5

I have a fair amount of knowledge when it comes to "rules" regarding music of the bygone days of the traditional prelude & fugue, the motet, and four voice harmony of the Baroque era. Specifically, the fact that parallel 5ths & 8vas were considered unorthodox, the tritone of a Dominant 7 chord should expand or collapse because of its instability etc...

But what about modern day tonal music? I have played around on my piano with chord progressions that break all of those "rules" and if you'll forgive me for taking the risk of sounding cocky, I sound amazing! ☺ So when we shy away from the rules of 18th century counterpoint to create today's modern musical qualities, why does it work now if it didnt work some 300 years ago?

Furthermore, how do I know if a certain musical idea (i,e. A melody and its accompanying harmony) will work if i were to just notate the music without plucking it out first on my piano? One simple example would be "twinkle twinkle little star" ....using only I IV and V chords I can apply alberti bass while the right hand plays the melody. This usualy works but sometimes a rather harsh dissonance creeps in and I feel like I need to simplify my harmonic pattern to block chords so that those dissonant passing tones and neighbor groups are not obvious.

Is there any clear cut solution?

11

But what about modern day tonal music? I have played around on my piano with chord progressions that break all of those "rules" and if you'll forgive me for taking the risk of sounding cocky, I sound amazing!

I daresay you do! However, while you may be breaking those rules, you're probably obeying newer ones. As time moves forward, more styles are invented, presented, and refined, leading to new rules that become part of people's musical vocabulary... and there are fewer and fewer things that sound 'wrong'.

Unfortunately, the teaching of music theory often fails to present the rules of newer styles with as much enthusiasm as the older ones, which can lead to the impression that older music is all about following rules and newer music is about breaking them, which is not really the case.

On a more specific point, equal temperament has been quite an important innovation as it allows more kinds of harmonic relationships to work.

Furthermore, how do I know if a certain musical idea (i.e. A melody and its accompanying harmony) will work if I were to just notate the music without plucking it out first on my piano?

  • Consider who your listener is
  • Work out all the possible 'sets of rules' that particular listener accepts as being 'something that works'
  • then work out if that melody and harmony follow any of those sets of rules.

That might sound rather flippant, but so much of music is about expectations - set up any kind of pattern that allows the exploration of a space within a certain set of limitations and you'll probably find that some people will find that it 'works', subjectively.

6

First off, you're not quite getting the point of the things you are bringing up. Parallel fifths and octaves looked down upon it counterpoint not because they sound bad, but because in counterpoint you want all your melodies to be independent and parallel octaves and fifths make your melodies interdependent. The dominant 7th came into popularity due to the tritone and contrast in consonance and dissonance made it a very powerful tool for composers. This limit of consonance and dissonance as time went on can even be which if you follow the path enough in music history leads to the emancipation of dissonance which is pretty much the stat of atonal ideas.

There's no "one theory" to music there are many if not infinite approaches to composing and analyzing music. The common practice period though is typically the basic starting point of any music theory class due to the roots of a lot of today's music having its roots in this and functional harmony. You can always find counterexamples, but most songs you look at will have at least some hint of functional harmony in it. This does not mean functional harmony is the only thing that will work again there are many theories and styles out there that you can pick apart you may like some and you may not like others, but they all have something to offer for composing.

Furthermore, how do I know if a certain musical idea (i,e. A melody and its accompanying harmony) will work if i were to just notate the music without plucking it out first on my piano?

This is not the point of composing a melody and accompaniment. Any theory you study will give you an idea of how to harmonize a melody and what melodies work and don't. Just sticking with functional harmony you can harmonize any major with just the primary chords and with a slightly more advanced knowledge of functional harmony and use of borrowed chords, Neapolitan chords, and augmented chords you can harmonize pretty much any kind of melody.

The issue is while this may sound ok, it doesn't mean its what works best or what you are going for as a composer. This is important and typically keeps novice composers from truly advancing. You need to know how something sound and how you can uses it as a compositional tool. Ear train should give you a basic idea of how to notate what you hear and hear what is notated, but again there's a lot out there and the more you study the better you'll be.

  • In OP's defense, s/he never said parallel fifths and octaves "sound bad," just that they were unorthodox. But you're right, this is a really common misunderstanding! – Richard Jun 11 '16 at 7:18
  • @Sam he said in the next paragraph " I have played around on my piano with chord progressions that break all of those "rules" and if you'll forgive me for taking the risk of sounding cocky, I sound amazing!" Which implies he thought that this rule if broke would not sound right. – Dom Jun 11 '16 at 10:45
4

"Furthermore, how do I know if a certain musical idea (i.e. A melody and its accompanying harmony) will work if I were to just notate the music without plucking it out first on my piano?"

You cultivate your "inner ear". An essential facility for any composer, arranger etc.

Before there was Common Practice harmony, there was Organum. NOT using parallel 5ths would have "broken the rules"!

Students worry far too much about "rules". They're useful until your ears and experience let you judge for yourself whether a certain choice of notes weakens or strenghtens your music. Can you hear why a parallel 5th weakens the richness of Bach-style SATB harmony? Then go to IMSLP and dig out "Petites Litanies de Jesus" by Gabriel Grovlez and soak yourself in them! But also note how he follows many of the old "rules" regarding voice-leading and harmonic density.

  • If you are just "writing notes on paper" without knowing what they sound like, you aren't "writing music". At best, you are making some sort of graphic art or design. But (I assume) you can write English text without needing to say the words out loud as you do so to check what you are writing, and there is no reason why you can't learn the same skill of writing music without physically "plucking the notes out on a piano". – user19146 Jun 11 '16 at 0:55
  • Interesting insights! So my next question: Lets take John Cage, for example. I recall watching an interview where he stated that he doesnt try things out before writing them down. Instead, he writes it first, in order to hear it, and often hearing it for the first time in performance. Given his statement, could one say that he wasnt "writing music" as you mentioned in your answer? Or is this more of a subjective idea? – CavieVibes2003 Jun 11 '16 at 12:02
3

All of the above answers are correct. We can generalize here: the rules that govern what is permissible in music evolve, both in cultures and in individuals. Bach is beautiful within and because of what is not allowed to him, and so is Patti Smith.

You can make up your own rules. But there's no guarantee they will work for everyone or anyone else. If you try to write with no rules, you will get what most people consider to be on the fringes of music, or not music at all:

  • I ran across this particular ted talk a few days ago but never got around to watching it. Interesting that it may apply to my question. – CavieVibes2003 Jun 11 '16 at 11:18
  • It's well worth watching. I don't think it's fruitful to try to define exactly what counts as "music", but I would say that most of what we consider music does follow rules that are perceptible. – Scott Wallace Jun 11 '16 at 11:32
1

There must be something within each piece of music that has survived to our own times for it to remain fresh, inspired and worth keeping in the repertoire. Being quite fond of Baroque and pre- Baroque styles does not embrace some weird and horribly limited fad for recording four linked concerti by one Antonio Vivaldi and patently ignoring his ' other' compositions. We can write or attempt to write new music but as for its survival factor, I am not so sure. The matter is subjective. Tastes change and one period welcomed other composers incorporating borrowed material into their own work as the norm. Today, it would come under the heading of plagiarism. As in writing a thesis and copying and pasting some other's work. Oh dear!

1

Answer 1 - Culture, tradition, aesthetics. Musicologists will tell you that the rules of harmony and counterpoint you mention are a specific product of time, place and culture. They come to us through some very particular western traditions of music making. Some were favoured above others, because they sounded nicer, or they were spread in popularly received ways. If you take a look at what remains of some of Europe's folk and madrigal traditions, you'll find alternative 'rules' for music making, with different aesthetics. Wacky quartertone tunings and cheeky syncopation. You will find this diversity replicated across the world.

Answer 2 - If you have learned about the history of classical no-nos, you will have heard about avoidance of the 'the devil's tritone' and the use of close harmonies to avoid the so-called 'wolf keys'. These conventions arose not because of any inherent musical error, but because of the physical limitations of historic instruments. They were hard to get in tune, and hard to keep in tune. If you wrote harmonies beyond what the basic harmonic sequence of physics provided, it would just sound messy. But with modern instruments, you can draw on so many more atmospherics, using to great effect what might have once been scorned as disorderly.

Answer 3 - My husband and I trained as composers at a music institute. The art of being able to hear and hold in your imagination what you will set down on paper comes with practice. Try it in reverse: practice reading scores. Listen to the recordings and follow the parts. Try it with small ensembles and large orchestras. Then see if you can work your way up to transcribing what you hear in a recording. This was a regular exercise in our classes, which became progressively more complicated. In time, your auditory imagination will be better aligned with your writing ability. You will over time, be able to simply read a score and hear it in your mind (the way you would hear words when reading a book), and you will also hear and create your ideas mentally before you write them down.

We practice doing this with words our whole lives, but not with sounds and images, and then marvel when others do as if it were a kind of sorcery! It's just another part of your brain, waiting to be grown.

P.S.: I am happy to hear you are experimenting with musical ideas that you like the sound of. :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.