There’s no accounting for taste. Or is there?
I recently embarked on what is probably a fool’s errand. I thought I’d try to make a list of characteristics found in all the great orchestral music that I love. The tricky part is… I love a lot of orchestral music, from past classics like the Beethoven symphonies to recent compositions like the Rouse flute concerto. Across that spectrum there are drastic differences in style, harmony, and compositional technique. Yet, I thoroughly enjoy all of that music, so it would seem there has to be common characteristics that generate its appeal.
Below, I have included a list of the concepts I came up with. Each characteristic is something I have observed across all the music I love—from Bach to Rouse. I have divided these observations into two categories: General Characteristics and Specific Compositional Techniques. The general characteristics are big-picture ideas, concepts that could equally apply to other art forms. The specific compositional techniques are ideas specific to orchestral music composition that promote one of the general characteristics.
Feel free to comment and tell me what you think…
- Forward Momentum
Great music has a clear sense of forward momentum. It has a beginning, middle, end—and a clear sense of forward direction connecting those points.
Great music progresses from beginning to end with a certain pacing. The music dwells in each emotional stage long enough that the listener can fully experience that moment, but moves on to the next idea before boring the listener.
- Maximized Variety Within a Defined Scope
This is a balance between two extremes. Great music has a lot of variety, evolving in tone color, themes, and so on. Yet, great music is also limited in scope, being viewed as an outflow from a particular idea or viewpoint.
I believe Barber’s Adagio for Strings effectively demonstrates this concept. It is extremely focused in mood and style. Yet within that scope, it maximizes variety—utilizing extremes in dynamics, passing the melody around all sections, and incorporating a variety of compositional structures including simple melody/harmony passages, complex counterpoint, and homophonic chord progressions. So the music is focused in terms of scope, but maximizes variety within that scope.
Great music has a clear sense of completion at the end. It does not stop arbitrarily, but does so because it has reached the end of a logical journey.
- Emotionally and Intellectually Identifiable
In great music, the average audience member can “follow along”, so to speak. The audience can feel the emotions intended by the composer and musicians. And the audience can follow the musical ideas intellectually at least minimally, even when they move around the orchestra in a complex manner.
Specific Compositional Techniques
- Incorporate the full range from simplicity and complexity.
Example: The Rite of Spring contains some of the most complex music ever written. Yet the first idea is a lone bassoon solo. The “Augurs of Spring” begins as a rhythmic pattern in homophonic strings. “Spring Rounds” begins with a simple, low register accompaniment pattern.
The inclusion of simple music, complex music, and everything in between creates variety in the music and can generate forward momentum in the form.
- Use of complex structures to create tension and simple structures to create resolution.
Examples: The fugue. Fugues are extremely complex. But—they begin extremely simply, as a solo melodic statement. They also end simply, with all voices collapsing to a clear cadence. In the middle, they gradually increase in complexity from one voice to two, three, and four voices.
In this case, the incremental complexity creates forward momentum throughout the piece, and the collapse to simplicity at the end creates resolution and completion.
Works using other forms can similarly apply this concept.
In the case of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the beginning is an extremely simple melody/harmony structure. The climax is a simple homophonic chord progression. The build between the two uses more complex counterpoint. In this case, simple structures are used as introductions, climaxes and codas—where resolution is desired. Complex structures are used during builds and contractions—when tension is desired.
Using this guideline promotes forward momentum throughout the form and generates a sense of completion upon the conclusion.
- Use of Dynamic Extremes
One of the greatest strengths of the orchestra is its potential variety in dynamics—from the softest tam-tam strike to a full tutti. Great orchestral music makes use of those extremes, creating variety and interest.
- Variety of Tone Color
One of the greatest strengths of the orchestra is its potential variety in tone color. Great orchestral music passes the material all around the orchestra, maximizing variety of tone color.
- Reuse of Material Throughout the Form
Nearly all great music has ideas that recur at different points in the form. This helps define the music in terms of scope and often makes the form more identifiable to the listener. It can also create completion at the finish upon the reprisal of an idea.
- Reuse with Variation
The great composers rarely repeated a musical passage verbatim. Rather, when reprising an idea, they created a related but new variation. This approach creates variety in the music without changing scope.
- Logical long-term harmonic movement
Long-term harmonic movement typically refers to the key movement within a piece. Most commonly, this means establishing tonic as a home key, moving away from it, and returning to it at the end. When used effectively, long-term harmonic movement creates forward direction during the piece and completion at the conclusion.
Examples: Sonata form. In the exposition section of sonata form, the first theme is stated in the home key and the second theme is most commonly stated in the dominant. The development section moves far and wide, often arriving on the dominant seventh of the home key at the end of the section. The recapitulation then states both themes in the home key. This creates a logical direction in the form… Establish tonic, move away from it via the dominant, and then return to tonic.
This form creates forward momentum in the music as we move away from tonic and long for its return. It also creates a sense of completion upon the triumphant return to tonic.
A more recent example is the Trombone Concerto by Rouse, which is cast across three movements. The first movement establishes G as tonic and ultimately modulates to E. The second movement revolves around C#. The third movement begins in Bb and then resolves down to G.
This form gives the piece a logical direction and forward momentum as we progress downward in minor thirds. In addition, a clear sense of completion is generated at the end upon the final arrival back to G. The piece does not just end arbitrarily; it ends because we’ve completed a logical journey back to the home key of G.
- Unity in the harmonic language across melody, harmony and key movement.
In the previous example, Rouse’s Trombone Concerto uses a key movement based upon minor thirds. In addition, the melodic motifs emphasize minor thirds throughout the piece. This is an example of a link between short melodic motifs and long-term key movement.
Classical music typically uses diatonic relationships in the melody, harmony, and key movement. Modern music typically uses more dissonant intervals, but uses those relationships across the melody, harmony and key movement.
In all of these cases, a uniform approach to harmony, melody and key movement gives the piece a uniform sound and helps to define the scope of the work.
- All characteristics of the music, including harmony, counterpoint, melodic phrasing, and orchestration, are coordinated to create a single emotional response.
Example: The development section in sonata form. The central function of the development section is to create tension, which is ultimately resolved by the recapitulation. In the development section, the melodic material becomes more fragmented. The counterpoint becomes more complex. The key centers change more frequently and venture far from tonic. The harmonies are often more dissonant. Assuming it’s an orchestrated piece, the tone colors shift more frequently and the instrumentation often grows. All of these characteristics are coordinated to increase tension and build momentum.
The recapitulation section ultimately resolves that tension. The melodic material is more connected, typically in 8- and 16-bar phrases. The counterpoint is often simpler, using simpler melody/accompaniment structures. The key no longer changes, remaining in tonic. The harmonies are typically more consonant. In the case of an orchestrated piece, the tone colors are more continuous with fewer shifts. All of these characteristics create resolution.
When all the characteristics of the music are aimed at producing a single result, it maximizes the emotional impact of the music.
- Harmonic structures are chosen based on emotional impact.
This is a tough one that nearly every composer struggles with. Personally, I love music that uses all sorts of different harmonic languages. For music about love, triads and tonal harmonies are extremely effective (such as those in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). For music about terror, clusters and dissonant harmonies are extremely effective (such as those in Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris No. 2).
For my part, I most enjoy music that uses whatever harmonic language best conveys the emotion at hand. For love and joy, tonal consonance. For fear and terror, atonal dissonance. Making harmonic decisions based on the emotional reactions of the listener maximizes the emotional impact of the music.
- Tangible melodic material at times, not at others.*
For me, this one comes with an asterisk. There is some music out there that has virtually no melodic content, yet it remains extremely effective emotionally. In general, this tends to be music that elicits the darker emotions in life—fear, suspense, depression, solitude, etc. Ligeti’s Lontano comes to mind as an example. In addition, while some pieces have clear melodic statements at some points, they have other passages that have no melodic content or extremely fragmented melodic content. Introductions often set up a harmonic and rhythmic foundation for a melody that comes later, and virtually any piece in sonata form has clear melodies in the exposition section and significant fragmentation in the development section. For all of these reasons, seeking a clear melodic line at all times is an ideal that is very confining for any composer.
That said, some emotions seem to demand clear and tangible melodic material. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet would not be an effective expression of love without its famous melody. Additionally, for the average listener, interest in the music will wane if the music goes on for an extended period without a tangible melodic statement. Certainly, an hour-long symphony without a clear melodic idea would not be terribly popular. Stated most simply, using clear melodic content adds to the emotional and intellectual tangibility of the music.
When we consider long-form works that are generally accepted as great, a trend does emerge. At times, they have a clear and tangible melody. At other times, they do not. The passages lacking clear melodies vary wildly in structure, from simple harmonic introductions to complex textural chaos. Notably, this observation is an extension of a previous note—that great works incorporate a range of compositional structures from simple to complex—and applies that concept specifically to the issue of melody.