Introduction to the Study of Composition

Composition, like many skills in life is, by and large, a craft. Good news, because that means it can be studied, practised and mastered. This also presupposes an understanding and familiarity its associated traditions; the (assumed) increasing sophistication of problem solving, the evolution of the language and gradual widening of the range of expression. To rely solely on imagination would result in chaos. Ideas can only come to fruition when nourished on the fertile grounds of knowledge and technique. Conversely, just as in the playng of an instrument, a lack of facility and the want of technique are immediately apparent and painfully obvious.

To reinforce the point with an analogy, if someone wished to design a new type of airplane, would he start by drawing up fanciful plans based on superficial knowledge? Or would he embark on a rigorous study of engineering and aerodynamics, based on what had been successful in the past? The answers are obvious.

Although there are other essential skills, such as instrumentation, orchestration and the managemant of form, once one has a grounding in Rudiments and simple melody construction, it is time to address the complementary skills of Harmony and Counterpoint.

In order to show what results may reasonably be expected from the study of composition, and to provide actual worked examples to guide anyone interested, I have presented my own versions of workings of some of the classic texts on the subject. Thes range from a “Day One Beginner”, as at the start of First Year Harmony, to a qualified and professional standard of accomplishment. Naturally, my solutions are only one of myriad possibilities, but they may be useful as a comparison or to suggest ideas for anyone who is “stuck”. Bear in mind that even quite simple exercises can be made to sound musically valid and effective if one always bears in mind voice leading and melodic contour, especially in outer parts.

The texts I use are as follows:-

First Year Harmony, Second Year Harmony, Third Year Harmony and Free Counterpoint, all by Willam Lovelock. These books are terse and always go straight to the point, so they are ideal for the serious student who needs no pampering or padding to progress.

Gradus Ad Parnassum by Johann Fux. This is the Classic Text, first published in 1725, on Strict (or “Species”) Counterpoint, used by countless masters, including Mozart and Beethoven. In order to make full use of this invaluable resource, I suggest the translation by Alfred Mann (Norton, 1971). By itself, however, this book is not enough for a full revelation of the subject, so I wamly recommend Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century by Knud Jeppesen (trans. Alfred Mann. Dover, 1992) and Preliminary Exercises In Counterpoint by Arnold Schoenberg (St Martin’s Press, 1970). Polyphonic Composition by Owen Swindale (OUP, 1962) is best begun after completing Gradus Ad Parnassum, as it progresses to rapidly otherwise. It is easy to obtain either digital or paper copies of all these excellent books.

My workings of the exercises are in two colours. Notes in red are those provoded by the author, to constitue the exercise, and notes in black are those I have added to complete the workings. Additionally, piano performances of all First Year Harmony exercises may be heard by clicking on the audio widget above each chapter’s score. Other performances are in preparation.

Harmony

Once one has acquired a fair knowledge of rudiments (meaning at least Grade 5 Distinction level), the study of Harmony can begin. The three text books by William Lovelock, First Year Harmony, Second Year Harmony and Third Year Harmony are excellent for learning. Books Two and Three are not for the faint of heart as they get more and more involved as they progress. Patience, diligence and the “long view” are necessary. Lovelock communicates in a refreshingly direct, old school manner; he doesn’t waste words or encourage mediocrity.

My experience suggests each book takes about nine months if averaging around two hours a day of solid work.

Counterpoint

After a couple of years focussing on Harmony, the study of Counterpoint can begin. Lovelock’s Free Counterpoint is similar in style to his harmony books and goes from beginner level to professional in its ten chapters. Additionally, in his book Musical Composition, C V Stanford considers the study of 16th century strict counterpoint to be essential for the study of composition. To this end, Fux’s Gradus Ad Parnassum, used by many of the Great Masters, and Owen Swindale’s Polyphonic Composition are ideal. Some people, presumably not much good at it, mock counterpoint as being too dry and academic, but contrapuntal facility elevates one’s work enormously by adding coherence and authority to a piece. It also helps in writing countermelodies. And everyone knows that no amount of technology can hide or atone for an inferior technique.

Orchestration

Once the core skills of harmony and counterpoint have developed well, then the fun can really start. There are many textbooks on the subject, several of which (eg by Berlioz and Rimsky Korsakov) are of great interest as historical classics. For practical study, I suggest Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration. I bought a hardback copy, which was the right decision, but it was expensive (£140). I also bought the companion Workbook for The Study of Orchestration, which has many examples to be worked and so is ideal for practice.

Composition

Before doing the Cinematic Composing Momentum course, I had not previously composed anything for orchestra. If you are curious, there are Cubase mockups and Dorico scores under the “Works” tab at the top of each page on this site of several of the pieces I composed over the seven months of the course.