Composing Phrase by Phrase 14

Expanding the Second Section

Hello and welcome or welcome back to Composing Phrase by Phrase, the blog where I write my thoughts that went into the process of composing a new piece, one phrase at a time. Last week's post went over a transitional phrase that brought us from the first theme group to a new theme. Let's recap the target theme real quick.

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Theme 2

The second theme is in B-flat major played in octaves by the cello and viola. The two violins harmonize together, mostly in thirds, and provides some fills in the melody's rests. A brief call and response between the violins and the viola/cello pair adds a bit of light contrast before the melody returns once more, this time played by the violins.

In the draft of this theme cadenced in B-flat. That doesn't leave much room for forward movement, though. A single phrase won't sufficiently balance the section I've already written, so I want to find a way to keep things open. When I wrote about modulations last week, I mostly focused on how to modulate smoothly to help the listener feel the new key still belonged in the same composition as what came before, as opposed to randomly plopping into a new key space without preparation.

Buuuuuut... Sometimes it's effective to just randomly plop the listener into a new key space without preparation. That's what I do going into the next phrase.

14 2

mms. 83-84

In this instance, I do two things to help make the sudden modulation successful. Firstly, I use a deceptive cadence for the modulation. The listener is expecting the melody to arrive at a B-flat, but I give them a B-natural, instead. That alteration is harmonized with the target key of G major.

Second, instead of doing a full cadence, I use an elision. Simply put: an elision is when the end of a phrase and the beginning of a new phrase happen at the same time. Where the violins and cello cadence with a familiar motive, the viola continues on unabated with its own melody. Speaking of, here's the rest of the phrase:

14 1

Phrase 14, mms. 83-92

This melody is a new variant built from the third measure of the second theme.

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m.72 (bottom) and m.84 (top) comparison

Even though the motive itself is very simple, its presentation in new contexts every time prevents it from going stale. In fact, I'd wager only musically trained ears would connect the dots on a first listen.

The rest of the melody at measure 84 is built from a slightly modified version of the motive presented in sequence. The rising sequence creates a tension that suddenly drops with a quickly descending scale.

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mms.84-87 sequence and scale

There are two layers of accompaniment for the melody. One layer is a light harmonization by the second violin and then the first violin. This harmonization is beneath the viola's high melodic placement, helping the viola melody stand out. The other layer is the cello's bass line. This line makes use of a different motive, the octave leap in a dotted-eight+sixteenth+eighth pattern. A rising scale brings the cello to the foreground as the viola drops away.

This scheme is repeated when the cello picks up the same melody, with only a few alterations. The viola takes the role of the bass. The violins maintain the role of harmonizing. The biggest difference is the chord the sequence is presented within. When the viola plays, the progression is G, D, C, A7.

14 5

mms.84-87 progression

That progression keeps the door open for the cello's entrance. The second time the melody is stated, the chords are D, E minor, A7, and D7.

One observation I have about my harmony is my rather haphazard use of extended triads. Sometimes, seventh chords show up and are used functionally. That is to say, they direct the ear towards a specific chord out of all the possible chords. Other times, they show up only for a little bit of color, like this moment in measure 86.

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m.86 Cmaj7

I'm going to make this a minor point of critique for future pieces. I think the loose approach to harmony and extended triads works ok in this piece, but that loose approach to harmony is more coincidental than intentional. At some point I want to do a blog series on harmony. Maybe a mini-project showing off different ways of harmonizing the same melody? Or different melodies over the same harmony? Both? Probably both.

Moving on. There's one more thing I'd like to discuss about how the melody in this phrase is constructed. It has to do with the melodic arc and why the motive has this very slight alteration to it. When comes to making a sequence, the most typical approach is to move the motive up or down one step at a time. If I did that, the melody might look something like this:

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melody with alternate sequence, descending

Or something like this:

14 8 2

melody with alt. sequence, ascending

Here, I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. The first note of each part of the sequence is descending:

14 8 3

melody, first note

But the tail of the motive is ascending. Here's the ascending line highlighted for clarity.

14 8 5

motivic tail with highlights

The alteration to the motive allows for this diverging movement. Here's a different possibility where the motive is merely inverted (turned "upside down")

14 8 4

sequence with alt. motive

Again, the natural movement is only ascending. But now it's more clear what the motivic alteration actually is. It begins with an inversion of the first two notes of the motive, then is followed by the unaltered shape of the next two notes, and the last note is stretched a little bit. The inversion of only part of the motive allows for the generally ascending movement. The little stretch at the end allows the motive to connect to the descending line.

If I recall, I've heard this kind of thing called "implied polyphony," where a melody is constructed in a way to give the impression of two or more voices happening within a single voice. To make this clear, here's the same melody split between two instruments:

14 8 7

implied polyphony turned into actual polyphony

Alright, I think that's enough for today. If you enjoyed reading, consider subscribing the blog to our RSS feed! If you really enjoyed it, then consider signing up to my Patreon. Subscribers get access to audio of the phrases from ths blog, as well as scores and videos of compositions that don't make it to the blog. Either way, I hope you learned something! Thanks for stopping by!

Composing Phrase by Phrase 13

The Same? Yes, but also no.

Hello and welcome or welcome back to Composing Phrase by Phrase! Last week's post took a look at the beginning of a modulatory phrase. The plan is: use the material from the cadential phrase of the first segment, but cadence somewhere else. Said material was altered slightly to give a sense of progression and escalation. Now, let's get into what changes in the next part of the analogous phrase.

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mms. 58-70

The beginning of this phrase (from 58-62) recalls measures 26-30. They both start from a sustained A, but where 26-30 starts from the top and goes down, 58-62 starts from the bottom and goes up. Why? First, it's a nice bit of musical symmetry. Second, let's take a quick peek at where this phrase is going.

13 2

mms.70-71

We've got the violins playing a sustained third high in their register. While I could repeat the top-down arc and give the violins an ascending line after cutting out for a bit, it felt more natural to me to simply flip the whole scheme upside-down. That means the violins are already going towards the goal when they enter, allowing for a smoother transition. To my ear, that element of "smoothness" provides a necessary contrast to the spiky, herky-jerky rhythms and phrase structures in the first section.

In terms of harmonic progression, 58-70 follows 26-35 almost, but not quite, exactly. We go from an A chord to an E-flat chord. We have a tricky bit to pull off, though. In 26-35, the goal is a return to D. The progression as a whole was A, E-flat, B-flat, A, D. In order to land on B-flat in 58-70, I need to insert something between the E-flat and B-flat chords. Here's what I came up with.

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mms. 61-70

I use the E-flat chord again, ascending this time. The first violin then begins its noodly bit and is joined by the second violin in thirds at measure 65. I worked backwards from measure 70 to figure out what the violin's goal was. To make the transition into the second theme as smooth as possible, I wanted the first violin to reach its high F early, sustaining without a break from the end of the phrase into the beginning of the next one. I spotted an opportunity for the second violin to play an E-flat against that sustained F to give the flavor of an F7 chord, one that flows naturally into B-flat. The goal established, it was simply a matter of working out the line that would connect point 1 to point 2.

Similarly, I knew I wanted the viola and cello to arrive at the second theme in octaves. Simple solution: have them begin their noodly bit in octaves instead of thirds. The viola and cello enter a measure before the violins begin their high, sustained tones. This gives a better connection to draw the ear towards a new foreground. We hear something new just as the old begins to fade out.

What else is there to say...? Not a lot, really. The noodly bits make use of a motive that has already shown up a couple of times to act as foreshadowing for a piece of the second theme. It made its first appearance as part of a viola melody in measure 45.

For the cadence, the phrase is extended using only part of the motive played in ascending sequence. The brief moment where all four instruments are playing at the same time uses a harmonization method heard earlier in the composition at measure 12, inverted chords played in parallel in a technique resembling the Medieval fauxbourdon. In this instance, though, the distance between the violins and the viola/cello pairing is extremely wide, creating a sense of two distinct layers rather than one harmonized whole. This voicing was deliberately chosen so as to firmly establish the viola/cello as a distinct element for a secure arrival at their melody.

Alright, I think that covers it for today. Some of the upcoing phrases are much beefier, so if you liked what you read, follow along on your RSS feed of choice! If you really liked what you see, join my Patreon for recordings of the excerpts shown in this blog as well as for compositions not found elsewhere. Either way, thanks for stopping in!

Composing Phrase by Phrase 11

Something Almost, but not Quite, Entirely Different

Hello and welcome or welcome back to Composing Phrase by Phrase, the composing blog where I compose... phrase by phrase? Yes. Just as it says on the tin. Last week, I went over the second statement of the main theme. The phrase follows measures 1-8 pretty closely, with a few alterations harmonically and texturally. So, the next eight bars should resemble 9-16, right? You would think so, wouldn't you? But no! I have a different plan in mind.

Let me rephrase that. I did plan on doing a modified version of 9-16. But then I saw an opportunity for something different. Near the end of the previous article, I pointed out a little motivic thing in the viola. This thing:

10 5

viola motive

And I thought to myself, "That's kind of cute. Can I use that for material?" The answer was, yes, of course I can. You can use anything, as long as you can convince the ear it's ok. So here's what I came up with in the next phrase.

CPbP 11 1

mms. 45-50

Let's break down the actual melody, given over to the viola (composers: please don't forget that violists, despite all evidence to the contrary, are capable of playing music (violists, thank you for your infinite patience with viola jokes)). It starts with the lead-in established in the first theme's restatement. The next bar resembles the motive already played by the viola as the phrase interjection found in measure 2, among others.

CPbP 11 2 CPbP 11 3

phrase interjection and melody comparison

The next bar is a foreshadowing of the upcoming second section. I'll return to this when we get there. For now, I'll note this is one of the advantages of working out big sections in advance, as opposed to literally composing one phrase at a time (this blog's name notwithstanding). By knowing what's coming as a composer, you can leverage "future" material earlier in the composition to help prime the listener's ear for its eventual arrival, and to help create cohesion across the work.

It's easy for musical foreshadowing to become heavy-handed and obvious. I think it works in this instance because it's a very short motivic fragment and it's buried in a larger melody that gives it a different context than it has when it returns. Incidentally, recontextualization is a development technique I haven't seen discussed a lot. I'll have to return to this topic, sometime.

Moving on. The melody lead-in returns and then the whole melody is played again in sequence. A musical sequence is a compositional technique in which the composer takes a motive and repeats it at different pitch degrees. It's a bit like musical tesselation. Here's an example from Antonio Vivaldi's Cello Sonata in E Minor.

CPbP 11 4

Vivaldi sequence example

There are several different types of sequences, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. For now, I'll simply point out the sequence in the viola melody. The first statement starts on E, the second repeats the three bars again starting on D.

CPbP 11 5

Viola melody in sequence

One thing about the melody I'd like to point out is the new phrase grouping. We've had lots of eight bar phrases in 4+4 structures. This melody is a six-bar phrase in a 3+3 structure. I wish I could say I planned it this way, but in honesty that's just how it worked out this time. I think as composers, we should be open to the most natural expression of a musical line without trying to force it into "logical" parameters. On the other side, once a musical expression has been worked out, it's also on the composer to figure out how to balance things on the other sides of it.

So that's the melody. What's the rest of the ensemble doing? The cello is providing much of the harmonic context with a kind of walking bassline. The violins provide a light accompaniment to the viola melody, providing a little harmonic color and rhythm. Harmonically, the violins are mostly in thirds/sixths. The first violin occasionally adds a little push here and there for momentum in the middle of the phrase.

CPbP 11 6

violin phrase nudges

Rhythmically, the violins are mostly on the big metrical beats: 1 and 4 in the 5/8 bar, 1 and 2 in the 2/4 bar. The 6/8 measure uses the violin in hemiola. This is a rhythmic technique in which a group which has been divided into twos is instead divided into threes, or vice versa. In this instance, the measure is 6/8, which is typically divided into two groups of three. The viola and cello follow that pattern. The violins instead divide the measure into three groups of two. This creates the following interlocking pattern.

CPbP 11 7

hemiola rhythm

The cello additionally adds some accents on weaker beats of the measure for additional rhythmic spice.

The very last measure has the violins launching upwards. Towards what? Towards the phrase that I'll introduce next week! That's all for today. I hope you found the post informing and useful. If you liked what you read, consider following the blog on your RSS feed. If you really liked it, then consider joining my Patreon, where I post the audio for the phrases in this blog as well as other compositions that don't make their way here.

Either way, thanks for reading!

Composing Phrase by Phrase 12

The Spanish Inquisition

Hello and welcome or welcome back to the Composing Phrase by Phrase blog! I've been writing a movement for string quartet and it's been bubbling right along. Last week's post went into detail about a phrase that kind of pops out of nowhere, a little melody for the violas that is built from an accompanimental fragment and a motive that will appear in a future melody. This week, I'll get into what follows. And what follows?

it follows

No. Not that. This follows.

Phrase 12 1

mms. 50-58

And if you've been following the blog, you'll probably recognize that this phrase looks a lot like this one from a few weeks back.

8 3c Full Phrase

mms. 17-26

It's not quite the same thing. The similarities first: big chunky chords and double stops built from 7ths; irregular meter; offset rhythmic motives between the two violins and the viola/cello; the return of the "interruption" motif established in the very beginning of the composition.

The similarities are mostly in generalities than in specifics. Harmonically, the first iteration of this phrase idea was grounded by Bb, a nod to the upcoming contrasting section in Bb major. Bb was also used as a tendency tone to draw the phrase section back to A, which was then used to bring us back to D when the opening material returned.

In this case, that harmonic plan could work, but because I want to end up in Bb instead of D, it made more sense to ground the section in something else. That "something else" is a little hard to pin down in this case. There are two notes in particular which is reinforced by the ensemble, and those are A and G

12 2

Highlighted A's and G's in the phrase

Not only are the A's and G's doubled by a few instruments, but they appear high in the register played by the violins. The ear naturally gravitates towards higher pitches than lower ones, so this placement of the A's and G's helps center them a bit more in the listener's perception than the rest. They don't just appear in the higher register, though. The cello also plays them down in the bass. It's true that the F# muddies things a little bit, but the reinforcement of the A's and G's in both the high and low registers makes the F# in the bass feel more like a super accent than a functional part of the harmony.

Another reason the A's stand out is because of the second violin's moving motive. Where the viola/cello pair is playing single chords and the first violin is just sitting on it's G/F# double-stops, the second violin features this lead-in to its A/G# double stop:

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2nd Violin Lead-In

When something is repeated, it tends to drop to the background of the texture. Novel elements, even if it's a simple bit of movement like what is featured here, will move to the foreground of the listener's attention. This, too, helps reinforce A as a central pitch in the section.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I have a big picture goal in mind for this phrase. I eventually want to end up in Bb major. There are a bajillion ways to modulate from one key to another, from something as simple as plopping the music in the new key without preparation to some truly subtle harmonic shenanigans. Regardless of the method, the principles are the same - introduce important pitches of the goal key, then use those to shift the harmonic focus from one grounding pitch to another (avoiding the use of "tonic" so as to avoid specific tonal theory baggage).

Other than A and G, one of the other prominent pitches is C natural. Why C natural? Well, without getting too into the weeds, within D major, C# functions as a powerful leading tone back to D. That's the exact opposite of what I want. By neutralizing the C# (naturalizing?), I remove one of the strongest functional markers of D major, thereby allowing an easier shift to the new key center.

How do I introduce the C natural? With the "interruption" motive in the cello and viola.

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new interruption motive

So, to recap, the focus on A/G has placed this section on track to move in a different harmonic direction than its first iteration, and the alteration of C# to C-natural is used to help signal a particular goal over other possibilities. We're not out of the modulatory woods yet, but that's a strong start. The bonds of D major have been weakened sufficiently that when the key change does happen, it will feel natural rather than abrupt or jarring. Sometimes you want abrupt and jarring! But not all the time. Probably.

Anyways, I've also included a measure from the next phrase. This measure, too, is a call back to the previous cadential phrase, the rhythmic groove suddenly broken off by the sixteenth note pattern. The A is confirmed as an arrival point by the cello, which sustains the A once the rest of the ensemble goes silent. To be sure, A is also an important pitch for D major. But you know what else A is? It's a tendency tone which leads to Bb. We'll get into how that A will be confirmed as a tendency tone to Bb in the next post. For now, just trust me that that's what it's going to be doing.

Just a few other things I'd like to highlight in this phrase. First, the big chords in the viola/cello parts aren't just big, they're straight up CHONKY. There's really no way to play them pretty, which is exactly the point. It's worth considering how the actual instrumentation of a composition can be used to "create" dynamics. Like, yes, the phrase is marked fortissimo, but the instrumentation practically forces that dynamic, anyways.

Second is this hemiola in measure 57.

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m.57 hemiola

If I'm being pedantic, hemiola specifically refers to two rhythmic parts in a 2:3 ratio to each other. While it might be ok to say this measure features a polyrhythm, it's a simple enough (2:5) that I think it's fine to stretch the definition of hemiola a bit in this instance.

This measure is a real "ain't I a stinker?" moment. The fast tempo combined with the shifting meters leading into it will surely take a bit of rehearsal to iron out. However! I didn't just do it for kicks. I mean, I did... but also, it functions as a rhythmic preparation for the cadence that follows. Unfortunately, unlike harmony, Western music theory has little (read: next to none) vocabulary for rhythmic musical elements. I'm not going to do a deep dive into this, but my gut feeling is there are a lot of cadences which have a strong rhythmic build-up followed by a "rhythmic prep" bar that is at a slower rhythm (if not actual tempo) that then ends with the cadence. We just don't have a word for that rhythmic/metric pattern to my knowledge.

That's all for today! Hopefully, you learned something today. If you enjoyed reading, consider subscribing this blog to your RSS feed of choice. If you really enjoyed reading, you can join my Patreon where I feature the audio for the phrases in this blog as well as other compositions which don't get posted here. Either way, thanks for reading!

Composing Phrase by Phrase 10

First Theme, Second Time

Hello and welcome or welcome back to my Composing Phrase by Phrase blog! I've been working through a string quartet. Last week, I finished up a cadential phrase to complete the first segment of the composition. What's next? Well, the beginning is going to come back, of course!

A lot of composing comes down to the questions "What do I repeat and when?" Also "How?" On the extremes: If you're Arnold Schoenberg, you're going to try to repeat as little as you can get away with. If you're Philip Glass, you're going to repeat yourself every chance you can get. Most composers fall somewhere in the middle.

In the case of this composition, the contrast of the cadential phrase feels strong enough I can revisit material from the beginning again. This will help stabilize the first ideas in the memory of the listeners and provide some satisfaction in hearing and recognizing something familiar. It will also help provide some structural balance against the upcoming lyrical section. All that said, here's the next phrase.

10 1 Full Phrase

phrase 5

In addition to the repeated material, there are some big changes. The first big difference is the cello. At the beginning, the cello was playing pizzicato, providing a light, buoyant bass for the idea played by the violins. This has been changed to a descending chromatic line played arco. Why arco? The energy of the previous phrase has been dissipated, but not so much that a complete return to the first texture would follow naturally.

Another point: the descending line is faintly reminiscent of similar descending chromatic lines scattered throughout the previous phrases. These lines have appeared in measure 12...

10 2

measure 12

... measure 16 ...

10 3

measure 16

... 24 ...

10 4

measure 24

... and is repeated frequently in the previous cadential phrase as a way to let off steam. This phrase's use of the line is less about reducing energy and more about creating strong direction and energy in the bass line, creating more contrast against the relatively light and bubbly nature of the first phrase.

The next big change happens in the second measure of the phrase. At the beginning, the two violins concluded their statement of the idea with a rising octave. It also introduced a second rhythm that helped break up the otherwise mechanical eighth-note pulse. This cadence opened the space to the viola's counter idea. All of this was played softly, with only an accent here and there to help the meter pop.

Easiest way to make contrast? If something is soft, play it loud. And vice versa. Instead of a graceful conclusion in the violins, their cadence is abruptly jerked into forte, the entire ensemble playing where previously was just a duet. The viola is playing basically what it played before. Above it, the violins add the dotted-eighth+sixteenth-note rhythmic motif, outlining the Bb major chord. This chord clashes with the repeated A's in the cello and viola below it.

Astute observers will also note that this isn't a 4+4 bar phrase but a 5+5. I can't really put into words what made me make this choice. It felt right? The use of phrase extensions in European classical music typically are used to help give a cadence a bit more room to breathe. I think something similar is happening here. The addition of the rhythmic motive in the violins added a good deal of energy which needed to be let off so I could make the plan I had for the phrase.

What is the plan? The plan is for the first idea to be interrupted by a forte interjection, return to piano, then be further interrupted.

The way things worked out, I felt it needed an extra bar to get back to the dynamic the phrase started with. This is one of those "season to taste" kind of things in composition. Whose taste? Mine. It's seasoned to my taste.

I'm going to quickly point out a little melodic turn in the viola during the phrase extension.

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phrase extension melody, viola

It's not going to mean much right now. I'm just pointing it out for next week's post.

The consequent of the phrase continues much as the antecedent. The first idea is played by the violins, the cello plays a descending chromatic line, the rhythmic motive interrupts. This is all stated in a different harmonic context both in relation the current phrase's antecedent and to the first phrase these measures are referring to.

Only a couple other developmental changes to point out. The second violin changes from harmonizing with the first violin to playing its own pizzicato line. Also, a metric "stumble" that happens in the third measure of the phrase is filled in with a cello chord. I didn't feel like either of these elements needed to be reflected in any larger formal sense. They're just little changes to help keep things fresh.

10 6 10 7

rhythmic stumble and "correction"

Ok, I think that about wraps it up for today. If you enjoyed the read, consider giving this blog a follow on your RSS feed. If you really liked it, you can join my Patreon where I post the audio samples for the blog posts along with other compositions that don't make it to the website necessarily.

Either way, hope you learned something and thanks for reading!