Composer's Toolbox

a blog for the composers and audiences of today's music.

Category: Melody (Page 1 of 5)

The Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux’s “Gradus Ad Parnassum”

This book could occupy all of your time if you wished.  It is an essential read for every composer, containing the manual that nearly all great classical composers learned from.  Contemporary composers still use it today both as a way to learn and a tool for teaching their students.

So, what is it?

The majority of the book is excerpted from Johann Joseph Fux’s treatise Gradus Ad Parnassum.

Gradus Ad Parnassum is a study of how lines of notes relate to one another, i.e. counterpoint.  The book is not a typical textbook, but rather attempts to read like a dialogue.  There is a conversation that runs throughout the text between Josephus, the student and Aloysius, the master.  Josephus is any student who wishes to learn the art of composition, and Aloysius is the master teaching Josephus.  It is worth noting here that Aloysius is a stand-in for Palestrina, the great Renaissance composer whose work this treatise distills.

But, the overall purpose of the book is not to tell a story, but to provide the reader (you) with a solid backbone in relating consonance and dissonance to each other as you write melodic lines.  By studying the relationship between consonance and dissonance in both horizontal and vertical directions, you will grow as a composer in your understanding of the basic units of western music.  Yes, the book uses the work of Palestrina as the ideal music, and yes, Palestrina’s music is amazing, but the goal for you should be to really understand the basic building blocks of putting pen to paper.

But, what if you have already worked as a composer and things are going well?

Buy it anyways.  Right now on Amazon it’s between $4 and $14 depending on the condition of the book.  Buy it because you can always get better, and doing these exercises challenges you to really examine your fundamentals.

You may hear on sports channels on television that a player has “good fundamentals”; that a team has a “solid foundation”; that the roster is “deep”.  Think of this book as a way to ensure your fundamentals are as good as they can be, that your foundation is solid, that your skills are so deep that they are second nature and you can focus on writing the best music you can.

Buy the book, and do the exercises too.  Sing them out.  Play them on a piano.  Spend hours doing these things, and you will come out a much better, more well-informed, and more instinctively-tuned musician.

There is also some commentary by the translator and editor, Alfred Mann.  This helps to contextualize the book.  This book was a staple for common practice period composers such as J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others.  It codified and solidified a set of “rules” that were the basis for the formation of baroque, classical, and romantic music over centuries.  In short, both pedagogically and musically, it all starts here in this book.  This book is relevant because it is the backbone, and the starting point for the study of western musical composition.  The body of music written up to today is at your fingertips as you read and study it.

My copy is pictured up top.  Don’t ask me how it still has an intact cover after so many long nights. 🙂


P.M. Joyce – FairyTale

P.M. Joyce’s work “Fairytale” is a well-polished work that would work well in a film score.

View the score here.

I would encourage that our readers keep an eye (and ear) out for the following devices that really help make this piece convincing:

1. The form begins simple and small, but develops into three main sections:

  1. m. 1-74 – opening section, exposition
  2. m. 75-89 – second theme
  3. m. 90-100 – development
  4. m. 101-122 – third theme and countermelody
  5. m. 123-end – recapitulation

2. Idiomatic writing


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3. Use of color/timbre in orchestration
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This piece works well as a story; the sense of a fairy tale is evident.  The piece looks polished, but there are some default notation software elements and minor notation flaws to beware:

  1. The slurs position themselves well, but they sometimes end at strange places, eg. at the beginnings of tied notes.
  2. Some text is below the staff when it should actually be above the staff (see letter E pizz.).
  3. Some rhythm durations are more clearly expressed with a staccato marking instead of shortening them (eg. flute, m. 64 and 66)

Regardless, this is a convincing piece.  The use of melody and countermelody, as well as tone color and harmony, indicate that the composer has spent a lot of time listening to music similar to this work, and also invested time in the counterpoint.  There are some examples of parallel fifths in this work, but that is fine if that is what the composer intends.  Minor voice leading fixes can resolve those fifths (eg. letter A in the violas and cellos).

I am being nit-picky with this work because there is little else to criticize–the use of doublings, formal structure, and polish are quite good.

Next steps for the composer would be:

  1. Getting together with friends or people who make films, to score parts of the film or at least provide stock music for them to use.
  2. Getting the piece performed by a local community orchestra.
  3. Taking conducting lessons, to see just how the music on the page is realized, which can inform future works and provide a way to see if that is something else that the composer wishes to study.
  4. Experimenting with dissonance and fludiity, for examples:
    1. Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, Mvt. I
    2. John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur, Part II: Sri Moonshine
    3. Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider, Come On All You Ghosts (off of the album “The Fiction Issue”)

Happy composing,


Koti Jaddu – Untitled

Koti Jaddu’s submission to the Young Composer Score call reads right out of a book of preludes; it has a distinct feel of Bach, Vivaldi, and other baroque composers that pairs fugue-like passages with more distilled, smoother, almost popular chord progressions that keep it fresh and enjoyable:


As you can hear, the MIDI realization sounds like a performance (I assume the composer performed it into a digital audio workstation or other program).  The combination of the score and the performance help us understand the piece as one full of rich counterpoint and well-measured form/structure.

The score is very bare-bones, much like a typical prelude, but since we have limitless possibilities and opportunities today with notation, I would encourage the composer to write in phrasing marks, breaths, dynamics, and stress/tenuto markings so that any player can realize this piece the same way as the recording.

It seems that much of the work is played from memory or primarily from the composer’s head, as the variances between the score and the rubato playing are not marked in the score.  One of the hardest elements of composing is getting the music completely out of your head and onto paper, so the performer can find out just exactly what is in your head.  This enables them to realize the work.  For example, expressive text can help create mood and humanize one’s work.

Nice work with the counterpoint and lilting style of the latter sections.  The composer clearly has an ear for harmony and contrasting/intersecting lines of melody.  As next steps, I would consider attempting similar, but more recent, settings of this type of music.  For example:

  1. Charles Ives, Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Concord”), Mvt. III. The Alcotts – this is a breathtaking movement in this sonata, and captures both rich color and dark sonorities.
  2. Liszt, Mephisto Waltz No. 1 S. 514 – a piano favorite, it incorporates programmatic elements (eg. the devil tuning his instrument), the use of dissonance, and the use of melody over and in between chords.  This may be a next step for the composer, to incorporate more melody in between the harmony instead of on top and below the harmony.
  3. Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3 – I would encourage the composer to think about their piano music “orchestrally”.  Perhaps the composer can make piano reductions and orchestrate them for sting quartet, string orchestra, and then full orchestra.

I’ve talked for too long.  What are your thoughts?  Leave a comment below!

Happy composing,



Zekai Liu – Enigma

Zekai Liu’s work Enigma is one of the works submitted to the Young Composer Score Call.  Take a look at the score here, and listen to the sight-read performance by Transient Canvas:

As you can see, it is a racing whirlwind of rhythm and the A blues scale.   (It is worth noting that the recording repeats measures 17-45, and I am not sure if this is intentional, but it makes the form much more coherent.)

There are a number of elements that make this a successful work.

For example, the opening passage brings the instruments and listener closer to chaos in a very calculated manner.  The marimba’s chordal figure and the bass clarinet interruption have their time signatures diminished, bit by bit, in a subtractive process.  Their dynamics also increase in volume, and the clarinet spells out the A blues scale in ascending order while the marimba does the same.  With a final octave jump, the two instruments collide and move against one another via a squeak and glissandi.

The piece also uses a variety of techniques to retain ensemble cohesion and formal coherency.  The use of dovetails:

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Meter emphasis:

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And interrupting accents:

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All combine to make a piece that is well-thought despite its light, fleeting, seemingly whimsical tone and charming ending.

I would encourage this composer to experiment with different scales, eventually creating their own sets of pitches and scales with which they can explore and create new harmonic landscapes.

Additionally, the composer’s sense of rhythm is quite strong, and I would consider making that a hallmark of their work (rhythm is a hallmark of all of my work).

Lastly, I would ask the composer to consider using more sounds outside of notes.  The use of squeaks and glissandi help liven up the piece, and the use of articulations, slurs, and dynamics bring the piece to life.  I would encourage this composer to think even further “outside of the notes”.

I would encourage listening to Xenakis’s Rebonds (A and B), for percussive complexity and unity.  Building on the idea of scales, the songs on the Red Hot Chili Peppers album By The Way utilize just a few chords and simple pentatonic scales (like most of their music), that turn into longer-form compositions.  But, to break out of these scales, I would also recommend that the composer listen to Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, which solves some of the problems that tonality poses by using quotation, multi-meter, multi-tempo, and polytonality to create effects much like the composer’s first glissandi and squeak in Enigma.

But I’ve rambled on enough.  What are your thoughts on this?  Let me know in the comments below!

Happy composing,


Timothy Lee Miller – “Divinitus”

Like the previous work featured in this score call, Timothy Lee Miller’s concept is religious/spiritual.  Take a look at the score, following along with the recording.

Firmly rooted in the American Mavericks tradition, this work fuses hymns with polytonality and misalignment, a la Charles Ives.  Take a look at the four hymns in the beginning:

Blessed Be The Name

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Eternal Father Strong to Save

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On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

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Fairest Lord Jesus

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The use of polytonality and collision provides this work with a variety of textures, gestures, and moments.

For example, measure 19 has bell-like arpeggios in the guitar juxtaposed with glockenspiel arpeggiation, overlaid with a static harmonic field in the clarinet and violin, and a supply of fifths in the piano.  This texture of chaotic clarity is destroyed with the piano’s sforzando in measure 20, but the texture clears up again as the static harmonic field is reinforced (as the sforzando dies off), leaving us with clear piano perfect fifths and a quartal chord in the guitar:Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 10.43.10 AM.png

A new texture emerges at measure 26, along with a new tempo marking.  It is worth noting that this piece is largely sectional, with most sections delineated by specific increases and decreases in tempo marking.

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Here we encounter one of many static textures.  It seems that the American Maverick tradition is taken in new directions in this piece; the highs come at a more accelerated pace but last shorter, and the lows take on a clearer, less muddy texture and ambience.

For example, look at measure 56.  The use of space and spaciousness is clear, but there are also elements of synchronicity that are rampant.  There is almost-perfect homophony up until measure 73, a transition measure that leads us into a run-filled, fleeting flurry of notes.  Yet, to keep the texture clear (and I assume also to help the performers), there is still relative homophony.

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In contrast, passages such as the runs from measure 192 to 199 give us a sense of flying and diving, intersecting and interweaving counterpoint in a polytonal harmonic field:

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Here the materials of the work are spelled out in a complex, but comprehensible, manner.  The music is rife with overlaid rhythmic patterns, but the score clearly functions in 4/4, both giving the performers something to hang onto, and also allowing the listener to not be too overwhelmed with sonority.

It is worth noting that in this final section, we are supplied with the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the piano:

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This is the final work to be analyzed in this call for scores!!  Let’s jot down some of the things we’ve learned in this work, as a farewell to both this piece and the project at large.

  1. A tradition can be followed, but does not have to consume a piece.  This work adapts the maverick tradition of Charles Ives by translating it into a more sectional, less gradually/more suddenly textural-changing, and overall more clearly timbred, piece that still retains elements of quotation, collage, juxtaposition, misalignment, and polytonality.
  2. A good recording is a must if you want to send out your music to places.  Even though this recording has a little too much reverb in my opinion, it is one of the reasons this piece “stuck out” to me (besides the quality of the score).
  3. You can channel your spiritual tradition without making a piece overly religious.  This work fuses hymns and divine allusion with sometimes esoteric and sometimes more accessible structures and harmonies, but does not overtly give a sense of religion.  This may make the piece have a wider appeal, because everyone comes from their own societal and personal spiritual position (or lack thereof).

It has been great to dig deep into pieces like this.  The next major project for this blog is finishing up the Young Composer Score Call analyses.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, feel free to give this post a like, comment, or share.  Most importantly, stop reading this and go compose!!!



Sight Reading App

Hi All,

Try out the app “Treble Cat” on your device’s App Store! It is a fun way to learn the notes on the treble clef.

Treble Cat

I was introduced to this sight reading app by a family member, and I think those of us who teach kids (or want to learn as adults) may find it an effective tool to excite students about note identification and help students ascertain this skill.

There are also bass clef and rhythm versions, too!

Try them out:


Reilly Spitzfaden – Resonances

Reilly Spitzfaden’s work Resonances is an interesting exploration of instrumental tone and gesture, a cat-and-mouse game of imitation.  From the program notes, it becomes clear that each instrument’s first gesture, typically idiomatic to that instrument, is closely mimicked by the other instruments as best they can, until a cacophony or other conclusion.  Thus the “resonance” of one instrument resonates with and through the others:

“In this piece, groups of instruments (percussion/piano, winds, and strings) initiate gestures based around a quality of resonance characteristic to that group. The other instruments take on these characteristics as they inexactly replicate the original gesture.”

The score can be found here.

There is also a YouTube video of the “live” score with its recording!

Since we have a scrolling score, one can see the notation as it is played.  Therefore, hearing the score in one’s head (“mind’s ear”) becomes much easier.

I would like to do something different in this post.  Instead of lecturing on what the piece is, analyzing it, and telling you what to learn from it, I am asking you to listen to the piece on the YouTube link above, and ask yourself these questions.  Ask more than these, of course, so that you can understand the piece better and gain a personal perspective on it.

  1. How is this piece similar and different to a theme and variations?
  2. What role does microtonality play as pertinent to the concept of the piece?
  3. What resonance is being referenced at the beginning of each section?
  4. How would this work be different if this piece were concerned with “dissonances,” i.e. gestures that are not idiomatic or resonant with each instrument?
  5. Are there any “dissonances” in this piece?
  6. What type of ensemble is this (it is a typical one)?  What “baggage” is associated with that ensemble?  How does this piece refresh this ensemble type, and push it forward?
  7. What does the recurring gesture of cresc. to a loud dynamic, with space afterwards, achieve in this piece?  What is its purpose?  How does it relate to the concept?
  8. What is the relationship between tuning and rhythm in this piece?  Are they similar or different in function?
  9. Why are there beams over rests particularly in this piece?
  10. In what ways is the conductor essential, and in what ways is the conductor obsolete in this piece?

Bonus question: If you didn’t know the program note, nor had seen the YouTube video, what would you think the piece is about?  How would this have differed if you had seen it live at its premiere (still no program note or other viewing)?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  Please do give this post a like and a share if you enjoyed it!


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