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The Hero's Journey - Hero Theme Variations

Discussion in 'Critique & Feedback' started by Sam Miller, Oct 5, 2018.

  1. #1 Sam Miller, Oct 5, 2018
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2018
    After watching Mike's masterclass, 'Putting It All Together,' I decided to try out his approach: develop a narrative plot map and let that guide composition. Rather than come up with my own story from scratch, I used Joseph Campbell's work on archetypal hero stories to frame the narrative. Eventually I settled on 'The Quest for Identity.' For those that aren't familiar, The Quest for Identity is made up of 5 stages:
    1. Departure. The hero is called to adventure, although he is reluctant to accept.
    2. Initiation. The hero crosses a threshold into a new, more dangerous world, gaining a more mature perspective.
    3. The Road of Trials. The hero is given supernatural aid, endures tests of strength, resourcefulness, and endurance.
    4. The Innermost Cave. The hero descends into the innermost cave, an underworld, or some other place of great trial. Sometimes this place can be within the hero’s own mind. Because of this trial, the hero is reborn in some way-physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Through this experience the hero changes internally.
    5. Return and Reintegration with Society. The hero uses his new wisdom to restore fertility and order to the land.
    Following Mike's process, I'm developing individual themes and variations before moving on to the main composition. For now, I'm working on the 'Hero Theme' and its variations. I've started work on the 'Underworld Theme,' but haven't done much with it yet.

    For now I'd love to get some feedback on where I'm at with variations for the Hero Theme (video below). I haven't addressed voice leading yet - what you're seeing is just where my hands went on the piano. Once I settle on which variations to keep I'll be going back to address harmonic progression and voice leading in more detail.


    Sylvain Provenzano likes this.
  2. What do you think about it ? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
    What’s working, what is not ?
  3. #3 Sam Miller, Oct 5, 2018
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2018
    Fair questions. I've tried to answer them as best I can without getting too carried away. Where I can't answer clearly I've tried to explain the intent of what I'm doing. In those cases it would be useful to know if I've realised that intent effectively, and if not, what you're hearing instead.

    I'll deal with each variation individually, but there's a recurring strength/weakness I'll deal with first.
    Most of these variations depend on a simple melodic-interval sequence, 5-1-6. The strength of this simplicity is that it's easy to remember and lock on to. However, that's also a weakness because it can easily become played out. So I need to remain mindful of repetition. I think I'll be able to deal with that problem by changing registers, keys, harmony, bassline, instrument/s, time signature, rhythm etc. A good example would be Brahms' Symphony No. 3, Movt III. It's very simple, but remains engaging by altering the characteristics I mentioned above.

    Aside from the Brahms example, there's a lot of instances here where I'm trying to implement things I've learnt from score study over the last 6 months. As a result there's going to be a lot of moments where my own ideas form a collage with someone else's. I assume that most composers go through that phase before finding their own 'voice' and that this is me going through mine.

    Anyway, on to the individual variations.

    The Reluctant Hero
    This was the first theme I created. I wanted it to have a sense of longing with a degree of resignation. I think it gets the theme across fairly clearly.

    One problem I'm having is repeating the theme. Bars 1-4 transition to bars 5-8 easily enough, but going from bar 8 back to bar 1 feels awkward. I've been able to solve that problem by varying the rhythm of bars 1-4 the second time around, but I'm concerned that will create too much variation too early.

    The Immature Hero
    The aim of this variation was to capture the exuberance and immaturity. The long term idea behind this variation is that the Hero has accepted the call to adventure and feels heroic merely for accepting that calling. However, due to his naivety he's blissfully unaware of what accepting that call means and what's to come as a result.

    I think the lack of nuance in this variation fits well with the idea of a child's unshaded view of heroism. However, I have no idea if this communicates the same felling to others as it does to me.

    The Crestfallen Hero
    This is the first variation that keeps the 5-1-6 sequence while altering the rhythm. I'd argue that it's far simpler than the two previous variations, so that increases the risk of listener fatigue. I like the dejected, almost mournful tone that it has. I also like the anticlimactic effect that bars 6-7 have in each phrase. Whenever I've been morose there's a sense of 'you saw this coming and did nothing, you deserve this.' I think those bars feel like they could lead to something defiant and resolute, but instead they're reeled in to self loathing. The idea for that effect comes from the opening of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, though I'm not sure if I've captured the same idea or just caricatured it.

    What concerns me about this variation is that it may communicate a loss of innocence. I need to make sure I save that for later in the story's arc.

    The Homesick Hero
    This variation starts to obscure the 5-1-6 sequence more than the earlier variations, using 5-1-5-6. I've also focussed more on the harmony than the melody. The concept comes Beethoven's String Quartet No.14 (No. 6). I love effect of ascending Tonic-Dom7-Tonic-Dom7...

    The aim with this was to make it reminiscent of a lullaby, while adding a degree of tension. The idea is that the Hero longs for the simplicity of childhood while realising he's truly one.

    The Defeated Hero
    This is a fairly recent addition, as I felt I needed something that was defeated and aimless.
    I love how a simple ascending or descending bassline combined with repetitive melodic intervals can creative a sense of inevitability without giving too much away. I've tried to retain some continuity in the opening by using a 5-1 melodic sequence, but I'm concerned that with the rhythmic change this may be too far from the 5-1-6 sequence for the listener to make the connection.

    The B section at bar 58 is a clearer restatement of the original 5-1-6 sequence, but is it too little too late for the listener to make the connection, anddid I lose them in the A section? I'm concerned that I may have the same problem in the C section from bar 62. This section superimposes the 5-1-6 sequence over a right-hand arpeggio. Is this too obscure for listener to pick up on it?

    The Defiant Hero
    I initially intended for 'The Defeated Hero' to lead straight into this, but I ended up reorganising and combining other variations to extend 'The Defeated Hero.' My goal was to continue the rhythm of the former theme while changing its attitude from defeat to defiance. To my ear, this variation stretches the furthest from the original theme, 'The Reluctant Hero.'

    My primary concern is that it may feel like something completely new. While that's not necessarily bad, it disqualifies it as a variation of the original theme. The 5-1-6 sequence is still in there, but it's not shown up front and isn't necessarily accentuated.

    The Reckless & Dangerous Hero
    This is the most recent edition. My initial plan was for this variation to be for when the Hero full circle, but it didn't turn out that way. Instead, it feels like an adolescent throwing a tantrum. I like the strong ties to the original theme, but that dynamically and rhythmically it's quite a stark difference. I think the first half works, but still undecided on the second half.
  4. Hi Sam.
    Thanks for sharing your couple of thematic ideas. So however I can´t comment on each, but lets take just the first idea you present with your heroes reluctant motive. So, by just dismissing the description I am conctentraing first time listening only on the aspect of how much I feel carried through your theme with melody, rhythm and harmony. While I think the harmony is quite good, I feel that the melody getting to start at bar 5 a bit wobbly around because you are using all this kinds of triplet accents but it is not clear for me where you want to have your rhythmic focus. It is a contrast to the first 4 measure where you completely did a more straight thing first 3 quarter notes then the triplets and you repeat so this is a ryhtmic anchor which you dismiss imo too much in the later bars which makes it difficult for me to lock on, you understand? Also and that is a melody creating thing: Your melody besides the last bars doesn´t go somewhere really. Especially with those more melodic sad themes I like when there is a little peak or tension or rise or something throughout the theme so that I can realize the melody has its little dramatic peak you know like in the double sunset luke theme? Where you have that one note with has the most meaning? Also think about that: Bars 1/2 and 3/4 are having a connection, but Bars 5/6 and 7/8 don´t have that much because they are not trading on patterns that much where you connect, too many notes not distinct rhythmic anchor. Imo you should thin out the amount of notes throughout the bars 4-8 a bit and try develop the melody based on the ideas of bars 1-4. Maybe think about creating a harmony which also develops quite a bit more (7 and Bar 8) could be the ending for that. Theme 2 is by the way clearer which could be a guideline for you to simplify the reluctant theme quite a bit. You know..when I do variations of melody..I try to stick very close to the melody and thinking about when I can change things in the melody just not too much because otherwise it is not easy to have the same thing said with a different mood.
    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  5. Also immature..sounds a bit different for me..when I think off..a bit childish? Maybe even slightly comical ? Is the 2nd theme really creating a mood of "immaturity" .It sounds more like the hero feels comfortable and is at home eating some cookies with milk tbh. If that is the immature part, okay you hit the mood :D Thats a hard topic anyways because we all have a bit different ideas of how we see immaturity in a musical way.
  6. I find it really hard to offer any kind of useful comment on such short pieces. Perhaps it might be useful to try writing a "victorious" or "happy" melody.
  7. Thanks for the feedback Alex and Paul.

    Alex, I don't hear the problem you're talking about, but I think that's because I'm so familiar with the piece. Just looking at the length and the notation, it's obviously too much change too quickly. I'll rework the opening variation (and others) to flesh them out more, and let them develop a little more slowly so that the listener has time to adjust. Your description of the 'immature' variation is exactly what I was going for, so that's great to hear. However, your description is also making me rethink the context of this variation within the larger scope of the project. Maybe the 'immature' version should be the opening theme, as it more clearly establishes the whole blissfully-ignorant-child-at-home feeling. Then I'd have a more effective contrast when the Hero finally leaves home and enters the unknown world.

    Paul, I agree - definitely need victorious and happy variations. If I developed the variations further, ie. added more length and a greater arc to each piece, would that make it easier to assess?
  8. It is fine, just a perspective from first listening which I experienced. Maybe just rework a bit the thing on bar 4-8.
  9. Each of us listens for different things. What pleases me is probably not what pleases everyone else. I do find that I like musical pieces that are longer than these miniatures, but others may feel differently. I assume from the title that you are thinking game or movie music. My ultimate game experience was Skyrim, and I will always enjoy the music from that game. While most of the tracks of Skyrim are fairly simple, each tends to include some sort of development, melodically, harmonically or in orchestration.

    Bradley Boone likes this.
  10. Did you think these variations were meant to stand on their own? Just want to make sure that there's no confusion about their purpose. They're brief sketches that I intend to link up as part of a larger work.
  11. I think your process is backwards .... personally. It's all very interesting to go thru archetypes.....and that is useful.

    However, it seems missing the larger whole.... ironically.

    Here is what I mean:

    Let's say this was a film. Let's also leave aside that you have omitted any other characters that bring these moods to life (villain, love interest etc.)

    These films have a climax/culmination point when all is revealed and fate sealed etc.

    Start there. Put most of your efforts into making that big moment successful, and work back.

    I would also say this is the biggest problem you are facing with these. I am not even commenting on them as separate ideas, just I don't feel you know how one or two would integrate with the other. (let alone 4-5)

    That's what I would start to do.

    When I have more time I'll comment on the actual material. The tempo looks to be a problem. Our hero is a bit lethargic don't you think ?
    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  12. Thanks Doug.
    - Can you expand on why you'd prefer to start at the climax and build downstream from there?
    - There is a larger whole defined by the plot map. At this stage I'm experimenting with individual ideas and building confidence with variations before moving on to the bulk of the project.
    - You're right about the tempo, and it's something I hadn't picked up on. I'm definitely more comfortable writing slower stuff, but all the more reason to stretch my legs and try something new!
  13. Sure: It's so I will know they will work both together and when pulled apart and heard alone

    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  14. Gotcha. Thanks for clarifying.

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