Composing is about putting sounds together.

There are only two ways to put sounds together: 1) Horizontally – one after the other and 2) Vertically – one on top of the other. Sounds exist in time (horizontally) and they can exist simultaneously (vertically). This is all that composers have ever done, put sounds together, and some composers have done it very well!

Many people might divide sounds into two broad categories: 1) Musical sounds and 2) Non-musical sounds (There are of course lots of other categories: loud/quiet, high/low, interesting/boring, pleasant/unpleasant etc).

All sounds, no matter how they are categorised, have five, measurable, physical characteristics:

1. They exist on a continuum that extends from pitch to noise. (This characteristic is usually articulated through pitch, the notes of conventional music.)

2. They have duration (They exist in time. Sounds stop. In conventional music this characteristic is articulated through rhythm.)

3. They have volume (loudness, amplitude).

4. They have timbre (identity, colour, overtone structure).

5. They exist in space (they are located in space and they exist in a particular space).

This list of characteristics, written in the above order, demonstrates a hierarchy of structural concerns in conventional music (particularly western music). In other words, when we make music conventionally – singing or playing instruments – we are, more often than not, concerned with tunes. Tunes are pitch articulated by rhythm. Harmony is just pitch piled up vertically. Think about what guides the structure of a lot of music: in classical music the harmony – sonata form, for example, is mainly about development of harmony and melody; in jazz the musicians improvise around chord changes; in pop music the verse, the chorus and the middle-eight are constructed around chord sequences; even in avant-garde music, the idea of the series is derived from the tone row, a string of pitches. The scale, the raga, the series – all of these things are major structural devices in music and all are based around pitch.

Conventional western notation reflects this concern with pitch. A score is an attempt to make music visual, to represent sound on paper. Actually, it’s a sophisticated series of instructions directing a performer to do something. Pitch is the most accurately notated of the characteristics mentioned above; there is usually little doubt about which pitch a performer is required to play. The duration of the note is less accurately notated. Question: How long is a crochet? Answer: It depends, particularly on tempo. We don’t usually have this kind of problem with pitch. It’s pretty fixed; middle C is middle C. It has changed a bit over the years and since Bach’s time we have had equal temperament enabling us to fix pitch relationships quite well. Volume is notated vaguely. Question: How loud is mf, mezzo-forte? Answer: half loud. How loud is half loud? How loud is loud? How loud is quiet? Timbre is even more vague. Here we tend to refer to instruments – piano, violin, trumpet, etc. And instruments are objects not sounds. And we do not have a conventional notation for spatial concerns; we usually presume that the sound will come from somewhere in front of us. Our notation insidiously keeps pitch safely at the top of the structural hierarchy. No wonder it’s difficult to think about it radically and question it!

Apart from unpitched percussion, musical instruments are mechanical devices, primarily designed for producing pitch. They are technological developments that have evolved over the last few centuries. We now have new, electronic, technologies that enable us to play with sound. And these new technologies are very good at manipulating other sonic material besides pitch. Not that there is anything wrong with pitch; tunes are wonderful things! But why limit music to these things when we have new instruments that can, for example, articulate sounds in space and place sounds in different spaces. Aural spaces can be created, moulded and shaped. One timbre can transform seamlessly into another and then into another and another. What would a ‘melody’ of timbres sound like? What would a ‘melody’ of spaces sound like? Do we even need to think about ‘melodies’ any more? Using these new technologies we are able put sounds together in new ways – bearing in mind we will always be limited by the ‘horizontal’ and the ‘vertical’. Sound recording (which, given the entire history of music, has only been around for a short while) enables us to capture sound (previously an ethereal, nebulous thing [hence the need to notate it and try to make it concrete]), and mould it as we like. Moulding sound is composing.

These new instruments are here, now! They are not ‘the instruments of the future’, they exist, now! It is 1996. You only have 4 years left to get used to 20th century music!

©1996 Robert Worby

These notes were written for a course I was presenting for music teachers. In those days many teachers that I met were struggling to come to terms with 20th Century music.