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Composer’s Forum: Pattern Recognition



Go beyond simple repetition and explore new musical territory by composing patterns.

Last month, I contemplated the concept of repetition in music. That made me hear repetitions and variations not only in every piece of music, but in nearly every aspect of life, as well. All of that rumination led directly to thinking about the result of practicing repetition: patterns.


On Valentine’s Day, I took my wife to a piano recital, part of the Ludwig VanniversaryBeethoven’s 250th birthday, featuring the Moonlight Sonata. Compared to the somewhat rigorous machinations of most Classical-period masterworks, with their motivic structures and intricate variations, the opening arpeggios of this sonata simply weave a continuous mood that, once begun, can barely be silenced. Within a few seconds, the achingly slow triplet pattern takes root in the listener. When the melody arrives, it is indie-pop simple with quietly repeated notes and resolving scale tones. The tone is resigned and renewed at the same time. Breathing deepens and time becomes space.

The steady triplet pattern of the Moonlight allows listeners to participate in the music by trusting their feelings to the unfolding sound. The audience allows the musical texture to envelope them and move forward. It is clearly safe to feel this music deeply. As composers, would that we all could gain the same trust and consensual surrender of an audience.

Well, we can. Concocting patterns and recognizing their emotional charge is a powerful way for composers to create music that sets moods and casts spells. Maybe the Beethoven sonata is an early lyrical example of what we might now call textural music. Instead of some combination of delineated parts, like melody with harmony over rhythm, textural music presents itself as homogenous patterns that combine and reflect all those constituent musical parts melded together. Cinematic music often uses pattern-based textures to create moods without introducing distracting melodic hooks or song-style riffs. It’s about continuity of mood and how that focuses one’s attention.

Learning to Wave your Wand

There are many ways to get a pattern going, and it’s almost the first thing I do when picking up a guitar or sitting at a piano. Breaking the ice and warming up the fingers is a good idea in any case, and whenever the notes start to sound right, I try to repeat them as seamlessly, naturally, and musically as possible. Without counting or analyzing anything about it, I search for the right feel and try either more or fewer notes until something kind of perfect emerges.

Composing musical patterns visual

Synthesizers and keyboard controllers playing virtual instruments introduce an entire spectrum of tones. Parts and patterns developed on the piano may or may not sound as natural on various synth sounds. It’s pretty simple to check this by changing the target of a MIDI track in your DAW software to audition pattern ideas with different sounds. As a rule, the sound dictates the part. It can be a great practice to check out a new instrument or sound set by discovering a compelling pattern for each program. I often think good fodder for a decent song or new piece of music is within every synth sound if you can recognize its natural musical patterns as you play.

Nearly every synth, physical or virtual, features an arpeggiator, a gated sequence, and/or other animating circuits that will turn a single held note into an evolving, rhythmic music bed. You can find plenty of examples in the factory presets. To simply play and hold a note or so and hear it play out is one thing; you are basically auditioning the patch programmer’s work. To make it your own, interact with it by holding and playing and holding and playing your own melodic ideas that will keep restarting all that animation as you develop your own evolving patterns. You can develop an entire texture using this technique, as I attempt to do with this interactive gated sequence jam I played on the Sequential Pro 3. 

Patterns and Loops

I believe patterns are quite different from loops. They are the same in that both repeat, but they are functionally different because loops are already developed and captured as audio. They can be triggered, repeated, effected, etc. However, patterns are more abstract, more plastic. As MIDI data, their core values (note numbers, velocities, durations, etc.) are easily edited. Patterns invite play, change, and transformation. Developing a pattern throughout a piece of music provides infrastructure and form.

If you’re using audio loops to develop a musical texture and want to edit them as if they were MIDI, check out the ReCycle app, which generates REX files. Developed by Propellerhead Software (now called Reason Studios) some 25 years ago, the app slices the audio and generates an associated MIDI file that can be easily edited. Many if not most DAW software can import and use REX files (see the Wikipedia entries on the REX2 format and on ReCycle).

Pattern Generation

Beyond noodling on your instrument or playing rhythmic synth programs, there are other ways to come up with musical patterns. Here are some ways to generate monophonic, equal-value (step) ideas: 

Step up to a keyboard and play notes with constantly alternating hands. Do not count the notes or tap your feet; just play until the length of the repeating pattern and the notes don’t change and the cycle becomes natural and seamless. Once you’ve established a pattern, you’ll keep playing it over and over because it will develop musical character and you’ll begin to really like it.

To demonstrate, I’ve loaded up a virtual instrument and used the QWERTY keyboard as my controller. Left, right, left, right—I cycled around on the keys until the sound resembled a perfect circle. It turns out this one is in seven, but I didn’t think about it at the time. Notice that one of the attributes of this left/right alternation technique is that there are two clear parts even though it is one complete pattern.

Composing musical patterns Example #1

Playing a pattern on a synth, turn on and adjust the arpeggiator, and then play the keyboard both actively (playing notes at step tempo) and passively (coming to rest on a note and letting the arpeggiator do the work). Do not simply hold a note or chord; play and hold and play and hold. Interact! For this example, I came up with the note pattern and then held some notes longer to let the arpeggiator add more octaves. 

Composing musical patterns Example #2

You can expand on the monophonic, equal-value model by adding harmony notes and editing note durations in your MIDI editor. Here I selected a choir sound and began by drawing in notes for the midrange melodic pattern, beefing it up by drawing in both lower and higher harmony notes. Then I kept developing the pattern using partial elements as structural motifs. This attention to the patterns within patterns can bring a kind of fractal integrity to your work. 

With all the pattern-generating ideas involving electronic instruments and software, pay attention to phrasing, articulation, accents, and ghost notes, and increase velocity values and sensitivity settings to accentuate the feel of your playing. 

Pattern On

Incorporating pattern development into your playing and compositional thoughts isn’t difficult. Next time you’re in a music store, sit down at a synthesizer and scroll through the programs until you find something you vibe with, and instead of playing chords or riffs as you normally would, explore this concept of patterning and discover the pattern this sound wants you to play. 

Using a looper device or software can also be really transformative and keep you at your instrument longer than ever, making a different kind of music playing with patterns. Most standalone loopers record and loop audio, so they can be used with any instrument and are especially effective in live performance modes. 

Next month, I’ll discuss extending phrase lengths with more complex patterns and composing in odd and mixed meters. Until then, pattern on!

More Composer’s Forum articles from Gerry Bassermann

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