Alan Benkin “A Practical Guide to Musical Composition”


It is absolutely paramount to master the craft of composition to learn the ways musical ideas are organized and connected in time, so that their evolution is compelling and convincing.

We assume first that the composer is writing music meant to be listened to for its own sake, and not as accompaniment to something else. This requires at a minimum provoking and sustaining the listener's interest in a musical journey across a range of time, as well as managing to bring the experience to a satisfactory conclusion. Thus, "musical hearing" implies here a sympathetic and attentive listener, at least some of whose psychological processes in listening to the work can be meaningfully discussed in general terms.


Since music is heard consecutively in time, our examination of the structure of a musical composition will be mainly organized chronologically.

Foreground vs. Background

We prioritize our perceptions: we cannot pay equal attention to more than one element at any given moment.


This prioritization is on-going, and changes in the order of priority may result accidentally from artistic intention (a previously almost inaudible detail may attract more and more attention to eventually become the most important event of the moment)


Musically speaking, we may refer to the elements in a multi-layered texture that most engage that listener's attention at any given moment as "foreground", while the secondary elements constitute "background".


While the specifics determining what will be perceived as foreground or background in a particular case can occasionally get complex, usually they are quite easy to define. As a general guide, all other things being equal, the ear follows as foreground:


·  Complexity: Usually the element with the greatest level of activity attracts the most attention, e.g. in a texture consisting of simultaneous held notes and moving lines, the moving lines take precedence.



Beethoven, 6th Symphony, 1st movement, m.115 ff: Here the violin line emerges over sustained pedal tones in the other instruments, due to its greater complexity of pitch, rhythm, and articulation:

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· Novelty:  when presented with familiar and new material at the same time, the new material demands more attention.


Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole, "Prélude à la nuit", m. 28: When the new melody arrives at m. 28, it stands out because of its novelty, compared to the four note ostinato that has been playing since the beginning of the piece.

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· Loudness or timbral richness: if playing lines of equal complexity in the same register, a trumpet will demand more attention than a flute.


Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra, 2nd movement, m. 90: despite a very active accompaniment by the strings in the same register, the main line, played by 2 trumpets, has no trouble emerging clearly.

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Flow vs. break; continuity vs. surprise

The distinction between foreground and background has a direct bearing on issues of musical flow. To understand this, we need to explore the nature of musical unity and variety.

It is conventional to speak of unity and variety as the cornerstones of artistic structure. However, these concepts can be formulated in a more useful way for composers. Unity is a difficult notion to define in music because it relies on memory. Unlike the spatial arts, music takes place in time.

In particular, the temporal nature of music does not permit perception of the whole except in retrospect; or, perhaps more accurately, as an experience spread out over time. Music depends on a web of memories and associations that gets richer as the piece progresses. Unity is therefore required on (at least) two levels: local flow - the convincing connection of one event to the next -and long range association and overall balance.


Successions of musical ideas can be thought of on a continuum of various degrees of continuity, ranging from the smoothest flow to the most abrupt change. Unity and variety thus emerge not as separate, but rather as different degrees of same thing. If the flow of the piece provides little novelty, the music becomes boring; if there are too many fits and starts, the discontinuities eventually break up the work's coherence.


The composer's first and most fundamental problem is therefore to ensure that the overall flow is not broken from the beginning to the end of the piece. However the degree of novelty must be varied at different points.

The key to controlling this balance between emphasizing common elements and introducing novelty lies in the interaction between the perceptual levels described above. If the foreground elements are new, the effect will be one of contrast. If the changing elements are more subtle, the listener will sense gradual evolution or relative stability. A convincing musical form is not possible without many degrees of stability and novelty.



Beethoven, 3rd Symphony, 1st movement, m.65 ff: Here the change to a new motive (with 16th notes) is in the foreground, but the common repeated notes (upper strings and winds) continuing from the previous passage provide an audible link in the background.


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Any audible musical element can participate in creating connection or novelty. Among the most obvious to the listener, and thus the most useful, are:

·  register

Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, m. 13: The 2nd theme is quite similar in character to the first theme, but the fact that the oboe opens up a new register (even though the change is quite mild) creates an effect of freshness.


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Articulation and degrees of punctuation

Listeners cannot grasp or remember that which has no boundaries.


The composer needs many degrees of articulation: the degree of punctuation chosen gives the listener important cues about where he is in the piece.  What should be a matter of concern  here is the role of articulation as a fundamental process of musical hearing.




Rate of presentation of information

Closely related to the effects of articulation is the issue of the speed at which new elements arrive, and the prominence of the changes: if articulation is brusque, change will be more striking.
In general, the psychological effects of the rhythm of presentation of new information to the listener allow the composer access to a continuum of character effects ranging from very restless to very calm. The quicker the pacing of new events, the more demanding is the job of the listener, and consequently, the more exciting the effect





Tchaikovsky, Symphony #6, 2nd movement. Here is an example where new elements are presented gradually, reinforcing the relaxed and gracious character of the movement:

m. 1: the theme is first presented in a light setting


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m. 8: the celli add new momentum with their scale in 8th notes. These 8th notes are echoed in m. 10, m. 12, m. 14, and m. 16 (a and b)

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m. 17: winds and horns now make the 8th notes continuous

m. 25: the continuous 8th notes become more prominent, now in the strings

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Stability vs. instability

If we start from the two extremes of rate of presentation - very slow to very fast - we can define an important polarity: stability vs. instability of structure. 


Consider the following passage:


Beethoven Piano Sonata, op. 7, m. 136 - m. 165 (end of exposition, start of development) Could this passage serve as the beginning of the piece? While it is certainly provocative and "unresolved" in a way that might suit an opening gesture, it seems overly abrupt, and downright hard to grasp as an introduction to the work. Why is this? We may note several aspects of this passage:

·  it is tonally roving and unstable, and never settles down for long on any clear tonic.
·  many distinct ideas are presented in a short time; the texture also is very varied.
·  these ideas are juxtaposed rather suddenly, with very little transition.

What all these things add up to is that this passage sounds unstable. As indicated above, instability like this is more demanding on the listener than closed, carefully delimited structures with smooth internal transitions: the connections between (sometimes incomplete) ideas are not always obvious, and the listener does not have much time to absorb new elements before they are superceded.


Compare this now with the exposition from the same movement. Much of the material is the
same, but it is organized very differently.

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Beethoven Piano Sonata, op. 7, 1st movement, m. 1-24.

This whole paragraph is clearly in one key, Eb major, and the harmony's direction is always clear; the eighth note rhythm is continuous, there is much higher degree of predictability in general.



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These two examples help to clarify our dichotomy between stability and instability: the issue is  largely one of predictability.
Relatively stable structures are suitable for exposing material for the first time, or for giving the listener a sense of resolution (as in a recapitulation). Their purpose is to make the material easily memorable or recognizable.

Unstable structures "heighten the temperature", and thus supply greater intensity. More abrupt and surprising successions of ideas usually depend for their coherence on the listener's prior familiarity with the material.


The following example might be considered atypical for an exposition, since it quickly presents two contrasting motives in quick succession:




Mozart, Jupiter Symphony, 1st movement,m. 1-4.

But a closer look reveals that the ensuing phrase repeats this opposition; the harmony and rhythm of the two phrases are quite symmetrical - that is to say, predictable - and the following passage (m.9-23) is solidly cadential, confirming the tonic very clearly.

So while the opening opposition of ideas does indeed suggest to the listener a certain degree of conflict, and implies a movement of a certain duration, the overall structure of the passage is still quite stable.

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To give music an overall sense of direction, often its evolution music takes the form of a progression. Progressions constitute important tools for creating expectations, and therefore tension.

By "progression" here we do not necessarily refer to harmonic successions of chords. Rather we mean any incremental series of events, of the same type and over a limited time span, which are easily perceptible to the listener as moving in a continuous gradation. Examples might include a series of rising high notes in a melody, gradually decreasing registral spread, harmony that gets more and more dissonant - or consonant. Here is a simple, commonplace example:




Haydn, String Quartet op. 76 #2, 3rd movement: m. 1-3 (vln.): the melodic line rises first to F, than to G, than finally to A. This progression gives a straightforward sense of direction to the phrase. When the following leaps take the phrase suddenly higher in m.3-4 (up to D and then E)
the effect is more dramatic because of the previous conjunct movement.

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By setting up such progressions, the composer gives the listener points of reference, and encourages projection of the music's trend into the future. In short, he creates expectations. The actual course of the music is then compared by the listener with these expectations. If they are
met, psychological tension decreases, and if not, it increases.

One of the most effective ways to use progressions is to create predictability on a higher level, while leaving details less obviously organized. For example, within a complex melodic line, successive peaks might rise progressively higher: The relationship between the peaks would
provide clear direction and coherence, while the details would provide interest and novelty.





A subtle example of this procedure occurs in Chopin's Nocturne op.32 #2, across the entire first section (m. 1-26): while the phrases are organized fairly straightforwardly, Chopin makes successive presentations of his ornamental figures rise gradually from G (m. 5), through Ab (m. 9), and Bb (m. 14), to C (m. 22). The fact that the ornamentation gets more elaborate at each presentation also contributes to the sense of evolution.

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One way of understanding the effect of progressions is as creating momentum: the tendency of the music to continue in a given direction.
Momentum also acts on a rhythmic level, even without progressions: once a given level of rhythmic activity is attained, it is hard to abruptly change it without some punctuating event. 


Apart from the issues of flow, articulation, and direction, there remains one other important general topic to explore: formal balance.

Defining balance is not easy. Although the classical notion of proportion points to a sense of equilibrium that artists have sensed since at least the time of the Greeks, it is very hard to state in clear and objective terms how this can be created. Indeed, it is even hard to specify why a given masterpiece seems well balanced, although sensitive listeners often have an acute sense of whether a piece seems balanced or not. Comments like "it seems too short", or "it didn't hold together", testify to the listener's feeling that something is wrong in a work's proportions.


One way to approach the problem of balance is psychologically. A musical work has a "trajectory", engendering a kind of internal voyage in the listener. This voyage takes the listener over varied emotional terrain in a coherent way. The composer's goal is to engage the listener, to maintain his interest and to increase his involvement during the whole voyage, and then finally to lead him back to the normal, external world in a fulfilling way. We call the experience "balanced" when the listener feels satisfied with the experience as a whole. Of course, this does not mean that the experience is necessarily pretty or pleasant - the emotional world may be serious or even troubling - but that the work seems meaningful in an integrated way.

Balance and Length

The sense of balance is closely related to issues of length and duration. While it is impossible to make hard and fast rules here, there are several principles worth noting:


·  Greater length implies greater contrasts. This seems obvious: the longer the piece, the more it will require renewal of interest through contrast.

·  Greater contrasts usually imply greater length. This proposition is equally true but rather less evident: strong contrasts, especially if presented with little or no transition, tend to demand longer forms. The reason for this may not be immediately evident.


When a strong contrast is abruptly presented to the listener, it acts like a provocative question.
While this is an excellent way to stimulate interest (think of the start of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony discussed above), the subsequent working out of the material in such a way that the contrasting ideas come to seem integral to a unified larger conception takes time. The ideas must be presented, joined and combined in various ways before the listener will accept that they do in fact belong together. Once this is achieved, the formal "question" posed by the contrast may be considered to be answered, and a kind of resolution achieved - necessary, of course, for any convincing sense of conclusion.


Greater contrasts usually imply greater formal complexity. Longer forms require more complex proportions, with more sophisticated transitions, if they are not to become overly simplistic and predictable. Sustaining interest over a long time frame requires finding new ways to present and combine the material; the need for many and varied types of transition becomes pressing.