their enforced simplicity has something to do with it.
Result: March of the Marmots
Exercise concept: The row, a strict sequence of a limited set of pitches, available in every octave. Each pitch may be repeated one or more times before the next pitch in the sequence.
- Compose a melody of 6 to 10 measures. Use the sequence D, A, F, E, C, in any octave.
- Use 4/4 and only these rhythms: (a) quarter, two eighths, half; (b) quarter rest, three quarters.
- Near each note, write its number in the sequence.
Title concept: The melody sounded like a foreboding march. But I also felt there was a bit of comedy there, and I imagined it was an army of something small. So I looked for rodents that would alliterate with march. Mice seemed a little cliché.
- I was surprised at how well this worked, and it was easier than I expected. I'm sure it's not always that easy. It didn't sound too monotonous, and thanks to the rule allowing repetitions within a sequence, I was able to time the notes to make the implied harmonies work. For instance, in m. 2 I repeated note 3 from the previous measure so I could end on the leading tone (note 5) to bring me back to the tonic (note 1) at the start of m. 3.
- I was proud of myself for getting the song to end on the tonic in a natural fashion. I remembered reading in Allen Forte's Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice that skipping an octave can add power to a voice's line, so I took advantage of that option to follow the rule about ending on the beginning tone.
- Even just changing octaves can make the notes feel different. Throwing the melody into a higher octave in m. 7 not only brings the overall build-up to a head, it adds some interest because they sound like new scale degrees to me. It takes a little effort to convince myself the notes are equivalent to the lower F, E, and C I used in earlier measures.
Result: Josephine's Picnic
Exercise concept: Melody from the C major scale.
- Compose a melody. Use only the tones in the C major scale, in any octave. Conceive of it as a single melody rather than a set of discrete measures.
- Begin and end on C4.
- Use 4/4 meter and only the rhythm quarter, two eighths, half.
- Use some measures more than once. Write out all the notes individually in these cases. The extra effort will make you decide whether you really want the repetition.
Title concept: This tune turned out to be another lively one, but after exercise 2 it felt uncreative to put dance in the name. Luckily the melody brought to my mind a frolicky scene of woodland creatures, and I imagined Peter Rabbit's mother hosting a picnic for a group of friendly, energetic animals.
- I was a little intimidated by having a whole scale to work with. Fortunately the general rule about favoring 2nds and 3rds helped. I didn't have to pick the next note from the whole scale.
- I'm starting to feel a little stuck in a rut. The melody and overall style feel like they're derived from earlier exercises.
- I worried I was plagiarizing something in the second measure. In my head I could hear a similar snippet from some recording, but since this is only a melody and only an exercise, and I don't know how the recording progressed after that or if I was even remembering it right, I decided not to worry about it.
- I'm still puzzling through the articulations. I don't know what sounds better or worse. I was going for a little variety in the second line. Does it make sense to hold the first note in those measures, or should I stick to the same staccato pattern? I came back to it in m. 8 because I was transitioning to the last line, which is sort of a return to the first.
- I like how m. 11 is m. 2 but in a different role, leading to the end rather than leading away from the beginning.
- I think m. 10 was originally G4 F4 G4 A4, which sounded dull to me, so I decided to take advantage of another octave, which I think sounds more expressive and leads more naturally to m. 11.
Exercise concept: The Dorian scale, a scale that uses the same tones as the major scale one step below it.
- Compose a melody of 6 to 10 measures that expresses the idea of some form of water.
- Use only the tones in the D Dorian scale, in any octave. To establish the key, since the melody is unaccompanied, begin and end on the tone D, and return to D often.
- Use 4/4 meter and only the rhythm quarter, two eighths, half.
- Use some measures more than once.
Exercise concept: The Phrygian scale, a scale that uses the same tones as the major scale two steps below it.
- Compose a melody of 6 to 10 measures that expresses a dark and ominous mood.
- Use only the tones in the E Phrygian scale, in any octave. Center the melody on E.
- Use 4/4 meter and only the rhythms (a) quarter, two eighths, two quarters; and (b) two quarters, half.
Exercise concept: Phrygian mistake exercise.
- Base the exercise on exercise 6.
- Break the rules everywhere. Especially break the rule about maintaining a tonic of E.
- Label your mistakes. You can do this by writing a numbered list of the rules you've broken and writing the number from the list near the places you've broken it (see the example on p. 12).
Exercise concept: The Basic Note Values.
- Compose 8 to 12 measures for an unpitched percussion instrument. You can use the second space from the top. Use X for the clef. Use only the Basic Note Values. Repeat some measures. Make each rhythm flow into the next (see the comments on p. 12).
- Don't use an eighth rest followed by three eighths or the same pattern in sixteenths.
- Don't follow two eighths or four sixteenths with a rest. These patterns are hard to perform.