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  • Writer's pictureIona Catherine

Composition basics 101: 12 tools

An introduction to the 12 crucial components of Western Art Music.

Welcome to composition basics 101. This easy to read guide for beginner composers will introduce you to the 12 crucial components of Western Art Music.

Whether you are a classical, baroque, romantic or 20th century inspired composer, composing for movies or for symphony orchestra, being aware of these 12 key elements of musical composition will give your music that extra edge.

1. Pitch

'Pitch' is the notes an instrument plays. There are 12 possible pitches in western art music: Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, or, enharmonically, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#. These pitches can be replicated across 10 octaves as higher or lower versions of the same note. Middle C is also known as C4, for example.

2. Melody

A 'melody' is a set of pitches played in a specific order as designated by a composer. It may rise and fall, ebb and flow, be slow or fast, or whatever the composer feels is fitting for the piece they are writing.

3. Harmony

'Harmony' is the combining of multiple pitches. It can result in chords, consonance, dissonance, or a whole range of other sound effects. A 'harmonic progression' is a chain of 'harmonies' one after another.

4. Tonality/Key Signature

'Tonality' is the 'key signature' of a piece of music AKA the pitch and scale that the music centres around. There are many scale systems that can create tonality, including minor, major, modal, tone rows (hello Schoenberg), and more. You can even combine more than one to create bi-tonality, or even tri-tonality! Whichever you pick, you will apply the structure of the scale, aka the specific order of tones and semitones, to a starting pitch to find the notes of your tonality. This pitch may be chosen because of your orchestration or because you simply like the way the pitch sounds in that key.

5. Dynamics

'Dynamics' are the loudness or quietness of a piece. The dynamics of a piece can change during its duration. In western art music the convention is to use the following Italian signals:

FF = Fortissimo = Very Loud

F = Forte = Loud

MF = Mezzo Forte = Medium Loud

MP = Mezzo Piano = Medium Quiet

P = Piano = Quiet

PP = Pianissimo = Very Quiet

6. Timbre

'Timbre' denotes the aural effect instrument choices create. For example, if you combine piano, marimba, and glockenspiel in a fast moving quiet and staccato concert piece, you may end up with a dainty percussive timbre. But if you write a cinematic string section for a romantic kiss scene in a movie, your timbre may be lush and thick.

7. Texture

'Texture' describes the layers of instrumentation and ideas in your piece. There are various words used to describe texture including monophonic (one solo musical idea), homophonic (one musical idea with harmonies), polyphonic (multiple musical ideas and harmonies), and more.

8. Structure/Form

'Structure' is the skeletal framework that your musical ideas fit into. It is often considered using building block terms such as through-composed (no repeated sections), strophic (repeating segments), binary (2 sections), and ternary (3 sections) which are usually signalled using the alphabet e.g. ABA. Larger scale terms such as symphony, sonata, rondo, canon, and round are also used, each a specific form that has structural rules to be followed.

9. Duration

'Duration' is the length of a piece of music. It may be determined by its structure, form, or usage. For example a piece written for a concert may be 10 minutes long, but a piece written for film may be as short as 1 minute.

10. Tempo

'Tempo' is the speed of a piece. It may be measured in BPM AKA beats per minute, or using a range of western art music terms such as presto (very fast), adagio (walking pace), or largo (very slow).

11. Pulse/Time Signature

'Pulse' is the heartbeat of a piece. It is created in western art music using a time signature. For example, 4/4 is four beats in a bar, 3/4 is three beats in a bar, and 6/8 is six half-beats in a bar.

12. Rhythm

'Rhythm' is the speed of a series of notes, harmonies, or musical materials. Notes in a rhythm may be short or long and may compliment or juxtapose the pulse.

Phewph! That was a lot of info. I hope it is useful. These are the 12 crucial components of a musical composition that you should be aware of as a budding composer. They are fascinatingly detailed, please do be aware this is just an introductory guide. And enjoy thinking about them all when you next sit down to write.

If you would like further compositional guidance or feedback from me, Iona Catherine, do get into contact at I would love to hear from you.

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