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Composer’s Forum: Beyond the Jam… Creating Musical Form

Gerry Bassermann

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Ever wonder why some moments in your favorite pieces of music seem so deeply satisfying?

Most often, it’s because the composer has carefully designed such moments to be part of the entire piece’s underlying form. Ever wonder how large musical works maintain interest and excitement in spite of long-term demands on the listener? The answer is well-crafted form. When playing, composing, or listening to music, you should be cognizant of the dynamics of musical form and how listeners react to the shape, gestures, and organization of musical materials.

What makes musical shape? On a synthesizer, you use function generators called envelopes to shape each note. On a computer, you can shape the dynamics of a particular part so that if fits well with the other parts to create a whole. Now think about applying those same concepts to an entire composition. The work of shaping gestures and scheduling arrivals is the craft of musical form. 

For many years, classical music composers used harmonic keys and tonal modulation, almost exclusively, to shape and build their much larger works: sonata allegro form, theme and variations, prelude and fugue…there are many such forms. But now there is also staggering sonic diversity in the most modest electronic toolkit. Timbral modulation has also become a key parameter in the architecture of form. Do composers today use that power to move listeners emotionally? You bet they do!

What Is Music?

Before discussing musical form, it’s best to understand what you mean by the word music. You need a definition that is wide open and includes everything: notes, timbres, instruments, tunings, voices, genres, eras, belief systems, rituals and, of course, the many sorts of silence. Amid a hurricane of opinions regarding the nature of music, my go-to definition is sound organized in time—sound that includes spaces, organization signaling intention, and time marking its progress forward.

Other arts share such a basis in time: books, dancing, and cinema are examples of creative works that all take time to experience, to take in, and to begin to understand the story they tell. This story may be partly literal, but it also stimulates emotional energies within us, and we can become captured and carried along by a much more abstract power particular to each art form. In the special case of music, for which we rely entirely on our hearing, the experience deepens as our personal imaginations become active, and so we join in the process.

Make It Up as You Go Along

Along with dancers, musicians can express themselves in real time and improvise, reflecting their feelings in the moment and strengthening the bond between themselves and the audience. However, it is the rare improvisation that does not project a sense of purpose and direction by employing repeats, variations, and modulations of the emerging material as the performer or composer works to move us along with the music. It seems strange to bring up improvisation in any discussion about form, but the expressive gestures that occur to us naturally while we’re playing become structural techniques for building engaging pieces of composed music.

These are some of the composer’s basic tools: repetition that focuses attention, variation that introduces change, and modulation that ushers in a change of direction. Perhaps it’s some new melody or chords, a different character, or an altered soundscape. New composers may imagine that a constant torrent of new material and new surprises would provide ultimate excitement for the listener, but it’s not necessarily so. What truly involves listeners in the experience is making them feel they’re under the influence of music that is paced, sure of itself, and able to take them, pushing and pulling, along on the voyage.

This, then, is the essence of musical form: the architecture and organization of sound as it flows along in time. It can make an unknown piece seem familiar and surprising by turns. It might be sometimes hesitant, and yet still invites us forward and delivers us where we anticipate or veers off to resolve in another direction.

Draw It Out

Years ago, I worked with composer Herb Jimmerson on multimedia shows for E-mu Systems. Once we had sketched out the basic presentation, Herb would set about sketching, literally with a pencil on large blank paper, the basic gestures and flow of each piece of music he was imagining before writing a single note, chord, or rhythm. The results looked like a work by George Crumb, with sweeping energetic curves and suggestive words like “striving” or “here it comes” or “still settling.” Before beginning your music creation process, make some notes about what you want to do and try sketching a facsimile of your ideas. You don’t have to be Picasso here, just make a basic timeline and represent the gestures you intend to score.

Comings and Goings

In some way, form is all about arrivals and departures. You can build tension by adding harmonic dissonance, adding parts and timbres, and becoming insistent by repeating a strong idea one too many times. The resolution of that tension can be many things: a one-shot exploding event that subsides slowly like the waves from a rock thrown into water, a new section that has even more energy than the one that preceded it, or a complete left turn into a new texture and mood—to name a few.

Deny, Delay, Deliver

The term cadence in musical theory refers to the completion of a musical phrase. In tonal music, this can often mean that the dominant chord resolves to the tonic chord. Cadences can range from temporary settlings to complete and utter endings, depending on the length and strength of the musical phrases that precede them. Then there is the “deceptive” cadence, in which a composer purposely sets up a standard cadence and then avoids the expected resolution (V–I, for example) by going to another chord (often the VI chord; in the key of C, this might be G7–Am). This effect has incredible power over the listener, to be denied an expectation and then delayed so that when it finally happens, it is so much more satisfying—or perhaps, never to be delivered at all.

A Matter of Perspective

Musical form and gestures happen in microcosm, macrocosm, and everything in between. The more you lift your head out of your music and feel its energy broadly over time, the more you may be inclined to adjust the length of certain sections. Most often, I believe, it helps to let your ideas play out a bit longer simply because, as the composer, you already know the material extremely well. The listener is just coming on to it, however, even after multiple hearings, and the two experiences are completely different. Give them some time.

I’ve also heard many early compositions that have lots of new and different ideas coming one after another; it’s almost as if the writer is afraid of boring the audience. Let the music breathe and arrive naturally to the next place.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Now you ask, “But what about pop songs?” Ah, a particular nemesis of mine. I cannot tell you how many good song ideas I have personally ruined from overthinking and “crafting.” Never repeating a phrase exactly, always adding a subtle twist, incessant crescendos and dovetailed transitions, and interesting extra chord notes—these are so often not needed to deliver a good song. No, when organizing pop song sections, the best path forward is straight ahead, delivering musical truth in gorgeous slabs of sound and feel. Pop songs can be as simple as the right groove with the right singer. 

I was on a panel of musicians and will never forget the advice from one composer/producer, who recommended always inviting normal folks to the mixing session. When they stand up and start to dance, just back away from the console, because at that point, the tune works, and you can just get out of the way.

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