I'm writing a piece and I have begun exploring modality to be able to use it in my music. Actually I've used it before in a very basic way and I like how it sounds but I always end up using all "white keys" on the piano. I 'm trying to spicy it up a bit .. how to introduce accidentals in a smooth way ? I don't want to copy Debussy because he has such a particular sound you end up sounding well.. just like Debussy ! So I thought about Ravel, a bit more subtle maybe.. he hasn't composed much music for piano so it's harder to analyze.. but I will eventually. Does anybody have any tips to get started ? What to look for ? Thank you very much !!!

  • For starters, make sure that the piece feels modal, which means that the root note must be perceived as the root note. The characteristic tones, i.e. those that differ from the parallel Ionian/Aeolian scale, are important as well.
    – user43681
    Mar 3, 2018 at 6:57
  • Not quite what you're asking, but Debussy's more tonal piano works (e.g. Clair de lune, Arabesque No. 1, Rêverie, La fille aux cheveux de lin, etc) already have some distinctive compositional features. While it has structural cadences and mostly uses harmonies belonging to the key, its off-tonic opening and lack of functional harmony leaves the key signature ambiguous for a while (usually until the cadence that ends the first phrase). Note also that even though the music is tonally and rhythmically more ambiguous, its counterpoint and large form are more traditional.
    – Remy
    May 4, 2018 at 2:58
  • But I think your question is really about the less tonal works of the two composers, exploring modality and unusual scales. I am not an expert on this, but to me it always seemed that a strong command of counterpoint is one of the most important skills to develop to keep this music sound familiar. This can consist of a lot of parallel sixths or even parallel fifths, or more melodic independence. Whenever you venture into unfamiliar musical terrain and explore new musical languages, the most important thing is to have a clear vision and adhere to it consistently (or deviate deliberately).
    – Remy
    May 4, 2018 at 3:09

1 Answer 1


Without going through too much details on music theory, my recommendation is to rethink what sounds smooth or what sounds good.

You can use tons of accidentals or black keys and still maintain very strong (or make even stronger) tonality, and use no or very few accidentals and completely loose tonality and still make it sounds very smooth.

Tonality means having a strong sense of tonal direction or tendency, like gravity - it pulls everything to one direction. You can fly, you can rocket your self into upper atmosphere, but gravity will always pull you to a direction. You can change the direction, but there will be direction still. That is how tonality works. Modality also has strong sense of direction it is just a different kind.

If you see the music from Romantic or Late Romantic composers, they use tons and tons of accidentals but they still have strong sense of direction.

In order to be able to write good chromatic music, you probably want to rethink this sense of "direction". Debussy is a good example. He defined totally different sense of direction - it is almost directionless, but that does not mean the music sounds out of whack. It is like turning off gravity - things will be very different, but it could still be very joyful.

Try not to think too much about using more accidental, focus more on the sound that you want to create. You need to have real or inner needs for those special notes first. You should first hear it in your head before you write it. To do that, you would need to build the new sense of direction or sense of what sounds good or bad.

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