Sometimes I'll be working on a group of pieces and realize that I'd like to experiment with abstracting some of the musical ideas (rhythms, harmonies, etc) into a musical vocabulary that I could use for my own improvisations or compositions. Has anyone here ever tried this? How could I methodically break down these classical piece(s) into a musical vocabulary?

FYI, I'm a fairly advanced, amateur classical guitarist/pianist with experience playing music spanning periods from Gaspar Sanz to J.S Bach to Villa-Lobos. For the purpose of this question, if you'd like to use Erik Satie's Gymnopodie's as an example, that would be a bonus for me as these are an example of the kinds of pieces that I'm talking about.

  • Is your question like "How can I figure out how to compose like Mozart/Beethoven/Dvorak/John Williams/Nobuo Uematsu/the Strauss family/etc."?
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 14, 2017 at 1:41

3 Answers 3


You could use a recursive application of counterpoint:

  1. Isolate a solo melodic fragment (or a whole cadence).
  2. Write a second voice in counterpoint to the first.
  3. Write a third voice in counterpoint to the second.
  4. Eliminate the source voice.

For rhythms, you can

  • isolate fragments and simply repeat (or roll) them (especially interesting if the 'time' of the fragment doesn't match the 'time' of the new framework)

  • reverse the rhythm

  • double or halve the time (or other multiples)

  • remove the "uninteresting" beats (simplify)

  • combine (superpose) any of these variations (extrapolations) perhaps at different offsets in time (phased)

  • use simplified fragments as 'figures' in existing rhythmic patterns. (Theoretically, any eight notes can be played "eight-to-the-bar".)


I don't know if you can find a methodic formula to do this that is that detailed. But as overview, you might consider this process:

  1. Pick a piece, or group of related pieces
  2. Do various analysis of the pieces. Analysis such as harmonic, rhythmic, structural, motivic etc might be useful depending on the piece. You can also look for papers that have already done this for the same piece or other pieces by the same composer/period to give you ideas.
  3. Try to compose a short piece in that style or that includes an aspect of what you learned from your analysis. Or maybe improvise on what you have learned.

Classical Music (the genre, not the period) covered a lot of periods of music. Different periods and composers have different analysis techniques so there isn't going to be One Formula to Rule Them All. But this is a general framework you can use to study this.

  • Kyle: Thanks for the answer. I think considering the breadth (and perhaps vagueness) of my question, your answer is pointing me in the right direction. I'll try your suggested approach and maybe come up with some more focused questions as I go along.
    – seanreads
    Jul 14, 2011 at 21:36

In a similar way to what has been suggested before, you could try writing variations on some part or parts of these pieces. You could even take rhythmic ideas from some of the pieces, melodic from others (or the same), and harmonic ideas from others (or the same again.) "The Technique of Variation" by Robert Nelson gives examples of how this has been done over the last few centuries.

I'm suggesting variations in order to concentrate the parts being used.

  • My keyboard quit as I was entering the answer so I'm adding a bit as a comment. One also wants to use small parts of pieces so as not to violate copyright constraints. A few other tricks would be to take a melody and invert the intervals or reverse the order of the notes to use as theme, Also, short motifs from one piece could be used modified by rhythms from another. There are m any possibilities.
    – ttw
    Dec 13, 2017 at 21:30

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