4 Elements of Music Composition

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SOUND.TIMBRE.RHYTHM.FORM.

You have to touch the music, not only to hear it, because touching it, we feel the vibration of the music.
— Igor Stravinsky

When composing it is always essential to carefully examine the elements and how they may be of use during the process. Here are the four elements we begin with here in the Mad Composer Lab.

SOUND.

is the result of vibrations traveling through the air or other mediums and is heard when it reaches the ear of any living being. The array of sounds that can be perceived by the ear is magnificent. Some of these sounds are perceived as complex, others are perceived as simple. There are loud sounds, soft sounds, long ones and short ones. There are sounds that are consonant, others extremely dissonant. One of the responsibilities of the composer is to organize sound in such a way that it is representative of the piece that is being written. Any sound existing or not, is available for use. Note that just because it’s available does not mean that it is appropriate to use. It may not be useful to the piece. Consider its purpose with regard to authenticity.

All things and beings in the universe are connected with each other, visibly and invisibly, and through vibrations a communication is established between them, on all planes of existence.
— Hazrat Inayat Khan

TIMBRE.

is described as the tone quality or tone color of a sound. It is a perception of sound that helps the listener to identify the sounds they are receiving. More simply, timbre helps us to distinguish one sound from the other. Strings, woodwinds, and voice are different in timbral quality. Timbre also helps to determine various sounds within those categories. For instance, flute vs. clarinet. or flutter tongue vs tongue slaps. These effects alter the spectrum and envelope of the sound. At the Mad Composer Lab, we like to think of it as an adjective or in literal terms of color. Each sound has a tone color, that color can be muted, brilliant, shaded, tinted, blended or any combination of realness. Considering the timbre helps not only with balance, but also with creating the appropriate mood or energy of a piece.

Rhythm is a conception, not a physical reality. It is true, that to be realized in music, rhythm must be marked by some sort of sound, but this sound is not the rhythm.
— Henry Cowel

RHYTHM.

in essence, is a magical illusion of regularly repeated patterns of long or short durations of sound. These can be grouped symmetrically or asymmetrically, either way, this element is vital to the process as it is directly related to the process of allowing the music to unfold. Rhythmic patterns can define musical styles and structures. For example, the waltz will feel very different than a march, which differs from the salsa. Additionally, just as with sound and timbre, rhythms can be unique to a particular region and vernacular. How one handles the rhythmic process is essential to the process.

Good composition is like a suspension bridge; each line adds strength and takes none away...
— Robert Henri

FORM.

Almost everything we encounter, has some sort of shape or form unique to its character. The form is either fixed or free. This is true for music as well. Music comes in many forms including strophic, binary, and ternary structures. The rondo and sonata forms are also common. These musical forms give shape and containment for the music being presented. A painter’s work is often contained to a single flat canvas which provides a set of boundaries in which to work. The artist is free to create whatever they desire, by incorporating the use of lines, color, and shading. Thus creating an illusion to be perceived by the eye. Traditionally, music follows a similar concept. To help contain musical ideas so they make logical sense to the brain, it is necessary to consider the form and structure. Artist Robert Henri, can be quoted as saying “Good composition is like a suspension bridge; each line adds strength and takes none away.” He goes on to mention that arbitrarily making lines run together is not composition. There should be connection and a reason for the lines. To disagree with Henri would be foolish as speaking the language of music requires good sentence structure and proper punctuation in order to convey a complete thought.

The only rules that we must follow are the rules established by the piece itself. Everything else is negotiable.
— Kennedy

RULES of Engagement.

Carefully examining and considering these four elements before, during, and after the composition process strengthens craftsmanship and offers new perspectives. The craft of music composition can be rewarding, but not without a considerable amount work and experience. Spend the time necessary to understand your process. Refine it daily. Teach it to someone else. Practice Gratitude.