I'm not sure if this problem is unique onto to those who start composing or even just me, but I seem to sometimes have a fear that if I tilt towards certain chord progressions while composing classical music, my song will become "cliche" and unoriginal. (e.g. the Dm Bb F C) At the same time, I realize that going straight to atonality causes some loss of emotion, as in "what is the mood even?" since it's hard to clearly state "oh it's a happy atonal piece", from my view at least.
Thus, I am wondering whether this is irrational, as it leads to me scrapping some ideas at times. Also, I really wonder whether other composers have felt this way before. =P Thanks in advance.

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    Just listen to some random radio stations & you'll quickly realize you couldn't possibly do worse than half the dreck that's popular :-) Feb 11, 2014 at 13:05

5 Answers 5


I disagree with the idea that "atonal" music causes any loss of emotion, but I'll set that disagreement aside. Here's what I'll say:

1) NO WAY IN THE UNIVERSE are you the first composer to feel this way. Please don't let either what you're worried about, or the worry itself, frustrate or upset you.

2) Part of the answer is that there are so many ways to write music, so many arenas in which you can be original, so much possibility with both cliched and non-cliched ideas, that you can't worry about this too much. If you're interested in what you're doing, then you're doing something right. Keep exploring definitely, but don't get bogged down in worrying about whether every note is unique to you because...

3) SPOILER ALERT: There's no way in the Universe that every note or chord progression you write will be unique and utterly original. Sorry, but it just doesn't happen. Moments will be uniquely yours, you'll explore new and interesting concepts, but all artists work with various amounts of original and unoriginal work. It's often really hard to even tease out what aspects are original and what aspects aren't.

4) But if you really do want to explore more areas of compositional ground, and you don't want to abolish all sense of tonality or traditional harmonies, you absolutely can! Check out the work of Samuel Barber if you haven't already. Aaron Copland often found ways to make very strange progressions feel absolutely natural. Ruth Crawford Seeger might be a little too far to the "atonal" side judging from your question, but check out her String Quartet 1931 anyway, especially the third movement. The harmonies are often highly dissonant, but I don't think there's any lack of emotion in that throbbing, pulsing, living piece of music. Look into chord connections such as the chromatic mediant relationship, such as Bb Major to D Major. The chords still connect to each other due to a common tone (in this case, D), one note is chromatically altered (F to F# in this case) and one note moves by step (Bb to A). This kind of connection is reminiscent of so-called "linear harmony" such as that used by Liszt in, for example, his Sonata in B minor. Start from a triad or seventh chord you like, and just gradually change one note at a time until you reach a new harmony you like. Long progressions are possible in this manner, and the listener won't feel lost, even though some of the intervening harmonies might be quite dissonant and unexpected.

There's a whole universe of possibilities, even within a single D minor triad. Keep exploring, but don't listen too much to that little voice that makes you worry about either being too conventional OR too unconventional.

  • "I disagree with the idea that "atonal" music causes any loss of emotion, but I'll set that disagreement aside." I'd like your points actually, since I'm guessing you have more experience with atonal music. :3 When I listen to it, there's definitely moods, just of a different (undefined for now) type than what's usually heard compared to major/minor->"happy"/"sad". The String Quartet's really cool, but I can only associate it with fear and confusion. o_O Perhaps what I meant is that atonal makes diff moods, just not an enhanced super-ultra-major-cadence-happy. Feb 11, 2014 at 0:26
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    Agreed with Pat here - what you are asking crosses every composer's mind. We all struggle to find that balance of creating music that is unique to the vast music history already laid out. Being "atonal" isn't any better than being tonal, just like porkchops aren't any better than chili - some nights are porkchops nights and some are chili. The bottom line is: don't worry, write the music that you want to hear. Write what sounds good to you and your voice will change and mature by itself over time. As a composer, no one's fame explodes over night, so really, just learn as much as you can. Feb 11, 2014 at 1:43
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    @SharkRetriever I don't know, the emotional response to different music is so subjective, I'm not sure there's much to say. I don't find the Crawford-Seeger 3rd movement to illustrate fear or confusion, but I wouldn't call it happiness either. Ultimately, I think happy/sad is way too impoverished a continuum for emotion in something as big and varied as music. I can think of "happy" atonal music, such as a lot of the work of Luigi Dallapiccola, but you wouldn't necessarily agree. I admit that my personal preference tends to be for darker emotions and anger... Feb 11, 2014 at 2:48

Try not to think about the chord progression, but rather focus on the melody. There are dozens of ways to harmonize your melodies, so write what sounds good to you, but focus on the melody first! Afterwards if those chords are really bothering you then find some other chord to harmonize with that add some sort of emotion to your melody.

Also, do not scrap your ideas. Put them aside, you may want to revisit them in the future.

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    Excellent point. NEVER throw anything away if you don't have to. You can always revisit later, and you might be surprised by how fresh they are. Feb 11, 2014 at 19:42

I have a similar problem --I'll often start writing a new song, then abruptly trash it because I'm convinced that it's "already a thing". One of the best songs I've ever written once met its end this way, but fortunately my friend was able to reason with me--"Just because it's catchy doesn't mean it's already a song!" After stubbornly (and paranoidedly) continuing to rack my brains for every song I'd ever heard that contained a particular syncopated rhythm, I finally accepted that it wasn't a duplicate, and I got to keep developing the song.

I think that while the chord sequence a piece is built upon definitely matters and influences every other element, it's not so much this foundation but the content fashioned atop it that most listeners will be judging. Very particular analysts may point out the commonly used sequence, but hopefully in the context of praising your ability to use an ordinary set of chords to construct something new and fantastic.

The person who will be the most sensitive towards how cliche the work sounds is you! Instead of hunting for common phrase endings that sound too plain and mundane to be any good, etc, try to view what you are creating as a whole, instead of having a condemning mindset even as you begin. Faith in yourself and in each new composition to evolve into an unforgettable great masterpiece is important!


I had the same fear of being unoriginal until I realized that there are a finite number of chord progressions and the melody played over it really brings out the originality. Chord progressions are like tools to use to help get an idea of a melody to compose based on the harmony of the chords. Study how other composers used the similar or exact chord progressions and how they changed it up with rhythm and melody player over the top of it for their composition to reflect their emotion.

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    Excellent point about exploring rhythmic interest when you're worried about harmonic interest. Feb 11, 2014 at 19:41

Reduce requirements on yourself and relax. Like in most of other areas, it is probably necessary to write a lot of crap before something really good emerges.

There is nothing wrong about this and this does not make you a bad composer as long as you recognise unsuccessful pieces and just keep them for yourself. Do not throw away the failed pieces immediately, you may find how to finish them better later.

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