How to Begin Writing Music. Or Not.

So I was recently asked to write a piece for a clarinet ensemble. The brief was wide open: something for teenage players of a fairly high standard, playing everything from the Eb to the Contrabass.

Of course, this gave me absolutely no point to start writing from. Of the many neuroses I’ve been developing over the past 3 years, my doubt in the ability to put one note in front of another has been the most prominent. What authority do I have, just an ordinary human, to ordain that an arrangement of sounds should be just so? I mean, I can’t hold Wagnerian levels of control over any music I create because a) I live in a 21st-Century interconnected world full of a billion musics and b) I just don’t have kind of ego. So I tend to use chance methods  to create musical rules that write pieces themselves, as well as compositional techniques that allow my subconscious to come to the fore.

So I began with the ensemble itself. Seven distinct parts (Eb, 3 Bbs, Alto, Bass, and Contra). Immediately I was drawn to the number – days of the week, deadly sins, hills of rome, dwarves etc. You name it, the number seven has been culturally attached to it. But most prominently for my purposes was perhaps the most obvious: the amount of notes in a diatonic scale. Of course, this is no way to begin writing music. The seven notes in the major scale have been done to death over the last 350 years. And don’t get me started on minors.


How then to use a seven-note harmonic system in a new and exciting manner? I began to think of modes. Oh, poignant Dorian. Roguish Lydian. Really-hard-to-use-well Locrian. They’re all well and good, but being Caesar-cypher rotations of the original Major tonality I couldn’t really sustain much interest to use them for my own purposes.

It occurs to me at this point that I should break off and briefly clarify both for the sake of anyone at the back of the class and to lay the groundwork for the way of thinking about tonality that I will soon be considering. The major scale is an arrangement of 7 notes picked from the 12 defined within even tempered Western Music, and can be defined as a series of intervals either 1 or 2 semitones in size.

The usual modes, then, can simply be thought of as rotations of this pattern when starting on the same note:

  • I – Ionian – TTSTTTS
  • II – Dorian – TSTTTST
  • III – Phrygian – STTTSTT
  • IV – Lydian – TTTSTTS
  • V – Mixolydian – TTSTTST
  • VI – Aeolian – TSTTSTT
  • VII – Locrian – STTSTTT

A simple analysis of these when starting from the same note shows that the note a perfect 5th above the start is the most common across the board (except in the Locrian) – evidence of the dominance of V – I in Western music? Who knows.

So I began to think about other arrangement of 7-note scales. Using only tones and semitones, there are only 2 other sets of modes that repeat at the octave: rotations of TSTTTTS (the ascending melodic scale) and TTTTTSS (a whole-tone scale with a bit on the end). Discounting the latter because its rotations immediately sound boo-o-oooring, I was struck by the distinctly alien set of modes creating by starting on the melodic ascension:

  • I  – TSTTTTS
  • V –  TTSTSTT

(note: the prevalence of the 5th is not so strong in this set, lacking as it is in modes III, VI and VII)

With these seven modal areas defined, I decided the piece of music should have seven distinct sections, each one based on each modal area arranged in a random fashion (decided by rolling a dice). But where we go from there is a story for another post…


About thmsbsh

Sound poet, gauche leftist, occasional clarinettist.

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