Some facebook posts and resultant comment threads are worth saving. This one, prompted by having to grade some film music composition, is, in my opinion one of those, mainly because of the intelligent and insightful contributions of my facebook friends, which include both old students and composer/musician colleagues alike:

A really old chestnut that’s liable to reward me with a good virtual kicking but what the hell, I really struggle with this. I’m tasked with helping a young composer who writes run-of-the-mill tonal music. This is one of my comments to them:

“I would encourage you to consider how you’re creating tonal works in a 21st century context–i.e. how you’re vivifying a technique or a note-relation structure that in the line of Western Classical music hit a major crisis more than 100 years ago–as opposed to using a snapshot of a historically and therefore aesthetically exhausted technique to hearken back to a world we’ve left behind both socially and musically, and is therefore *in that form* no longer reflective of, or relevant to, contemporary life. To put it another way, where are the borders between contemporary development of a tradition, pastiche, and kitsch, and how do these borders sound?”

It is hard to keep personal taste and strong convictions out of this. Am I being a dinosaur in this post-atonal age or speaking to the difference between an artist and an artisan?


  • Dom Floyd Say all of that stuff, nicely, but give them some time to digest it all and have a think about it on their own terms, and don’t expect it to influence their music immediately… It takes time for that to filter down into whatever part of the brain/mind/subconscious where “the magic” happens. Also, don’t tell them that their music is irrelevant – it might be to you, but it isn’t to them.
  • Henkelpott McGurty As long as you make the student aware of the problem, a bit of time and their own critical thought should take care of the rest. If they are serious they will find ways to engage with the relevance of their work and what their reasons for composing really are.
  • Michael Edwards @Dom, in the statement above I’m inviting them to consider the balance of a progressive vs. regressive use of tonality in their work, and specifically with reference to relevance, how relevant the regressive use would be today. That’s a far cry from calling their work irrelevant, surely?
  • Michael Edwards BTW, similar questions could be asked of run-of-the-mill atonal music hearkening back to the 1950s.
  • Tommy Rushton To this philistine at least, what you’ve said sounds spot on. Depending on where this student is up to in terms of their artistic/intellectual development, it could be that an academic setting is not the appropriate platform for their work. Then again, tonality and its accoutrements are just a set of creative constraints like any other, and I think Dostoyevsky said ‘there is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it’; they might surprise you.
  • Matt Gio Tell him to experiment one time and not use the dominant, nor any dominant substitutions. Then it would no longer be tonal.
  • Matt Collings all good comments I think, it’s important to be aware of these points, cultural standpoints, musical/cultural history etc. Where you draw you own line and how you place your work within all these contexts is part of finding a creative identity. Whether people label you regressive or progressive is their business…as long as you are aware of these issues
  • Michael Edwards Tommy, your humility and erudition contradict your claims to be a philistine. I’d hate to see anyone excluded from the study of composition on the basis of style. But I don’t think you’re suggesting that. However, are you saying that artisans–by which I mean, in this context, someone who has technical skills but perhaps no artistic ambition–have no place in academia?
  • Henkelpott McGurty The mode of composition of this student’s you’re analysing could only represent a small amount of the work they create too.
  • Derek Williams “I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du printemps. When I think of the other composers of that time who interest me—Berg, who is synthetic (in the best sense), Webern, who is analytic, and Schoenberg, who is both—how much more theoretical their music seems than Le Sacre; and these composers were supported by a great tradition, whereas very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du printemps. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.”
    – Stravinsky and Craft, Expositions and Developments , pp. 147-48

    “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”
    – Igor Stravinsky
  • Amble Skuse It’s about standing on the shoulders of giants. To be a composer I think you have to work out where we are then work out how to step a bit further into the unknown. Emulating something which has already been expressed is not it. I’m not saying I’ve got it nailed by the way. Not at all….
  • Amble Skuse This kind of idea

    Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge. By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little. By the…
  • Dom Floyd Oh sure, you’re not saying that they’re music is irrelevant, but it might be interpreted as if you are by someone who isn’t used to compositions teachers encouraging them to think about such things. I also think that what is progressive/regressive where tonality is concerned isn’t particularly clear cut; there’s pieces by Gavin Bryars for example that use almost exclusively triadic harmonies that move in unconventional but hardly unheard-of ways but still somehow manage to sound “fresh” – I’m not quite sure how he does this, but i think it might be to do with weird phrase lenghths and unexpected harmonic rhythms – he makes tonality interesting using rhythmic devices. That wouldn’t necessarily be a way of being progressive with tonality that you would immediately think of…
  • Amble Skuse I think if they can point to an area of discussion that they are opening up then it doesn’t matter whether their work is tonal or not. It’s whether it’s part of the discussion that counts.
  • Derek Williams Arnold Schoenberg wrote, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.”

    Sergei Prokofiev wrote, “There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C-Major.”
  • Michael Edwards That’s exactly the kind of thing I mean Dom. Comparable in some ways, at a stretch perhaps, to Miles shifting into his modal phase around Kind of Blue. Also the difference between John Adams’s Shaker Loops (still fresh-sounding to me) and most of his other stuff, particularly Grand Pianola Music (which makes me retch).
  • Michael Edwards Trouble is Derek, today I hear a lot of noodling around in C and other major keys but very little of substance being said. Just because a couple of great composers said it’s still possible to express something in C major (but for me, by implication, only if you reach deeply/are touched deeply/and/or work hard), doesn’t mean composers should feel encouraged to stop thinking, stop progressing, and instead knock out unreflected cliche after cliche after cliche.
  • Michael Edwards and hey @Dom I bet you’ll agree that the “not quite sure how he does this” is exactly what makes it worthwhile and full of the inexplicable magic you write of.
  • Amble Skuse Is it to do with voice though? With young composers there is a lot of emulation until a voice is established ….
  • Dom Floyd Actually. Just get them to listen to lots and lots of Janacek. Janacek solves all problems. As well as being bewilderingly progressive within an old fashioned tonal system.
  • Dom Floyd As well as being intensely expressive too. The perfect composer in fact.
  • Dom Floyd YES. Not being sure how music works is how music works. If analysis of a piece of music answers all your questions about it, it’s probably a dull piece.
  • Henkelpott McGurty On a bit of a tangent to the trajectory of the discussion at this point but I think an important point to make. In terms of understanding the traits of composers such as the one you describe, they may never have been brought to address questions as to why they do what they do, before and what it represents to do so therein.

    Many young composers have never been engaged in a community that considers composition from such a perspective, let alone had anybody even encourage them to compose to that point. I think that begins to explain some of how pastiche much of their output may seem. Through all the musical education I received until Post Graduate level I was never explicitly encouraged to compose by a professor or tutor. It’s a massive hallmark of the way music is treated in tuition in the UK, at least. The fact that this composer is composing of their own accord gives me the impression they will be excited, whilst perhaps a little intimidated to begin to engage with ideas about the context they find themselves in and what it represents to compose as such.

    It sounds to me like your comments will be a huge eye-open to them, if a little tricky to digest. I think you are saying the right thing here, and it is perhaps the most important piece of guidance they might have been given to this point.
  • Michael Edwards Tonality certainly did hit a crisis which is why tonally referenced forms of non-folk music went off into the realms of e.g. neoclassicism, minimalism, punk, rock etc. There are clear crises of tonality in those forms as they rely on something other than the structure of tonality itself for their strength of expression (e.g. parody, repetition, electronic distortion, sheer loudness).

    And since when did majority awareness start being an indication of quality or relevance? Don’t mean to be a snob or anything, but there are under-appreciated artists and art-forms everywhere you look, **if** you look beyond what’s being forced in your face to serve the powers of wealth creation and suppression of social unrest.
  • Mikael Lind Writing tonal music that is interesting is definitely a challenge; some composers succeed, as you say, and others don’t. Philip Glass has certainly all financial aspects of his life sorted out, but his music hasn’t evolved much since the 70s or so. John Adams’ best works are behind him, as well as Steve Reich’s and Arvo Pärt’s. I’d love to hear some new, good, tonal classical music! I suppose David Lang’s new works come pretty close; pretty accessible but still interesting and good.
  • Derek Williams It is no less instructive to learn to compose pastiche off the “shoulders of giants”, than it is to learn to perform their music, so I don’t think it’s helpful for composers starting out in life to feel that they have to “have permission” to write in this or that ‘style’, such that they avoid writing something unpopular, or worse, popular, or worse still, anything at all.

    The idea of ‘cliché’ can encompass the vehicle as well as its contents. Modernism per se has thus given birth to its own clichés, recursive pastiche in effect, and, given that its origins are more than a century old, is really nowadays a misnomer, as postmodernism will no doubt soon become.

    In my earlier posts to this thread, I adduced quotes from Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Schœnberg to illustrate this. Speaking for myself, I compose mainly ‘tonal’ music, but then my ear thinks of everything as tonal in some sense, because it always hones in to a perceived tonal centre – even in a double fisted chord cluster.

    I don’t think anyone hearing my music would necessarily recognise which giant I was standing on the shoulders of, but it’s for all intents and purposes impossible to use the tools of composition without ‘stealing’ (to paraphrase Stravinsky) from somewhere, someone or something.

    Let’s take the Violin – that’s been used before, so by writing music for it, have we not already started partway down the path of tradition, even if we use the bow on the pegs, or under the bridge? That’s been done before. Let’s not stop there though, let’s take the noble semiquaver – been used before, ‘literally’ gazillions of times, sometimes all in the same piece. Are we being doubly derivative by writing semiquavers for the Violin? Of course not – instruments we compose for are tools by which we communicate, as are the semiotics of notation, as are the inner workings of tonality, even when iconoclasts unintentionally imply tonality by breaking it.

    While Modernism freed us from the shackles of twee tonality and artifice, it brought with it shackles of its own – of inverse snobbery and disdain for verismo emotional gratification. In one sense, it was saying, “if it feels good, do it”, but in another, it was saying “my way or the highway”.

    In the 21st Century, I would like to think we can equip composers with the means to communicate their musical thought in ways that profoundly engage them both directly, and vicariously to their audience. Current technology coupled with extant archive of hundreds of years of compositional traditions have made this possible as never before.
  • Edward Wright If we like it or not, tonal music is part of our heritage. It cannot be fully discounted. However Galen was also wrong about stuff and look how long the shadow was in that field.
  • Michael Edwards Turning this into a tonal vs atonal debate is a bit of a shame Derek. The question was restricted quite deliberately to the confines of tonality and the problems of kitsch, pastiche, and progressive tonality. Perhaps you missed my earlier post: “BTW, similar questions could be asked of run-of-the-mill atonal music hearkening back to the 1950s.”

    However, it’s more than simplistic to question whether using a violin or a semiquaver is derivative. It’s the sum of the parts, not the individual parts, that make a work compelling or progressive or cliched or stolen. Stealing–however often I see that quotation by Stravinsky, which was clearly meant tongue-in-cheek–is not a good starting point for anyone, let alone a student of composition. I prefer Picasso’s recommendation to try and imitate in order to discover that your own character and predilections will be revealed however hard you try to avoid them. That’s more revealing and more encouraging.
  • Max Hummus How about this: “writing tonal music is really hard to do well because most of your audience is already fairly expert in spotting crappy music that may be competent but doesn’t quite work. Try some squeaky gate instead, much easier and most people won’t know good from bad”. Any good?
  • Michael Edwards That’s pretty damn good Mark; there’s a lot of truth in that. Same goes for interpreters, right?
  • Derek Williams I couldn’t agree more Michael, but isn’t that essentially what this is still about, where writing music that is tonal is still presented as some kind of handicap?

    While acknowledging that “he who jests confesses”, I can agree that Stravinsky‘s ‘good composers steal’ comment was self evidently tongue-in-cheek, and that was partly my point in copying it. Stravinsky had quite the wry sense of humour, shared in many a telegram with his pal George Gershwin. This highlights the ‘tonal v. atonal’ conundrum quite well, given the two composers’ respective commercial success and somewhat divergent impact on history, depending on whose point of view you take.

    Agreed too on Picasso, and I think a re-read of my opening comment about pastiche will support that.
  • Ingo Nagel Your hint on using tonality in contemporary composition is marveously well put. As the problem, it seems, is not the pastiche but clichee, but the context of it.Contemporary means more than atonal, computer, etc, but the relationship with our now existent world. And a want to say something. With those few words written I find everything he needs to go this way. It´s his decision if he actually wants to follow. But that is said in your words, too. I wish him good luck, and to you patience and faith.
  • Michael Edwards Tonality is not by any means a handicap, it’s a challenge, if you’re up for it. But as Mark writes, you’ve got your work cut out for you because there are centuries of really good tonal music along with lots of recent slushy cliched copies out there, all constantly filling our ears and training our powers of discernment. Just because something was beautifully expressive at the moment of its invention (pick pretty much any Tchaikovsky, for instance) does not mean it can be so again and again, in exactly the same form.

    But surely nothing I’ve written here could be seen as dissing tonality per se. It’s uninventive, unreflected formula following that’s the scourge of an art form–whether that be I-IV-V-I or reductive dodecaphony. This is why I mentioned the artisan/artist divide.
  • John-Henry Dale The important question for this student is “what is your music saying ?”

    Musical notes have meaning only in their distance from other notes.
    Very few people, in my experience, seem to even understand that the music they are writing has a cognitive, ideational value, as well as an emotional one.

    Can this student express anything original using a western classical tonal structure ? Has it really all been said ? If so, your comments are just. If not, then the question becomes how he can say something original, in any kind of scale ?
  • Franklin Cox If students really want to compose tonal music, I teach them to do it properly–figured bass, partimento realization, thorough knowledge of 16th and 18th c. counterpoint, complete knowledge of chromatic harmony and extended tonality, the whole lot. Very few follow through. Most people want to write music with major and minor chords that sounds sort of like music they like. But composing high-level tonal music is an extremely exacting skill.
  • Michael Edwards That’s a really good approach Franklin, as long as you’re not punishing them with all that historical practice

    Is there not a danger though that such a thorough immersion in tonal systems can lead to addiction?

    Sorry, to be serious, you hit the nail on the head here: it’s superficial emulation that’s the problem, not the tonal system itself.
  • Janis Mercer I’m with you as to your original comment, Michael, encourage students to question their motives, to think about the role their music plays in modern life. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with personal taste at all.
  • Ingo Nagel Maybe you are willing to put really extra work on your shoulders. I will suggest a problem I uttlery failed in, but if he’s good and dilligent it might give him an Idea of the trap he is standing infront of. As I said I failed but it might be worth a try. 2 preconditions he has to accept: 1. Stay in Style. 2. He has to compose something that is uniquely surprising to the “expert audience” that means you. Let him write a serious number (More than one) of a small Piano Sonata in the style of Skriabin. (Chopin etc would work too) Or even better: Schönberg op. 1 and 2. The problem is if he really likes it, and doesn´t get to a new approach. It might be better for him to change to another studying place. Now he learns with the composer of “Thick”… A piece I played often for my students to show how contemporary music moves along in time and the soul. If you let it come close.
  • Franklin Cox Michael, there is a danger that immersion may lead to addiction; I don’t force them to immerse themselves, though. It’s their choice whether they really want to write tonal music or not. But if they do, they should immerse themselves in it and understand what a high level was achieved and maintained. It is possible to write tonal music and have a distinctive voice–I think Barber and Martinu at their best did this–but unfortunately I feel that much contemporary wanna-be tonal music just ends up missing out on what made earlier tonal music so wonderful.
  • Richard Barrett I have to differ somewhat with Franklin while paraphrasing Schoenberg and Prokofiev, and say I think there’s much interesting tonal music still to be written by people who aren’t deeply (or indeed at all) schooled in it. Going back to Michael‘s original post, in this kind of context it would be the run-of-the-millness that would bother me, not the tonality.
  • Matt Scott “Experiment, it will fill your life will joy and merriment.” Experiment song by Rob Murphy
  • Franklin Cox Richard, you may be right that “there’s much interesting tonal music still to be written by people who aren’t deeply (or indeed at all) schooled in it.” However, in very conservative areas such as the one in which I teach, everyone wants to write tonal music, but practically no one has anything interesting to add to the wonderful music that already exists. What they discover might be new to them, but it has already been done countless times. Those who can discover something new are few and far between.
  • Franklin Cox And both Schoenberg and Prokofiev were deeply schooled in traditional music.
  • Ian Pace I think Stravinsky and Prokofiev had a fair schooling in tonal music.
  • Richard Barrett I wasn’t commenting on Schoenberg or Prokofiev, I know their histories as well as most people, I was just saying that I don’t think “figured bass, partimento realization, thorough knowledge of 16th and 18th c. counterpoint, complete knowledge of chromatic harmony and extended tonality” is necessarily a prerequisite for writing tonal music in the 21st century that isn’t run-of-the-mill.
  • Ian Pace Those things do imply a very particular approach to composition (which many nineteenth-century non-German composers would not necessarily have had).
  • Franklin Cox Fine, Richard, you teach tonal music however you want. That’s the way I teach tonal music.
  • Franklin Cox And Richard, are you currently teaching students tonal music, or just opining about how you would do it?
  • Franklin Cox Ian, my teaching materials are drawn from a wide variety of historical teaching methods; the main problem is I can’t go into as much depth as I’d like to with any subject. For example, I use some of Handel’s and Bach’s figured bass exercises. I also use some of the figured bass and partimento-type exercises used in Italian schools for over two centuries (at least up until the end of the 19th century). I don’t know as much about earlier Russian training, but I do know Tchaikovsky’s counterpoint book, which I believe was used in Russian conservatory training. This book includes a fair amount of the traditional Italian training. The German training in the 19th century was actually weak in traditional contrapuntal skills, and figured bass fell out of fashion. Brahms envied Mendelssohn for his intensive early training and the fluidity of his counterpoint; he learned these skills later on his own, and perhaps as a result was obsessed with counterpoint throughout the rest of his life. I haven’t yet integrated some of the French 19th century method books beyond some of Reicha’s materials, but am not sure it’s worthwhile before some really interesting composers came along in the end of the century. You can’t cover everything that was taught in every country in all periods. The Italian training was in many respects extremely narrow, but ridiculously intensive (evidently it’s still that way). I don’t see any point in giving students hundreds of exercises writing every conceivable type of counterpoint against scales, but it is useful getting them to the point that they can write reasonably fluid counterpoint of several types. This will help any musician–and most of my students are Classical performers–understand better and perhaps interpret more intelligently a big chunk of the Classical music he and she will be playing. But these traditional materials don’t include chromatic harmony, and I think it’s important to expose students to this area as well. I also include some of Sechter’s and Bruckner’s exercises to give a more harmonically-focused perspective, and for more advanced students also include a fair amount of chromatic exercises. I haven’t had many composition students wild about 20th-century tonal harmony, but I try to expose them to as wide a range of materials as possible. I don’t teach jazz harmony, because we have an excellent jazz pianist who can do this far better than I can. I love Schoenberg and Berg and try to encourage students to explore this music, but very few have interest even in the tonal works. I had one student interested in quartal harmony, so I read up again on Hindemith and Persichetti, neither of whose music I like very much. But I am teaching in an extremely conservative department, and there is next to no interest in post-tonal music, or even late-19th century chromatic music. Most people want to just string together major and minor triads.
  • Franklin Cox And Richard, do you know Schoenberg’s tonal teaching methods? They are very intensive, and he was a very strict teacher. I don’t think either Schoenberg or Prokofiev countenanced what they considered amateurism when it came to tonal music.
  • Richard Barrett I know Schoenberg’s “Fundamentals…” quite well, but no, I don’t specifically teach composition techniques as such, tonal or otherwise.
  • Franklin Cox Richard, the “Fundamentals” are only one part–there’s the Counterpoint (which I find quite weak), and the two harmony books. This is only scratching the surface. Patricia Carpenter (his assistant at UCLA, with whom I studied at Columbia U.) and Severine Neff have published further materials. I don’t agree with a great deal of Schoenberg’s conception. Nevertheless, from beginning to end he insisted on comprehensive understanding of the materials of the tradition (as he conceived it) of tonal music.
  • Karin Schistek I love e.g. Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony for the asides, rather than the main points about harmonic technique. Such as this beauty: “Ability to express oneself certainly does not depend on the kind and number of means placed at one’s command. But inability depends on that. Inability can develop only by way of techniques; for it does not exist through what it produces of itself, but thrives on what others have produced”
  • Karin Schistek Oh sorry,that’s not Karin, it’s me, Michael…
  • Michael Edwards If people are still interested I’d like to pull us back to the artisan vs. artist distinction. Perhaps why so many of us get exercised about this is that both teacher and student most often assume without question that we’re interested in developing artistry together. Is that realistic?

    I wonder how many students (particularly, e.g., students of film music composition) want to learn just the nuts and bolts of compositional technique and don’t give a hoot about artistic advancement.

    Should we concentrate on technique and leave artistry to arise later, if it’s appropriate? This would mean less individual-focussed composition lessons, where teachers help students with their scores, and more group work on various techniques which need to be ‘under the belt’.
  • Richard Barrett I don’t know Michael, I’ve always thought you develop the techniques you need according to the vision you have, and if there’s no vision no amount of technique is going to conjure it into being. In distinction to Franklin, i really have no interest on teaching anyone else’s composition techniques. What I try to do is give people the encouragement to seek their own solutions. I don’t see composition as related to scholarship in the way Frank describes. If that’s what people want they shouldn’t study with me!
  • Ian Pace But, Richard, wouldn’t you say that your work has been informed by, say, some of the techniques used by Stockhausen, Xenakis and others?
  • Mikael Lind Interestingly, music psychologist David Huron calls Schoenberg’s pieces ‘contra-tonal’ rather than ‘atonal’, since it’s so obvious that Schoenberg is very well trained in the tonal tradition and his later pieces are actively avoiding almost every trait that would suggest tonality. (To avoid tonality, one has to know well what tonality is first.) For example, a serial row such as C D E F G A B A# G# F# D# C# would suggest tonality, but Schoenberg actively avoided such rows.

    Maybe this is a cliché, but it seems to me that the greatest artists are those who first have a good understanding of the foundations that they later want to deconstruct. Perhaps that’s also why Arvo Pärt’s music is more interesting than a lot of modern minimalist composers’ music – Pärt took a reverse step from Schoenberg, and knew well what he was trying to do, where he came from and what he was aiming at. I still find Fratres, Tabula Rasa and Arbos to be great pieces!
  • Richard Barrett Yes of course, Ian, but I try not to impose my own techniques on others, rather sometimes to use them as an example of how individual solutions can be found which are idiomatic to someone ‘s musical personality.
  • Richard Barrett Pärt tries to write ahistorical music and that’s a major failing as far as I’m concerned
  • Ian Pace I don’t feel it’s a straight opposition between individuality and derivativeness, but very few composers have developed a sophisticated idiom from nothing (Xenakis may be on of the few, though arguably he drew upon Stravinsky and Varèse (and Beethoven and Brahms in more oblique ways) not to mention techniques derived from other artistic forms). I don’t really see what’s wrong with an approach to composition teaching which can involve learning a variety of techniques – the nature of which will of course depend upon the particular student’s aspirations and inclinations – which are part and parcel of the process of developing an individuated way of doing what one wishes. That seems to account for the way in which the majority of composers I admire (and quite a few individuals in non-classical fields) have worked.

    Point re Stockhausen and Xenakis was essentially that learning from some avant-garde techniques doesn’t seem such a different process from learning some more traditional methods, if one is writing tonal music.
  • Mikael Lind Richard, I don’t agree. To me, he succesfully managed to find inspiration from history (pre-baroque mostly) and develop something that still felt new and interesting for our modern age.
  • Ian Pace Pärt to me seems absolutely a creature of his time and place (and that isn’t a criticism) – one other composer who felt this about him, positively, was Nono.
  • Mikael Lind Pärt’s newer pieces are not as interesting, but he had a period where he created some absolutely amazing works.
  • Richard Barrett Well, if I hear something by Pärt I hear a denial of history.
  • Michael Edwards I hear that more in, say, Tavener than Part.
  • Richard Barrett And, having said that, of course I concur that any composition technique is historically situated. I would like to encourage people to situate their composition techniques in the present, whatever that might mean and imply. As I say, if people want something else they can go to someone else!
  • Michael Edwards Ahistorical music is simply an impossibility. Do you know where he claimed to be writing this?
  • Michael Edwards So Richard it seems from what you write that you’re definitely teaching artists not artisans.
  • Richard Barrett I just do what I can, and I guess that’s what it is.
  • Mikael Lind I can think of no pre-20th century piece that could be said to be strikingly similar to Tabula Rasa, for example (even if the instrumentation were different). I suppose Perotin for strings could at some parts sound a bit like Fratres, though. Not to the point of embarrassment however.
  • Richard Barrett If you look at Pärt’s website you’ll see that the word “timeless” turns up in quite a lot of the writing there, presumably with the composer’s approval. His work of course isn’t timeless but completely of its time, a symptom of the wish to escape into a comforting, nostalgic, “spiritual” soundworld, but with a contemporary “designer” quality so as not to seem old-fashioned. I don’t ascribe those intentions to Pärt himself, and indeed I’m not really interested in what his intentions are; his music, however (and Tavener’s, needless to say), just seems to me to celebrate unfocused and ahistorical ways of (not) thinking… also I find it annoying to listen to!
  • Franklin Cox “I don’t see composition as related to scholarship in the way Frank describes.” This is a pretty spectacular distortion. All I was talking about was teaching tonal music. And the tradition of learning by copying patterns can only be reduced to “scholarship” if one reduces the mainstream practices of teaching writers, musicians, painters, and so forth for over a thousand years to “scholarship”. Learning the nuts and bolts of the craft allows one to become fluent and coherent, but it does not make one an interesting artist. To use Michael’s distinction, it can get one to the level of being an artisan. If one wants to write tonal music, one should at least get to this level, which is the baseline in such a highly-developed practice. There is precious little in this idiom that hasn’t already been tried out already. Every “discovery” a student makes is usually merely his or her own discovery, not an enrichment of the language.
  • Franklin Cox On the other hand, I don’t believe that any creativity worthy of the name is a tender flower that can be demolished by learning what others have done. The students I’ve had with this spark manage to assimilate everything and still remain hungry. As I said earlier, I expose students interested in tonal music to many materials, but I don’t make them sit in a room for a year writing out every permutation of V-I progressions, which apparently was the practice in the 18th-century Italian schools (according to some Italians I’ve spoken with, some of this practice is still around). That can kill off creativity. But any student with a strong creative spark will learn the principal of such progressions quickly, and that’s enough.
  • Richard Barrett I don’t see any distortion in what I said – if that’s what you call “spectacular” you need to get out more! You related your teaching of tonality to a number of areas whose investigation would require being cognizant of some considerable amount of secondary (ie. non-musical) literature. That’s all I was referring to.
  • Franklin Cox Richard, apparently you have not understood a word I’ve written. I will not continue this conversation.
  • Richard Barrett Anyway: returning to Michael‘s “run-of-the-mill tonal music”, I wonder what people have to say about contemporary tonal music that isn’t run-of-the-mill? Certainly much popular music would fit that category, but what about notated concert music?
  • Franklin Cox I’m sorry, but I can’t let one of Richard’s comments stand. He refers “being cognizant of some considerable amount of secondary (ie. non-musical) literature” as though figured bass and partimento traditions were non-musical. This is spectacularly ill-informed. Figured bass exercises formed the core musical substance of countless pieces. Many of the most famous Bach passages, such as the opening of the Chaconne, were figured bass exercises. A common practice Bach learned early on was to expand a figured bass exercise to form a dance piece, and then create a suite of dance pieces out of this exercise. Would anyone seriously claim that Bach’s suites are dry theory exercises as a result? Partimento exercises were pieces of music. The Italians using this method were the teachers of Europe in the Baroque period; this was a hands-on, direct approach to teaching composition. Haydn was trained in this tradition as well, as was Mozart. I believe that all of the major 19th century Italian composers were trained in this tradition. Every one of the materials I mentioned were either written by composers or used directly in the training of composers. I use these materials because 1) they are proven successes in the training of tonal composers and 2) they avoid many of the abstract pseudo-problems (especially those arising from terminology) that tend to arise in academic theory books. The latter have their place in teaching basic materials, but most of them are useless for teaching composition. This is not their aim. You can learn more about the main elements of tonal syntax by learning about twenty core progressions well than by reading twenty theory books. This is my last contribution to this thread.
  • John Irving Hm… Not sure about the ‘historically and therefore aesthetically exhausted’ bit? Is it a necessary connection? Can’t aesthetics be decoupled from its original historical setting? I’d like to think it could, and that it could even offer a creative solution for your student that reimagines tonal possibilities for your student satisfying to both of you.
  • Daniel James Wolf To paraphrase a famous SCUSA Justice who, when talking about pornography, said “I know it when I see it”; I think “tonality” is a similarly subjective phenomenon, “we know it when we hear it,” and, as such is often used as a place holder in discussions that really turn on more particular aspects or qualities. “Tonality” thus gets attached to broader or narrower swathes of repertoire, to pieces, catalogs, styles, genres and eras, and this is inevitably contested territory. Is repertoire prior to the establishment of a prevailing Major-minor scalar and vertical system tonal? Was Machaut or Ockeghem or Josquin practicing tonality yet? When does repertoire push the limits of received tonal practice so much that the tonality label is no longer useful? Did Gesualdo or Liszt or Debussy or Skryabin push that limit?

    It’s long been my contention that concert music which falls outside received major-minor practice has been and remains a minority concern (From my blog, years ago: “Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.”) Much is attractive, competent in a certain way, but it’s fast food, mostly dull stuff, neither engaged with the tonal materials in a historically conscious way nor reconsidering them from a radical, first principles, approach. But there is a large field of opportunity here, to find tonal practices that one “knows when one hears it” to be a form of tonality, yet do things that known tonality never did before — and push our ears, bodies, brains to hear more than before rather than less.
  • Ian Pace To add to John Irving‘s important point: also: ‘to hearken back to a world we’ve left behind both socially and musically, and is therefore *in that form* no longer reflective of, or relevant to, contemporary life’ – that assumes a direct connection between social conditions and the music produced, which I find simplistic (much of the most distinctive music, at least by some contemporary standards, is notable because of how much it stands out as distinct from much else being produced at the same time), and also sounds like a rather crude ideology of historical progress.
  • Richard Barrett Indeed. Actually I do think there’s a direct connection, but it doesn’t need to be thought of as a direct mapping, so to speak. And as for progress, it is nevertheless true that each passing moment increases the accumulation of what could be called knowledge, in the form of musical compositions as well as in more obvious forms, so one might call that progress.
  • Richard Barrett As for Frank exiting the conversation and then immediately re-entering it: I’m very happy that he uses musical sources in teaching tonal techniques rather than textbooks. But nevertheless his is an approach with a particularly twentieth-century quality, in that it seeks to integrate many historical periods, geographic traditions and stylistic directions, and in doing so it is certainly a great deal more “scholarly” than the way Haydn for example would have learned. Other than that, like Daniel I don’t think focusing on tonality as a “thing” is particularly helpful. When I hear a piece of music the question “is it tonal?” generally wouldn’t occur to me.
  • Mikael Lind Richard: Well, it’s pretty hard yet to decide whether his music is timeless or not… only time will tell! I suspect his compositions will live on for a long time, due to how deeply they touch some people. What we do know, as reported by Alex Ross, is that Tabula Rasa was often requested by terminally ill patients afflicted with AIDS or cancer to help them reach inner peace. The composer Erkki-Sven Tuur said about the first performance of the piece: “I was carried beyond. I had the feeling that eternity was touching me through this music…nobody wanted to start clapping.” So obviously, there’s something in the music that affects people deeply, me included.
  • Mikael Lind And I think the word ‘unfocused’ fits really badly with Pärt’s music; I can agree with you that the music is pretty escapist, since it tends to make us forget our problems rather than facing them, perhaps. The music is not very revolutionary, as it were. But I don’t think it’s unfocused and ahistorical; it definitely has a very important place in our time, alongside more experimental music, that is necessary but for another reason. For me as a listener, one does not exclude the other.
  • Ian Pace To Richard‘s last post but one: I wonder if, whilst some knowledge accumulates, there is also a process of forgetting, so that the net result does not necessarily follow a linear trajectory? Certainly plenty of the more intricate late Renaissance and early Baroque techniques had become relatively forgotten by the early nineteenth-century, so that it was quite a major effort for Brahms to rediscover and master them. On another level, a lot of the very individual artisanal skills involved in building old instruments are apparently mostly forgotten now. Doesn’t mean they might not be learned again comprehensively. But I prefer to see musical history as a process of carrying forward and also discarding – and not by any means according to a ‘natural selection’ process, rather relating to specific needs, desires, ideologies, aesthetics, and so on, of successive eras.
  • Jillian Mathews I am curious reading this thread. Composed music is a reflection of the patterns of the self, which possibly demonstrates what one has absorbed of and can interpret from the culture that has touched them. This is similar to the way a persons style of writing can develop over time. There is also the brief, context and intent of the piece to be considered. Aristotle suggested that little is original. Does human biology restrict what can be considered music as we find tonality pleasing in most cultures due to the tonal topic layout of the auditory cortext, or can we choose to conceptualise what is described as music so that it’s possibilities for evolution are almost infinite?
  • Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan Michael, I think you need to take a step back and discuss with the student what he/she is looking for in terms of instruction and what you can offer and provide.
  • Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan Food for thought: David sandborn studied with Julius Hemphill, Paul Schaefer studied with tiszji muñoz, and Michael hedges was a fan of Varèse.
  • Michael Edwards To my mind there’s certainly no linear trajectory, no predictable or inevitable line of “historical progress”. Because of our access to so much music today there’s more a network of interconnected branches, some of which stop and some of which continue and touch many others, some of which even go back for a while.

    But to my ear there’s a “best-before date” on musical materials in a number of these simultaneous strands in Western music. This limitation is often determined by common usage and saturation–to twist Richard’s words, and “each passing moment increases the accumulation”. Which is not to say we shouldn’t perhaps slow down and explore avenues to their full potential before moving on…

    John/Ian: like Richard, I do see a connection between social conditions or historical setting and the music produced. To give one obvious example, there’s an urgency to the music of Archie Shepp that is surely impossible to decouple from the race struggles of the 1960s US and Shepp himself being black. Or to counter with another–and apologies in advance to Ian if I’m being too crude or simplistic again–would a fin-de-siecle Viennese Waltz be a fitting commission for the 2015 Proms?
  • Michael Edwards Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan are you saying that, like the children of the hippy generation, these younger musicians absorbed but turned their back on their radical teachers/mentors in order to gain filthy lucre? Is money the root of the issue for you?
  • Michael Edwards For teaching purposes, would a database of “tonal music which has potential for further development” be useful? If so then we’d have to engage with Daniel James Wolf s questions above regarding the limits of tonality.
  • Richard Barrett Ian, yes, there is indeed a process of forgetting, but there’s certainly an accumulation of musical literature and in some cases also continuous performance tradition, and certainly also the results of technological innovation, including as regards documentation (and the perceived need for documentation), and so on. Not that I’m trying to make a case for a “progressist” view of musical history of course, just saying there is a difference between past and future over and above random drifts from one aesthetic to another. I wasn’t meaning to start some big digression!
  • Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan I refrain from making those judgements. My goal as a teacher/mentor is to help students get where they want to go, not where I think they should be going. I find it inspiring that e.g., Hemphill, who made avant garde free jazz, was able to mentor Sandborn who made commercial smooth jazz. That Sandborn so valued Hemphill’s instruction speaks volumes about what a great person Hemphill must have been.
  • Michael Edwards Apologies for my flippant extrapolation Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan. We share a pedagogical approach there for sure. But would this extend to helping a student develop a technique purely aimed at making money via an aesthetic which contributes to imperialistic ventures (I’m thinking of music–almost always simply tonal of course–that accompanies Hollywood films which glorify war, for instance)? That may seem like a wild digression but part of the dilemma here arises from the commercial/non-commercial split in musical endeavours.
  • Mikael Lind Michael, atonal music is used in Hollywood, to accompany horror scenes and the like.
  • Alistair Zaldua Michael, I preferred it when you were Karin speaking as Schoenberg
  • Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan Ah, I hadn’t recognized that dimension of this discussion. Things get more complicated then. I wouldn’t assist someone in doing something I consider abhorrent.
  • John Irving Michael Edwards I was thinking of aesthetic categories such as the Sublime really. I think they may escape the limitations of time and place. Conditioned by human responses, these categories can absorb all manner of genres and styles. The reverse is not (so) true, I think.
  • Richard Barrett Returning to Mikael’s comment on Pärt – yes, we can decide on whether his music is “timeless” – it isn’t, because “timeless” is a meaningless adjective to use for music, which is always of its time, whether the composer intends it to be so or not. As for “atonal” music being used by Hollywood, I have the impression that this is not as much the case as it used to be. There was a time for instance when it was thought appropriate for SF films dealing with “alienness” (“Forbidden Planet” being the most prominent example) to use electronic music exclusively on the soundtrack, whereas now they tend to use textbook-orchestrated stuff that would be just as appropriate (or not) to any other kind of film.
  • Richard Barrett Sorry for straying off the point there. I was also thinking that “tonal” was probably being used a bit loosely in Michael‘s opening post to include not just a particular way of deploying pitches, but also rhythm, form, instrumental usage etc. etc., because theoretically it would be possible to writ tonal music with nested rhythmic subdivisions, completely asymmetrical forms, extended playing techniques etc. etc. which was presumably not the case in the student you were talking about, Michael. So we shouldn’t get too sidetracked into seeing the issue entirely in terms of tonality (whatever we deem that to mean) as such.
  • Richard Barrett And one more thing regarding “timelessness”. A work that always comes to mind in this connection for me is the St Matthew Passion, which those with a belief in such things often tend to regard as “timeless”. However, I believe it achieves the relevance it has to other times and places by having been composed very specifically, in every detail, for a given occasion in a particular place, for particular performers and to fit into a very particular local tradition; and in the context of the totality of musical techniques known to the wider tradition from which it emerged. This is what in my opinion Pärt’s music does not do, in its attempt to leapfrog its way to timelessness by treating this as a compositional determinant that you can write into a piece by adopting particular stylistic and technical mannerisms.
  • Michael Edwards Quite right Richard, and interestingly it could be that those ‘tonal’ musics that some here, myself included, might hold up as being progressive (Riley’s In C perhaps?) don’t work at all within the rhythm, form, and instrumentation confines of Western Classical music. Which then begs the question, are they really tonal or just referencing/co-opting partial features rather than the full set of tonal structuring principles?

    True tonal music (gosh!) for me works with functional harmony (either explicitly or implicitly), and I suppose it’s that which I find worn out more than, say, a pattern on a C major scale
  • Mikael Lind If we take Wittgenstein’s dictum seriously, that the meaning of a word is it’s use in the language, then the adjective ‘timeless’ is definitely usable. When it’s used with regards to music (usually about Bach, Mozart, the Beatles and the likes), the adjective is used to describe music that is not particularly affected by time or by changes in fashion. We shouldn’t be fooled to believe that we can use language with scientific objectivity when describing music; language use is a normative practise.

    I agree with you Richard that the use of music has become very stale, with some good exceptions (like There Will Be Blood). My comment that atonal music is being used in horror scenes was meant to be ironic, as a comment to how Hollywood is afraid to challenge stereotypical opinions among their audience. This fact, that music for love scenes often is very light and tonal, and the music for horror scenes is atonal and often loud, might actually serve to perpetuate certain conservative thoughts on music.
  • Richard Barrett I certainly agree with your second point, but I’d also say that the loose usage of a word like “timeless” does the same kind of thing…
  • Ian Pace Hollywood using a few bite-sized chunks of some style as one variety of exotic colouration certainly does not amount to this type of music (defined as much by its structural and temporal properties as what can be discerned from a small sample in terms of style) having become mainstream.
  • Ian Pace ‘the rhythm, form, and instrumentation confines of Western Classical music’ – I think those have varied quite a lot over history.
  • Richard Barrett I’m sure Michael is aware of that!
  • Ian Pace Richard: ‘theoretically it would be possible to writ tonal music with nested rhythmic subdivisions, completely asymmetrical forms, extended playing techniques’ – isn’t that more than just theoretically, but something like what Nancarrow did (maybe not the extended playing techniques)?
  • Mikael Lind Yes, Nancarrow must be a pretty good example.
  • Richard Barrett Quite – it’s not just theoretical of course, there are quite a few examples (Mark R Taylor, some FInnissy, etc.).
  • Daniel James Wolf Richard, not as a Pärt partisan and not even as someone who’s actually invested much time listening to it, but as a matter of clarification, I don’t actually think it’s possible to point to specific historical repertoire for precedents to Pärt’s tintinSee More
  • Daniel James Wolf If I was looking for a precedent of tonal (or modal) and a complex rhythmic ensemble, I might send a student first to Morley’s Plain & Easy Introduction to Practical Music. There are some very good examples of pushing a system of organization to its limits and contrasts strongly with the practice of complex rhythms as a kind of written-out rubato.
  • Richard Barrett Daniel, I don’t think I was saying that I thought Pärt’s composition techniques were lifted from historical examples.
  • Jolon Dixon When I first went to university, my equipment was manuscript paper and clutch pencils. This was a technological constraint. To me it seems so much easier to write broadly functional common practice tonal music within such a constraint, the kind that makes one feel “I can compose” than broadly convincing a/pan/bi/quadro/u/tonal music.

    Perhaps encouraging students to be fully aware of how their choice of tools and specific media shapes and binds their sonic creativity is a good starting point before nudging the youth of today towards more piquant airs.
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