Jump to content
Ali Jafari

How essential are musical forms to writing music?

Recommended Posts

Hello everyone. I'm a self-taught musician, and it's been a year since I started studying music theory more seriously. It's been almost six months since I started studying Arnold Schoenberg's 'Theory of Harmony' and now I've almost finished it (I still haven't read his 'Structural Functions of Harmony' and 'Fundamentals of Musical Composition'). During the course of studying Schoenberg's book, I composed a piece for solo piano which lasts for about 4 minutes and a half & it's my longest piece so far, and although it has an ABAB form, I wrote each section just by writing harmonies I liked and then writing melodies on top. My question is, how would I be able to write longer pieces? Would studying the other two books help? In other words, would just using specific forms, such as the sonata form or the scherzo form, help with writing longer and more coherent pieces? 

Edited by Aspiring Composer

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

My question is, how would I be able to write longer pieces?

I think the best thing you can do is think of WHY something has to be longer. Think in terms of Beethoven's economy of material, how his sonatas are mostly the same stuff repeated over and over in different ways, joined by a loose arc structure. In other words, you can make something as long as you want if you just keep repeating things in different ways. Think of how Fugues work, which is kind of a similar idea. The point is, "form" is a really complicated topic altogether and Schoenberg's entire point with his system and so on was to allow for the creation of new complex forms (like a new Sonata-type form?) using his different tonal material.

 

It's not the form that gives something its length, it's how long you want to take with developing your own ideas. That's why even if there are many pieces that are "sonatas" and adhere to the form, that says nothing of the length itself. A good example is Symphonies, which really are "Sonatas for orchestra," they are often much longer than piano sonatas, but they have the same structural ideas. That's because the orchestra can be used to develop things as well as just the actual notes being played. Instrumentation plays a big role in structure there, hence usually longer works.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well I admit that the length of a piece isn't very important, but I still think it's a good exercise to try and write longer pieces, just like a performer who knows that speed isn't very important in playing an instrument, but still tries to develop their speed with some specific exercises.

Talking about development, unfortunately I don't know how to develop a theme systematically. Do you think studying the two books I mentioned would be of any help ?

Thank you for taking your time and answering my questions.

p.s. What is an arc structure? I've never heard of it

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

Well I admit that the length of a piece isn't very important, but I still think it's a good exercise to try and write longer pieces, just like a performer who knows that speed isn't very important in playing an instrument, but still tries to develop their speed with some specific exercises.

I think it's a sign of maturity when you can actually decide how long a piece has to be and have enough to say to fill up that space in a way that is not forced. That's why, in my experience, young composers(LOL) usually tend to choke on longer pieces since they expose all their material very fast and then have trouble developing or repeating things. There's nuance in working with existing material that makes it not such an easy thing to do.

3 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

Talking about development, unfortunately I don't know how to develop a theme systematically. Do you think studying the two books I mentioned would be of any help ?

Yes, those books are good, but what you have to do more than anything is actually learn your literature. Study Beethoven, and specifically the piano sonatas. It's not because they're amazing or anything, it's mostly just how he's the king of motif economy. He basically reuses everything he can as much as he can and when he adds things it usually means something. JsBach started to do this too, curiously, in his inventions. There's a whole point (Erwin Ratz's book on form talks about this to some length. It's a good book, btw.) that argues that the way Bach actually developed his material in the inventions parallels what Beethoven did later and that it was not merely the typical baroque sequencing ("Fortspinnung.")

 

Essentially, what it boils down to, is that "Development" in romantic period terms, is the division and sequencing of thematic material. So you split stuff up and make sequences out of it. That's basically the main mechanic of any kind of development.

3 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

p.s. What is an arc structure? I've never heard of it

It's the concept that the form is like an arc, it starts and it rises gradually to a peak before coming down again to where it started, like a bow of sorts. This is basically what the AB:A form means, it ends how it starts. Almost all classical forms are arc forms in some way or another. In fact, there's a type of Rondo that's just like that, which does A:B:A:C:A:B:A, for example, so it also returns and uses the Ritornell as the end point.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
10 hours ago, SSC said:

It's the concept that the form is like an arc, it starts and it rises gradually to a peak before coming down again to where it started, like a bow of sorts. This is basically what the AB:A form means, it ends how it starts. Almost all classical forms are arc forms in some way or another. In fact, there's a type of Rondo that's just like that, which does A:B:A:C:A:B:A, for example, so it also returns and uses the Ritornell as the end point.

 

Thanks, I didn't know these types of forms were referred to as arc forms too.

Also I'll definitely study Beethoven's piano sonatas after finishing the two books, thank you for the advice.

By the way, in my opinion there are some works which imply there's no development going on when you just listen to them, like Debussy's Reverie or Ravel's Jeux d'eau. Are these works based on the development of themes too? Like, let's say, Beethoven's or Bach's thematic developments?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
29 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

By the way, in my opinion there are some works which imply there's no development going on when you just listen to them, like Debussy's Reverie or Ravel's Jeux d'eau. Are these works based on the development of themes too? Like, let's say, Beethoven's or Bach's thematic developments?

That's an interesting observation. Debussy can be said to be "athematic", in terms of the romantic idea of a "theme." It's not that he doesn't use motives and repeats things, it's that the idea of a theme that is developed is missing. Usually this goes hand in hand with the non-functional harmony since that is often a big factor in traditional themes. Specially the concept of a harmonic rhythm, which Debussy does use, but almost to subvert how it would usually work.

 

The idea of "development" in romanticism is a very important one, to the point that it ends up taking over almost everything by the late romantic. Take for example the "Satz", which is a type of theme (opposed to the "periode") where it includes within itself development portions and often ends in a different key than at the start through modulation. For example, Beethoven's 5th Sonata in C minor has a 16 measure "Satz." It has the development elements included therein. Contrast this to Beethoven's 2nd Sonata in A major which has an 8 measure "periode" for a theme, this one does not have development segments and has a pretty simple symmetrical pattern and repeating harmonic rhythm.

 

If you have more questions please do ask them, this stuff can be hard if you aren't familiar with the form analysis methods.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks, I'll definitely ask them.

So if Debussy's music isn't based on development of musical ideas, how did he write so many great pieces? Did he use some structures of his own? Because I don't think that kind of music can be based on improvisation.

By the way, I have a similar feeling about development in Wagner's Overture to 'Tristan und Isolde'. I mean, the chromatic four-note motive is heard literally everywhere in the whole overture, and there's also a remarkable appoggiatura occurring in the first few measures of the overture which is also heard at some other moments of the overture. But to me, the piece as a whole feels like it doesn't develop anything particular and it feels like the piece is written bit by bit. I also have a similar feeling about Liszt's Symphonic Poems.

Edited by Aspiring Composer

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

So if Debussy's music isn't based on development of musical ideas, how did he write so many great pieces? Did he use some structures of his own? Because I don't think that kind of music can be based on improvisation.

Don't get me wrong, Debussy was very much based on the romanticism aesthetic in the way he structured his music (much like Schoenberg and co.). I mean he even wrote "Sonatas" later on as the last music he wrote before he died. The problem with structure is that it is an inevitable consequence of the way music works. Even a free atonal improvisation has a structure, even if only visible post-facto. So in Debussy's case, he has structures that are either very very simple (ABA-type forms) or stuff that just does its own thing. In the end they still adhere to similar ideas than, say, Beethoven, if only because that's how the structural paradigm was at the time. Debussy and those turn of the century composers did very much start to break out of this, but it only really began to happen in the 20s-30s and during the early post-war period. This means that Debussy, perhaps unwillingly, also had "development" elements in his music even if he tried to avoid it.

 

Another way to see it is to go further back. The "codification" of form during the 1750-1800 timeframe was very important but it doesn't mean that structural ideas were meaningless before then. Going back to JS Bach again, it must be said that he was also very much struggling with the concept of form as well but in the context of his Fugues. This is specially evident in something like BWV 543 in A minor where the fugue is not only rather long but the subject is very strange for its time (and of crucial importance to later composers like Beethoven himself, who would go on to write fugues in a similar and even more extreme fashion.) A fugue is not a structure, it's a set of parameters for the start of a piece, but what happens after that exposition is entirely up to the composer. In fact, it must be said that Baroque music is very difficult to organize through structure as there are many pieces which are entirely free (Preludes, toccatas, fantasias, etc etc. None of those names really mean a form (in the classical sense) at all! It's not analogous to a rondo, scherzo etc in the slightest.)

 

Observe Grieg's Fugue in F minor  EG114 for String Quartet. This a pretty clear example of how these things evolve with the paradigms of the time as even though it has a fugue-start, the way it's developed is much more like a Sonata, with proper romantic-like "development" portions and treating the exposition as a theme while at the same time having  a second theme (just like you would in a Sonata!) It's a really fascinating mix of both things.

3 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

By the way, I have a similar feeling about development in Wagner's Overture to 'Tristan und Isolde'.

That overture's entire point is to avoid the A minor cadence at all costs while doing that little suspension with very fast resolution that sounds so special (and that Schoenberg liked so much, lol.) Wagner is basically the pinnacle of Beethoven's ideas, so to speak, in the way that he was also very consequent (and economic) with what showed up in his music. Debussy wasn't a fan. Seeing it with our modern perspective tho, it's very obvious that as much as Debussy and Schoenberg were so opposed stylistic in their own minds, their music has so much stuff in common that it's kinda funny. But as mentioned, that's just a consequence of the time they lived in and that they were standing on a rather large tradition that was very hard to escape from. If anything, Satie was one that really got away from everything, much further than Debussy or mostly everyone else of his time. (Hence John Cage's interest in him and attempt to bring him into the spotlight.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
48 minutes ago, SSC said:

it must be said that Baroque music is very difficult to organize through structure as there are many pieces which are entirely free (Preludes, toccatas, fantasias, etc etc. None of those names really mean a form (in the classical sense) at all! It's not analogous to a rondo, scherzo etc in the slightest.)

But didn't Bach develop motives and ideas even in his preludes and fantasias? I think he clearly did it in his 'Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906', as well as some other works.

58 minutes ago, SSC said:

Wagner is basically the pinnacle of Beethoven's ideas, so to speak, in the way that he was also very consequent (and economic) with what showed up in his music.

So you're saying that the overture is based on developments and not just new ideas?

By the way, I think that I've missed a somewhat critical point in my question. Can studying harmony alone be enough for composing coherent pieces? Because until now, I've mostly focused on harmony and how chords are connected to each other, as well as topics such as modulation, cadences and different types of non-harmonic tones.

1 hour ago, SSC said:

Debussy and Schoenberg were so opposed stylistic in their own minds, their music has so much stuff in common that it's kind funny.

Yes, I think Schoenberg was even a little bit influenced sometimes by Debussy, especially in his tonal period.

1 hour ago, SSC said:

Satie was one that really got away from everything, much further than Debussy or mostly everyone else of his time. (Hence John Cage's interest in him and attempt to bring him into the spotlight.)

Actually I'm a big fan of Erik Satie's music and yeah, he wrote some really radical works.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Have you ever tried to make Jello without a form? It's very messy! Asking why would we want to write something of length is like asking why do we climb mountains. Because it's there! Because we can! Because it separates the wheat from the chaff. (I'm plum out of metaphors now)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 minute ago, Aspiring Composer said:

But didn't Bach develop motives and ideas even in his preludes and fantasias? I think he clearly did it in his 'Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906', as well as some other works.

Yes he did. As I said previously, a lot of the names given to pieces are meaningless when it comes to the actual structure in them. He has preludes that are fugues for example, just with a different name or some variation. The point is, you need to organize this by composer specifically, and Bach's music in its majority does not have the future-looking elements his Inventions or late organ works do. That's a function of his time and job more than anything.

3 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

So you're saying that the overture is based on developments and not just new ideas?

Yes, generally speaking that's the case. It's very in accord with the aesthetic paradigm of his time as that kind of complexity was desirable (but not too much, note how Wagner railed against Brahms' first symphony becuase it had too much "chamber music" elements and it irritated him!)

5 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

By the way, I think that I've missed a somewhat critical point in my question. Can studying harmony alone be enough for composing coherent pieces? Because until now, I've mostly focused on harmony and how chords are connected to each other, as well as topics such as modulation, cadences and different types of non-harmonic tones. 

Considering traditional classical-period forms (Sonatas, etc) are all based on cadences, knowing how cadences work and connect to each other is pretty key. I don't know what you mean with coherent, but think of those forms as an overlying plan as to what goes where. You don't need to follow it entirely 100% (In fact almost nobody did!) but it gives you an idea of what you expect. You can play around with long forms, see how you come up with your own variations as you go, until it makes sense to you. The first long-form Sonata I wrote is very Beethoven-esque until around half-way through when I had gotten more comfortable and started doing my own thing, but I was building on foundations I had observed from other composers (as with everything else, really.)

 

It's not really about copying someone's (Beethoven, whoever) structural ideas, it's more about finding your own forms that are suited to your own ideas. In the end that's what everyone did, hence why Liszt, Grieg, Mahler, etc etc all have similar ideas but in their execution they are quite different.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
26 minutes ago, Ken320 said:

Have you ever tried to make Jello without a form? It's very messy!

Well I think I've got my answer. :))

26 minutes ago, SSC said:

I don't know what you mean with coherent

What I mean by coherent is a piece of music that is adventurous, yet has an overall meaning and is storytelling. Something like Liszt's Piano Concerto No.2 or Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'.

 

26 minutes ago, SSC said:

it's more about finding your own forms that are suited to your own ideas.

Yes, it's true. But almost every composer mastered the style of their preceding composers before inventing their own style. Even someone as great as Beethoven first mastered the Viennese style of composition in his youth before moving on and entering his heroic period.

Anyway, thank you both for your answers and advices, I think I've got the motivation to study the other two books by Schoenberg and analyze some of the masterworks after studying them.

Hopefully I will write some longer and more well-structured pieces in the near future...

Edited by Aspiring Composer

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

But almost every composer mastered the style of their preceding composers before inventing their own style. Even someone as great as Beethoven first mastered the Viennese style of composition in his youth before moving on and entering his heroic period.

Well that's just general knowledge that would be helpful, yes. Just don't think this is some sort of high esoteric thing, it's just personal preference at the end of the day.

Also:

31 minutes ago, Ken320 said:

Because it separates the wheat from the chaff.

Don't forget the quote attributed to Stravinsky:

Quote

Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.

Which is also my opinion of a vast majority of music from the late romantic period. Or just in general, actually. I think length is pretty much a personal thing, but I personally can't stand a lot of grand 40+ minute pieces that never ever end.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Stravinsky wrote a lot of stuff in the 20-30 minute range because people called him up and said, Monsieur Stravinsky, we would like to have some music for our Dippidy Doo Da Centennial Celebration. 

M. Stravinsky: How long?

Oh, about 20-30 minutes ...

M. Stravinsky: Gotcha.  (cha Ching!)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
33 minutes ago, SSC said:

Just don't think this is some sort of high esoteric thing, it's just personal preference at the end of the day.

True.

33 minutes ago, SSC said:

Which is also my opinion of a vast majority of music from the late romantic period. Or just in general, actually. I think length is pretty much a personal thing, but I personally can't stand a lot of grand 40+ minute pieces that never ever end.

Well, by long, I mean something between 7 to 10 minutes for a single-movement work. Unfortunately at the moment I can't write that much music out of a single theme without too much repetition. I think, as you mentioned, I should learn how to develop themes systematically.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

By the way, this is an off-topic question, but did great composers use specific harmonic progressions in different works of their own? Because I personally think that when someone is referred to as 'having their own voice', it means that they use some specific progressions in their different works. Unfortunately I haven't analyzed any of the masterworks yet so I'm not sure about this opinion.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

By the way, this is an off-topic question, but did great composers use specific harmonic progressions in different works of their own? Because I personally think that when someone is referred to as 'having their own voice', it means that they use some specific progressions in their different works. Unfortunately I haven't analyzed any of the masterworks yet so I'm not sure about this opinion.

 

There is a topic on that subject called "Do you think you have a style as a composer?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Aspiring Composer said:

By the way, this is an off-topic question, but did great composers use specific harmonic progressions in different works of their own? Because I personally think that when someone is referred to as 'having their own voice', it means that they use some specific progressions in their different works. Unfortunately I haven't analyzed any of the masterworks yet so I'm not sure about this opinion.

Well no, that's just a bunch of fanboy nonsense. There are certain composers that made certain things more popular, such as Chopin and 6th suspensions, or Schubert's cadences with the double dominant -> tonic, Beethoven with suspensions and resolution notes being played at the same time, etc, but these are just general examples and often it's a much more nuanced thing. In the end a lot of people sound very similar since they are culturally all very closely related.

 

Nobody used "specific progressions," since the musical language set a framework where everyone did kind of the same thing generally speaking. However, this doesn't mean everyone just wrote the same thing, as there are plenty of experimental pieces. Specially the so-called character pieces (Schumann's Kinderszenen, Chopin's preludes for piano, Grieg's lyric pieces, etc) where composers usually wrote small pieces with pretty forward-thinking harmony or experimental elements. It works this way: The more experimental the piece is (harmonically, counterpoint, whatever), the shorter the actual piece was since the structure was secondary. Almost everything I mentioned as examples earlier are all ABA forms that are quite simple, however harmonically they are probably far more complex than the "big works" those composers wrote. This is the case with almost everyone (Lizst's "annees de pelerinage" are also great examples, specially the third volume, of what he could really do harmonically. It's crazy stuff. He also has a bunch of late pieces like Nuages Gris that might as well be from the 1940s) from that time.

 

When composers wanted to experiment with form, they would use the symphonies and long form pieces (Brahms was pretty well known for having pretty so-so harmony but very interesting takes on form, specially reprises.) In that case, the actual harmony wasn't that important and it was also just as well since big pieces like that wouldn't get played if they were too experimental. (Schubert's Symphonies are weird precisely because he knew nobody would perform them so he didn't have to hold back in composing them.) So, to recap, the more complicated the actual music, the easier they'd do form and the more complicated the form the easier they'd make the musical material. It's not always the case, but it's most often how they worked.

 

If you want to find out what composers were "really like," you'd do well to study the small things people overlook. Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K511) is a great example of how forward thinking Mozart actually was, but he almost never wrote that way (except when he did!) This gives us much more insight into what he was actually thinking about as a composer than just whatever you read in a history book. In fact, I'd say this is much more important that studying the famous things, since usually stuff that is famous is rarely famous for reasons useful to other composers.

 

4 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

Well, by long, I mean something between 7 to 10 minutes for a single-movement work. Unfortunately at the moment I can't write that much music out of a single theme without too much repetition. I think, as you mentioned, I should learn how to develop themes systematically.

Also, don't be afraid of repetitions. Don't feel you need to be super original and do tons of unique variations, that's not a good pressure to have. Just practice variations on their own too. Grab some 5 note motive and just write 20 variations of it, each of like one or two measures. Do this like 2 or 3 times, it should really help you get some ideas of what you can do!

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you for your advice, I think I'm already gaining a better understanding of composition.

So if they didn't use specific harmonic progressions, what made their voice so special as composers? Because I think that can mostly be traced back to how they wrote harmonic progressions and also their melodies to a lesser extent.

Also I can't variate a motive easily and I think it's largely because I haven't studied motives themselves very much. There are, like, 20 pages on Schoenberg's third book just about motives and how to use them. Maybe studying those parts of the book can help me...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Ken320 said:

There is a topic on that subject called "Do you think you have a style as a composer?"

 

Thanks, I'll check it out.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, Aspiring Composer said:

So if they didn't use specific harmonic progressions, what made their voice so special as composers? Because I think that can mostly be traced back to how they wrote harmonic progressions and also their melodies to a lesser extent.

Think of it this way: when you're composing something, you're trying to solve problems. What problems? Problems like: What instruments? What form, what harmony? And each of those questions branches into more specific questions and this goes on until you have your piece written down. I don't think any composer is any more special than anyone else, we're all people trying to our best with whatever we have available in the short time we have on earth, right? Some guys got a head start (Mozart) some died tragically too early (Mozart,) some went literally crazy (Schumann) and some just didn't give a damn (...that's a lot of people I could name here. Let's go with Schubert for consistency's sake.)

 

But each person will solve those problems in a slightly different way, right? That's what makes each individual composer unique, even if everything else is generally the same. The process they use to tackle each of those questions changes the outcome and everyone has its own method.

 

Two concrete examples from literature: Schumann's second movement of his Piano Concerto and Liszt's "prelude and fugue on BACH". What's the problem we're looking at? The problem of the "second movements." This was a pretty big deal back then since nobody knew what the hell to do with the second movement of big long-form works like symphonies and so on. You see, during the Vienna classic (Haydn Mozart Beethoven, sort of) the idea of the second movement was to balance out the first. In practical terms, the musical complexity would decrease as the piece would go on. So second and third (and fourth, etc) movements were often much simpler than the first movement. This is why forms such as Rondos, Minuets (and trio), Scherzos, etc would be used instead of the main sonata form.

 

However, as time went on, this paradigm changed and the second movement began losing its purpose. Also, composers were using the sonata form in all the movements, ignoring the typical 2nd and 3rd movement forms prevalent in the Vienna classic. So here's where our examples come in. Look carefully at Schumann's second movement, it's called an Intermezzo, of all things. It's barely its own music and conceptually it just links the first and the third movements. This is also the case with Grieg's piano concerto, but these are far from the only examples. Even Rachmaninov's first piano concerto does this, with an abnormally short second movement.

 

Liszt's example is more interesting. In that Prelude & Fugue there's a weird small slow segment right before the fugue starts. The way the prelude & fugue is structured is very romantic in character, so it would make sense to make a sort of "intermezzo" between both parts, and that's exactly what he does. It's not enough to label it its own segment, but it's noticeable. There is clearly an intention of a "slow" movement after the start, even the Fugue starts slowly and builds up.

 

And just like this, many other composers tried to wrestle with these kind of problems and came up with their own solutions, just like we do when we compose.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks. I think my current problem is 'lack of development' and 'not studying Schoenberg's other two books' :)) and I personally think it can be largely solved in like, 8 months to a year. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Edited by Aspiring Composer

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 hours ago, Aspiring Composer said:

Thanks. I think my current problem is 'lack of development' and 'not studying Schoenberg's other two books' :)) and I personally think it can be largely solved in like, 8 months to a year. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I mean you can hammer it out in, what, three to six months if you just keep practicing? Keep writing variation exercises and you'll get pretty good at all sorts of things.

 

My favorite exercise is doing "bridges." Take some random Mozart piece and some random Debussy thing and compose a bridge between one to the other. Pick some arbitrary measure and keep your bridge within 20 measures or so. Like, say, from measure 10 of Mozart's first piano sonata to measure 23 of Dr Gradus ad parnasum. This stuff really gets your brain working, imo.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...