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  • Composing Instrumental Music - History

    Instruments have always been used to make music. One can imagine early music as a spontaneous combination of rhythm instruments, flutes or strings and singing. Small ensembles evolved in the Renaissance with little distinction between vocal or instrumental parts. Music for dance emphasized rhythm and repeating sections with changes in tempo. Liturgical music often involved an organist alternating with a hymn sung by the congregation or choir. The prelude was a short performance piece that involved improvisation on a keyboard or lute. Variations on melodic themes formed the structure of longer pieces. Themes of four to eight measures were repeated but with different counterpoint and different voices. These simple elements continued to evolve in the classic repertoire with increasing complexity and growing ensemble size until you had orchestras playing symphonies.

    The great composers of the Baroque were full time professionals, employed by wealthy aristocrats or church leaders who tended to be wealthy aristocrats. They were immersed in music from their early childhood. They followed forms that were fashionable and influenced each other. JS Bach, the great master was influenced by Handel and Vivaldi. Mozart expressed musical ideas from Bach, Handel, Haydn and many other composers at work in Europe. Beethoven studied with Haydn and was inspired by Mozart. Händel was born in 1685, the same year as JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Bach eventually complimented Handel and his music saying that Handel was "the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach." Mozart admired Bach's genius. Beethoven said that JS Bach was "the master of us all".

    Instruments evolved during the Baroque. Equal tempered tuning solved the problem of intervals in different keys sounding differently. The violin family emerged from older string instruments. Three keyboard instruments, the clavichord, organ, and harpsichord were popular. The violin sound became the dominant timbre in late Baroque ensemble music. The wind instruments were the bassoon, flute, and oboe. Brass instruments such as horns, trumpets, and trombones were used in large ensembles. The timpani was the only drum, used sparingly.

    Counterpoint was the skilled composers main strategy. Fugues were the show pieces of counterpoint. A fugue opens with a theme which usually moves through four voices. The interaction of the voices is developed through episodes and variations with key changes. An obvious movement is from a subject stated in the tonic key to a response in another voice stated in the dominant key (V). A well constructed fugue can be approached as a puzzle that may be easily resolved into obvious parts or one that becomes too complex, even confusing, so that detailed study maybe required before the composer’s strategy becomes clear. Ratz suggested a "fugal technique significantly burdens the shaping of musical ideas, and it was given only to the greatest geniuses, such as Bach and Beethoven, to breathe life into such an unwieldy form and make it the bearer of the highest thoughts."

    The sonata was a Baroque invention, a multi-movement work composed for solo instruments and chamber groups. Church sonatas by the end of the 17th century were written in four movements, suggesting the structure of symphonies to come. The tempo of the movements alternated between slow and fast. Chamber sonatas contained four dance movements (corrente, giga, sarabanda, allemande.) Symphonies, as the longest and most complex of orchestral works, grew from antecedent forms. Haydn wrote 108 symphonies, Mozart 54; both helped to establish the form of the orchestra, the shape and size of concert halls and repertoire of symphony concerts that became normal fare in the 20th century. Four movements became a structural standard: 1 an opening sonata or allegro 2 a slow movement, 3 minuet with trio or solo sonata, 4 an allegro, rondo or sonata.

    Beethoven, a student of Haydn, is often given credit for moving the symphony into realm of dramatic if not heroic music. Orchestration evolved into a complex. sophisticated art in the 19th century that only a few European composers mastered. Instruments were perfected and standardized. Orchestras grew larger and musicians became educated, disciplined, masters of their instruments. A 20th century orchestra had as many as a 100 players. A full string section was essential with more optional musicians playing a variety of woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments. Beethoven typically employed paired flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; sometimes he used piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones choirs and vocal soloists. Harps are often treated as strings. Pianos, xylophones, chimes, glockenspiel and other tuned persuasion instruments are also used.

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