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Are there any hobby composers here or full-time composers around here? I am rather new to composing but I have high hopes in composing in the future.

I would like to compose a simple piece of SATB music for a choir. Where should I start with this?

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Just do it - and keep doing it.  I think that's the most important advice for any would-be composer. Like everything else, the more you practise the better you will become.

Firstly a health warning to what follows. As a student I did have composition lessons from three different people, all of whom were Doctors of Music  - two by examination, the other by a chat over a glass of sherry (so he claimed, though I believe the small matter of a Fantasia for cello and orchestra was also involved). None of them managed to turn me into a composer. I remain at best a hack, but that's entirely my fault, not theirs. Nevertheless they did give me a fair understanding of what is involved and they did manage to sharpen my critical ear quite a lot.

How much do you know already? I'm hopelessly out of touch with what goes on these days in schools by way of music lessons.  So far as I know (and it was certainly the case when my son was at school), in state schools composition now consists of nothing more rigorous than sitting down at an electronic keyboard and/or computer and producing a recording that "sounds OK to me". The problem with the "sounds OK to me" school of composition is that it doesn't provide students with the necessary critical faculties to judge whether what they have produced actually is OK or not. It's true that there are composers who have managed to make a living out composing despite such a drawback, but they are not very highly regarded amongst more critical musicians. 

As far as I am concerned, the essential starting point for any composer, whatever the idiom they eventually choose to develop, is a solid grounding in, and command of, the rules of traditional four-part harmony. This alone won't be enough to guarantee that you will write good music, but a lack of it will most certainly guarantee that you write bad music.  There are books for this. It's no substitute, but you can pick up some feel for correct harmony (e.g. good chord spacing, part writing, cadences) from traditional, four-part hymn tunes. Avoid more modern worship songs, the arrangements of which can be utterly inept. The main aim of learning the traditional rules is to understand what makes for elegant harmony with a consistent style and to train the ear to hear what is weak or clumsy. It's all very well knowing that, for example, consecutive fifths and octaves are forbidden, but that knowledge isn't going to do you any good until you can understand why those rules exist - in other words until you have trained your ears to hear what is wrong with them. A fundamental requirement for all good composition is consistency of style,. whatever that style might be. Ralph Vaughan Williams deliberately exploited the particular flavour of consecutive fifths, but it was always within an overall harmonic idiom in which they sounded perfectly in style.

Do you sing in any of your school's choirs?  If not, join and get singing; the experience 'from the inside' will be invaluable.  Learn what the different types of voices can and can't do. Learn not only their compasses, but also about tessituras. (It may be reasonable to ask your tenors to sing a top G, but if you ask them to do it continuously for five pages without relief you'll be asking for trouble - and possibly a bodyguard). When you have composed something, make sure each part is singable by singing it to yourself.

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Strangely (or, not), I disagree fundamentally with Vox Humana, (and, probably, he will with me) here. The problem with many composition lessons is that you will learn what was the fashion, some time ago; and fashions often move very slowly. This has also been the case with the various periods of musical style. New ideas and composers with ‘new ideas’ have usually been derided as, variously, heretical, iconoclastic, dangerous or plain mad: polyphony and Berlioz are just two of many examples.  

Nonetheless, I do agree with several things he says and his description of the ‘sounds OK to me’ lessons sound like nothing more than poor practice, possibly stemming from when it was ‘bad’ to tell a child not to do something. A course of lessons (units of work usually lasting a half-term) would incorporate listening to and ‘analysing’ several existing works, from various musical traditions, as stimuli for that topic. 

I had the 'training' he describes, rooted in the Classical and English traditions, and an English cathedral background. I wouldn’t say learning to compose in the style of Herr Johann Sebastian did me any harm, but vertical SATB chorale-style pastiche didn’t help me develop my own style of choral writing. Britten, Mathias, Tavener and others served a staring points - the Tudor composers were my grounding. I was also fortunate to 'study' with one of the more progressive avant-garde composers, who always claimed not to be able to teach composing !

I taught Composition at university, other higher institutions and schools from the mid-70s until this decade. My belief from the very start was that 'Music is sound organised by humans'. In Western 'high art music', there is an expressive ('emotional') element, lacking in many other Musics of Our World - where Music, Dance & Drama are inextricably linked and are more 'functional', ceremonial . . . This changes, depending on which century/period one is talking about. Throughout (Western) music history, the music of the present was what was mostly heard. It is only recently that people have been able to hear the whole gamut of musics from around the world and its cultural and creative history. These now provide a completely new stimulus for composers that has hitherto been unavailable – possibly, even, undesirable, in many cases.

The state school system in the 90s and 00s could be most exciting: Composition was embedded as one third of the National Curriculum in the subject. (Performing was another third; Listening & Understanding the remainder.) Educators from other countries came and copied. The development of music computing enabled those who were ham-strung by a lack of technical and performing ability (honed over years of practice) to produce the SOUNDS they wanted. I recall a student in the 90s, for his GCSE, painstakingly entering notes, one at a time, for (and here is where it is relevant to OrganistOnTheHill) a 3-part (SABar) composition, to a Latin text (my suggestion). He was a talented solo (lyrical Tenor) singer, with a liking for musicals and, it turned out, a strong sense of line. He composed the top line. I then urged him to 'try out' notes, until he finished the lowest line. He used a similar process for the middle part. Borrowing one of the school computers over a holiday, he completed a work which I (and the subsequent  moderator) awarded the highest mark.

I suggest OOTH finds a (shorter) text she wishes to set, reads it through (out loud, and again and again) and understands it, its mood/atmosphere and its ‘implications’. This might mean an internet search of commentaries on/explanations of the text. She needs to discover for herself a sense of the RHYTHMS of the words and how they might combine in various ways. Individual syllables/words should be said out loud, too. What is hoped for is an individual, creative  response. This can be more problematic when the words are well-known; but, not necessarily. The opening of my Magnificat suddenly appeared to me, out of the blue, for instance. I ran with it and produced what I believe is a ‘strong’  setting.

This might first manifest itself in a cloudy way, with no defined notes, only outlines of pitches. Pitch combinations/harmonies might appear in a similar fashion.

A case in point: my (8-part) setting of Fall, leaves, fall, which the Master of The Queen’s Music graciously included in a concert given by the BBC Singers last year. It took weeks before I could ‘sort out’ the first word. I had the vague shape, but the actual note-lengths and pitches did not take final form for a relative age. Such things must be worked at; worried as a dog would one of its toys; put to one side of the mind, until the solution finally presents itself. Rarely, of course, these things happen immediately and serendipitously. My compositions can take months (I have discarded many), or be finished in a day.

This description is of part of the process – I hesitate to dignify it with the title ‘method’ - that I taught. It cannot quickly be learned, but assimilated over a period. Most students (eventually) responded - achieving good results in the class of their degree/A Level/GCSE grade/NC level.

This is just a start ! I don’t have time for further revisions and will post it forthwith. I suggest OOTH messages me privately, if she wishes to explore anything I’ve said.

 

 

 

 

 

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I am afraid that John Furse is right that our respective approaches are so dissimilar that we are never going to agree. It's useful to have a different view, though. I understand where he is coming from and I don't wish to take direct issue with anything he has written, but I would like to provide some further food for thought.

If you are writing in an atonal style then I’m sure it’s reasonable to say that the rules of traditional harmony and counterpoint are not relevant. However, judging from what pops up on the internet, most people writing choral music, however skilled or unskilled, still compose within the traditional tonal framework. They may use more dissonances, but, for all that, their styles remain fundamentally rooted in tradition. Any notion that dissonance automatically renders the traditional rules irrelevant is misconceived. Those rules evolved for very good reasons and composers like Britten, Leighton, Howells and countless others were all well aware of this, even when breaking them or bending them almost out of recognition. To cite just one very common infelicity, I have seen instances where even well-known cathedral organists have ignored the requirement for dominant sevenths to resolve correctly. If I dared to challenge them they would doubtless insist that what they have done sounds OK (otherwise they wouldn’t have done it), but I’m afraid they are just plain wrong. There are harmonic styles in which sevenths and other dissonances do not always need to resolve, but the failure to recognise the instances when they do, and a similar lack of discrimination over the handling of consecutive octaves and fifths, spoils countless compositions. As one of my teachers once said, “If you want to break the rules, you first have to understand them.” Without a solid grounding in conventional harmony, how is a composer to acquire the necessary aural discrimination? No doubt there is some point between mildly modern idioms and the truly avant garde at which the dissonance level becomes so complex that the traditional rules cease to have a part to play, but even then I think I would still argue that adopting such a complex style without having ever studied traditional harmony could be rather like trying to build a house without foundations. I agree with John Furse that such a study won’t help you develop a personal idiom, but it will help you control it and understand better what you are doing. Every composer’s style needs to be consistent. As I was told more than once, “You can’t write in a twentieth-century style and suddenly introduce a bar in the style of Mendelssohn.” But without methodically honing your ear in some way, how are you going to recognise the infelicities?

By the way, I am categorically not suggesting that one should complete a thorough study of traditional harmony before ever starting to compose. As I mentioned above, the most important thing for any composer to do is actually to compose.

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It's significant that Schoenberg insisted that his pupils had a thorough understanding of conventional harmony.  Vox Humana's fourth paragraph is an entirely cogent summing-up.

There are several versions of a story along the lines that Vaughan Williams pulled up a student for parallel fifths.

Student: "But it's part of my style".

RVW: "Then I should try to get rid of it if I were you".

Or, more succinctly, parallel fifths are ok if you're Vaughan Williams.  Which leads me to the suggestion that, if one is a genius in composing terms, one may have an inherent talent for producing what one wants.  Lesser mortals, like myself and probably most of us, sometimes have to produce something to fulfil a specific purpose (gebrauchsmusik), and for that we need to have had a proper grounding.

With regard to choral writing, I once had explained to me a very useful dodge.  It was an easy way to achieve perfect results in the Scottish Higher Grade choral harmonisation test.  A means to a specific end, to be sure, but valuable as a means of ensuring balance between voices (especially a high tenor - tenor parts written too low are one of the most common faults in amateur vocal writing) and reasonable vocal lines.  To do it, one needs to know that the said exam did not require fancy chords and that, in fact, even Bach chorales contain great many more root position common chords than one might imagine.

To the given melody, add an alto part that is either a third or a fourth below it.  Write a tenor part which is a fourth or a third below the alto.  Fill in the bass part to complete the chord (most often root position). If thirds and fourths don't work in particular instances, then (but only then) try fifths and sixths.  Check for consecutives.  Bingo!

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How old was Walton when he composed his “Drop, Drop Slow Tears” Litany, about 16? That was done without a composition teacher but Walton had already been playing the Stravinsky Ballets in piano duet or two pianos with the Dean of Christ Church. And of course he’d been singing a lot of fine anglican choral music (and probably some not so good stuff) for six years day in, day out.

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You've only got to spend a short time looking at the work of "composers" on the internet (e.g. CPDL) to see what garbage a lack of technique can produce.

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This is very true.  When writing traditional four part harmony, it's simply not acceptable to include random parallel fifths and octaves. Anyone who does try to write in such a style, absolutely must be able to pot and correct such solecisms.  The occasional deliberate pair of fifths (as in Gordon Slater's hymn tune "St. Botolph" or Hylton Stewart's psalm chants) is a different matter altogether, but you have to know the rules before you can break them.

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On 05/06/2018 at 18:45, David Drinkell said:

There are several versions of a story along the lines that Vaughan Williams pulled up a student for parallel fifths.

Student: "But it's part of my style".

RVW: "Then I should try to get rid of it if I were you".

Or, more succinctly, parallel fifths are ok if you're Vaughan Williams.

This, whether it is true or not, is at least plausible and calls to mind a comment that Stanford made to Howells during a composition lesson. Howells had brought Stanford a string quartet movement that contained a particularly rare chord with which Howells was quite pleased. Stanford said, "Do you like to be given a single dose of cod liver oil? Most people find a single spoonful a distasteful experience; but if the dose is repeated regularly over a period of several days, they get used to it, even get to like it." What Stanford meant was that you couldn't use such chords in isolation: you had to use them consistently.  It's basically what I was saying above about a composer's idiom having to be coherent.

It's true that some people can compose with remarkable fluency and assurance. I envy them. My record to date is a song that took me 20 years to finish.

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There are only two reasons not to write parallel 5ths and octaves:

  1. because they don’t sound as you want the music to sound;
  2. because your work is to be assessed and marked.

If your work is going to be assessed (unless you are writing in the style of, say, Debussy), avoid them like the plague, even if they sound OK to you.

If you are writing for your own pleasure or as a composer for publication, anything is alright as long as it sounds alright to you or fulfils the aim of the composition. When you compose, you either write what you hear in your head, or you discover something which you didn’t intend, but which sounds good to you. This is always how music develops. How, otherwise, did we get from Palestrina to Bach, and from Bach to Wagner, and from Wagner to Schönberg? Here’s a quote from a book by the noted scholar of Bach and Wagner, Laurence Dreyfus:”In 1845, Robert Schumann wrote Felix Mendelssohn a letter, shaking his head over the recent publication of the Tannhäuser score, chock full, he grumbles, of forbidden parallel fifths and octaves. But after hearing the opera in performance he admitted to Mendelsssohn that he had to ‘take back some of what he had written after.....reading the score: everything seems rather different when presented onstage. I was deeply moved by a lot of it.’ “

 

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Yes, but carelessness can result in parallels being let through when they shouldn't be there.  As we know, the reason parallel fifths and octaves a frowned upon is because they are very  noticeable.  Therefore, in harmony which is in any way along conventional lines, they need to be very carefully controlled and only allowed if the effect is definitely wished for.  Letting them slip by is not the same thing, and will often lead to further unfortunate progressions.

We all know that RVW used parallel fifths as an integral part of his style, but it is recorded that Herbert Howells's publisher refused to accept "A Spotless Rose" unless the fifths in bars 24-29 were taken out.  Howells went to another publisher and posterity has proved him right - the offending passage is one of the most sublime in the repertoire.  But it is a special effect and, if we are to take liberties, we need to be equally sure of what we are doing.

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I don’t understand what you mean by “conventional harmony” or what another writer has described as “traditional harmony”. These are very imprecise terms. If what is meant is the harmonic conventions of certain periods in the past, I would counter that there is no objective reason to value the music of one era, or of one genre above another. If someone writes a piece of music with parallel fifths or octaves and it sounds to right them, that’s fine. If someone else doesn’t like it, that’s too bad. And we haven’t even started on harmonic progressions or doublings. A problem only arises when a composer writes something without knowing what it sounds like. 

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14 minutes ago, Zimbelstern said:

If you are writing for your own pleasure or as a composer for publication, anything is alright as long as it sounds alright to you or fulfils the aim of the composition.

This is the "sounds OK to me" argument and would no doubt be the excuse of those people responsible for what Mr Barber bluntly but so accurately described above as "garbage".  Therefore the third and most important reason for avoiding consecutives is to train your ears, which, as I have been arguing all along, is the point of studying the conventional style.  David's comments are spot on. In my own confections I'm perfectly relaxed about using consecutive fifths when it suits me, even chains of them sometimes, but I believe that I do so in a way that melds effectively with the rest of my harmony. If I'm wrong and they sound out of place, then I haven't adequately learnt the lessons my teachers tried to drum into me.

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25 minutes ago, Zimbelstern said:

I would counter that there is no objective reason to value the music of one era, or of one genre above another.

The traditional, essentially nineteenth-century style as practised in the old standard hymn books (e.g. A&M, English Hymnal) and codified in traditional harmony books such as Lovelock's volumes and many others has been honed and refined in order to teach people how to write elegantly. So far as harmony goes, I may be mistaken, but I think the codification is more detailed than anything from previous eras, and I'm not aware of any more recent and alternative systematic approach that trains the ear better, so I still think it is the best foundational training for aural appreciation of harmony. That is not to suggest that earlier practices are inferior. Probably most of us of the older generation who had a higher musical education also had to study Palestrina style counterpoint and I also found that a very useful platform from which to develop an understanding of the individualities of other Renaissance composers - although whether it ever helped me in learning to write fugues I seriously doubt.

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I cannot agree that an important reason for avoiding consecutives is to train your ears. Aural training should be positive, not negative. That is to say, the aim of aural training should be to learn to recognise what particular combinations and successions of tones sound like. If you cannot hear in your head what you are writing, you are unlikely to be able to write down what your hear in your head. 

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3 minutes ago, Zimbelstern said:

If you cannot hear in your head what you are writing, you are unlikely to be able to write down what your hear in your head. 

Well, at least I don't disagree with that. 

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The writing of fugues is another example of rules being elevated to holy writ. Those of us who have learnt to write fugal expositions to satisfy examiners know that the type of fugue expected in an examination differs from the real thing, as Prout raged in the late 19th century (with a health warning to exam candidates), even suggesting that Bach would have failed an exam in fugue.

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I think this is widely understood and accepted, but it remains an inescapable fact that there is no greater compositional skill than learning to write good counterpoint. Feats such as Byrd's Diliges Dominum (an eight-part crab canon in which four of the voices are the other four sung backwards) or Tallis's seven-part Miserere nostri, an awe-inspiringly complex canon that he wove around a single part possibly set for him by Byrd* are testaments to amazing skills that I imagine few, if any, will possess today.  I've never regretted escaping the rigour of species counterpoint, but if more of the composers who grace the airwaves today had gone through at least some part of the traditional contrapuntal mill (and I'm thinking of several who don't show any signs of ever having done so), perhaps we might have been spared some of those vacuous offerings that consist of nothing but prettily atmospheric, homophonic chords in a more or less unvaried texture that just drone on interminably. I realise I'm being objectionably opinionated, but I don't apologise. I probably wouldn't have such a vituperatively negative opinion of such pieces if an innovative and initially effective idea hadn't been so much replicated with so little originality. The first hearing of one of these pieces was lovely, but that pleasure very soon became, "Oh God, not again!" The style has been done to death in a comparatively short space of time because it has little to offer. It's also one that doesn't involve any great skill (goodness knows I can do it myself) and therefore it doesn't deliver any profound satisfaction. Homophony certainly has its place - I'd never dismiss any technique - but it will never provide the enduring satisfaction that counterpoint does (I'm using the term loosely to include any textures conceived linearly with some rhythmic variety, such as those in Tchaikovsky or Brahms symphonies). Music incorporating counterpoint inherently has more to invite repeated hearing than a mere succession of chords. If it doesn't there's something seriously wrong with it. I keep mentioning Howells, but he's a great example. Lovers of his music often rave about his beautifully plangent, scrunchy chords, such as the end of A spotless rose or the Nunc of the Gloucester Service, but the most significant factor that gives his music its value is the fact that he was a supreme contrapuntist. In fact he's been called the greatest English contrapuntist of the twentieth century. Whether he really was or not I don't know, but his music does show a supreme marriage of harmony and counterpoint.

I feel sure that Zimbelstern will argue that it's not necessary to study academic-style counterpoint in order to write contrapuntally in effective modern idioms. If so I'd have to agree, but to me it says more about the superficiality of currently fashionable modern idioms than about traditional contrapuntal techniques. Honestly, I'm not against modern idioms. I'll assess any new piece on its merits and I'm a great fan of a lot of it. I can listen happily to Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti and others, even several composers on the contemporary English church music scene.  However, try as I might, I can't convince myself that we have any British composers capable of rivalling the former greats like Elgar, Britten, Tippett, or even Howells. Maybe they will emerge in time - but I bet they'll be contrapuntists.

*Both motets are in the Tallis/Byrd Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. In the case of Miserere nostri one partbook attributes the piece to Byrd and all the others attribute it to Tallis. John Milsom examined minutely every surviving partbook of the 1575 print and found very many stop press corrections evidencing assiduous proof reading, presumably by one or both of the composers. One anomaly that was never, ever corrected was the attribution of one of the voices of Miserere nostri to Byrd, raising the possibility that Byrd composed this single voice as a challenge for Tallis, who then supplied the six others parts.

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We seem to have strayed from the title of this thread: OOTH did not say ‘Composing SATB in the style of J. S. Bach’. I believed our ‘brief’ was to shortcut this ‘process’, offering tips for her immediately to plunge into the business of ‘composing’. It is Eurocentric in the extreme to delude oneself that the only way to learn how to create original music is to begin from pinnacles of Western high-art music and sexist to continue to use only dead white males as exemplars. We have moved on.

I would posit that Bach-style SATB settings are hardly ‘composing’: what goes before and after (the chorales - e.g. arias, choruses) is of a markedly higher ‘quality’. Remember that Our Johann was criticised for his (I simplify) too complicated harmonies and that (most of) his chorale settings would have been performed with the congregation singing the (chorale) melody in octaves - harmonic ‘rules’ (not codified until after his death), and the harmony itself, thus being sundered.

I defy even the utmost musical genius (Stravinsky, say) to write stylish SATB chorale pastiches of Bach without guidance. This process last several years, for most. And Igor did not sound like himself for years, but his teachers and favoured composers.

The situation in the visual arts is somewhat different. There are childhood works from Picasso and Michelangelo which are of astonishing precocity and point to how these artists would develop and display elements of their later style/s.

Music is the most time-based of the arts - needing time in various ways to be perceived and assimilate. Whilst some compositions could be labelled as ‘written-down improvisations’, most have to be worked at; to misquote Wordsworth: ‘corrected in tranquillity’.

In the 60s, O and A level, and the first years of most undergraduate, courses were ineradicably stylistic pastiche, pre-1850. This prepared us to be musicians of more than a century earlier ! And, of course, this was in the style of dead, white, male composers !  There was probably no time to tackle anything else; certainly not the way it was done then. And, we weren’t even ‘allowed’ to compose until the second year of my undergraduate course.

Leaping forward to the 90s and 00s: in my Key Stage 3 (11-14 years) curriculum, for instance, compositional styles (other than conventional ‘Western’ ‘harmony’) broached included medieval and ‘ethnic’ drones (using parallel 5ths, octaves and other intervals), Japanese melody/harmony, Minimalism, African rhythms, South Asian melody/accompaniment and Gamelan. Performing materials of similar and widely different genres supplemented and extended the above.

Techniques I (dis)covered during my master’s were happily utilised by Y7 students ! Composers such as Messiaen, Langlais, Reich, Glass and Cage have all been influenced by one or more of the above. Hearing the Gamelan was ear-catching, revelatory and profoundly style-changing for Debussy. The ears of the young, if ‘captured’ and ‘tuned’ early on, are more non-discriminatory than we might imagine. By avoiding a diet of the standards (orchestral, etc.), they could be enthused. This is why, thanks to enlightened music educators, and from the onset of the new GCSE approach and the National Curriculum, the numbers of students learning instruments and taking Music at 15-16 years soared. This would not have happened with the ‘take out your Riemenschneider’ approach. I wish I’d had this kind of music education: I’m sure I’d be less conventional. It is almost as if some wish this hadn’t happened: the ‘Music is expensive’ (as is D&T, also heavily threatened) approach of educational accountants.

I had been fortunate to do my ‘teaching cert’ (PGCE) in middle age and at the exciting, visionary development and implementation of the National Curriculum. Sadly, so, so sadly, this did not even last for a single cohort of students, let alone a generation, until revisions commenced - with more and more prescriptions. 

Yes, it may have been slightly inaccurate to claim that I learned little from these (Riemenschneider) exercises: obviously, they instil a certain type of discipline. That discipline, however, is very much vertical and four-square. Do we want all new music to be so ? We’d be writing new hymn books !

When I first went up to university, I showed a song-setting of poem, on which the ink was hardly dry, to my tutor - a famous composer, known to all on here. HE PUT IT TO ONE SIDE, without looking at it and proceeded to ‘other business’. He did not talk about it for the rest of the hour. This setting was very much influenced by Britten’s recently completed Winter Words cycle and I was most proud of it - believing it a mini-jewel of near perfection and encapsulating the mood of the poem. (Still do.) I was aghast and perplexed - vowing never to do that to one of my students. My respect for him was never regained.

 

 

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I’m afraid we are probably on completely different wavelengths here. I’m not arguing against the study of counterpoint. On the contrary, I would greatly encourage anyone who has the desire to do so. I am a great lover of Renaissance music and a huge admirer of contrapuntal skill - when it is delivered in the form of what, for me, is great music. And of course Bach made a profound study of species counterpoint and demonstrated that skill in his works, including the Art of Fugue. When I was in the Sixth Form I already loved that work so much that I and a friend (whose father lent him his car) made a round trip of 300 miles one weekend to hear Lionel Rogg play it in Norwich Cathedral. 

 

My point is this: there are different genres and eras and styles of music (I am speaking of so-called “Western” music here). Within that, there are different motivations for composing music. For some, writing music may be a requirement of their academic course or their job. For others, the motivation is simply a desire to play, record or get down on paper the music swirling around in their heads. For reasons which no-one can explain satisfactorily, a very small percentage of that music is regarded by later generations as great music. 

 

Perhaps I am in a small minority in enjoying and admiring music from a wide range of genres. I do not  believe that music of one era or style is superior to another, since no scientist, philosopher or musicologist can provide me with the evidence to prove this. What I do believe is that the only reason we are here today talking about “music” in the way that we are is because great composers have written great music which we enjoy and study. Probably the vast majority of music ever composed is not great music which passes the test of time (the only test which has any characteristic of objectivity in my opinion). But this music can take very different forms. It may be Gregorian chant, organum, medieval monody, English folk music, renaissance counterpoint, chorale, baroque concerto or fugue, hymn tune, classical or romantic symphony, a music hall song, atonal, serialist, jazz, pop, rock or worship song. The majority of music produced in any genre will not stand the test of time and is not great music. But my personal experience of music (for I can only speak of mine) is that a small amount of music composed in any era is for me enjoyable, not just for a short time, but consistently over many years. I remember the controversy surrounding the claim by the great music critic of The Times, William Mann, that the Beatles were the greatest songwriters since Schubert. But here’s an interesting thing. Having composed a large number of the greatest and most moving songs ever written, in the last weeks of his life Schubert turned to the renowned teacher, Simon Sechter, for lessons in counterpoint. The same Simon Sechter who told Bruckner to stop composing for six years (which he did) in order to study counterpoint. But being a great contrapuntalist does not make a great composer. What great music did Simon Sechter write?

 

The other observation I make it that no-one has ever composed great music without having developed a very high level of skill. I am an adherent of that argument which states that at least 10,000 hours of highly focussed study is required to become an expert in any field, including that of musical composition. The idea that a great composer springs, as it were, fully armed from the head of Zeus, does not bear examination. It takes a huge amount of skill and training to compose great music. But skill and training by themselves do not produce great music. I believe that composing is a highly individual affair, and that there is no one correct method. A computer can be programmed to write music, and already in the 18th century methods were devised of generating music that did not require any knowledge of harmony and counterpoint. However, I would not describe the results of such devices as musical compositions. What marks out a worthwhile piece of music is its ability to move the listener, whose response is largely an emotional one: feelings of pleasure, joy, euphoria, sadness, longing, happiness, strength, tragedy, victory, mystery, reverence, compassion, and so on can be evoked by music. Physical reactions are possible too, including the desire to dance. I do not believe there is a device that can do this: only human minds can communicate artistically with other human minds.

 

It isn’t necessary even to be able to read music in order to compose. There are many examples of great jazz compositions (or standards) composed by people who never learnt to read or write music. Someone else wrote it down for them - or not: it just remains a recording. The point is that not all great jazz, pop or worship song composers (and by composition I mean the act of producing music in either written or improvised or recorded form) can read music, or do not have the ability to write it down themselves or at least without help. But that does not mean that they can compose without skill. The greatest jazz composers spent thousands of hours learning to play highly complex harmonies and textures by ear. Indeed, it is not even clear who actually wrote some of their compositions. Take the case of Duke Ellington, for example, who is widely considered to be the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century. Although he could read and write music, his role in his compositions appears to have been been that of leader of a group of extraordinarily gifted musicians who worked collaboratively under his leadership. It also appears that his greatest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, had far greater skills than Ellington when it came to getting the music down on paper. Here’s a very interesting report of how this may have worked: “Ellington rarely wrote out a composition in complete form, and in many, perhaps most, instances, the work existed on paper only in scraps and pieces, which have long since disappeared. Furthermore, like that of the songs, the provenance of much of the work is obscure. The men in the sections worked out a lot of the voicings, although in the main from chords supplied by Ellington. Tom Whaley and Juan Tizol [Ellington's main copyists] often made alterations as they extracted the parts. A great many contrapuntal or answering lines were suggested by members of the band … Phrases, snatches of melody, came from everywhere. And, of course, after 1939 Billy Strayhorn contributed a great deal......Irving Drake described Ellington’s orchestra as a musical kibbutz, in that it was this kind of collective. There were, say, you know, five or six really talented composers apart from Ellington in that orchestra and often, you know, they worked with Ellington in developing his tunes and he would work on developing things that they came up with, and there was a lot of back and forth in it. To a great degree, they were credited and compensated and to a certain degree, they were not....When it comes to credit and compensation, the most aggrieved party was arguably Billy Strayhorn, mentioned only in passing by Collier above. Strayhorn was a composer and arranger of a similar stature to that of Ellington – some of the Orchestra's greatest hits, including their signature tune ‘Take the “A” Train' are his – but he has arguably never been given his full due, either in fame or fortune. The received wisdom was that Strayhorn and Ellington collaborated so closely and that their styles were so similar – or rather that they were able to mimic each other's style so perfectly (more often Strayhorn imitating Ellington than the other way around) – that their individual contributions were indistinguishable. The record was put straight in an important book by Walter van de Leur who, through a meticulous analysis of both composers' styles and working methods, argues convincingly that Strayhorn had a distinct voice and approach as a composer and that his contributions can be traced quite precisely – and that they indeed often remained anonymous and uncredited, either deliberately or through the negligence of the company employed.”

 

Indeed, this issue became even more important after the deaths of these composers, because of the questions of copyright. Who wrote what? A court case, Tempo Music v. Famous Music, was fought in which a judge had to pronounce on the questions of what melody, harmony and counterpoint are and what is a musical composition. It makes fascinating reading: 

 

http://mcir.usc.edu/cases/1990-1999/Pages/tempofamous.html

 

What relevance does this have for church musicians? During the mid-1960s Ellington and his band, ever innovative, started to perform jazz-style sacred-music concerts in large cathedrals throughout the world. The first was in San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral in 1965 and included In the Beginning God. Ellington featured another lineup of sacred songs at his 1968 concert in New York Citys Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine and went on to perform at St. Sulpice in Paris, Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, and Westminster Abbey.

 

But who composed them? How? And who wrote them down?

 

Perhaps we’ll never know.

 

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This discussion reminds me of the striking unity which has occurred over the evolution of other major fields of human intellectual endeavour which at first sight appear to be diverse and unconnected.  The Renaissance gave rise to the developments in harmony and counterpoint which have been discussed above, before music moved beyond them to embrace a broader range of techniques.  The same happened in art (drawing and painting), with the rules of perspective appearing before subsequent schools appeared much later.  And in physics, Galileo and Newton's classical mechanics held sway for centuries until c. 1900 when so-called 'modern' physics (relativity and quantum theory) took the subject in a different direction.

An interesting point in each case is that today's young practitioners are generally given a grounding in the earlier techniques before being exposed to (and encouraged to run with) the more modern ones.  One reason for this is, presumably, because the old methods can actually take one a long way even today.  This is certainly true in physics, where not the slightest smidgeon of relativity or quantum theory was necessary to compute the trajectory of the spacecraft which got men onto the moon in 1969.

The discussion in the previous posts suggests that much the same applies in music.  There is also the striking qualitative similarity between the planar sound tapestry of a composition constructed only from the horizontals and verticals of strict harmony and counterpoint and the visual appearance of a painting using nothing beyond the Renaissance rules of perspective.  In physics and art, the post-Renaissance understanding of perspective led directly in a mathematical sense to Einstein's general theory of relativity because he conceived of spacetime geometrically, i.e. in a quasi-visual manner.

A psychologist or neuroscientist might be able to explain how this apparent unity in diversity relates to the wiring of the brain.

CEP

PS I would venture to add a rider concerning why late 19th/early 20th century developments in the physics of music have provided more background to account for the subjective exposure ('noticeability') of parallel fifths and octaves.  It relates to the duplication of harmonics - for example, the octave of a note contains around half the number of harmonics already present in the unison voice.  Being at identical frequencies, pairs of these therefore effectively 'overwrite' each other in an acoustic sense, and this can thereby degrade the ability of the ear and brain to retain separability of the voices and follow them.  Such overwriting does not happen with intervals such as thirds to the same extent because there are fewer pairs of coincident harmonics.  Earlier texts (e.g. Prout's pronouncements) were written before this was properly understood, but at least some later ones touch on it.  This might possibly provide more ammunition (if that's the right word) for those who maintain that a proper understanding of the matter is necessary when deciding whether to include them or not in compositions.

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I cannot recall when a thread on this forum occasioned such lengthy posts (many of great interest and erudition); it is one of the most interesting for some time. OOTH is to be congratulated for provoking such enlivened discourse.

Please, also, let there be no misunderstandings: were I to appear on Love Island Streaming (or, whatever Roy Plomley’s programme is now called) and had to choose just the one disc for my desert island, it would be by Bach. Preferably played by him.

Parallels, documented in Western music since the days (and long, dark, cold nights) of organum, seem to have become beleaguered and have attracted unfavourable mention. Colin’s mention of this style made me wonder how much Léonin and his immediate predecessors actually understood the scientific theories behind parallelism, since their understanding was based on the ancient Greek theorists - Pythagoras and his chums. These organists just did it. Hearing organum performed well, in an appropriate acoustic and with its full richness of doubled octaves and fifths, is an experience which induces awe. Marcel Pérès has made outstanding recordings of this.

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It's a shame that discussions of traditional methods of composition on the internet so often get bogged down in a narrow focus on forbidden consecutives. It's my fault for mentioning them in the first place, but I did so because they were the most convenient way of illustrating the point I wished to make. This thread also seems to have got bogged down by an assumption that I was somehow recommending OrganistOnTheHill to write in a traditional harmonic idiom. I've no idea whether he does or not; he didn't say.  As I wrote in my first reply "As far as I am concerned, the essential starting point for any composer, whatever the idiom they eventually choose to develop, is a solid grounding in, and command of, the rules of traditional four-part harmony" (emphasis added). If anyone is unclear why I think this then I recommend that they re-read my previous posts.  Contrary to what has been intimated above, there is no reason at all why a study of what the Americans call the Common Style should in any way hamper or constrain the development of an innovative, personal idiom. The two can be developed in tandem.

Colin's point about our perception of consecutive octaves and fifths being perhaps influenced by harmonics is an interesting one. If a piece of standard, four-part harmony that included occasional consecutives were played back without harmonics, i.e. on four pure sine waves, would the gaucheness of these intervals then be neutralised? I suspect not, but I really don't know. It would be interesting to test the suggestion.

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13 hours ago, Vox Humana said:

Colin's point about our perception of consecutive octaves and fifths being perhaps influenced by harmonics is an interesting one. If a piece of standard, four-part harmony that included occasional consecutives were played back without harmonics, i.e. on four pure sine waves, would the gaucheness of these intervals then be neutralised? I suspect not, but I really don't know. It would be interesting to test the suggestion.

This is a very interesting suggestion, which could easily be tried on a Hammond organ (a 'proper' vintage one or a digital clone).  Perhaps an alternative, which also relates more closely to actual pipe sounds, would be to first play a piece on a principal stop and then on a claribel flute or similar with far fewer harmonics and see whether there is a substantial difference in the subjective result.  Presumably different people, having different degrees of aural acuity and musical training, would experience different effects.

In some ways it's analogous to something I bang on about with temperaments.  The rough thirds in equal temperament, for example, sound (to my ears anyway) less rough when played on a flute stop than on principals.  This is because the roughness largely originates as a consequence of the fast beats which occur between the 5th harmonic of the lower note and the 4th harmonic of the upper note a major third above (middle C and the E above beat at over 10 Hz for an 8 foot stop tuned to A440).  However, these harmonics are getting quite high in the harmonic series, so they don't exist or are very weak in some flute stops.  So if the harmonics aren't there to start with, the beat isn't either, so the roughness doesn't arise.  But for a principal stop these harmonics are invariably strong, giving rise to the fast and assertive beats which have fuelled the general dislike of ET thirds going back far earlier than Bach's time.  However the point is important to my mind, because it shows that the subjective effect of any temperament set up on the organ varies with the registration (more specifically, the timbres) used.  This makes the organ unique since any other keyboard instrument, other than a large harpsichord perhaps, does not offer alternative registrations.  It is therefore misguided in my view for writers on temperament to lump the organ in with all other keyboard instruments as though what is a good or bad temperament on, say, the harpsichord or clavichord will also be good or bad on the organ.  It is an oversimplified view and simply not true.  I can't recall ever having seen this mentioned, though of course that doesn't mean it hasn't been - I might have missed it.  However I digress.

CEP

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