2014 Society of Composers National Conference

The 2014 Society of Composers National Conference took place March 20-22 at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It featured three days of concerts and paper sessions in Sursa Performance Hall by select composers from across the US. The conference wordpress blog and facebook page contain specific details regarding the concert schedule and events. The overall quality of the concerts and paper sessions was excellent!


Inside Sursa









Notably, the majority of concerts featured electronic resources and multimedia. To be sure, there were a number of pieces with traditional acoustic instruments and some old school electroacoustic music with outstanding spatialization enhanced by Sursa’s eight-speaker configuration which enveloped the audience. That being said, many, if not a major of pieces on the program featured both acoustic instruments and either prerecorded electronic accompany or manipulation of live sound in real time. Some pieces also contained video projection in which case, a video screen was lowered above the stage.

audienceIt is exciting to note that 21st century composers are embracing technology and multimedia. With all of the new resources available to composers, it seems that composers of new music are blurring the lines between electronic and acoustic music. This most assuredly will be an area of research for some musicologist in the not too distance future.

In addition, many of the paper sessions discussed topics related to emerging technologies and live performance. For example, Zachary Boyt discussed MIDI bows, while Orlando Legname presented electronic sensors for conducting which interact with MAX/MSP in real time.

Orlando Legname


Zachary Boyt









It was a great conference. I’m definitely planning to attend the 2015 conference. I would recommend it to all composers of new music who wish to stay abreast of the latest developments in new music.

By the way, I was a presenter at the first paper session on Friday, March 21. My paper was entitled Metamorphoses Nocturnes a Stepping Stone in the Compositional Development of Gyorgy Ligeti.

mephoto(6)Here are a number of links to photos and other media from the conference:



Special thanks to Michael Pounds, Keith Kothman and Jim Rhinehart for organizing such a great conference. If I have left anyone out, my apologizes. Please send me your name and a link to your blog and/or website, and I can include it in this blog. Thanks again! See you in 2015.

Is There a New Minimalism Underway in Popular Music?

Is there a new minimalism underway in popular music? It seems two of the most recent number one songs, “Blurred Lines” and “Royals,” consist of little more than a catchy percussion driven beat with bass and harmony vocals. It is a very effective combination, if the lyrics are strong, because minimal accompaniment focuses the listener’s attention on the words making them more important to the success of the song.

There are a number of artists who have built careers using minimal accompaniment including Bob Dylan, in his early folk period, and Neal Young. Can you name other artists who use minimalism?

Photo courtesy of billboard.com.

Fragmentation and Melodic Development

Fragmentation is an interesting tool which composers can use to generate a plethora of melodic material with very little effort. In my opinion, there are two primary types of fragmentation, subtractive and motivic.

Subtractive fragmentation is easy to do and, if used properly, creates syncopation. All you have to do is substitute rests for notes. Example No. 1 is an original melody which I have used in a number of previous blog posts. Example No. 2 is the same melody with rests replacing some of the notes. Play both examples and listen to the difference. Example No. 2 is clearly the same melodic idea, but it has more rhythmic punch because the rests create accented upbeats in measures 2 and 4. The quarter rest in measure 3 creates additional rhythmic interest.

Example No. 1


Example No. 2

Subtractive Fragmentation

Motivic fragmentation is more common than subtractive. In fact, it is an integral part of classical period repertoire and is common in compositions by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. In general, the primary thematic structures used in classical period music where the sentence and period. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss thematic structures in classical period music, but, in general, a basic idea is introduced (usually two measures), repeated creating a four measure theme, then a fragment of the basic idea is extracted and sequenced three times to create a classic eight-measure sentence structure. In example No. 3, the eighth notes in measure 2 are extracted and sequenced three times to create an ascending melodic line which cadences in measures 7-8. This creates a sense that the melody is accelerating toward a cadential point.

Example No. 3

Motivic Fragmentation

Comment if you can think of any other types of fragmentation. In the meantime, apply these techniques to your own compositions and listen to the results. Happy composing!

How to Develop a Melody Using Sequencing

Sequencing is another time-honored tool that most composers use on a regular basis. Sequencing is the immediate repetition of a motive at a higher or lower pitch level. The motive can be almost any length the composer desires as long as it is not a complete repetition of the entire phrase. Often the motive is quite short, just a few beats or a single measure.

I particularly like to use ascending sequences. They create a sense of growing intensity and anticipation, as if something important is about to happen. They work well as transitions to new sections or as a build up to an important climactic moment.

There are a number of different types of sequences. Two of the most used sequences are exact and tonal. Example No 1 is an original melody which I used in my first blog post to demonstrate inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 is the same melody subjected to exact sequencing. All of the intervals in each sequence are exactly the same as the original melody. Accidentals have to be added to maintain the intervallic relationship among the notes. This is sometimes referred to as a modulating sequence because, with the addition of so many accidentals in measure 4, the phrase has essentially modulated to the key of C# major.

Example No. 1


Example No. 2

sequencing exact

Example No. 3 is the same melody subjected to tonally adjusted sequencing. None of the sequences have accidentals; therefore, the phrase remains in the key of F# minor.

Examples No. 3

tonally adjusted sequencing

Three and out is the general rule for sequencing. In other words, whatever you decide to sequence should only be sequenced three times; anything longer feels predictable and tedious.

In addition, it is advisable to vary the sequences. Change some of the notes or invert one of the sequences to keep the listener off balance. Most people are sophisticated enough to understand that a sequence is in progress and can predict what it will sound like as it unfolds. If one of the sequences, usually the third, is a little different, it will keep the audience off balance and engaged. If they can predict exactly what you are going to do next, you have lost them. Keep them engaged with unpredictable twists and turns. Example No. 4 demonstrates this concept. The last sequence is inverted; all of the intervals are upside down.

I encourage you to play through these examples, then apply sequencing to one of your own melodies and see what happens. Enjoy!

Example No. 4

exact with inversion

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, How to Write a Hit Song

According to Billboard Magazine, Blurred Lines “has sold 5.8 million downloads in its 26 weeks of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It continues its radio dominance with a 10th week atop R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.” What makes this song popular with everyone from 80-year-old grandmothers to 18-year-old hipsters is how these controversial words are set musically. There are plenty of songs that explore controversial themes, but this particular song has obviously captured a large audience. There must be something about the music that makes it popular.

The instrumentation is very sparse consisting of only bass and percussion, see Example No. 1. The percussion section is just a cowbell, clap, and high hat. There is also a mark tree (chime tree) at the beginning which adds a little color.

The bass part establishes a repetitive rhythmic pattern on scale degrees one and five in the key of G major. There is a descending turnaround in measure 8 that walks down the G major scale from note D to G. This firmly establishes the song in the key of G major, see Example No. 1. The entire chord progression is simply four measures on a G major chord and four measures on a D major chord with a turnaround in measure 8.

Example No. 1

Blurred Lines Example 1aBlurred Lines Example 1b

The most interesting aspect of the accompaniment is its driving rhythmic pattern which is highly syncopated and full of rhythmic interest. For instance, the cowbell starts on the upbeat of count one with an interesting sixteenth-note pattern that ends on the upbeat of count four. This rhythmic motive starts and ends on an upbeat giving the song an irresistible rhythm. The clap occurs on counts two and four creating a straight up, rock and roll back beat which never fails to give any song a bouncing, upbeat rhythmic intensity. The high hat is used sparingly on the upbeat of count four in every other measure.  This creates a nice rhythmic lift in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Basically, the instrumental accompany is as simple as it gets, only two chords, no guitar, no keyboard, just bass. The accompaniment provides a bare bones harmonic structure and a driving rhythmic pattern that propels the song forward allowing the vocals to stand out.

This song relies almost exclusively on its vocal setting. One of the ear marks of a good setting is how closely the rhythm follows the natural rhythm of the words when spoken. For instance, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it,” sounds identical to the way one would naturally say it. Say it a few times then sing the song as comparison. Sounds the same right?

Also, the melodic contour and harmony accentuates important words and phrases throughout. For instance, harmony is only used on “You’re a good girl,” and “I hate these blurred lines.” In the chorus, these words are harmonized in thirds on both the five and one chords respectively. In both cases, the lower voice starts a half step below the third (Bb) and the seventh (F natural) in the G major scale. Then it slides up to the B natural and F#. The initial lowered third and lower seventh create extra harmonic tension making these words really stand out in the song. Most people who hear this song for the first time will remember those particular lines. Who can forget “you’re a good girl, I know you want it.” That is the core of this song.

What’s the lesson for aspiring musicians and song writers in this song? Less is more. The sparse instrumental accompaniment provides a driving rhythmic pattern which allows the words to stand out from the accompaniment. There are no fancy guitar solos or instrumental breaks to distract the listener, and harmony is used sparingly only on the most important words. So if you want a hit song, create a catchy hook and keep it simple baby. See you on the charts!

How to Write a Melody: Augmentation and Diminution

Augmentation and diminution are two widely used compositional techniques that can be applied to almost any melody. In this blog post, I will show you how to use these techniques to generate a plethora of new material for your next composition.

There are two types of augmentation, rhythmic and intervallic. Rhythmic augmentation means that all of the note values in a given melody are increased by an equal amount. In most cases, rhythmic values are doubled, but they can be increased by almost any amount. Example No. 1 is an original melody used in my first blog post to demonstrate retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 shows this melody with its note values doubled.

Example No. 1

original melody

Example No. 2


Intervallic augmentation means that all of the intervals increase, see Example No. 3. This changes where notes fall in relationship to the underlying harmony, so the accompaniment usually needs to be adjusted to compensate.

Example No. 3

intervallic aug

Diminution is the opposite of augmentation. All of the note values and/or intervals are shortened by an equal amount, see Example No 4.

Example No. 4

Rhythmic dim

Example No. 5 is an augmented version of the original melody with sixteenth-note accompaniment. The accompaniment pattern is also a good example of diminution in action. Counts one and two in measure 1 are the original melody in diminution, see Example No. 1. Notice it’s the same melodic contour in sixteenth notes. Essentially, Example No. 5 is derived from a single motive which is subjected to both augmentation and diminution. See what you can do with just a few ideas and an arsenal of composition techniques in your tool chest?

Example No. 5

aug and dim example

How-To Change Guitar Strings – Classical Guitar

Dr. David Mitchell of The Music Composition Blog shows you how to change strings on a classical guitar. http://www.themusiccompositionblog.com Follow Dr. Mitchell @music_comp