How to Develop Your Own Voice and Become a Great Composer: The Ligeti Model

In the spring of 2007, Simone Fontanelli, a world renowned composer and professor of new music at the University of Mozarteum in Salzberg, gave a series of seminars at the University of Georgia, Dancz Center for New Music. I asked maestro Fontanelli, “are there any composition exercises you would recommend to help beginning composers develop their own voice?” He suggested borrowing harmonic, melodic and/or rhythmic ideas from three great composers, then write a new piece which combines the best elements of all three. For example, combine Stravinsky’s Petrushka chord, Bartok’s rhythmic motives from String Quartet No. 4 and Schoenberg’s concept of developing variation into a single composition. This is challenging to say the least, and it stretches the abilities of most composers. In addition, this exercise gives beginning composers an opportunity “walk in the shoes” of the world’s greatest composers, thereby, discovering what makes them great. It also helps beginning composers get into the historical flow of what has gone before them.

This idea is not new. All great composers have written pieces “in the style of…” For example, Mozart was influenced by Bach, Haydn and many others. Schoenberg considered himself to be an extension of the German tradition and was influenced by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

While working on my DMA in music composition at UGA, I read a number of interviews with György Ligeti (1923-2006), one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, in which he discussed the influence of Bartók on his compositional style and technique. Ligeti used Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 as a model when he wrote String Quartet No. 1: Metamorphosis Nocturnes (1954). In fact, in an interview with Friedemann Sallis, Ligeti stated he knew Bartók’s style so well that “he could have gone on to write the seventh, eighth or even twelfth Bartók quartet.”

Bartok Ligeti

I decided to analyze both quartets to determine if this statement is true and, if so, discover what elements of Bartók’s quartet and style are present in Metamorphosis Nocturnes. It appears that Ligeti borrowed a motive directly from Bartók’s quartet, see Example No. 1. This motive belongs to set class [0123]. Ligeti uses it in the beginning of Metamorphosis Nocturnes, and it becomes the primary harmonic structure throughout the entire quartet, see Example No. 2. It is interesting to note, after writing Metamorphosis Nocturnes, Ligeti continued to use set class [0123] throughout his career, but he added his own twist in the form of microtonality.

Example No. 1

Barok example

Example No. 2Ligeti example

There are a number of parallels between these two quartets, and Bartók’s influence is present throughout to the extent that Ligeti’s quartet sounds more like Bartók than Ligeti. With that being said, Metamorphosis Nocturnes is a model for all aspiring composers. Ligeti wrote his quartet in order to experiment with Bartók’s harmonic and melodic language. He ultimately kept what he liked most from Bartók’s style, eventually making it his own. In the process, he developed his own unique voice. March 20-23, I will present my research at the 2014 Society of Composers Inc. Nation Conference at Ball State University in Indiana.

I would recommend trying the same experiment with your own favorite composer or composers. Borrow a melody/harmony or two. Take it out for a test drive. If you like it, find a way to make it your own!

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, A Video Example


I recently discussed the value of inversion and retrograde, two compositional techniques, in an earlier post.

Here is an original composition for classical guitar, “Rainy Nights for Jennifer”  that demonstrates these techniques. The first example of inversion occurs at 1:48. There are a number of other examples throughout the composition, especially after the tempo change at 2:05.

This was a live performance at the Atlanta Institute of Music.

Let me know what you hear.

How To Write A Melody

One of the most challenging aspects of music composition is thematic development. As a composition instructor, I have found most of my students can come up with convincing melodic, gestural, or textural ideas, but they struggle when writing an entire piece. Most students get “stuck” at a particular point, get frustrated, and eventually give up. The problem is they don’t know how to develop their initial ideas, and their progress grinds to a halt. Fear not! For the professor is here to give you the tools you need to become a great composer.

Here is a partial list of some time-honored compositional tools. These tools can be applied to almost any style of music. Comment if you can think of anything I have left out, and I will add it to the list.


In this blog post, I will focus on inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion, by far the most widely known and beloved compositional tools. Inversion means all of the intervals in a particular melody are upside down. Example No. 1 shows an original melody followed by its inversion. Notice that the ascending triad in measure 1 becomes a descending triad when inverted, a mirror image of the original melody.

Example No. 1

melodic development blog pic 1

There are two types of inversion, exact and tonally adjusted. In an exact inversion, all of the intervals are exactly the same as the intervals in the original, only upside down. In a tonally adjusted inversion, the most common type, intervals are modified to stay within the key. The above example is a tonally adjusted inversion, an exact inversion would require note D in measure 1 to be a D#.

Retrograde is the original melody play backward. Example No. 2 is the original melody from Example No. 1 played backward.

 Example No. 2

melodic development blog pic 2

Retrograde inversion is the inversion played backward. Example No. 3 is the inversion of the original melody played backward.

Example No. 3

melodic development blog pic 3

I encourage you to play these examples on your instrument. Notice how each one has its own character, yet sounds related to the original melody. This is because the intervallic and rhythmic content is virtually identical in each example, so the next time you find yourself “stuck,” apply these compositional tools to your melody, and see if it generates new material. If you like your original idea, you will probably like the inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion as well. It is similar to looking at a beautiful painting in a mirror. If it looks great on the wall, it will look great in a mirror too. Enjoy!