What Is Music?
Before we even get into "what is composition" we need to define what music is. The simple answer is "Music is what you say is music" and to be honest I don't know that I can get much better than that. I'm tempted to say something like "Music is a series of sound put together that are intended to have an emotional impact on the listener" but then a baby crying would be music. Then I thought of it from the listener's point of view "Music is a series of sounds that causes a feeling in the listener and that the listener would want to listen to again." Websters tells me that music is "an art of sound in time which expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color." Color? Perhaps they meant Timbre. Most music has melody, harmony and rhythm, but more experimental music can exclude any or all of those elements.
Here we'll be talking about Western Music that uses the Diatonic (literally "seven tone") scale as developed by Pythagoras, Bach and others, but some of the really theoretical stuff applies to all music. I'm also somewhat biased towards guitar because well, I play guitar better than piano or other chordal instruments, and because you're closer to the music - you actually touch the strings, so some descriptions work better on guitar.
The Basics - Rhythm
Melody, harmony and rhythm. Is that what I said? Let's start with rhythm. Rhythm is simple. You bang two things together (a stick and a drum for example) repeatedly and create a rhythm. You can get a circle of drummers and percussion players together and they can do some really amazing stuff. Lots of Latin, and African music has some amazing rhythms. The off-Broadway show Stomp creates music that is rhythmically interesting but has little to no melody or harmony, though I'd be willing to entertain arguments to the contrary.
A drummer might argue with me, but for most music there are only two rhythms you have to know. 3/4 and 4/4. Ignore the bottom number for now, it'll just confuse you, so it's just 3 and 4. (There are also 3/4, 5/4, 6/8, 7/8, 8/8, 9/8 and so on).
Put simply, you can count while you're playing. A typical rock and roll drum beat - the 4/4 (pronounced "four four") is counted 'One and Two and Three and Four and One and Two and Three and Four.' This corresponds to 'Kick and Snare and Kick and Snare.' If you're coordinated enough to play air drums try it. Alternate between counting and saying Kick and Snare. Most drummers play the kick solidly on the One, the Snare on both Two and Four, and play with the placement of the kick on or near the Three.
The Basics - Notes
Before I talk about melody let's talk a bit about Harmony.
Let's start with one note. What is this note? A note is a vibration carried through the air to our ears. It's tempting to think of this vibration as simple, but it rarely is. This one note we've played is actually a complex series of vibrations.
A pure note, a Sine Wave - sine is a mathematical formula, so you know this is pretty theoretical stuff that doesn't happen much by itself in real life - will have just one vibration, the note itself, known as the Fundamental.
Pluck a guitar string and put a strobe on it and you'll see all sorts of patterns in the string. If you don't have a strobe light, put your guitar so the strings are between your eye and the TV or computer monitor. In America electricity is at 60hz, which is close to B. Play B and the wave will come close to standing still. Tune it up a little bit and it really does. Try playing other notes and see what happens.
The first one is the whole string. This is known as the Fundamental. All of the other vibration are known as Harmonics. While the string is vibrating, gently touch the string at the 12th fret (this is the midway point on the string) and you'll hear the octave (I'll explain this later). This is the string vibrating in two parts - to either side of your finger.
Try to picture this, you have one big wave like girls playing jump rope of the string shaking back and forth. At the same time you have this half string wave of the octave. Pluck the string again and touch the string directly over the 7th fret - now you're cutting the string into thirds. Again at the 5th fret cuts the string into fourths.
If you listen carefully, you can hear each of these tones when you pluck the string. Play the 12th fret harmonic and then play the full string and you'll hear a bit of the 12th fret harmonic in with fundamental. This is what gives an instrument it's Timbre (pronounced Tamber, don't ask me why, I don't know). A Timbre is caused by the overtones made by an instrument. A Sine wave has a particular timbre because of the overtones it has (or in this case, doesn't have). A Piano's overtones cause it to sound clacky compared to a violin.
A guitar's harmonics will be different from a piano's, and this is why they sound different. All sine waves sound alike. Some instruments favor even numbered harmonics, others odd numbered harmonics. Some have fewer harmonics and sound duller, others have more harmonics and sound brighter.
Adding Other Notes - Harmony
Back to that octave. When you put your finger on the 12th fret you cut the string in half. Each of those halves vibrated twice as fast as the original note - the octave. Western music divides the octave up into 12 notes (the Chromatic scale. Chromatic, like colors, a scale of all the colors) this is where we get our 12 frets from. Not all of these sound good with our original note, so we just don't play them. The Greeks were obsessed with the number 7. They thought there were 7 planets, they invented Indigo because they wanted there to be 7 colors. These seven notes are Do Re Mi Fa So La Si Do - the second Do being the octave.
aside: yes they invented Indigo. Remember when you learned about colors, the three primary and three secondary colors, yet when you learned about the rainbow it was ROY G. BIV - Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. Well, Indigo isn't a real color. They made it up.
So if you went to your guitar, and on two different strings, played a note and it's octave (say, an open A and the 7th fret on the D string) you'd see that they sound good together, sort of blending in to one another. This is because their vibrations work well together.
Now that you're adding notes, you're going to have to have names for the different notes. The lowest note is called the Root note. This isn't 100% accurate, just accept that for now. We then name them according to the order in which they happen on that seven tone scale. - 2nd, 3rd, etc. the 8th note is the Octave (oct - eight). Remember, the octave is the same note as the original, just twice as fast.
Let's add another note now. This is another one that works well the root note - the 5th. On the guitar this would be open A and 2nd fret on the D string. To my ears the 5th has a sort of holy sound, like chanting monks. You were playing the octave of this note when you were playing the 7th fret harmonic, so you can see why these notes would work well together.
Adding Color - the 3rd.
Okay, we have the beginnings of a chord here, a root note and a 5th. The most common addition to these is the 3rd, making your chord 1, 3, 5 - the triad.
This note doesn't really fit into the harmonic structure of the root note, so it begins to add another color. Until now it was like you were painting with different shades of the same color. Now you're adding another color.
Because the 3rd doesn't fit easily into the harmonic structure of the root note, it's got a few interesting qualities.
First, the 5th is easily definable because it exists as a harmonic of the fundamental (root). It's almost scientifically definable, and if it's off it sound wrong because a version of it already exists in the root. The 3rd, on the other hand, isn't scientifically definable. This makes the 3rd more of a human note. If you were to sing a 5th you'd lock on to the root and sing an exact 5th. Singing a third is different, there's a whole range that can pass for a 3rd, making it a subtle note that allows for a great deal of expression.
The way this note's vibration interacts with the root note's vibration colors the sound of the chord.
On your keyboard or guitar, there's less room for expression, it's just there, you put your finger down and that's it. The third. But even here there's some room for expression. The area that encompasses the third crosses two notes! This is what's known as Major and Minor. You have the Major Third and the Minor Third. They're right next to each other, and they sound very different. Major chords are usually characterized as happy, and Minor as sad.
Play the open A on your guitar and the 2nd fret on the B string. How would you characterize this sound? I know it's hard to tell because it's so stark, but it's happy. To see what I mean, now play the open A and the 1st fret on the B string. Ahhh. Now that sounds sad!
There's quit a bit more to chord construction than this, especially when it comes to fun stuff like inversions (putting notes other than the root in the bass), or adding notes (like the "7th chord"), or raising or lowering the 3rd or 5th to create suspended, augmented, or dimished chords... but this is a heck of a lot more than most people know. You know now the difference between the major and minor triad.
This lesson is a bit low on the math - there are two half steps that make up a whole step, a minor third is one and a half steps away from the root, etc. and I admit that stuff is important, but there are plenty of places you can learn that, and I'll address it a little later in more depth.
Chord Progressions pt 1 (keys and more chord construction).
Music, of course, exists in time - you learned that when you played the A with it's major third. Not particularly thrilling. From here on out I'm going to assume you know not necessarily how to construct chords, but how to play them. C major, a minor, etc. You can get a book and study the shapes on the instrument of your choice. Of course, that instrument has to be able to play chords, so keyboard is in, saxophone is out. Even if you play an instrument that can't play chords, it'll pay off if you learn to play another that can. In rock and roll guitar is good because you'll have to communicate with guitarists. In composition piano is good because it has a bigger range than guitar.
Do you remember when I said that there were 7 notes that go well with the root note? Well, the fun part is you can combine those notes together as we did before (remember 1, 3 and 5 - the major and minor triads). You can start from nearly any place (except for the 7) and construct a major or minor chord just by skipping numbers.
When I was talking about chord construction, I called the bottom note in the chord the Root. Now I'm going to introduce the concept of a "Key" and it also has a root note.
The same way different notes worked with the root note of the chord, different chords work well with the root chord of the key! (confused yet?)
For the sake of simplicity let's use the key of C major. C major is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C (do, re, me, fa, so, la, si, do). These are the notes in C major, and a C major chord uses C, E, and G (1, 3 and 5, feel free to count them).
Now any of those notes can create a chord as well. You just skip notes the same way we've been doing. To construct a d chord (d happens to be minor, so we use the lowercase "d"), simply start on D and skip every other note - D, F, A.
The numbers bit. The space between two consecutive notes on the chromatic (remember, chromatic is 12 tones, all of the possible colors) is called a half step. I have no idea why. Two half steps is called a whole step. Now to get the 7 tone (diatonic) scale, you have to drop 5 tones. The space between C and D is a whole step - there's a note in between them (called either C# or Db (C sharp or D flat, when one note has two names it's called enharmonic).
The 12 tone scale starting on C is C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C. Feel free to count them, just remember C natural (not sharp or flat) happens twice. Sharp means up, Flat means down. When you're singing "flat" it means you're either a little or a lot below the note. You can be so far flat you're actually sharp of the next lowest note.
The 7 tone scale starting on C is simply C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Our musical notation was made to look nice in the key of C major, again, don't ask me why, maybe it was really designed to look good in A minor (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A). We dropped a note between C and D, so that's a whole step. We didn't drop a space between E and F so that's a half step.
The Major scale is constructed of "Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half" and the minor scale "Whole Half Whole Whole Half Whole Whole." PHEW quite the mouth full.
Also we have Key, Chord, and Scale. The 7 tone scale starting on C is a 'C Major Scale.' When you're talking about chords in that scale it's the "key of C major." Any particular chord in that scale is, well, that chord, named either for it's letter name "e minor chord" or for it's number in the scale "iii chord" - We use roman numerals for chords in a key so as not to confuse ourselves with notes in a chord. Lowercase always for minor chords.
Note that even if a chord starts on the ii of the key, the first note in the chord is the 1 of that chord, so a ii7 (pronounced "two seven") is a chord that starts on the ii of the scale, but has the 7th tone of that chord in it. (!?!)
A Major key looks like this: I, ii, iii, VI, V, vi, vii. A minor key looks like this: I, ii, III, vi, v, VI, VII.
I don't expect you to get any of this if you don't already understand music, you'd need a lot more practice at seeing these patterns to get it.
Chord Progressions part 2, Music in Time
So now we more or less know the chords that make up a key. Now it's time to talk about Chord Progressions. The most common chord progression is I, IV, V. The good ole 'one four five' that makes up lots and lots and lots of rock and roll music. Everything from Wild Thing to twelve bar blues is made up of this progression. It's a very compact progression.
In the key of C it's C, F and G. In the key of A minor it's a minor, d minor and e minor. On a guitar it's easy to recognize this shape, especially with barre chords (one string over, two frets up), on a keyboard it takes a little more work, but a with a little practice you should be able to play the "one four five" anywhere on the keyboard/guitar/etc.
While there are songs that don't really change chords, and others that seem to change chords randomly. Most of the songs you hear on the radio have standard chord progressions that can be learned, the I, IV, V is a good example of this.
This is where the fun begins, where the listening comes into play. You can't go too far wrong if you stick to the chords in a particular key. Each of these chords have different characteristics, different relationships to the root chord -aka- the I chord (pronounced one chord).
Think of it as a color wheel. You start at blue, this is the predominant color in the painting. Opposite blue is orange, next to blue is green and purple. Diagonal to blue are red and yellow. Well, you start at the root chord, and move out to the other chords in the scale. These are actually given names, which I can never recall, but if you want them here they are (I looked them up). These are notated for a major key.
I - the root or one chord, Tonic
ii - the two chord, the Supertonic
iii - the three chord, the Mediant
IV - the four chord, the Sub Dominant
V - the five chord, the Dominant
vi - the six chord, the Submediant
vii - the seven chord, Leading Tone
The names give you some indication as to the function of each, the fact that certain chords have similar names can further help. The iii and vi chord (Mediant and Submediant) have similar sounds, serve similar purposes. The ii and IV also serve similar purposes (despite their naming).
Plenty has been written about the relationship of these chords to each other, it's a very complicated subject. Playing the progression I - IV - V is different from playing I - iii - V, and the V changes a bit based on what preceded it. Here's some of my observations, but take it with a grain of salt, go listen for yourself, learn how to play some songs you know and name the chords as you play them, listen to them, how do they feel, are they anxious? are they calm? how would you describe them? Naming things is what music theory is, feel free to create your own words for things but remember that in order to communicate with other musicians you should know the common language (which is what this essay is all about).
The number one rule you'll find is that the V chord makes you want to return to the I chord. Try it. In the key of C play "C, G, G, G, G, G, G, G, C" and you get that "ahhhh" when you play the final C. You haven't even defined a key before playing G, yet somehow you want to return home.
The iii or the vi chords (the vi is the 'relative minor' of the tonic, more on this later) has an anxious traveling feel. In a lot of songs these are used for the bridge, the bridge is actually in a different key from the rest of the song, the key of the relative minor (vi compared to the tonic). That means you re-build out from the vi chord (it becomes the one chord of this new, minor, key). So a song that's primarily I, IV, V will move to vi or iii for the bridge. This isn't hard and fast, it just happens a lot, like 60% of the time.
The IV chord has a sort of relaxed feel to it when compared to the I chord. Play C, C, C, F, F, F, C, C, C and you'll see what I mean. (or not, you're might perceive any of these relationships different than I do).
Staying away from the tonic for a long time (often called wandering) increases the AHH you get when you finally do return. A good example of this is the "Heart and Soul" chord progresion.
In the winter of 2001 the Gap played this song "Give a Little Bit" by Supertramp over and over and over and over and over and over again. The song starts with a I, IV, V progression over the 'give a little bit' part. Then we go wandering for 'See the man with the lonely eyes' he jumps to a iii chord, then goes to a vi, then a ii, then a V (remember the V makes you want to return to the tonic) and when you can't take it any more, he returns to the one (ahh) "Give a little bit..."
This is known as the Heart and Soul progression because of that song every kid knows how to play on the piano. That wandering (iii, vi, ii, V, and return to I) is a progression based on the "cycle of fifths." I've never found the cycle of fifths particularly exciting, but this is a good example of it. Note the wandering feel of this progression. (No, I'm not going to go into it, there are plenty of other resources that will help you with the Cycle of 5ths.)
Again, listen to a lot of songs and learn how to play them. After a while you'll gain a repertoire of chord progressions. Listening to the Supertramp song just now reminded me of the Ednaswap song Natalie Imbruglia covered "Torn." The bridge to that song started on, I believe a vi (possibly a iii) chord. I know the sound, and I can name it. Next time I hear it I'll be able to name it as well, or if I can't when I look it up I'll smack myself on the head and add that knowledge to my repertoire. That's the power of music theory.
Any instrument can play a melody. Drummers have been known to tune drums to notes and play melodies on them. Traditional arrangments are organized into Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass (SATB). Bass being the deepest, Soprano being the highest. This is also known as Four Part Harmony. The notes in Soprano and Alto overlap, same for Tenor and Alto, Tenor and Bass.
You can have melody in any of these parts and in any composition you might want to have melodies going on in all of them at different times or at the same time. Usually the melody is defined by the Soprano, but that's definately not a rule. Melodies in the other lines are typically known as counterpoint. They accentuate in one way or another the melody.
In SATB, typically only one person is "singing" (or playing) the third, the other three notes are either root, octave of root, or 5th (or octave of 5th). Again, once you know the root, the octave and 5th are almost mathematically defined, the third is where the expression happens.
Melody should obey lots of the chord progression rules and guidelines, singing on the 5th will make you want to return to the root, as will singing on the 7th. Melody is fun because you can sing the note or within the chord, or even outside the chord. If you're rooted in the key of C, you can sing around a G chord or on the note G itself. I remember a song my band used to do that was rooted in G, and while we were playing an a minor chord, the singer was singing a D, the 5th of G. Now this isn't in the a minor chord, but worked because it led into the G - it added to the tension that was resolved when everyone, instruments and vocals went to G.
Like all of the parts of music, some would say especially so, the music should be interesting. Sometimes I listen to country music and other folk musics that are based on common chord progressions & rhythms, such as 12 Bar Blues, and I think that lyrics and melody are the most important aspects here, from a creative standpoint. The common form is just a vessel, a convention (like 7 tone scales) that let you be creative lyrically and melodically without worrying about the rest. Then there are songs that have a set melody and you just invent lyrics.
Melodies can slide up the scale or chord slowly, or jump. Each one has their own affect and you should come to know each of them in time. Going up or down a scale or chord using adjacent notes might sound smoother or more natural, but it might also be less interesting. Jumping around might seem artificial but it's more interesting. You can use a mix of the two to create natural sounding interesting melodies. Again, experiment and see what works for you, get to learn how different ideas sound.
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do."
-unknown (often attributed to Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello)
If you can actually grasp everything in this 4,000 + word essay, you'll have a pretty solid understanding of music theory. I know some people would disagree with me, and say you're just scratching the tip of the iceberg, and that I did more damange than good, but hey, I think I'm doing good here. This is where things get exciting, as you build your vocabulary you'll become more critical of the music you listen to, you'll recognize more of the things you're hearing, and your own compositions will become better.
Questions or comments are welcome. If I totally flubbed something, let me know.