The Basics of Composition: The "Rules"

I belong to a couple of online forums where sometimes folks who have decided that they are interested in composing submit their works and questions. Almost invariably, their questions are about the "Rules of Music"—and with equal invariability, their compositions are boring. Why would someone put notes on pages of staves with no inherent structure, nothing adventuresome, or, often, without a single accidental (called "white note music")? I mean, they are free to do so— they can scribble all over a score if they wish—but where do they get the idea that what they have written down is at all interesting except to themselves and members of their family? I submit that the questions about "rules" and the novice's lack of musical imagination are closely related.—and that is the subject I want to address in this mini-lecture.

When I began public school in 1949, music was an important part of the curriculum, right up there with reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. Every day we had drills teaching us how to read music. The teacher would put a score showing the C major scale on a poster hung at the front of the class. When she bashed (er, pointed) her stick at that note below the staff with a line through it, we had to sing "doh" (a deer, a female deer...sorry, that song came much later). And, so we'd go, up one step at a time through "ray", "mi", "fah", "sol", etc. The dreaded part was when she would point to the notes out of that simple rising sequence and we had to know instantly whether that note was "sol" or "lah." It got worse when we had to stand individually and sing those notes with dead-on pitch. Off by a quarter tone and the teacher's pointer would come down on one's shoulder as a stinging rebuke (if you were male, that is, girls were never subjected to corporal punishment).

There are two main effects of that sort of brutalized "teaching" that had life-long effects; one: most boys learned to hate school at a very early age; and, two: any creative urges were suppressed. Music was "doh, ray, mi, fah, sol, lah, ti, doh" and anything else was beyond comprehension. Fortunately, I was fairly bright so I didn't get pointers, yard sticks, or leather straps swung by angry adults in my direction very often—in fact, anything the schools could dish out was a mild rebuke compared to what I was getting at home. But, I still learned to hate school all the same: because of the straightjackets the school system was trying to force me into. I sometimes got into trouble for merely asking a teacher, "Why?" And, sometimes I got downright angry about it. (University was such an enormous relief to me, because the professors themselves were asking "Why?" and many of them deliberately endeavoured to break down the narrow world-view that the public education system had been beating us with since kindergarten. No, there is no "plot"—the reason for the blinders in the public school system is that most public school teachers are badly educated themselves.)

Anyhow, back to the subject of music and rules. By the time I finished elementary school (grade 8) I knew far more about mathematics than I did about music. At the same time that I was solving basic algebra equations, I was still being taught that all music was divided into two scales: major and minor, thirds were nice and 2nds were terrible, and that almost all music was written in 4/4 or 3/4 time (and rarely 6/8); anything else was an aberration. In secondary school a music teacher, on noticing that my interest in music was broader than other students, arranged for a private tutor to teach me the ecclesiastical modes and to prepare me for the music conservatory's examinations on harmony and counterpoint. Now the "rules" were really growing fast and thick, but I learned enough of them to get more than 90% on my four-part harmony and counterpoint writing. It did frustrate me that I was learning how to write "church" harmonies when I was listening to Stravinski and Shostakovich. I couldn't reconcile the "rules" I was learning with the music I was listening to. So, I went to the University of Toronto's music library and asked to see scores of 20th century musicians. My jaw dropped when I read the score of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. I looked at scores by Stravinski and was astounded. The only conclusion that I could come to was that my teachers and the conservatory of music were idiots. Either that, or they were hopeless old fogies and I was never going to learn anything interesting from them. When offered a scholarship to study music at the conservatory I turned it down. I could not imagine spending several years writing four-part harmony within strict guidelines.

I let all that brew in the background of my brain for about forty years (of course during those forty years I listened to much music, from all parts of the world) before I discovered that I could write music and get instant feedback from my computer. (What is the point of putting a symphony down on paper when you have no chance of ever hearing it played?) I could connect with composers on the web and learn from them. So, I went back to school and started exploring music in earnest.

One of the first methods I used to help break my brain free from ecclesiastical music ("Common Practise") was to use the texts of poems as the basis of my music. I mean that literally: I would assign each letter of the alphabet to a pitch, and then spell out the poem as pitch notations. I could play it back and listen to the various relationships that I might not otherwise have discovered. I never wrote anything memorial using that method: they were exercises. Coming out of those exercises at first I ignored concepts like key signatures and harmonies based on western triads. I did not entirely abandon structures within the western tradition, but I played fast and loose with them. Meanwhile, I was reading as many scores of my contemporaries as I could get my hands on and partaking in conversations about composition on the web.

It was when my music started to jell into structures and relationships that I had developed out of all that experimentation and conversations that my musical peers started to comment about my original voice and to treat me as one of their equals. I had been re-inventing music within myself and it was starting to show. (One of the reasons that those who pump out imitation Mozart and Brahms will never write good music is because none of it is genuine. Wearing a powdered wig, stockings, breeches, and a cut away coat will not make one an 18th century nobleman either.)

Occasionally, someone will accuse me of "breaking the rules" and writing atonal dischordant music. Which, specific "rules" do they have in mind? Do they mean the rule that music can only be minor or major and in 4/4 or 3/4? That's my elementary teachers tried to convince me was the case. These amateur critics often have a perception that J. S. Bach followed a set of rules that, if only we could master, would guarantee that our music is "good." (Which is nonsense, of course: J. S. Bach did not follow a "rule book;" what he did was inventive and original; and I don't even want to go near the subject of what is "good" or "bad" music.) Sometimes they believe that in 1900 the "rules" were abandoned and chaos ensued. (Another nonsensical notion: music continued to grow and evolve after 1900 in the same way that it had grown and evolved before 1900. What changed in the 20th century was mass communications that spread new ideas faster and allowed music to grow in completely new directions. The phonograph meant that a farm boy in northern Ontario could hear the same music that a rich Italian could hear at the opera house.)

I have produced very little music that's suitable for sharing in the past year because I have been exploring what it is that I understand and structures the musical ideas that my brain produces. I don't want to "codify" such thoughts because to do so would violate the very spirit out of which they grew—and, besides, my ideas are continually evolving. But, I thought that by sharing some of my insights I might give spark to someone who is also struggling to understand music on his or her own terms.