Musical structure; the foundations of something big

My tutor has been reiterating the need for me to plan out the structure of my piece; the whole piece, and nothing but the piece.  I’ve certainly been playing around with different forms; symphony, fantasia.  Having settled on a symphonic poem, which I believe best suits my style of composition, I wanted to understand more fully the various areas of ‘structure’ that I need to give due consideration to.

The contents of this post have been drawn from an article written by Matthew Hindson at NSW Charles Sturt University.  Admittedly, this focuses on planning out a 2 minute composition, but his points are valid and in my opinion transcend any length of composition.

If you don’t have a starting point, something that sparks the ideas, you’re going to flounder. Each creative process (painting, writing, composing) comes from somewhere and as Mr Hindson says ‘it is generally easier to write a work that is about something’. You’re only going to be limited by your imagination, and for me, my ‘something’ is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, chosen for it’s quirkiness, breadth of ‘journey’ and diverse characters.

Once the inspiration, the initial idea is in front of you, the planning needs to come and the main principle behind planning a composition is ensuring that the music has direction; it goes somewhere.  Within music, this is created through tension and release.

The ability to get both tension and release into your music is an art form in itself; if you thought getting the notes written was tricky enough, you’ve not even started!

Harmonic Direction
* Do you have modulations?
* Do you stay in one key?
* Could the notes in your main melody be the foundation of your harmonic material?
* Are the chord progressions interesting?
* Are the harmonic chords adventurous, i.e. extend beyond triads or dissonance?

Texture: clarity versus chaos
* Textural diversity / contrast is important; have you planned enough of this?
* Are there solo passages?
* Is there chaotic texture included which could contrast between clear texture? And if so, where does it come from? Nowhere? Or does it build gradually?

Instrument registers
* Are you considering the unique characteristics & change of timbres of your instruments as they use different registers? What makes them stand out when playing low/medium/high registers?
* Within repeating sections are you planning to change the octaves?

Rhythmic complexity & simplicity
* Have you considered making your rhythm complex, i.e. introduce polyrhythm, ostinatos, syncopation, tuplets?
* Are you planning to contrast such rhythmic complexity by using rhythmic homogeneity (uniformity)?
* Use different key signatures to further increase the contrast?
* Do you plan to alter the pulse of particular parts/sections of the piece to reduce levels of predictability?

Performance factors & virtuosity
* Have you factored into your score an virtuosity for a principal player?

New material vs old matieral (repetition)
* Will there be sections that are repeated? Too much new material is boring
* How will you manage repeated sections? Will they be changed slightly when repeated? Too little new material is boring.
* Changing orchestration, editing out a few bars can create enough change to make a difference.

Large scale musical devices
* How many large scale musical devices are you going to use such as polyphony, counterpoint, homophony, antiphonal writing?
* How will you integrate into your piece?

Predictable vs unpredictable
* Am I making my use of dynamics, articulation predictable?
* For tension to be created, alternating passages with loud and soft dynamics or swopping a previous ff passage with pp can help; ‘subito’ = suddenly is a good marking to consider using.

* The progression of the piece does not need to follow a linear line, namely dynamics that build and crescendo from pp through to ff; things can build in gradual up and down movement: pp, mf, mp, p, crescendo, ff, p (and so on).

Ways to plan
* There should be an initial organising of ideas and musical elements.  These can be written out pictorially or described.
* Texture; how is it going to be written; in full straight away or build up gradually?
* Pitch; will it climb, descend, remain even and level?
* Rhythm; what pattern will be playing?  Will this build up gradually or remain constant and repetitive?
* Dynamics; these can be planned alongside the rhythm.
* Articulation & expression; these like the dynamics can be planned alongside the rhythm.

Hindson, M. (Unknown). Planning a Two Minute Composition. Available: Last accessed 04 June 2015


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