Making Your Own Tools:

We have talked briefly about structure when looking at scales, harmonies, and rhythm, but there we were mainly concerned with how such elements are put together. Now let's discuss the shape of the music you are making.

From the most complex music imaginable to the simplest tunes, all music has a structure. Without form, music is a series of sounds. Look at this tune: Mary's Lamb

It is a simple 8-measure ditty. But, it is divided into two distinct sections of four measures each. The ear hears a "pause," or "resting place" on the half note in measure four. That "resting place" is mirrored by the whole note in measure eight, which has an even more "final" sound to it. I've described a possible harmony under the staffs (note, that this harmony is not more "correct" than any other harmony; it just happens to be the simplest of dozens, or more, possibilities). Measures three and seven have a harmony on a contrasting base than the rest of the measures. In this case, it happens to be on the dominant in contrast to the harmonies of the tonic. In this style of harmony, the dominant has an "incomplete" feel to it. It appears to want to "move" somewhere. (And, just because it has that air about it, does not mean we, as composers, have to give into it and let it do what it appears to want. After all, who is in control—the composer or the harmonies?) To cut to the chase: we have a resolution in measure four, and another in measure eight. No matter how complex one's harmony is, this same principle: of movement and of "resting places" (or, as I prefer to call them "targets") is a basic part of the form of a piece.

We also have repeating rhythms that fall in the same relative places in each of the four measure sections. I've marked them with brackets. Note that the rhythms in measures six and seven are marked with dashed brackets because, although they have a slightly different form, they are essentially the same as the rhythms in measures two through four.

Now, let's take a look at something a bit more complicated. Click for PDF file

There are two main ideas at work in this short piece. One of them is laid out in the first measure left hand with its percussive-like quartal chords. This figure, and variations on it, appears in measures 1, 2, 7, and 8 in the left hand, and in measures 3, 4, 9, and 10 in the right hand. It is accompanied by an arpeggio in the right hand in measures 1, and measure 7 where it is reintroduced in its original form. The repeatition of the right hand figure emphasizes and draws attention to the reintroduction. So, the chords and rhythm in the repeating figure can be labelled idea or "thematic unit" A. A contrasting idea appears in the bass in measures 3, 4, 5, and in 8, 9, 10. We can call this thematic unit B. Note how the two ideas play off against each other. Also, look for other rhythmically-related measures.

Now, if this example were to be extended into a larger work, I would treat this entire 11-measure section as a larger thematic unit. Following it would be a section about the same length in a contrasting colour. It could be less percussive and more lyrical; it would definately be tied to a different tonal centre. (You did notice that the tonal centre of this section is C, did you you not?) The dominant quartal harmony could be replaced by tertial harmonies, etc. Now, how do we handle these two different sections? Do we just keep adding new sections of about 11-12 measures in length, each in contrast to the other? We could, but, we'd be risking losing the listener's interest. The ear needs to be returned to "familiar" ideas now and then, like a refresher course. If we don't, then the ideas you have carefully developed, will be forgotten and the entire work will become a blur. However, simply repeating sections, note for note, is not very interesting. I know Hyden did it and so did the young Mozart, but take a listen to some of Beethoven's symphonic movements again— he often makes changes when he repeats a theme—and that was two hundred years ago. The repeat sign does not belong in contemporary symphonic or chamber music works. (I don't mean to suggest that a theme should be about a dozen measures. I just used that as an example. Themes can be very long and complex.)

There are many ways to string thematic units together. The classical sonata form of: A-A-B-A-development-A-B-A is an excellent framework, as long as each repetition of an idea expands upon it. Each repetition should be, in my book, a minor variation and extension of the original presentation. Also, there is no need (you should know by now that there are no absolute rules) to follow the classical sonata formula exactly. No one has since the end of the classical period in the first half of the 19th century. And, there are many other forms, other than the sonata. The basic idea of each is that the ear is reminded now and then of the central ideas which are expanded upon and contrasted with yet other thematic units. You can have A-B-A-C-A-D-A for example; or A-A-B-A-trio-A-B. (A trio is a section in a mood strikingly different than the mood of the main sections.) There is the passacaglia, where a simple pattern (often, but not always, in the bass) is repeated against contrasting and changing voices. There are many loose structures, but repetition of binding elements are still necessary. There is the fugue where themes can be treated to stretto, imitation, call and answer, inversions, mirror images, expansion, contraction in a more tightly-stuctured way than they would be in a traditional development section. And, don't forget all the great things that can be done with other formal elements, like introductions, bridges, codas, etc.

It is all up to the composer. Don't take what "everybody else does"—or what "everyone did" 150 or 250 years ago—as a guide post. The music, and along with it, all the melodies, harmonies, scales, rhythms, form, etc. must come from the composer as fresh and inspired creations.