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Collection of Composition Devices

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Michael Lückgen, Jun 29, 2020 at 5:58 PM.

  1. I am wondering for a while now how to learn specific devices.
    I feel like knowing these is an important part of composing, like knowing words in a language.

    For example Mike did this in his doggy story:

    The thing at 4:40 clearly sounds like flying or something uplifting. But why? Or rather, how or where can I learn such devices? Is there some sort of vocabulary book or is it just by doing it a lot and experimenting?
    Sure it's played in a high register so it implies flying, but there is more to it right? The rhythm? The chord?

    If there isn't a resource maybe we can create one? Or just collect some here in this thrad.
    Just some go to's for when you want to say a specific thing.
    Paul Poole likes this.

  2. Yes. Two general concepts

    Do you know all 7 modes of the major scale ? They can be arranged in terms of brightness and darkness.

    "flying or something uplifting" is almost always the lydian scale

    In terms of their order from Brightest/Flying to Darkest

    1. Lydian
    2. Ionian
    3. Mixolydian
    4. Dorian
    5. Aeolian
    7. Locrain

    Pick a pitch..... C D it does not matter.

    Go thru and sing such mode starting from that pitch. Then harmonise the scale into triads, then 4 note, 5 note harmony an so forth

    Let say we began on C

    C lydian has one sharp.(F#)
    C Ionian has zero sharps or flats
    C Mixolydian has one flat (Bb)

    Do you see the pattern? We are going counter-clockwise around the circle of 5th's

    The 2nd concept I only have time to go into a very basic general way. Rimsky K. used to say that diatonic modes reflected human emotions
    while the non-diatonic ones where "Supernatural".

    So things like Octatonic, Whole tone, or hexachords to dodecaphonic rows built off interval sets can give a wide variety of affects from dreamy to
    alien. All the chromatic mediant harmony really comes out of the Octatonic scale.

    Hope that is of some help

    Of course keep your own journal and brainstorm your own ideas
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  3. Oh.... I don't think you can really do that without falling into Cliche land. Really a list is not super, super helpful.

    A) most of it is self evident anyway
    B) You need to internalise at a much deeper level than reading a list to make you music meaningful

    My telling you lydian is like flying won't really make your writing much better. You have to work on this shit, over and over and over and over
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  4. #4 Paul Poole, Jun 29, 2020 at 9:13 PM
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2020 at 6:45 AM
    Picking up on where Douglas had to go take a leak, the reason the modes have that psycho-acoustical effect is because of the ever-present affinity human hearing-perception has for perfect fifths (first interval of a different pitch chroma in the overtone series, and repeats itself 8va, etc.). The lydian mode can be unfolded by p5ths entirely. But as you down down the list you lose a perfect 5th each time. Looked at in scale order, every time you lose a fifth, another scale tone becomes smaller/darker with respect to the root. Augmented becomes perfect. Major becomes minor. Perfect becomes diminished.

    C G D A E B F# — 6 p5ths

    C G D A E B [F] — 5 p5ths — augmented 4th turns to perfect 4th (not as bright)

    C G D A E [Bb F] — 4 p5ths— major 7th turns to minor 7th (not as bright)

    C G D A [Eb Bb F] — 3 p5ths— major 3rd turns to minor 3rd (darker, as it switches from major to minor mode)

    C G D [Ab Eb Bb F] — 2 p5ths— major 6th turns to minor 6th (a little darker)

    C G [Db Ab Eb Bb F] — 1 p5th — major 2nd turns to minor 2nd (a little darker)

    C [Gb Db Ab Eb Bb F] — 0 p5ths— perfect 5th turns to diminished 5th (giving you a half-diminished scale, and no V of I, etc.)


    Of course, any effect or device is only partially about the notes. It's the totality of the notes + texture + rhythm + figure + orchestration + the context of what came just before. Just be careful using lydian mode in the overt sense. It's been overused a lot and can be a sort of crutch if you're not careful.

    If you don't have it already, get Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and train your ears in the different main categories. The symmetrical scales are good when you want to avoid tonic-dominant tonal gravity without being explicitly atonal. The octatonic and whole tone scales Douglas mentioned are the two most common, and there are others—Messiaen's "Modes of Limited Transposition," etc.
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  5. Ha! Now we are getting your sense of humor too. I like it!

    I want to be careful and not give you information overload. For myself, for whatever reason, I really had a great experience with Howard Hanson's book "Harmonic Materials of Modern Music". I think I just found it at the time I was frustrated and ready to try new things. So you HAVE to do the exercises. Just reading it, while interesting, will not make a big difference for your writing.

    A book called Modus Novus is what we used at the conservatory for 20th-century ear training.
    However, this was wasted on me as I was not ready for it.

    Basically, at the start of the 20th century, there was a school of -----mmmm--- I'll call them expanded tonalist composers who expanded their philosophical view. (to make it even harder other composers at the same time were doing their own thing, but different, too)

    Picture the circle of 5ths in your mind. Now picture the piano keyboard.

    The piano is arranged into two harmonic systems - Pentatonic (black keys), Diatonic (white keys)

    Now we have all 12 notes covered. We can even make new-age looking drawing by using one color of the circle of 5ths for one system
    another color for the other.

    (* Cool side note: if you begin on D at the piano instead of C you will see the symmetrical relations of intervals from an axis point better. Dorian has the same interval set going up or down. Simply start on D and go in contrary motion on only the white key. Each interval is a mirror of itself)

    Composers like Debussy, Bartok (early), and Britten (not exclusively but extensively) used a third way of looking at the harmonic system which is two sets of hexachords.

    The Howard Hanson book is a map of this 3rd system. His book later gets expanded upon (a scholar named Alan Forte) and Hansons goes into the bin of history.

    You have to immerse yourself in this stuff, however.

    Better to do one thing one thousand times than one thousand things one time.


    Look, I may be way further out than you are wanting to go. I would start with modern-day composers who exploit modal color

    Some suggestions I am guessing you might like (These are not endorsements.....can't say they are influences on me personally)

    (you have to wait until about the 1:00 mark. After his seizure)

    Perhaps the most legendary album of all on modal color

    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  6. Doug,

    Ah, yes. Modus Novus. I still have mine. Effective book. Ear twisters + No solfege = Yay. I thought to replace mine a few years ago and it was absurdly priced. I think my original copy was 10 bucks or thereabouts. There is also a Modus Vetus, which I think is for solfege. Never seen it.

    Re: Jarret/Koln, I have the transcription book for that. Fun to read while listening.

    If you like Whitacre, you probably like Lauridsen I'm guessing.

    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  7. Thanks for your answers guys!

    I knew about the modes, or at least that they existed and have a different color to it, from bright to dark.
    But didn't knew it was related to the circle of fifths. Thanks for explaining that!

    Yeah I figured that it will be all very cliched examples. But on the other hand I think cliches can be very beneficial to learn what is on the core of it.

    I am trying to find out how to say specific things... Let's say I want to evoke the feeling of a western or of something Egyptian. I know there is a scale for Egyptian/Arabic music, which does not represent music from that area at all, but as soon as you outline the scale, in your mind you are in that world immediately. Sure these are cliched and overused, but I think it would be a good starting point when I want to create a piece like this.

    I did a few pieces this year, where I tried to evoke specific emotions. In this one I emphasised on a I - III progression which I think evokes this magical/fantasy feeling.

    Or with this one I did a i - vi progression over and over to evoke the bad guys / danger feeling.

    They are probably cliched and not very good, but I could say what I wanted to say because I knew that these devices would evoke such feelings. (Or is it just subjective?)

    I know, I know, I am supposed to transcribe western pieces if I want to learn how to do one. I guess I am just looking for a shortcut here :D

    However there has to be a way to distill these pieces into their essence and describe it in simple formulas right?
    And once I am able to speak, although cliched, I will be able to expand on that and be more creative with it. At least that's what I'm thinking.
  8. https://thinkspaceeducation.com/courses/cbt/ takes this “learn the cliches first” mentality. Maybe worth checking out? I tend to agree that when you’re starting out in any medium, learning the so-called “obvious” bits can be a really helpful way to get going.
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  9. Thanks Arthur!
    Have bought the course? Is it really worth the money?
  10. I haven't, but folks on VI-Control seem to like it.
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  11. With the internet and Youtube that is why I was wondering the usefulness of the list. If you don't have it "On the Track" for a long time was the go to book for film scoring. It has every genre and sub-category. For example fight scenes and chase.

    I would just presume you have your favorite composers already, and with the internet, it's only 10 seconds away. Thus why I wonder how useful.

    BUT.........why not keep your own personal journal of ideas? If two chords conjours an effect for you......write it down.

    Nothing wrong with "Cliches" but I was actually talking about doing the cliches very badly. That's worse.

    Anyhow..... I'll stop the diatribe and give you a "flying one"

    The lydian scale has a major triad on both scale degrees 1 and 2. Keep a drone in the bass of 1, and then move thru the inversions of 1 and 2
    to create a diatonic sequence.

    View attachment upload_2020-7-1_2-19-3.png
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  12. Okay. This might be a bit of fun to do. I'll start a list of cliched recipes and examples and maybe others will add to it. Mind you, some of this is cliched and a half, and I'm just going off the top of my head so there is no systematic order to anything. I'll add any comments that come to mind as I go along. I'll stick to note-setting types of cliches, but orchestration textures, rhythm, figures, are really what you use to polish off these effects. Probably all of the examples I list are on Youtube.


    Doug already covered lydian. If you want more lydian thought, check out George Russell's book on Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Gravity. John Williams used it a lot back in the 80's. Distant lydian figure played by the piccolo in the opening of E.T. Lydian is practically a motif in that motive, but note that the flying bike scene leans on ionian, not lydian. Related to that is a I major triad followed by a II major triad. ET again. Yoda's theme. Love them from JW's Superman.


    The major pentatonic lacking the two strongest active tones, no half-octave, and no harsh dissonances, is effective for different purposes. It's kind of difficult to do the pentatonic "wrong," except for overusing it.

    One use is to depict peaceful, nature, pastorale. Another is for a generally "open" feel. I've heard it used with a shakahuchi for other appropriate ethnic instrument for an oriental effect.


    • The first part of the main melody from Dvorak's largo from the 9th is pentatonic + english horn has a pastoral effect. The second part of the melody is in lydian.
    • Main melody from Grieg's Morning Mood (also scored for woodwinds) is very pastoral.
    • Ravel loves the pentatonic for its open, airy feel. See Daphnes and Chloe.
    • Opening theme of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has an open feel to it.
    • The opening strings texture of Holst's Jupiter is of course very effective for the open feel.

    Random things to try out with the pentatonic:

    Perfect 4ths (melodically and harmonically):
    • Original Star Trek theme relies on perfect 4ths.
    • Voicings in perfect fourths—A five-note voicing in p4ths is an unfolded pentatonic scale starting on its 3rd.

    Perfect 5ths (melodically and harmonically):
    • The opening to the first late 70's Superman movie, by JW, relies heavily on 5ths. (Not the main theme, but the Also Sprach Zarathustra buildup part right at the beginning.)
    • Voicings in perfect fifths—A five-note voicing in p5ths is an unfolded pentatonic scale starting on its root. See also: the opening to Daphnes and Chloe.

    Perfect 4ths and 5ths:
    • Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie uses such voicings very evocatively to depict a sunken cathedral.

    American/Western flicks are conducive to positive, open intervals, 5ths, 4ths, pentatonic, etc.
    Jazz soloist get lots of use out of major and minor pentatonic scales.

    Whole tone:

    The whole tone scale, which also gives you access to the whole tone dominant chord, has been used out the wazoo for a dreamy effect. Especially when used as a harp glissando (argh! but don't do it!). It was used more effectively by Debussy. Yields a very ungrounded, floaty effect overall. But probably more than any other scale, it can get old pretty quick. You gotta be really subtle with it. For the whole tone dominant, which includes all of the scale tones, you have: C E G# Bb D F#. It's a C9(#11) with an augment 5th. Notate it as a compound chord: Bb+ over C+.


    Diminished chords, octatonic scales were used a lot by piano players who played live with silent movies. (Carl Stalling started off as one of those guys, and was approached by Walt Disney to compose the Silly Symphonies.)


    Experiment with symmetrical scales, too, as they can be very are useful for avoiding a grounded, functional, tonic-dominant sound. They were popular with plenty of composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, and in jazz, too.)

    Chromatic Submediants:

    Certain voice-leading routines render useful effects. Sci-fi. Wonderment. Adventure. Etc.

    • Submediant exchanges > One triad connected to another triad with voice-leading movement > Two voices move by half-step in contrary motion, the other voice is a common tone to both triads, so:

    C major triad to Ab major triad > C stays as C; E moves to Eb; G moves to Ab.
    C major triad to E major > C moves to B; E stays as E; G moves to G#
    C minor triad to G# minor > C moves to B; Eb stays put, but now D#; G moves to G#
    C minor triad to G# minor > C moves to B; Eb stays put, but now D#; G moves to G#

    Et cetera.

    Ethnic-sounding scales:

    If you're sticking with Western temperament:

    Again, pentatonic has been used a lot for oriental settings.

    Tchaikovsky seems to have associated the augmented second with a slavic sound, in his March Slave theme.

    The Middle East and North Africa often gets the augmented 2nd treatment. A scale with two aug. 2nds would be, if C is the root: C D Eb F# G Ab B. For extra cliche, usually scored with an oboe, english horn, ethnic flute with plenty of chiff, or dark-ish woman's voice with a breathy admixture (voweled: ooh)

    There's an excellent roundup of ethnic scales and patterns in a book called Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, by Yusef A. Lateef.

    Multiple scales and patterns in each of these categories: Chinese, Mongolian, Yuan, Archaic Greek, Japanese, East Indian, Egyptian, Persian, and lots of other interesting stuff. It may be organized more usefully for you than the Slonimsky book for your particular purpose.

    Nocturnal Effect:

    Million ways to do this. Goes without saying that you use dark intervals, dark registers, dark instruments. Something that evokes nocturnal for me more than anything else is by Ravel: Le Gibet (2nd movement from Gaspard de la Nuit). An upper, persistent pedal throughout, played against slow-moving, low-voiced compound chords.

    Gritty city, circa 1950's is easy with a blues scale. Trumpet or trombone solo, using plunger and growling.
    Michael Lückgen likes this.
  13. Thanks I will check that book out. It sounds great!

    Well sure I can go and listen to everything on youtube nowadays but I have no idea how to copy devices from my favourite composers. Transcribing for me iss a very slow and tedious process and without the possibility to check if I guessed right it's near to impossible.

    I have a small list for some ideas, but it is lacking all sorts of stuff :D That's why I thought I might ask you guys here.

    Awesome, thank you Doug!

    @Paul Poole
    Wow thanks a lot for that! I will dig through this and start to experiment with those examples.

    I think these are good starting points for how to approach certain moods or emotions. Thanks guys!
  14. It is good to know devices. It is important. It is useful. Gotta have that. But "devices" half-understood and haphazardly strung together comprises about 99% of the forgettable garbage passing for music these days, so I'm just putting out a reminder to spend all your energy on cohesive structure instead; that's the foundation upon which devices rest.
    Doug Gibson and Michael Lückgen like this.

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