Enhanced Voice Leading Through Chord Inversion

The way one note follows a previous note can build or resolve tension. And, how skillfully you craft the sequence of notes can make the difference between a piece which flows like water or a piece which stops and starts uncontrollably. Voice leading is the art of using one note in the melody and or the harmony to get to the next. I mention both melody and harmony because voice leading should be a consideration in both aspects of your musical works.

Think about a traditional I – IV – V – I pattern in the overall form   The notes of the bass-line comprise the root tone for each chord. Although the sounds for this common chord sequence function well they don’t allow for much crafting nor creativity. Total reliance on root tones for harmonic support leaves a piece rather dry and un-inventive.

Take the same chord sequence and perform a first inversion on the second chord. I – IV 6/3 – V – I  and the base note now lends variety. In terms of the chordal mass (the entire or bulk sound) not much has changed. But, options for texture and expression begin to open up. I have performed this same operation to establish a pleasing and clear attern within my recent piece ‘Sunset Celebration’ . The use of chord inversion enhanced the overall expression. 

extract_chord_inversionFollowing an inverted supporting tone, the next bass note could go up or down, could include passing tones, could introduce a new rhythmic element, possibly initiate counterpoint, etc. The possibilities are many once you try changing that support tone. And, by inserting distance across the interval you’ve added tension and excitement to a mundane chord sequence! The extract above shows how I used inversion to create a sequential ‘fall’ in the bass-line and then used an interval to create positive tension.

Crafting careful note choices in the bass and middle voices within the arrangement can help the flow of your musical works. It makes the difference between listener apathy and listener engagement. A flowing style is largely governed by used of root tones and or selective use of a particular chord’s inverted form. If you are working through a passage that was bland, you may want to experiment with inversions. The options for notes that follow open up. In doing so you may uncover hidden qualities that evoke a stronger response in the listener. A lot of power of expression can be found by taking some time to find opportunities to replace a root tone with a first or second inversion. Good luck in the development of your own works. May they flow like water to cut through rock over time!



Modern Foreign Languages and Music; Language as Sound, and Sound as Communication

It has long since occurred to me that different languages each hold their own music. I am a life long speaker of three languages and have enjoyed the pulse, rhythms, and song-like qualities of each of them. Foreign languages have their own individual musicality. This is something quite obviously present and available within poetry…whether the poem is in rhyme or modern prose style. But, I also believe such musicality is present and very much accessible in everyday speech (especially when the topic of discussion delves deeper and or more passionately into the subject). There are regional differences across counties within various countries. So, it follows that the ‘music’ of the language makes its differences known to native speakers. Many ways of speaking and sounding abound. So long as we are engaging new ideas and new modes of expression, everyday language makes use of many hallmark elements of music: i.e. phrasing, timing, tempo, intensity, mood colouration (modulation), theme with variations, and originality.

I have recently spent a little time in online exploration of language resources. And, fortunately for us there are many. I share with you a few to assist with those learning Spanish, and or, German. Both are, for me, fine examples of colourful and melodic MFL languages widely studied in schools today. I hope the links help to further your own language studies. And, I also hope you take notice of the wealth of expression, new pathways to logic, cultural interchange, and just plain great musicality available in other languages. All of these things may also be listed as benefits we garner whilst listening to music!  Ich wunsch’ euch eine gute Lehrreisse! Les espero una buena aventura aprendida!

Hay mucho mas que decir…Es gibt noch viel zu sagen…More to say in future









Fernando Sor, Breathing New Life into Old Works

As you can tell, from previous article titles, I often have to cope with putting musical works on hold. One strategy I’ve come up with is to take on a playful adaptation of a prior work (my own or that of a favourite composer). In this way I can modify sounds, textures, and moods whilst using an existing piece. It’s a way to keep the brain agile, especially concerning arranging and orchestration. A bit like adding oil to an engine, it keeps ideas lubricated. I know I’ll be able to rev the creative engine later, concerning my own works, when time pressures ease.

I have chosen to put the development of my own pieces down ‘briefly.’ In the mean time, to keep my mind engaged, I am working out a pianoguitar duet based on a short piece for solo guitar by Fernando Sor. I have little time these days for practice, let alone performance. But, I have many fond memories of past performances. Among the common cannon are the 60 Short Works for classical guitar. Good music has a timeless quality. The character and depth of expression make these studies an ideal focus for a bit of compositional effort. Here are my reflections on the process:

I look to preserve the characteristic phrases that make the piece a strong performance work for classical guitar. But, I also trade-off the solo line to the piano to extend the register above or below the relative guitar range. In places I have applied minimal piano – meaning no chordal or particular harmonic depth – to act as a surrogate guitar. The piano is a remarkably versatile instrument. And, in the case of this project, I am asking it to ‘become a guitar.’ (Yes, I was tempted to create a duet for two guitars…but thought that the piano could provide greater range in the lower and upper register [octaves]).

Both the guitar and the piano are string instruments, struck or plucked, with the ability to be percussive or lyrical within their physical parameters. I envisage performance in a hall which provides some resonant reverb as I compose. That way the interplay crafted between the instruments is neither too sonorous for one, nor too percussive for the other. My efforts should provide a blend of both percussive and lyrical qualities at the appropriate time. Even so, I want to favour the guitar in the overall expression. Young pianists enjoy a much larger performance development repertoire than young guitarists.

I take some creative license in shaping the piece. However, I don’t want to re-write a perfectly good composition. I’ve had to consider the transition(s) between major key passages and its minor form. As a solo work the shift is instantaneous. But to softly integrate the piano lead-in to the guitar I have ‘stretched’ the entry into the key change to minor and its return modulation to the major key. I have restructured the form. As a guitar solo, the piece stands with several repeated sections. I have removed two such repeats, and only covered the minor modulation once (because I elongated the entry into minor and crafted a very expressive minor-mode form with a short cadenza). As a guitar solo, the work relies upon the guitarist to re-interpret each section. But, I have discovered that the piano and guitar pull each other forward so effectively that I didn’t need the original repeats other than to restate the lovely theme to a finale.

Keeping the young player in mind, I plan to keep it simple – within the easy to moderate level of difficulty for both pianist and guitarist. The plan is to do a few such treatments to favourite works by Sor and publish the scores for young performers. I believe such a project might benefit young players who are looking to expand their range or repertoire and possible development within an ensemble. I know which piece is to be the next…if only I can locate it amongst the other volumes on the shelf!

As a coping strategy for dealing with external interruptions to my original compositions this kind of project is helpful. I am more at peace with permitting current delays to the development of current works. And, in coming up with this as an idea I now have a project to publish that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of before! The exercise is breathing new life into old and familiar works. Great fun, indeed.

Intent Behind the Music; Selecting Works to Publish

For so many listeners music is cathartic. Depending on the style and mood, a piece may speak to a person as if it communicates their own story, sense, or desire. Instrumental works function in this way, without words, to express and convey meaning. Part of that meaning depends on the listener’s own imagination. I sometimes field-test a work by sharing it with someone, never telling the title, and allowing the person to respond in their own way. I know I’ve created a ‘winner’ if the piece inspired visualisation or the sense of being transported. I hope you find the sounds, rhythms, and melodies I’ve published in “Suffolk Skies” and “Noun” pleasant, entertaining, and relaxing. Beyond having a listen to my own musical efforts I have written a few tips for the reader. It can be a challenge to decide which works to publish, and which to abandon. Here’s how I build intent behind the music and how I decide what to publish:

Have a look through the archive of articles relating to music composition and development. The archive can be found in the left side panel. Or alternately, I have provided an easy link to articles by myself and others (below) as related articles.

Sometimes a work takes many hours or days to develop. Other times a work may ‘write itself’ quickly, needing minimal editing or restructuring. Some of the production process can be mundane. But, it is truly rewarding to produce a piece that flows and tells a story, or sets a scene. The listener may imagine their own story. Or, if one is writing a music score to accompany video or a movie, the listener’s experience as watcher is maximised. Most film score composers say that they feel it was a productive day if two or three minutes of (complete) score was achieved. For the composer of ‘smaller’ works having no such production deadline is a luxury. I maintain that self-imposed deadlines can breathe life and energy into works. It is a rule I often apply to my own works. On one hand, I am careful not to rush the piece at hand. On the other hand, enforcing an imposition such as a time scale compels me to push the piece ahead. I may use this ‘tool’ to complete a section at a time, or an entire work. I believe self-imposed deadlines also prepare a composer for those times when a commission really does come.

I genuinely enjoy partaking in the creative process whereby works pass through my hands and result in new, challenging sounds. My ultimate litmus-test for any work is whether or not it begs to be heard again. Not every piece I write makes it to publication…only the ones that call me back to be heard anew. I believe, that after I’ve crafted a piece, it should speak to me across a resting period. Given a break, if the work rings out in memory it probably has sufficient potency as a musical work to resonate and relate to an audience. If I myself find a piece forgettable, it isn’t worthy of publication/recording. The challenge here is not to be too in love with one’s own creative  efforts. This helps to avoid selecting every piece ‘hoping’ there will be an audience for them. The truth is, an artists overall work is diminished by offering weak selections. If your weakest piece of music is still strong, your overall efficacy will show.

Music takes on new life, and new purpose for each listener independent of the composer’s intent. Some tracks are strong and bold while others were designed to soothe. I have to muster the fortitude to withstand an unexpected response. If the metaphor I’d built into a particular work was too obscure I may consider re-working it. I want most of my content to be accessible. I will say, though, at other times I simply acknowledge the response and hold firm. It may be a surprise to get a negative reaction from some listeners. Occasionally controversy is a sign of success or,  that you’ve tapped a nerve. If you feel a negative reaction was unjust you must kindly (and with great understanding and humility) accept the person’s review. Taking a bad review with a grain of salt can either strengthen your convictions about a work, or cause you to consider aspects that you hadn’t previously anticipated. We must always be ready to edit a work. We must also realise when a piece functions differently than we’d imagined it would. In either case, if you conclude that the piece stands on its own, whether it garners ready acceptance or provokes strong reactions, it may possess sufficient quality to ‘send to the printers.’

I hope my tips have provided some insights for you in your work. And, I hope you’ve enjoyed the variety and flow throughout both of my albums. Thanks for having a read and a listen!

How to Anticipate Audience Response; Writing Works That Reach Out to the Public

The energy built into a particular work comes from its spontaneity, form, development, and the artist‘s primal love for the act of creation. The composer/writer/sculptor/painter brings personal panache, style, experience and fundamental sense of experimentation to bear.  The average observer isn’t conscious of the elements you used to produce your work. Most observers, however, are able to recognise whether or not your work ‘speaks.’ It is because of that the composer must apprehend his or her own rationale behind the art. It is perfectly alright to create works of singular brilliance, that potentially no one else can relate to. However, if you have an audience in mind, you must be able to provide familiar links while including your challenging content.

The goal remains; how does one  create new material that easily relates to the general public? One way to easily accomplish this is to write in a current popular form and style. Similarity to contemporary, successful works can provide an inroad. The listener already enjoys a particular style. If the new artist can emulate or incorporate something of that style the audience may readily receive new works. The caveat to this is the risk one takes in sounding too much like other works. If the singer-songwriter writes pieces using the same sort of chord changes, vocals, and rhythms as other songs that have attained some success there is a slim chance that the work will bear some successful traits. But, some originality can be lost. The pop artist engaging this method would have to rely on tapping into a trend or groove that has been cut for them. How well the new artist can enter a pre-existing groove remains problematic. Tapping into a popular style may prove a good entry point. However, at some point, there has to be a leap forward toward innovation. The artist who is rooted in a familiar form and style has ‘relatability.’ New works must also try not to seem too fully engaged in merely imitating the work of others. Identify the specific elements that you use differently. Without over-using them see how well those elements may integrate into another (popular or familiar) style. Cross-over and blending your unique sound(s) can make your music reach out farther.

Often, the songwriter’s best avenue for innovation is a thoughtful treatment of the lyrics, story, and choice of subject matter. For the composer (with no vocals/language to rely on) tapping into previously known forms and styles may provide a sound link between innovative sounds, new melodies, or unique chordal shifts and the audience. If there is sufficient commonality between old works and the composer’s new work there will be a great chance of inspiring an audience to consider and accept the new work.  Without a sense of discovery, restatement of prior works will not engage the average listener. All of science and society has built upon previous discoveries. Old knowledge is adapted into modern usage and application. It is (without any copyright infringement or direct imitation) natural to utilise a past platform and adapt that to one’s own mode of expression. This process can only go wrong if the imitation comes too close to plagiarism. What we do by interweaving known sounds and forms with innovative one’s is to accommodate the listener. I do this to a certain degree in my own works. I integrate the pop-song form into a classically styled work. My work titled ‘East Anglian Rhapsody’ does this, quite evidently. This process makes the attempt to hear new works feel ‘safe.’ It does not mean that a composer has to adapt innovative sounds and orchestrations on a grand scale. Such commonalities may be established in quaint and, or, overt ways. Points of reference can lay in the simplicity of a melody, the over-all structure of the piece, familiar chord progressions, and or familiar instrument pairings in the arrangement.

Some artists seek to work within a particular style and paradigm…while others refuse to be constrained by any such rule-system. Concepts (as I would name them) of dedication, invocation, reflection, mirroring, variegation, removalin-fill, overlay, selective removal, mimicry, and or divergence may be present in any measure throughout the process. The artist may choose singular and individualistic ratios of any one of the concepts I’ve presented. I intentionally do not define these for the reader. I believe that, in examining the possibilities each of these  concepts may hold for you personally and intellectually, you must define them (thus utilise or refute them) for yourself.

The list above represents metaphorical branches on a tree.  They are yours to grow, shape, trim, or cut away. By working out personal definitions of these or any other elements you might have conceived yourself, you are beginning to better understand some of the functional links at play between you and an audience. This exercise is an effective way to gain conscious recognition of parts and functions within your art work. Understand those and you gain control of the subsequent form(s). It is analogous to taking time identifying component parts of a tree, roots, trunk, branches, growth nodes, leaves, flower buds, etc. You don’t have to know all of the parts of the tree (biologically) to climb it. But, knowledge of the many components of a tree is required if you seek to prune it in a healthy manner.

My tree-surgeon’s metaphor may not work for some. I use it to imagine that my own eccentric taste might not be shared by others. People generally prefer symmetry, the golden ratio, and structured sounds they can relate to. If my pieces were solely constructed to please myself, they might not relate to anyone beyond myself. It is in being able to integrate my artistic efforts with those around me that lends a quality of  ‘relatability’ to the work. If I work to shape a phrase of music that challenges the tonality, I try to deliver it in a palatable manner. Otherwise, my wild imagination might guide me toward a musical passage I thought was fun yet others might find distastefully styled. Granted, some artists don’t worry about being possessed of a highly idiosyncratic style. Past examples are Wagner and Brahms. They were steadfast in their individual creative style or taste for invention. And, generally quite some time later, in the wake of much controversy, they had finally forged an audience with a common taste. But, most of us don’t want to wait until after death to know whether or not our works gained acceptance.

The integration of popular style into one’s works can feel, to the purist, like a ‘sell-out’ to one’s artistic integrity. However, compromise is the hallmark of a robust human being. Like a tree which can bend in the wind, such an integration of invention and discovery combined with familiar form can weather the storm. Writing music that almost sounds as if the listener has already heard it beckons memory of something pleasant. That approach can build a foundation from which the audience participates in the discovery. The boundary between ‘story teller’ and ‘story listener’ becomes blurred. An audience which is drawn in by something familiar willingly partakes of the story teller’s art. Such is the nature of  providing an audience with sufficient points of reference.

The integration of some aspects of prior, known works may take several forms of expression…familiar instrument combinations in the orchestration…a vaguely familiar melody with one’s own touch or embellishment…the introduction of a familiar format before departing into one’s own discovery, or any manner of reach into prior musical expression. My goal is not to write the music for you, merely to inspire deeper thought and engagement of the ideas which govern your own work. As I said before, compromise is a hallmark trait of human being. The ability to smoothly and artistically integrate previous work-forms into one’s own inevitable style gives the audience a welcome mat on which to step. Knowledge, whether great or little, of one’s own drive and function behind the music adds conviction to the composer’s efforts. I encourage the reader to become (if you aren’t already) intellectually curious. Find keywords that trigger and guide your work. From there you’ll inject enough authenticity and enthusiasm to encourage a healthy, willing audience for your works.


What drives us to compose?

I believe that one of the finest and noblest pursuits we can do is to try, in some way, to improve each other’s quality of life. I know that music can be one of those life enhancements that can make difficult times more bearable. Music can transport , soothe or agitate, entertain, calm or excite, even challenge the listener.  There is no other complement to a story like a good sound-track.  For the deaf, its vibrations may be felt and appreciated. It can recall a story, person, place, or time. Music can also inspire memory and scent, remind one of a touch.  It can be simple or ornate. Few other things in life reach as many of the senses as musical works can.

Music can be used to express a broad range of emotion and can be applied to a large (perhaps endless) sampling of subjects. In a similar way to the visual arts, music may reflect or confront a subject. Music (and art in general) serves to explore human instinct and understanding. And, understanding is the underpinning of communal good-will. Putting all ego aside, no matter how grand or humble the musical form, compositions of all sorts bring pleasure, greater understanding, invention, and expression. For its ability to convey subject matter, mood, and scene, music is an activity which binds fellow listeners. It lends itself to a manner of social cohesion yet also holds appeal for the individual.

Music is but one way to make the world a better place. Beauty takes many forms, moods, and modes. I suppose every composer feels a certain responsibility to engage and reflect that range. I certainly couldn’t answer for all composers. Each individual’s style and tastes may vary. And, in truth, music does not have to follow conventions of beauty. However, music has the power to capture and engage many of the senses. It is an art form which grants the ability to portray a wide variation of subject matter. This is what drives me, personally, to compose. Whether my works are considered beautiful, controversial, or expressive is for the listener to judge. I only know that it is a strength in this world to be creative and, hence, a weakness to be destructive.

Listening and or creating a musical work is a bit like taking time to smell the rose, touch its silken petals, feel its thorns, stare into its colours, and marvel at its growth! What are your thoughts? I believe modern living doesn’t allow us enough time for thought and philosophy. Would you agree?Image