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How To Compose A Symphony?

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Hi!

It's a big topic, but in general, how different is composing a symphony instead of for example a chorale harmonization piece?

Do the same rules apply, just that different instruments have different restrictions/advantages?

Or is it a hole new world of rules etc.?

 

I appreciate any answers :nod:  :D

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It's not as much of a big deal - that is, if you already know what to do with theme development, harmony and counterpoint, voice leading and orchestration.

 

Tip: listen to a lot of symphonies before thinking about writing one, just as you wouldn't attempt to write a novel before reading a lot of them. And I mean a lot. Beethoven and Mahler are obvious choices, but go well beyond them. Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski... pick symphonies from different eras and different musical trends. And draw your own conclusions ;) .

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No, it's completely different.  I don't mean to be rude, but you should really be beginning with some basic things like a wikipedia search.  

 

If you don't know the difference between forms, and it looks like you don't, you can't possibly write a symphony.  I would first suggest looking into more basic forms, like binary and rounded binary.  Sonata form (which is virtually always the first movement's form, as well as the form of 1 to 2 other movements sometimes) grew out of rounded binary, although it's different.  You can look into the composers Austenite listed, but I would avoid the later composers except for listening pleasure at this point--their forms are more obscure and in some cases so specific to their compositional styles that they will not be good models for you.  (Not to mention that some of them sucked at writing in sonata form, to be frank.)  Haydn and Mozart would be better, but the very first symphonies by composers such as Sammartini and Stamitz are best of all because they are so basic and short that you will hopefully get the idea better.  One of the critical things is that you have a movement away from the tonic into a new key, which is different in concept from how Baroque composers modulated.  

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if you have to ask, you're not ready to write one

Agreed. 

 

Start with "The Study of Orchestration" by Samuel Adler. If you can't afford it or steal it, check the numerous FREE nooks and crannies on the internet dealing with melody, harmony, rhythm, and, oh yes, orchestration.  Write lots of pieces with a solo instrument. Then with two. Then three, etc. Work your way up to the orchestra.

 

If you don't do it this way, by all means write for the orchestra and experiment. See what works and what doesn't work to your ears. Once you create some glorious monumental Mahlerian work, feel free to post it here. Members here can tell you all the things that aren't working, which no offense, will be most of it. You'll get the same advice of my comment and most everyone else's above mine, and you'll have wasted time.

 

Just sayin'.

 

I feel like a topic like this crops up every 2 weeks or so. :/

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It's not as much of a big deal - that is, if you already know what to do with theme development, harmony and counterpoint, voice leading and orchestration.

 

Tip: listen to a lot of symphonies before thinking about writing one, just as you wouldn't attempt to write a novel before reading a lot of them. And I mean a lot. Beethoven and Mahler are obvious choices, but go well beyond them. Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski... pick symphonies from different eras and different musical trends. And draw your own conclusions ;) .

I see.

I listen to a lot of symphonies, especially Mozart's  ;)

Thank you for your answer  :nod:

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Agreed. 

 

Start with "The Study of Orchestration" by Samuel Adler. If you can't afford it or steal it, check the numerous FREE nooks and crannies on the internet dealing with melody, harmony, rhythm, and, oh yes, orchestration.  Write lots of pieces with a solo instrument. Then with two. Then three, etc. Work your way up to the orchestra.

 

If you don't do it this way, by all means write for the orchestra and experiment. See what works and what doesn't work to your ears. Once you create some glorious monumental Mahlerian work, feel free to post it here. Members here can tell you all the things that aren't working, which no offense, will be most of it. You'll get the same advice of my comment and most everyone else's above mine, and you'll have wasted time.

 

Just sayin'.

 

I feel like a topic like this crops up every 2 weeks or so. :/

Ahh, actually, a week ago or so, I got to borrow "The Study of Orchestration" from my music theory teacher. 

It's heavy stuff for a 15 years old boy who hasen't english as the native language though  ;)

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No, it's completely different.  I don't mean to be rude, but you should really be beginning with some basic things like a wikipedia search.  

 

If you don't know the difference between forms, and it looks like you don't, you can't possibly write a symphony.  I would first suggest looking into more basic forms, like binary and rounded binary.  Sonata form (which is virtually always the first movement's form, as well as the form of 1 to 2 other movements sometimes) grew out of rounded binary, although it's different.  You can look into the composers Austenite listed, but I would avoid the later composers except for listening pleasure at this point--their forms are more obscure and in some cases so specific to their compositional styles that they will not be good models for you.  (Not to mention that some of them sucked at writing in sonata form, to be frank.)  Haydn and Mozart would be better, but the very first symphonies by composers such as Sammartini and Stamitz are best of all because they are so basic and short that you will hopefully get the idea better.  One of the critical things is that you have a movement away from the tonic into a new key, which is different in concept from how Baroque composers modulated.  

Thank you! I will listen to some of the first symphonies composed by composers such as Sammartini and Stamitz. :D

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In order to compose a symphony from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

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In order to compose a symphony from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

What do you mean? 

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Guest Kibbletime

how not to compose a symphony? compose a thread.

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How to compose a symphony?
This discussion doesn’t deserve a comment, but a book, a huge book!
But I will try to be synthetic.

There are fundamental aspects:
1- You may know what is your style. A Haydn symphony is very different from a Mahler symphony. But the true is that since Beethoven, compose a symphony is one of the highest stages of the music, like Masses, Oratorias and Operas!
2- Then as Austenite recommended you, is very important to listen the great contributions made by the great genius, I give you twenty examples which I consider fundamental.
- Mozart 39, 40 and 41;
- Haydn at least the104;
- Beethoven 3, 7 and 9.
- Schubert 8 and 9
- Brahms 3 and 4.
- Bruckner 4, 6, 7 and 9.
- Tchaikovsky 6.
- Mahler 5, 6 and 9.
- Rachmaninoff 2.
3- Gustav Mahler once said that create a symphony is create a new world. I ask you if you are prepared to create a world? It is important first to have composed piano sonatas, then after string quartets are also a great step and help.
4- Then learn orchestration in one (or more, more is always best) treaty, I recommend Rimsky Korsakov.

These were the “pre-steps”.
Now, knowing what you want:

5- First do the structure and the main themes.
6- After you start from the beginning composing on the piano, still not very worried with orchestration. But always thinking that it is an orchestra work and not a piano work (could be impossible to play for a pianist), it is good and normal that you start thinking in orchestration aspects, but what I want to say is that in this phase it could not be your first problem.
7- Then after have the piano score orchestrate. I give the advice to not use computer programs, use your ear!

Don’t forget good themes, good harmonies and good counterpoint!
Best wishes.

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Yes, I have composed a piano sonata.

 

Was its 1st movement structured according to the sonata form structural plan (that was my original question, which you didn't answer completely)?

Was it proportionate? Did you feel at ease writing the transitions and such?

Is the answer to the above questions is "yes, absolutely"?

 

If so, and you've read a treatise about orchestration (e.g. Berlioz's, Rimski's...), then yes, you can absolutely write a symphony, since (in objective terms), it's just an orchestrated sonata.

 

The view of the simphony as a self-contained universe only applies to some pieces, but not all of them by far.

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How to compose a symphony?

This discussion doesn’t deserve a comment, but a book, a huge book!

But I will try to be synthetic.

There are fundamental aspects:

1- You may know what is your style. A Haydn symphony is very different from a Mahler symphony. But the true is that since Beethoven, compose a symphony is one of the highest stages of the music, like Masses, Oratorias and Operas!

2- Then as Austenite recommended you, is very important to listen the great contributions made by the great genius, I give you twenty examples which I consider fundamental.

- Mozart 39, 40 and 41;

- Haydn at least the104;

- Beethoven 3, 7 and 9.

- Schubert 8 and 9

- Brahms 3 and 4.

- Bruckner 4, 6, 7 and 9.

- Tchaikovsky 6.

- Mahler 5, 6 and 9.

- Rachmaninoff 2.

3- Gustav Mahler once said that create a symphony is create a new world. I ask you if you are prepared to create a world? It is important first to have composed piano sonatas, then after string quartets are also a great step and help.

4- Then learn orchestration in one (or more, more is always best) treaty, I recommend Rimsky Korsakov.

These were the “pre-steps”.

Now, knowing what you want:

5- First do the structure and the main themes.

6- After you start from the beginning composing on the piano, still not very worried with orchestration. But always thinking that it is an orchestra work and not a piano work (could be impossible to play for a pianist), it is good and normal that you start thinking in orchestration aspects, but what I want to say is that in this phase it could not be your first problem.

7- Then after have the piano score orchestrate. I give the advice to not use computer programs, use your ear!

Don’t forget good themes, good harmonies and good counterpoint!

Best wishes.

I agree, I just can't find any books!

Thank you for this great answer, I will listen to all of the examples. .

I will search for ideas, and than apply step 5,6 & 7  ;)

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you know, frankly, when I first started composing, some of the very first things I wrote were pieces for a full blown concert band, as well as some chamber music. I wrote whatever I wanted, and I asked people for feedback, edited what I can, and that is how I learned orchestration, along with listening to practically everything. I completely agree with Austenite in that that in order to write a symphony, you must have listened to hundreds and hundreds of different symphonies from all different eras. But I don't quite agree with the notion that if you want to learn how to compose, start with a piano sonata, then a string quartet, then add one instrument at a time. Everyone learns differently, so don't be afraid to attempt to write a piece for such a large ensemble, I can almost guarantee you it will be terrible, but if you learn the most by just doing it all at once, then do it. But I do not recommend writing a full blown symphony, that's just about too much for someone like you to handle, heck, it's too much for me to handle! As far as learning how to write a symphony though, which was your question, listening can be your friend, try to figure out about each composer you listen to, what they were trying to say, what their strengths are, take note of any weaknesses, figure out the form, is it ABA, Rondo, which is ABACABA or something like that where it always go back to A, or Sonata form. 

 

And just a very brief, and no where near detailed enough description of Sonata form

you start with the primary theme, then transition into the secondary theme to  contrast the primary theme by putting it in the dominant key (for example if the primary theme is in C, the secondary theme is in G), that's gonna be your exposition, then you develop your themes this is your development , then you get to the recapitulation, where you recap on the exposition. You play your primary theme, and secondary theme, but your secondary theme is in I, not V this time (C, not G). This gets rid of the tension between the two conflicting themes, and states I as the victor over V. Then, you finish any tension left over in the coda. So, here's a somewhat chart to make it easier 

 

Exposition: A (I) ------(transitional theme)- B(V) ---------(transition)|Development: A/B (?) ------------|Recapitulation: A(I) -------(transitional theme)- B(I) -------| Coda: End it!

 

Hope this helps! Also, some other symphony suggestions, these are a bit different because they tell a story, which is perfectly fine to do in a Symphony if that's what you want: 

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastiqe

Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony 

 

Honestly though, composers have screwed up symphonies so much until now, the only thing all symphonies would have in common would be multi-movement big piece. 

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you know, frankly, when I first started composing, some of the very first things I wrote were pieces for a full blown concert band, as well as some chamber music. I wrote whatever I wanted, and I asked people for feedback, edited what I can, and that is how I learned orchestration, along with listening to practically everything. I completely agree with Austenite in that that in order to write a symphony, you must have listened to hundreds and hundreds of different symphonies from all different eras. But I don't quite agree with the notion that if you want to learn how to compose, start with a piano sonata, then a string quartet, then add one instrument at a time. Everyone learns differently, so don't be afraid to attempt to write a piece for such a large ensemble, I can almost guarantee you it will be terrible, but if you learn the most by just doing it all at once, then do it. But I do not recommend writing a full blown symphony, that's just about too much for someone like you to handle, heck, it's too much for me to handle! As far as learning how to write a symphony though, which was your question, listening can be your friend, try to figure out about each composer you listen to, what they were trying to say, what their strengths are, take note of any weaknesses, figure out the form, is it ABA, Rondo, which is ABACABA or something like that where it always go back to A, or Sonata form. 

 

And just a very brief, and no where near detailed enough description of Sonata form

you start with the primary theme, then transition into the secondary theme to  contrast the primary theme by putting it in the dominant key (for example if the primary theme is in C, the secondary theme is in G), that's gonna be your exposition, then you develop your themes this is your development , then you get to the recapitulation, where you recap on the exposition. You play your primary theme, and secondary theme, but your secondary theme is in I, not V this time (C, not G). This gets rid of the tension between the two conflicting themes, and states I as the victor over V. Then, you finish any tension left over in the coda. So, here's a somewhat chart to make it easier 

 

Exposition: A (I) ------(transitional theme)- B(V) ---------(transition)|Development: A/B (?) ------------|Recapitulation: A(I) -------(transitional theme)- B(I) -------| Coda: End it!

 

Hope this helps! Also, some other symphony suggestions, these are a bit different because they tell a story, which is perfectly fine to do in a Symphony if that's what you want: 

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastiqe

Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony 

 

Honestly though, composers have screwed up symphonies so much until now, the only thing all symphonies would have in common would be multi-movement big piece. 

Yes, it really helped!  ;)

Great chart, and good thoughts. I think I would learn a lot by trying to compose a symphony, even though it might me horrible.

Thanks  :D

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Was its 1st movement structured according to the sonata form structural plan (that was my original question, which you didn't answer completely)?

Was it proportionate? Did you feel at ease writing the transitions and such?

Is the answer to the above questions is "yes, absolutely"?

 

If so, and you've read a treatise about orchestration (e.g. Berlioz's, Rimski's...), then yes, you can absolutely write a symphony, since (in objective terms), it's just an orchestrated sonata.

 

The view of the simphony as a self-contained universe only applies to some pieces, but not all of them by far.

It was structured according to the sonata form structural plan.

But I should probably read more about orchestration.

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Its up to you, but I always prefer to start off with a full score of, say, 16 staves rather than a short score of 2 or 4 staves. Thus if the tune in my head is for, say, the flute, I can write it for that instrument straight into the score. No doubt non pianists such as Spohr and Berlioz would have done the same.

    For a good number of years I used Noteworthy software, which, at $49  a go, must certainly be one of the most reasonably priced Score writers on the market. Its also one of the easiest to learn to use and is well backed up by a good friendly newsgroup and forum. However, I have lately moved on to the much more powerful and expensive Sibelius software which can to do lots of things that Noteworthy cannot do, such as copying and pasting large chunks of score. To accomodate the necessary numbers of staves for a full orchestra it is usefull to have a computer monitor that can be used in portrait mode.

    As for textbooks on orchestration; I can thoroughly recommend Berlioz's magnificent "Treatise on Instrumentation", but I also find much usefull information in Gordon Jacob's more concise "Orchestral Technique"

     Personally, being a bit old fashioned, I tend to use as my models.various early to mid 19th Century symphonies by Beethoven, Schubert, Spohr, Lachner, Kalliwoda and Raff.

Best of luck,

      John.

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