Chord (EX) Tensions

A conundrum exists within music today. Generally, whenever music becomes more complex or unorthodox in composition, the less likely the average person will listen to it. However, if a composer or musician doesn’t have a unique musical “sound”, then they’ll lose any potential for having any meaningful musical impact.

I can’t say that music labels are aware of this conflict, and I can’t say that this drives  current popular musical trends. However, a study  was done that shows current popular music is becoming increasingly simpler and even less creative in it’s song structure, chord choices, and overall uniqueness. I can attest from personal interactions with musicians, that the fear of being overlooked musically, outweighs the motivation to broaden their musical spectrum.

Before I continue, I do want to make sure that I emphasize that I am not against current popular music, and I do indeed like some of the new music hitting the airwaves.

However, I do believe that if current music stays overly simple, repetitive, and uninspired, it will continue to have a negative affect on all music genres. What I mean by this, is popular music is obviously at the forefront and most widely advertised of genres. It gets the most listeners, hence it is popular.

Many films, tv shows, internet content, commercials etc.. are being produced by people who mainly listen to popular music. They want composers/artists to sound like popular music, which is becoming less and less interesting musically. As any relatively smart musician knows, you follow the trends to make money, therefore as it stands, all genres are suffering from this trend to some extent.

Now I am not trying to proselytize how a person needs to compose music, nor am I the decider of what is good and bad. What I am pointing out is, if current music was an ice cream shop,they’d only be serving chocolate and vanilla. Not that there’s anything wrong with chocolate or vanilla, but it would be nice to have some different flavors to choose from.

This brings us to our focus of this article. I think a good way to add some variety to a composition, without totally re-hauling how one writes, is with the use of tensions. It can help a composition stand out from the herd, and yet still retain founding elements of the song. For those of you who already use tensions, this may be a nice refresher.

Tensions are the leftover notes from a chord scale  that aren’t needed to define the quality of a chord (major, minor etc..) but help add to it’s aesthetic. An analogy would be that, a painting doesn’t need a frame to be understood or enjoyed, but a frame could help enhance and add to it’s beauty.

Also, due to the different combinations of tensions that can be added to chords, there’s very little chance that every composition would sound the same if everyone used them. In fact, many many many musicians from every genre of era’s past would often use them. I’m hoping it makes a resurgence.

Let’s get into the explanation of what tensions are and the simple rules for applying them to chords. Some of the material below may be unnecessary for more advanced musicians, however, it needs to be addressed for a full understanding of the material.

We first need to explain where chords come from, to understand how to apply the appropriate tension to them.Chords are derived from scales. Scales are a set of musical tones ordered by a fundamental frequency or pitch. I talked about this in my post titled Chord Progressions, but basically Pythagoras figured out how a pitch or frequency occurs and innately orders itself within nature. This natural ordering led to the creation of scales.

Most music today is composed just using a 7 note major scale, or 7 note minor scale. An example of a major scale would be C, d, e, F, G, a, b, and and example of a minor scale would be c, d, Eb, f, G, Ab, Bb.

Western tonal harmony uses scales to derive chords. Chords are determined by “generally” selecting every other note within a scale (or in 3rds) to form what is called the chord tones.

Numbers 1,3,5 &7 are assigned to each chord tone to delineate it’s position and function. The number 1 is in reference to the first note of the scale you’ve chosen, the 3rd is the 3rd note of the scale and so on. I won’t list them all, but a few of the abilities the chord tones can tell the ear is: if the chord is minor or major, if the music is resolving or continuing, and it can also be deceptive and mislead the ear as to what direction the music is going.

Tensions are the leftover notes in the scale that are not necessary to define a chord, but can be used to enhance it. Tensions are “generally” placed in the higher register of a chord because they are a continuation of the 3rd pattern used to form a chord. It also helps to separate them from the chord tones, so they don’t cluster together and confuse the ear. That is why instead of calling the tensions 2,4,&6 they are looked at as ex-tensions 9,11, and 13.

Not every tension that is diatonic to the scale is available to be used on all the chords created from the scale.

Two of the reasons you would want to avoid using certain diatonic tensions are:

  1. The use of a diatonic tension on a diatonic chord, creates an undesirable dissonance
  2. The use of a diatonic tension on a diatonic chord creates  an unintended harmony. (For example a diatonic tension could make a minor chord sound dominant when used)

For the sake of not overwhelming this article, (because there are lots of scales to cover) we’re going to concentrate on 2 scales that will cover most of the known western tonal chords and their tensions.

They are the major scale (ionian), and the melodic minor scale (which in my opinion is the only minor scale you need). These scales have individual formulas that are just different patterns of whole steps and half steps of notes put together.

The formula that represents these scales creation uses letters and numbers.The letter “W” is the abbreviation that is used to indicate whole steps, and the fraction “1/2” is used to indicate half steps. (The letter “H” could be used to indicate half steps as well, but it’s easier on the eyes and mind to use the fraction.)

The major scale (or Ionian Mode) has a formula of W, W, 1/2, W, W, W, 1/2. If we apply that formula starting on any note we will get a major scale. If for instance we start on the note “D” move one whole step to the right we get “E” then move again one whole step to the right we get “F#”…. so on until we have the scale D, E, F#, G,A,B,C#,D. D scale.png

If we take each note from this scale and treat them as the root of a chord we can build unique chords just using the notes that are available. To reiterate, Western tonal harmony is based on 3rds, so starting on the second note of the scale and building a chord off of ‘E” we would get E,G,B,D. We would continue this pattern for each note of the scale.

D diatonic chords.png

In the above example, each chord from the “D” major scale only contain the 1st,3rd,5th and 7th notes of the chord and each note is diatonic to the key.

The roman numerals delineate the quality of the chord (upper case for major, lower case for minor). The roman numeral also indicates the numeric distance of each individual chords root, from the root of the key. The root of the iim7 chord is “E” and it indicates that it is a second away from the root of “D”. F# is the root of the iiim7 which is a 3rd away from “D” etc……

The “maj” & “m” obviously also indicates that the chord is either major or minor. The 7 at the end indicates that all 4 chord tones are present within the chord.  If the roman numeral is followed by just a 7, like “V7” then it indicates a dominant 7.  The circle with the slash indicates a half diminished chord.  However, the best way to determine the quality of the 7th is by referring to the chords scale.

Now that it’s been explained how to create the scale and the scales corresponding chords, it’s actually super easy to know what tensions are available and easy to remember what they are for the major scale.

Major Scale Available Tensions

  1. Any diatonic non-chord tone that is a Whole Step above the chord tones 1,3, &, 5 is available to use as a tension. (The other way to say the same thing is any diatonic non-chord tone that is a half a step above a chord tone is to be avoided)
  2. The only exception to this rule is that although the 13th (6th) is a whole step above the 5th in the iim7 chord, it is to be avoided because it creates a tritone with the 3rd of the chord. That implies a dominant chord, when that is not the intended sound.

D Diatonic with tensions.png

(If you see a “#” or a “b” by a tensions interval, you may be wondering why that it is since the tensions are diatonic for this chord scale? For example, the #11 in the IVmaj7 chord is C#, which is diatonic to the key, but it is a #4th from the root of the chord “G”. That is why it’s a #11. The qualifier of a tension is always in relation to the root of the chord, which is innate and obvious, but still deserves mentioning.)

Now that I’ve given an idea behind how scales, chord tones, and tensions are chosen, using the major scale, we can apply the same technique to the melodic minor.

The melodic minor scale is unique in that its ascending pattern is different then its descending pattern. One of the reasons (and there’s a few) behind the different patterns, is because the V chord in a natural minor scale, doesn’t have a tritone in it. This doesn’t allow for any resolve/resolution when composing music with it. Music composed without a dominant V, would sound nebulous and unresolved.

The melodic minor scale fixes this problem by adding a leading tone (or major 7th) and a major 6th (to avoid an awkward minor 3rd leap to the 7th) on the ascending pattern. Then the natural minor scale returns with a minor 6th and minor 7th on the descending pattern which is how the scale naturally occurs when derived from the major scale. These 2 different ascending and descending patterns allow for the best of both worlds. It’s formula looks like this ascending W,1/2,W,W,W,W,1/2 and W,W,1/2,W,W,1/2,W descending.B Melodic Minor.png

Here is what the melodic minor looks like with all of it’s available chords and tensions.

B Melodic Minor Chords.png

Hopefully the example above doesn’t look overwhelming. If it does, then let me reassure you that it’s actually not that tough to remember and come up with the available tensions for the melodic minor scale for all key signatures.

Here’s how it breaks down.

  1. The rule for determining tensions for the melodic minor is still the same as the first rule for the major chord scale and it’s tensions. A tension must be a whole step away from the 1,3,&5 chord tones to be available. The only chords it doesn’t apply to is the V7 Chord in the ascending pattern, and the im7 & ivm7 pattern in the descending pattern.
  2. The im7 & ivm7 are like the iim7 in the major scale. The im7 & ivm7 in the descending pattern  from the melodic minor create a tritone with the 13th tension and that is why it is avoided.
  3. The V7 chord in the ascending patter receives b9,#9, and b13 as tensions for 2 reasons. The first is that those tensions are notes found within the melodic minor scale. When you use those tensions they indicate to the listener that you are using the V7 chord from melodic minor, which also sets the listener up for the next chord being part of the minor scale. The second reason is, that even though the b9, #9, and b13 don’t fall in line with being a whole step from a chord-tone, if you play these notes in conjunction with the chord tones, you find that these tensions share more commonalities with a diminished 7 chord. In fact the root of the chord is the only outlier. If you remove the root of the chord then the whole step above a chord tone pattern works perfectly. Essentially, this is one of those times where it might not look right on paper, but works in nature.

This last paragraph sums up everything I’ve written about in this article very simply. All chords from the major scale and melodic scale use tensions that are a whole step away from the chord tones 1,3,&5. The exceptions are for the im7,iim7,and ivm7, because the 13th causes the chord to sound dominant when used. Also the V7 of the melodic minor scale gets to use b9,#9, and b13 because the chord shares more in common with a diminished 7 chord then a dominant chord as well as those notes are found within the melodic minor scale.

At the end of the day, all available tensions do not need to be used on every chord. They can be used sparingly, and still add a lot of more interesting tonalities, than what’s currently heard in music today. Hopefully I’ve explained it well enough that it will indeed help someone use them in their composing and bring more diversity and uniqueness to ones music.




Creating Virtual Instrument Sample Libraries

Computers, software, and the internet are great! There’s no denying it. Technology is amazing, and it will continue to get better. It’s a wonderful tool, and…. that’s how it should stay. Simply put, technology is supposed to be a tool to help us create, with the aid of other creators. In a perfect world, specifically for composers, music projects would often use sequenced virtual instruments, together with live players.

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, lack of knowledge, and just all around laziness, only a very small percentage of  most commercial music, is produced with only live and or sequenced performances together. TV, the internet, and commercials, are mostly comprised and recorded with computer sequenced instruments.

Aside from the occasional music project that specifically calls for only synths, and virtual instruments, I find it strange that a lot of music is composed with only programmed tones. Technology has not yet reached, and may not reach, the sophistication of highly trained musicians/performers. No computer simulation equals the nuance, and feel that a rehearsed live performed recording can offer. It could be argued that electronic and rap music genres do in fact evoke the same feelings that a live performed recording can. However, that notion dispels quickly, because I have yet to hear a virtual instrument that can recreate a human voice, and have it be compelling. Basically, any widely known “popular” musical work, uses some form of live human performance. That may change in the future, but for now it holds true.

I know it may not sound like it, but I really do like virtual sampled instruments. I think they play a vital role in staying financially competitive as a composer. I’m also completely aware of the ease of use, the access to diverse instruments, and only a one time fee (as opposed to an hourly rate of a musician.)

The problem is when I watch TV shows, commercials, web content, etc.. I can tell you a good amount of the time, what sample library a lot of the instruments the composer used in their cues. Obviously, knowing what sample library a virtual instrument came from, means nothing to an un-trained ear. Even if the person using your music does know where  your sample library came from, they’re usually in a rush and won’t care and use it anyway.

However, I can tell you from experience as a composer, why only using commercially produced sample libraries in your compositions, is ultimately not a great idea to practice. I have worked on 2 different TV shows where the producers were very un-happy with having to use library music. They felt every library they listened to, sounded monotonous and tired.*(see foot note) They wanted their shows to sound like they were custom scored or at least different from everyone else. They also wanted it to be a music library (not a custom score) as they wanted to be able to have music that could be easily edited, and used on multiple episodes.

If my budget was gigantic, that would be an easy fix because I would hire musicians, purchase the newest best possible appropriate virtual instrument sample library, as well as an amazing engineer to edit, mix, and master it all into one nice package!

Of course that wasn’t the case, the producers had a lobster diet on a taco bell budget. (As most people do) Yet, despite this, I still was able to help. This gave me some insight that I believe will help other composers/musicians as well.

In order to accomplish these ridiculous, poorly funded music expectations, I drew upon a reservoir of inexpensive creative tools. They helped me to be “unique” and not break the bank.

What that was:

  1. Focusing on composing music for instruments I knew how to play and record live, as much as possible
  2. Using effects and mixing techniques to alter the tonalities of my commercially purchased virtual instrument libraries
  3. Create my own music library

My long winded preface up until this point, was to convey why it’s important to be musically different from what everyone else is doing. I didn’t want this to be a simple  “show you how it’s done” article. Rather, “if you don’t learn to be unique and standout in this industry you’ll get brushed aside and here’s some ways to avoid that inexpensively” article!

We’re focusing on number 3 (creating a personal music library) because, I do know composers that are not good as performers. I mean not even remotely good. This doesn’t mean they’re poor composers. In fact Berlioz didn’t play any instruments, but he composed Symphonie Fantastique.

Also, mixing is a subject and craft all on it’s own. It requires just as much study to become really good at, as any other skill. Again, I know composers who are great composers, but not so much at mixing.

This leaves us with creating your own personal music library. This can be achieved, with just mild performing, recording, and editing skills. This doesn’t solve the need for more live performances on commercial music. However, in combination with commercial sample libraries, your tracks will stand out from others. I dare say they may sound unique and fresh!

If you happen to fall into the I can’t perform or play any instrument very well category, fear not. Most percussive, and stringed instruments can be recorded by someone with only mild musical abilities for our music library purposes. (Wind and Brass instruments would definitely require a proficient player) You just need to know the tuning of the instrument and record each note of the instrument one at a time chromatically.

By taking it slow, you could essentially borrow a friends instrument and record it yourself. Electric bass, Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Ukelele, are great places to start. Violin, Viola, Cello, and Contra Bass are possible too, but orchestral players tend to be very leery of lending out their instruments. You may be able to just pay them a little money to perform some varying articulations of chromatic scales, have them sign a work for hire contract and be done with it.

This brings us to what needs to be recorded for your sample library. I think there are 3 articulations that you could record and it be the foundation for most compositions. Widely used articulations for melodic instruments are staccato, sustained, and ordinare. In other words, short notes, long notes, and notes in-between. Percussive instruments, for the most part, are just staccato.

For melodic stringed or plucked instruments, a chromatic recording of 2 to 3 octaves of the instrument performed as staccato, sustained, and ordinare, will cover most of your compositional needs.

We are not addressing the effects and individual special characteristics that every instrument has. Those definitely require a professional. We are just creating samples that will be work horses, and can be used most of the time. Again, they’ll help you sound different then everyone else when used in addition to your current library.

Okay time to make a music library. I am, by trade and training, an electric bass player. I usually perform my bass parts live on my recordings. However, for this article I decided to record my bass and turn it into a virtual instrument, as I could quickly record and edit the files.

With a budget in mind I created this Sample Library using this hardware. (It is not required that you use these items to record with. Different equipment can produce better results, however, I wanted to demonstrate with budget items what you can do. Also, I am not endorsed by any of these products and gain nothing by mentioning them) 

  • Logic X
  • Art Tube MP Studio mic pre modified with a RCA 12AX7 Tube (sounds better than stock tube Art supplies)
  • M-Box Pro 3 interface
  • Squire Jazz Bass
  • Audiffex Amplion Free (Free Software Amp Simulator)
  • Tx16Wx Free (Even though I use the EXS 24 as my sampler, this software is for MAC and PC and is free. I posted this for anyone who doesn’t have a software sampler integrated into the software recording program of their choice)
  1. I created a new music project at 48k and set my project tempo to a slow tempo of 70 BPM.
  2. I plugged my bass into my Art Tube Mic Pre and created an audio track. I then set my volume levels.
  3. Then I loaded a tuner into my channel and tuned my bass. It’s good to leave your tuner open to constantly make sure that you’re in tune
  4. Then I inserted the Amplion Free amp simulator into the channel. I selected the clean preset. I used this effect because it added a little grit and noise to the bass tonality. Too often sample libraries are so over produced that all the human characteristic is taken away. This is a tell tale sign that you’re using a sample library for an instrument, when all the notes sound exactly the same!
  5. I decided to start with the staccato articulation. I record every single note on my bass. (Almost 3 octaves) Make sure your notes don’t overlap. There has to be silence in-between notes.

Bass Stac.png

6. Next you will Strip Silence from the audio file. What stripping the silence does, is remove all the unwanted audio below a certain volume threshold or “silence” in between each note that was recorded resulting in individual audio files. You can adjust how much stripping, either more or less space between notes, the program does by adjusting the “Threshold value.” To get to the Strip Silence Function in Logic X you will

a) Press on the Toolbar Icon in the upper left hand corner.

b) Right Click in the Tool bar area that appears and select “customize tool bar”

c) Then select Strip Silence in the menu that appears. You will then see the Strip Silence button in the Toolbar. If you don’t see the Strip Silence button it’s because you have too many customized buttons in the tool bar. De-select any tools you don’t need and then you’ll see the Strip Silence tool on your tool bar menu.

Strip Silence.png

(Stripping Silence is a function that is available in most digital audio recording programs. If you use a program other than Logic X, I would refer to your users manual to find out how to use it and any other functions demonstrated from here on out)

7. Then you will select all of the newly created individual audio regions. Then on the furthest left hand column under the drop down tab titled “Region” you will see a “Fade In” and “Fade out” function. When you enter values next to the Fade In and Fade Out, it will create a fade on every single audio region that you had selected.


8. Next is to export or bounce out every audio region individually. It’s a highly recommended that you listen to each audio region individually. You may need to adjust the  Fades and the starting and ending points for exporting for each individual file. You’ll want to make sure that there’s no clicks or pops as those will be super annoying if you have them there while playing your virtual instrument. I tend to export my virtual instruments as mono, but stereo is fine too. Just keep in mind that stereo files are much larger than mono, and will eat up more memory. Also when you’re exporting your files, how you name your file is incredibly important. I start with the number 0 then an underscore _ then the note name. I’ve seen other ways  to name sample files, but I personally find numbering the samples numerically to be the easiest. (See Below)


9) Now we need load a software sampler instrument into our project. There are countless software samplers on the market. I’m going to demonstrate using the EXS24, as it’s a little more involved than other software samplers.

10) Once the EXS 24 is loaded click on the edit button near the upper right corner. The instrument editor window will appear.


11) Then drag and drop all of your edited audio files on to the corresponding keyboard note at the bottom of the instrument editor window. For this example our first note is E, and I dropped my files on the keyboard board note E2. I’m completely aware that bass is a transposing instrument and should be placed lower on the keyboard to represent the pitch accurately however, I placed it at an octave that’s easier to play as a keyboardist. After you’ve dropped the sample onto the keyboard a window will pop up. Select the “contiguous zones” option as that will map all of the notes chromatically from start to finish.

Instrument Editor.png

12) The last step before you’re done is turning off what is called the 1-shot option. The 1-shot option will play the entire sample regardless of how long you press down on your keyboard. Essentially, if you have a sustained note in your score that is only a half note in length, but your virtual instrument was sampled at 2 whole notes worth of time, then even if you have a half note in your score, it will play 2 measures worth of time. To turn this off, click  starting on the first note underneath the column titled name, hold shift and then scroll down to the last note of the instrument and click it. This will select all of the notes in your virtual instrument. A few columns to the right is the column marked 1-Shot. Click on any of the check marked boxes in that column and the samples will be deselected.

1 shot.png

13) Save your virtual instrument by clicking on the instrument button in the Instrument Editor window and select save as. In order to access this EXS24 instrument you created for another session, you have to place the EXS24 file you just saved in the Sampler Instrument folder found at hard drive/Library/Application Support/Logic/Sampler Instrument. Then the next time you launch Logic and load the EXS 24 you’ll see your Virtual Instrument in the drop Down Menu

When I created my bass virtual instrument I decided to put both my ordinare articulations and staccato articulation into a single program. Essentially the first 3 octaves are starting on E2 are ordinare and then at E5 or note 36 the notes start over but they are staccato. I do this for 2 reasons. The first is I eliminate the need for loading 2 separate bass articulations which saves memory, but also because I can alternate repeating the same pitches from ordinare to the staccato and it doesn’t sound like a machine gun. Often when composers use samples and they’ve composed a passaged that has 8 “C” repeating, it sounds fake because the note when triggered plays at the exact same velocity, duration, tonality, and attack. When you alternate between articulations of the same pitch it sounds a bit more natural up to a certain tempo. If the notes are played at a very very fast tempo then you’ll notice the synthetic quality. The video below demonstrates what a repeated note of the same articulation sounds live vs an alternating between pitch, then a very fast alternating pitch. I also played each articulations chromatic scale. (a little flub towards the end of the video)

A lot of the sample music libraries overly eq, compress, and limit, and sometimes overly effect, a sample. They may be compensating for people who don’t have really elite recording gear and are trying to help them out. I think that it’s okay for drums to be these overly manipulated because they’re very tricky to sound great in a home studio, but most other instruments this is a detriment. Most people with do some sort of buss compression or limiting on their tracks which in turn makes these affected sample libraries sound overly in your face. However without the buss compression or limiting, your live instruments won’t sound like they’re a part of a cohesive mix. The samples I created do not have all these affects on them which I feel gives them much more flexibility. I can add a ton of compression on my bass track if the composition calls for it, or very little, and there will be a difference in tonality. Whereas a lot of sample libraries are so compressed you have no choice but to have all the other instruments meet their tonality.

Finally, I’ve put together a video of samples that I created using Electric Bass Sustained, Electric Bass Ordinaire, Electric Bass Stacatto, Ukelele, Shaker, Metal Chopsticks, Wooden Instrument Body Taps, and Claps. The composition only contains samples that I recorded, edited and encoded. They have only been mixed within Logic X. The samples themselves are mostly raw audio. Anyway, I hope it gives you an idea of what’s possible to do for a personally library, while not breaking the bank and staying unique.

Below is the link to the samples I created available for download!

It includes Electric Bass Sustained, Electric Bass Ordinaire, Electric Bass Stacatto, Ukelele, Shaker, Metal Chopsticks, Wooden Instrument Body Taps, and Claps. I’ve encoded them for EXS24, Kontakt, and Tx16Wx.

                  1) Download this file->    zip_files_file_type_file_type_icon_png_zip_png_zip_icon   (Dropbox  may be needed)

*The producers based their opinions upon mid-range to low-end priced music libraries that they listened to. Hi-End boutique music libraries do not share this problem, but are quite simply in a niche market. They do not factor into this common situation I’m focusing on.

Atonality for a “Dummy”


When I say atonality for a “Dummy” I am literally talking about myself. When I first started learning about atonality, I felt really dumb trying to decipher and understand it.  I think that many experts in atonality, who’ve authored books on the subject, always feel the need to explain the material in an  overly complicated way. This may be due to the fact that these composers are incredibly intelligent, and the way they express their ideas are simply a product of their extreme intelligence. It could also be that due to the innate dissonance of atonality (and open minded individuals needed to listen to it) by default make it thought of as complicated….therefore a complicated explanation is due.

Now I’m not suggesting that learning, understanding, and performing atonal works isn’t complicated. I’m simply stating that how it’s explained and taught is. While researching what to read and who to study on the subject (aside from Arnold Schoenberg) I kept coming across George Perle as an authoritarian on the subject.  I have to be honest and say that I could not get through his book  Serial Composition and Atonality. It was the second book I read on the subject and I felt that there had to be a better way to absorb the material. Obviously I am speaking for myself as there are probably people out in the world who grasped and understood atonality and his material immediately. However, for those of you out there who haven’t, this article may help.

I do need to quickly preface the material I’m about to talk about with the fact that Arnold Schoenberg who developed the system behind atonality (or the Twelve-tone technique) would probably be upset with me for publishing this article. This is due to the fact that when Schoenberg came to Los Angeles from Europe, he was inundated with requests from composers to teach them his technique. They heard great potential and uniqueness that they could use in their film scores. Schoenberg would only teach composers his technique who were willing to start at the very beginning of music theory and learn the techniques of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and the like. This obviously didn’t sit well with composers who were on a deadline to create scores and come up with innovative ideas.

My reason behind talking about this bit of history on Schoenberg, is that this article is just a small sliver of atonality’s depth. Although I’m biased/arrogant and believe that I’m about to explain how to compose the basics of an atonal  piece the easiest way that I’m aware of, further  study and research is recommended for anyone truly wanting to understand this genre.

Schoenberg created atonality as a way to escape the confines of western tonal harmony. Although western tonal harmony is deep and rich in it’s content, it’s still dictated by very observable, discernible, and often times predictable precepts. I believe that Schoenberg wanted to surprise the listener and keep them in suspense as to what was going to happen.

Quite ingeniously, he figured out that the best way to do that is to ensure that the notes he composed had no discernible harmonic correlation to each other, and could not be analyzed by ordinary means. Here is my basic bare essential explanation for beginners atonal composition. It starts with two guidelines. 

  1. All twelve notes (C, C#/Db,D,D#/Eb,E,F,F#/Gb,G,G#/Ab,A,A#/Bb,B) have to be composed so there is no tonal harmonic relation to each other, and  all 12 notes have to be used before a note can be repeated.
  2. A note CAN only be performed/composed repeatedly, before all 12 notes are used, if it is the same note/pitch used consecutively. (this includes ornamentation, like trills & tremolos)

First thing you do is choose 12 non-repeating notes in no particular order. It can’t be an entirely chromatic scale either. Other than that the note choice is completely up to you.   (Here are 12 notes that I chose)


The next step is the most important and also I believe the most ill-defined. To make sure notes were composed, so that they didn’t relate to each other in a traditional harmonic way, a system was developed to make the process easier. This was called a twelve tone row matrix.  (some from the math world call it a magic square)

A twelve tone row matrix is a square grid with 144 boxes.  Each row and column contain all twelve notes from C to B (none repeating). They are arranged in a way that there is absolutely no traditional harmonic relation to the next note in any direction. This gives you your palate of notes to pick from to compose an atonal piece. In a way it’s like Soduku.

To determine the correct notes to be placed in the matrix we will assign our notes a number. This will allow us to create a pattern specifically related to our tone row, that will help us avoid traditional tonal arrangements.

Starting with the first note you’ve chosen for your twelve tone row, (in this case G) place the notes CHROMATICALLY around a circle. Then assign the first note the number “zero”, the second note “one” and so on until you reach 11.

Next you will draw lines from 1 to 11, 2 to 10, 3 to 9, 4 to 8, and finally 5 to 7.  Do not draw lines to or from zero or six! They will stay (for lack of a better word) inert.



The reason why we’re drawing lines between these numbers is to find the atonal inversion of our chosen 12 tone row. This obviously isn’t an inversion in the traditional sense, but this creates the pattern on the grid that ensures that the notes are unrelated. This pattern is used for every 12 tone rows you create. Once you understand the pattern it’s easy to implement. As you can see 1 will always invert to 11, 3 to 9 and so forth.

Now we’re going to plot our chosen 12 tone row as well as it’s inversion into the 12×12 matrix. Our initial chosen 12 tone row is written on the top row, with it’s corresponding number we’ve assigned it from above circle. Our inversion of our chosen 12 tones is written along the furthest most left column.(Ab becomes F#, C becomes D etc..) Remember that Zero and Six do not invert. They are the only notes that will stay the same when doing your inversions.

12 Tone Row.png

Obviously we have 120 more squares to fill in and now that we have the top line and the most left column filled in, it’s easy to do. (I will preface that my way to determine the correct pattern of notes is just one way to do it. There are many different ways to complete the matrix, but I believe this way to be the most consistent)

A) We will be filling in the notes from left to right in rows. We will start on the first note of the second row.  In this example it’s F#.

B) Then we look at the next empty box next to the F# in our second row. We can see the number in the top of that column is 1.

C) Now we look back at the the chromatic 12 tone circle and count that amount clockwise. The note we land on in that circle is the next note to place in the matrix. In this example that would be the note G.

Since that’s a pretty simple demonstration, let’s do one more example with a chart to explain further.

If we look at the next empty box in the second row and look at the top of the column the number is 5. We then count 5 away from F# on our chromatic 12 tone circle and we come to the note B.

Atonal Arrows.png

We apply this technique to each row until the matrix is complete.

Atonal 12 tone.png

The example above includes the names that are given to each side row and column. I wanted to explain what the numbers meant without any additional information in the previous matrix. When you do a 12 tone matrix the left side of the grid is called Prime, the top is called the Inversion, the bottom is called the Retrograde Inversion, and the right side is called Retrograde.

All these really do is tell you what direction you’re reading the matrix from. If you’re reading from right to left, that’s retrograde, if you’re reading bottom to top that retrograde inversion etc.. You can read the matrix from any direction and the notes won’t have any correlation to each other and it gives you a plethora of patterns to choose from. I now have my matrix completed and am ready to compose an atonal piece.

With our 12 tone matrix completed, the question may arise, what about rhythm? Is there some sore of atonal rhythm structure I have to follow? Lucky for us everything that relates to traditional rhythm studies applies to atonal music as well. There’s really no specific set of rules with regards to rhythm and atonality. Whatever rhythms you liked in traditional tonal harmony, are completely applicable here too. You just have to follow the 2 guidelines about harmony I posted above.

We can now move forward composing an atonal piece. The piece that I composed is only atonal for the first 15 seconds of the entire composition. It was composed for a film score for a documentary called “On Deterrence.” The film’s subject matter was about nuclear war, so atonality was the perfect choice to create a sense of uncertainty and unrest.

In the music below, you’ll see that the violin and viola repeat an “F” over and over through out the first 12 measures. The cello and bass are playing the atonal melody based upon the notes that were completed in 12 x 12 matrix above.

The Edge.png

I believe that the information above is a great starting place for someone to start composing atonal music. However, I didn’t touch upon the use of chords in atonal composition as that is another chapter all it’s own. Chords become a bit trickier, as another system has to be put in place for chords. This is to avoid creating traditional harmonic chord progressions when harmonizing your atonal melody. That I may save for another time.

Atonality is not a widely listened to genre. Although it has many different uses for different applications, it’s not something that I think will become a widely popular genre. With that said, if you’re new to atonality and interested in knowing about it, you will find that not all 12 tone rows sound alike. The arranging of your first 12 notes of your matrix will have an absolutely profound affect on the feeling and emotion on music it helps to create. Your 12 tone row can evoke moods like warmth or darkness or fear. It’s not just a medium that only sounds really strange and unnerving or even the same. Not unlike traditional tonal harmony, the method may be the same in creating a piece, but the results of how it sounds and is heard is always different.



Chord Progressions


I teach a composition class once a week, and one of my students asked me a question in which I believed the answer to be innate, or implied. He asked me, “How do you come up with chord progressions?”

As a teacher, questions like these that arise in class, force you to realize that you’re relying too much on assumptions about your students understanding of the material, and that your methods need refreshing. My students question also got me thinking about music in general, and how in most of popular music today (and even in a lot of film/tv scores) many musicians, performers, composers and the like, aren’t really branching out beyond very diatonic harmonies.

Now I do believe that there is some really great creative music being composed today, but less than make it worth while listening to. This is most likely due to music producers, distributors, and creators wanting to make money, and be popular with 13 to 24 year olds.  For whatever reason they seem to think that non-schooled individuals  have very limited taste and understanding, and are unwilling to hear new and different ideas.

Consequently, I believe that current music is very flash in the pan, and doesn’t hold value over time. The Stevie Wonders, David Bowies, Samuel Barbers, Aaron Coplands, Miles Davis’s, Herbie Hancocks, Michael Jacksons, etc… are not being developed any more. I believe this is due to the powers that be, greatly underestimating peoples ability to appreciate diverse melodies and unique chord progressions.  The ironic circumstances created by this thinking, is that their need to make instant money kills any possibility of making really great money now, and in the future. Fresh, unique, and cool ideas are what everyone’s looking for and make the big bucks!

Anyway, before I digress too much, this article is about adding harmonic flavor to your compositions.  I believe this will help create an added dimension and attention grabbing element to spice up bland music. I’m not suggesting that current music needs an entire overhaul, and that some weird harmonic progressions overtake all music. There still is value in using tried and true techniques tastefully. However, I do believe that by adding little harmonic changes in your music, you’ll not only allow your music to be more interesting, but it will help to make it stand out from the sea of monotony.

Okay, let’s back up to the initial question that started this article. How do I come up with a chord progression? The simple answer is, one must first decide upon a melody, and from that, a chord progression can be derived.

In addition, and obviously, we need to choose a key signature. When you’re developing your melody you’ll have a good idea as to whether or not you want your melody to be in a major sounding or minor sounding key.

Now if you really want to know how key signatures/harmony were discovered, and ordered you have to thank Pythagorus. He figured out how nature organizes and ordered tones (Harmonic Overtone Series)

Consequently, the ordering of tones helped to realize that some intervals of tones have more prominence or presence than others. What that basically means is that some intervals or harmonies sound stronger or weaker than others. It was determined that one of the strongest sounding intervals is the fifth. Hence the Circle of Fifths was created.


The Circle of Fifths is a study all in it’s own and I do not want to bog down this article with excruciating detail about it. I highly recommend that anyone who doesn’t know about the depths of this musical wonder, go out and do much in-depth learning about it.

The reason why it’s necessary to mention it in this blog, is because it’s what you’ll need to refer to when expanding your harmonic palate.

Okay let’s get to creating expanding, developing, and energizing bland harmonies.

Below is a vocal melody with a simply diatonic piano accompanied chord progression that I composed.

Chord Progression 1.png

For this example I chose the most common of all key signatures…C. The key of C major  is comprised of C,d,e,F,G,a, & b. I composed a simple melody that I thought was nice and pleasing to me.

Next I determined what chords from the key of C worked with my melody.* (See additional footnote)

Below each chord (from my example) is a Roman Numeral. It refers to the quality of chord (major or minor), and at what interval within the key signature the chord is based on. My chords are “C” major (I) to “a” minor (vi) “F” major (IV) to “G” major (V) back to I.

This is a simple melody and a simple harmonic chord progression. Again there is nothing wrong with this, but if you compose every single piece of music with the exact same tactic, you will get panned, and overlooked.

One way to counteract this, is by using what’s called Secondary Dominants. My definition of secondary dominants is: a dominant 7 chord that resolves to either a major or minor chord of a diatonic progression from an interval of a 5th above.

This definition applies to every chord in a major or minor scale except for the root of the scale. This should be apparent, but the 5th above the root of a scale is already a dominant chord diatonic to the key. What secondary dominants are asking you to do, is to use dominant chords that are not indigenous to the key you’re in. We figure this out by referring to the Circle Of 5ths.

If we take the key of C and start on the second interval “d” then look at our Circle of 5th chart we see that a fifth above “d” is “A.” We’ve just determined that a 5th above “d” is “A” and if we have a chord progression with a d minor in it. We can inject an A dominant 7 before that chord to add variety. If we choose “e” from the scale we see a 5th above is “B7”. If we choose F from the key of C we see that C7 is the dominant chord we would use to resolve to F major. This is repeated to the rest of the notes/chords of the scale all the way up and to the leading tone.

In harmony theory, secondary dominants are also referred to as 5 of (insert interval), or V7 of (insert interval). When viewing an analyzed chart you may come across figures that look like this: v7/ii or V7/V. That is simply saying the exact same thing that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. V7 of ii would be “A7 to d minor” because it’s a fifth above “d minor” and it’s a dominant chord.

If you’re asking yourself, why does all the chords have to be dominant? We’ll have to refer to what was stated earlier in the article to answer that. Again, some tones are weaker or stronger sounding than others. A dominant 7 chord has a tritone in it which is a very strong tonality. It also gives the listeners ear a setup or delivery to it’s targeted chord. The diminished chord and augmented chord do this as well, but those are really just iterations of the dominant.

The last bit of information you need to know about secondary dominants, it’s important, applies to what tensions or extensions you may want to use  when composing.

When I was in school we referred to the additional notes you could place on a chord to add character, as tensions. I believe that many schools refer to them now as extensions. Which implies extended range of notes you’re allow add to your chords of a diatonic chord progression.

I say allow because western tonal music harmony is based upon a set foundation of rules for it’s creation. Essentially, these rules are in place not because you can’t break them, or shouldn’t, but because your music will take on nebulous characteristics if you decide not to use them. I’ll have to give you an example to explain what I mean by my nebulous statement, and why this is setting us up for the final part of this article.

Again, (I Know I’m sorry) I’ll use the key of C to demonstrate my explanation. When you get into music, and study it a bit you learn that there are certain tensions/extensions that are to be avoided when composing your harmony. Since western music is based on a tertiary system, we create our chords in steps of 3. A “C” major chord is comprised of C,E, &G. If we continue in this pattern the next notes we can add to this chord would be, B,D,F,&A. Those extensions would be called the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th because of the interval distance from the root note “C.”

Unfortunately we run into an issue with our 11th interval/extension. If we were to use the 11th or the note F in our “C” chord, we would confuse our listeners ears because it would make it sound like we’re referring to a different scale (Lydian), and not the tonic chord we intended. This is what I mean by nebulous, because you need to understand how music interacts harmonically in order to convey your musical idea to people the way you intended. That is why there are certain notes that should not be used (unless you know what you’re doing) in chords as you will imply different scales and harmonies if you use them.

Now that I’ve explained the reasons behind why some tensions/extension aren’t a good choice for your chosen chords, I can give you the rules for the tensions/extensions for secondary dominants.

  1. If your secondary dominant chord resolves to a major chord, then your available tensions are 9 and 13.
  2. If your secondary dominant chord resolves to a minor chord tensions, b9, 9, #9, b13, and 13 are your available tensions.


With everything I’ve explained thus far, I can now give you my simple composition with a more interesting chord progression.

(I’ve slowed this version down in the recording for listener to really hear the changes)Chord Progression 2.png


The changes made to my original chord progression were as follows. An “E” dominant 7 (V7/vi) with a b13 was inserted before the “a” minor chord of the first measure. I chose b13 as my tension, because it was the common tone through all the chords and also has a really nice sound. I then added a D dominant 7 (V7/V) before the G7 and chose an “E” the 9th of the chord as my tension. I liked to use tensions in my chords, but by no means is it a requirement.

As with any material, the more it’s practiced and utilized the easier it becomes to implement. Additionally, when all is said and done, I believe that I was able to improve the harmony of my composition without overcomplicating it or making it too busy.


As I wrap up this article, I realize that there was a significant amount of foundation information given to explain and create a simple, but enhanced chord progression. Once the ground work is laid Secondary dominants are easy to understand and apply. This is a technique that can be applied to all genres of music and I hope that more people do.





*Another factor that helps to determine a chord progression is what emotion you’d like your music to evoke. I’m bringing this up, because many times when musicians will come up with a melody, they often pick chords that just work technically. Often we choose things that are familiar to us, and settle on something that’s been done a million times. Think about what the what the music is trying to emote from an overall perspective. Ask your self what is this music trying to convey, and is this progression supporting it?   When choosing a chord, even if it’s technically correct and you like it, do yourself a favor and just try other possible diatonic chords to see if it’s better or re-enforces your initial decision. Even if it doesn’t work, it may help to create additional ideas like a bridge or a tag.

Creating Counter Melodies

I’m going to start off this post by being super nerdy and boring by pasting a definition of counter melody taken from Wikipedia -> A counter melody is a sequence of notes, perceived as a melody, written to be played simultaneously with a more prominent lead melody: a secondary melody played in counterpoint with the primary melody.

Now this definition has merit and is useful, but I know with a lot of music text (or any theoretical text for that matter ) it can be very dry and cause most people to glaze over and space out. I personally feel that is why so many people don’t care to really study text book music theory, as it can just flat out put you to sleep. This is really sad as the internet has made all this information so accessible. It also would greatly improve the songwriting and composing skills of so many people that could really use it.

In this post and all of my future posts, I’m going to try and take the material that I believe to be important and explain it in a way (and hopefully it’s perceived) to be  easy to read, follow, and implement. However, my posts are predisposed to the reader knowing basic music theory and orchestration, otherwise they won’t make sense.

Anyway, back to counter melodies. My simpler definition of a counter melody is: a contrary melody to the lead melody of a composition, that stands out on it’s own, yet doesn’t overshadow the main theme. The melody has to be contrary to the main theme or, it will fall into either parallel, similar, or oblique contrapuntal melodies, and it won’t stand out at all on it’s own.  Then you can’t distinguish it from the lead melody, rendering it not a counter melody.

Counter melodies are really important because they add a dimension to music, regardless of genre, that can interest a listener for multiple listens as they soak in all the layers. Too often a melody is supported solely by a harmony that just follows the melody. Now this can work well and is often all that is necessary, but it also can be very very monotonous and dull.

Counter melodies are most prominent in Classical, and Jazz and their offshoots, but it can be found in other genres as well. This article will focus on the classical side of composing counter melodies, but on a side note, here are just a couple examples of counter melodies in other genres.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell -> Counter melodies can be heard going on between the strings, bass, and vocals throughout the song.

“November Rain” Guns N’ Roses  -> First verse, counter melodies can be heard between strings, flute, main vocals, and background vocals

“Happy” Pharrell Williams  -> During the breakdown after the 2nd chorus  there’s a countermelody between the lead vocals and background vocals.

“I hope you Dance” Lee Ann Womack -> During the chorus’s there’s a counter vocal melody to the lead melody.

Okay how do you compose a counter melody? A counter melody  is predicated on having a lead melody already, then it can easily be composed once you do. The most difficult part of creating any composition is just coming up with a lead melody.

Now if you’re reluctant to compose your own melody or want to just practice composing counter melodies, then get a lead sheet of a song with the melody and chord progression already written out. This will allow you to focus freely on composing counter melodies. Sometimes it’s more difficult to compose counter melodies for a lead melody you don’t care for. It’s good practice to try compose counter melodies for lead melodies you don’t like as it will improve your composing skills due to it’s complexity. It’s a good workout of your brain for sure.

For this example I’m using something I composed. Below is my melody that’s accompanied by my chosen piano chords.Up and Away Fl.png

Now I decided to orchestrate my melody for 4 woodwinds. I’m using Flute, Oboe, Clarinet in Bb and, Bass Clarinet. I’m not sure if this is worth stating, but you can choose any instrumentation you want when composing. Just keep in mind that it becomes a bit more difficult to get open and larger sounding harmonies and melodies if you only choose instruments with the exact same registers. You will be limited (depending on what you choose) to the bass note of the lowest tone your instruments can produce as well as the highest your highest registered instrument can produce.

Now the next step I took while composing for these 4 instruments was just adding a bass line to the  bass clarinet. You “can” have the bass play counter melodies, however that can be a bit tricky, because the bass notes dictate the overall harmony of the composition. It requires some practice to compose counter melodies in the bass that aren’t detracting from the harmony of the composition. Also it’s very easy to violate lower interval limits which can cause the piece to sound very muddy and nondescript. The harmonies can sound too clustered and compact.

For this piece I’m pretty much just following the roots of the chords in the bass clarinet.

Now comes the actual counter melody. Yes you can have multiple counter melodies in a composition. You have to be careful that the composition doesn’t become too busy and distracting. It takes a discerning ear to pull off multiple counter melodies, and really it should enhance the piece. Do not compose counter melodies just because you’re able to do it. Always ask your self when composing, is this making my piece sound better or worse?

Also 3 things to consider when composing a counter melody is:

  1. Does the counter melody support the harmony?
  2. Does the counter melody stand on it’s own?
  3. Does the counter melody over shadow or detract from the main theme?

I try to compose counter melodies that are rhythmically different from the main theme as it allows the listener to home in on the melodic line. A non technical way to also compose a counter melody is to have your main theme play on your computer on a loop while you either sing or play along different ideas that work independently but together with the theme. Basically use your inner voice to construct the idea.

Keep in mind that while you’re composing a counter melody, or any melody for that matter, you need to think about and embody the instrument that your composing the melody for. What I mean by that is, it’s not good composition when you compose a musical idea on one instrument and then transpose to another thinking that it will transfer flawlessly.

If you compose a piece of music on piano and then simply transfer the melodies and harmonies from that sketch to say woodwinds and brass without those instruments strengths and weaknesses in mind, then it won’t be great. Most woodwinds and some brass will genuinely dislike you (either secretly or vocally) if you compose in a key that’s not friendly to their instrument, or not take into consideration special obstacles they have to maneuver through, like a clarinet’s break.

Now I know many good musicians can easily traverse through whatever you throw at them, and some musicians even do that with a graceful disposition. However that still doesn’t make up for poor composition or thoughtlessness of an instruments best characteristics.  Approach your composing more like a good actor doing method work. Try to think like the player does by emulating how they think about how they play.

I’m not saying or implying that you need to learn to play every instrument known to man. Though it is a good idea to talk to as many different musicians about what’s best for them. Ask them how they approach different phrases and what’s comfortable and uncomfortable.

If you don’t have access to different instrumentalists or don’t feel comfortable talking to people you don’t know, then youtube is the next best thing. In fact you’ll want to supplement your interactive research with passive youtube viewings. The London Symphony Orchestra has free master class videos of every instrument from the best players in the world. Here is one on the cello. There are subsequent links to other instruments on the link’s page.

Okay here is my 1st counter melody and bass line posted below. I’ve decided to start with oboe and to compose just 1 counter melody.

Score 1.png

Now I personally liked the way the counter melody in the oboe line worked with the main flute theme, but you can hear that there’s a huge gap in harmony missing. I think what many instructors would be inclined to tell you is that the clarinet should double the melody. That may work in some other cases, but I found in this particular case supporting the counter melody not only supported the harmony a bit better, it enhanced the lead melody.

Score 2.png

Keep in mind that the ear hears the highest frequencies and the lowest frequencies the easiest. It’s very important that at the end of the day you trust what you hear. I am giving guidelines and certainly don’t want my guidelines to be rules. If you apply a technique that’s usually accepted as the correct way of composing and it doesn’t sound right to you, then change it. These are guidelines because they work most of the time and that’s worth mentioning.

Now in case you’re wondering why I chose 4 instruments, it’s because to my ear, and most composer’s, a 4 part harmony (S,A,T,B) is the minimal arrangement of a score that still gives the most complete depiction of a flushed out musical idea. It’s complete enough to expand into a larger score.

This in turn will help to develop other musical ideas in other choirs of the orchestra (or band or whatever is your element) leading to what I believe to be a more complete and interesting listen of your music.

Orchestration for Starters

          The necessity of higher education for composers is not something I believe worth debating. There are countless examples of people who became successful with and without schooling. However, I will argue that it is absolutely necessary to be consistently honing your skills through constant practice, reassessment, and an understanding of general music theory. Whether on your own, or through an institution, keeping your music skills sharp and current is essential to your present and future success. When a composer has a decent understanding of music theory and composition, then orchestration absolutely becomes one of those skills that needs to be honed, practiced, reassessed, and applied to all genres of music.

     My personal definition of orchestration is: using the accompanying instruments of the orchestra (or band) to support the melody of the composition through creative and imaginative rhythms, counter melodies and harmonies. I know it is implied that music is creative or imaginative, but I so often find composers and musicians using regurgitated phrases  or poor ideas that take away from an otherwise nice melody. To paraphrase Rimsky-Korsakov,  you either are born knowing how to orchestrate or you cannot. I’m not sure I’m as cut and dry as he was, and I think with study and experimentation you can become pretty good at orchestrating. However, if you don’t think of interesting ways to support your melodies, due to laziness or what have you, then there’s no point attempting it and you might as well have someone else do it for you.

      For those of you who want to orchestrate, I’ve selected 3  books that contain general orchestration instruction to help you develop your orchestration skills. I chose only 3 as I did not wish to make this a novel post and lose your attention. For the more advanced composers reading this post, these suggestions are not like Gevaert’s Méthodique d’Orchestration where there is excruciating detail of each instrument and it’s application. If you are looking for voluminous detailed information on a particular instrument then these books won’t have that. However collecting detailed texts of every instrument individually (especially harp) is recommended for every composer.

    This post focuses on introductory texts that I believe to be a good starting place (in my humble opinion) for newcomers and great reference for seasoned professionals. Although not everyone who reads this will agree with my choices, I do think I’ve done enough due diligence to give an educated and thorough opinion.

         Before I begin on my selections I would like to mention that I do not care for Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration and accompanying workbook. I’ve read the book from beginning to end, and found that there was very little in the way of orchestration techniques to apply to your composing. I will concede that the book is detailed about instrumentation. However, knowing the range and sonorous timbres of an instrument, and knowing how to orchestrate for it are two different things. Adler’s book is more music dictionary than orchestration book. I did not find anything having to do with harmonization techniques, composing subordinate lines, doubling prominent lines, or esoteric or aleatoric techniques. Nor did I come across even simple things like how to orchestrate instruments with vastly different dynamics, tone/timbre, and register range, together. I only make mention of Adler’s Study as it’s in so many learning institutions and I felt I should address it. Again that is my opinion, take from it what you will.

       Conversely, a book that I felt does give insight on scoring musical elements (as well as instrumentation and timbres) is Alfred Blatter’s book on Instrumentation and Orchestration. This book explains techniques that can be heard in many world renowned compositions, with exercises built into the end of each chapter. A used copy of the book costs between $44- $74 used (* and if you can’t find it used you’ll have to unload up to $150 for a new one. (* In either case, I assure you it’s worth the effort of finding and purchasing.

     Two examples of orchestration that really stuck out in my mind from Blatters book  were Klanfarbenmelodie and Heterophony.

       Klangfarbenmelodie (german for sound-color-melody suggested by Schoenberg) is simply alternating the melody of a composition “generally” within the same measure between different instruments of an orchestra. The melody won’t sound detached as long as you’re trading the melody between instruments of similar timbre and registers. (The melody can cross between choirs of the the orchestra i.e…. Flute and Trumpet ect… again as long as they are similar in register and dynamic)

Q6 Example .png

To keep things less clinical I’ve decided not to give you the text book definition of Heterophony. My definition of using Heterophony in orchestration is to: harmonize a melody or pattern in constant intervals regardless of key signature or implied harmony of the melody or phrase. Essentially, heterophony in orchestration is using the same intervals   when harmonizing, whether it is a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, tritone, ect… in subsequent repetition  to color your ideas/phrase/melody. Below is an example of a melody harmonized in major thirds. It’s basically contiguous augmented chords.


For the most part using heterophony is a lot like salt. A little goes a long way. It’s a great way to add a unique flavor to your piece as different intervals give a very distinct sound. I think it sounds great used in-between melodies as a connector or during an interlude or bridge. However if used for too long it will become less accessible to the listener and to the trained ear it will lose it’s tonal center and the listener will tune out. Anyway I digress.

Before this post becomes extremely long and difficult for you to get through, I just want to briefly touch upon the other 2 books and why I think they’re valuable reading material.

If you’re in music school you’ll know this book all to too well. Tonal Harmony from Kostka and Payne is a very useful guide from 18th to 20th century music. Many music students grumble over this read, and many say it has it’s flaws but there are 3 elements to this book that go overlooked that are actually the best way to learn fundamentals of composition and orchestration.

Aside from teaching figured bass, elements of counterpoint, and ornaments, this book has 1) Online tutorials, 2) answers to the questions of each exercise within the book so you can check your work, and 3) a really easy to understand explanation of Atonal Music. I purchased just the text book of an older edition  of Tonal Harmony from ebay for 12$. I then read each chapter and did the exercises at the end and then checked my work with the answers supplied. If you don’t have a teacher handy, this really gives you a way to learn through deduction.

My last choice  is Principles of Orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. Now there is definitely some issues with this text I won’t disagree.  Rimsky-Korsakov says some things in this text that may have been true in his day but definitely untrue today. One specific example that comes to mind is he talks about the contrabass basically being only good for doubling the cellos and not to count on your players to be able to do anything to ornate. There are plenty of virtuosic contrabass players in the world today and can do wondrous things. Again not sure the reason, but that’s unimportant. When you get passed some of the discrepancies (which are minor) from 19th century to today, you’ll see what an amazing job Rimsky-Korsakov does with dynamic pairing, and orchestral balance. One of the most useful things I learned from him was with regards to brass. When composing for brass, the dynamic level of the french horn, more often than not, should be written louder than the rest of the choir for balance. If the harmony or melody you’re composing is soft(p) then trumpet, trombone, and tuba, should be written pianissimo (pp)

I purchased a used copy of the the Principles of Orchestration used for $10, however if you don’t feel like doing that you can visit Make Music and read  and interact with the material for free. (some browsers work better than others)

I’d like to end this post by first stating the obligatory, which is listen, study, and talk to everyone you can about your craft. Revisit and emulate all the work you have time for to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Working with live players is essential in letting you know if your ideas are possible, and appealing. Sometimes this isn’t easily done, but college students are a great place to start. Study scores, by loading them into your music software and dissecting the intervals, the harmonies, and the rhythms. Read, read, read, as many texts as you can. Watch YouTube videos. There’s a ton and some are actually helpful.

The second thing I’d like to state is find your voice. Sure it’s important to be able to compose and orchestrate like noteworthy composers, but if you don’t have something uniquely interesting to offer then you’ll be considered a poor orchestrator or worse derivative.

I think if you work diligently through all this material, you’ll not only be a better orchestrator, but a better composer as well!


*(I did not put a direct link to each book as retail items change constantly leaving dead links galore. If you just visit the online retailers and pop in the name in the search engine you’ll find them)

Film Scoring Tips

A recent technique I developed not too long ago, was to visit the Apple Trailer website, download a trailer I liked, strip the audio from the footage, and then rewrite the music for the footage to my liking. This technique is incredibly useful because you get to use professionally edited high quality footage to write your music too.

If you’re just starting out at this scoring stuff then you may not realize how important well edited footage contributes to the composition of your music. Highly experienced, highly trained editors, are very musical, and know how to move into and out of scenes in a very fluid way. I know editors that use click or beep tracks, to help keep the movement of the footage going.

Keep in mind that if you score enough footage that has been professionally edited, then you will realize how a good and not so good an editor compare. Just don’t insult anybody’s skills that may not be up to the par that you’re use to. There will be plenty of jobs that are not very well put together and the threshold of the burden will be placed upon your shoulders to help tie the scenes together. Your job becomes more difficult when you’re working with people who are less skilled than you. However it’s these projects, if you let them, that will help you to become very good at your job.

Here’s how you do it.

1) Go to the Apple Trailers Website

2) Import your video into your sequencing program of choice (Pro-tools, Nuendo, Cubase, DP, Logic, etc.. )

3) Most sequencing programs will extract the audio from the Quicktime video you import into it’s sequencing window. It will allow you to mute, edit or delete, the audio track, so you can write your music to the footage. Make sure when exporting the audio the audio file is the exact length of the footage. Meaning, when you line the exported stereo track up with the footage in your sequence there’s no mistake as to where the music should line up, if you were to import them into another program.

4) Once you’re done with writing your music, import the footage into a video editor. If you’re on a Mac chances are you’re using iMovie which means you won’t have to convert, if you’re on a PC it’s Window’s Movie Maker, which will not accept “.mov” files. You have to open Quicktime Pro to export it as an “.avi”

5) Next, line the music up to the footage and export it as an .mp4 for mac or .avi for windows. (The .mp4 file format looks the best and usually is the smallest in size, in my humble opinion.)

On a side note, if you or someone you know, is into sound design or sound effects, this technique works well for that art form as well.