Twelve Sumptuous Notes

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A good composition could be like a delicious vegetarian banquet or a juicy cheeseburger! Every lover of music delights in cultivating their own unique musical taste. What I love is music with a wide range of expression that brings home a meaningful purpose. For me, each new composition is the opportunity to explore new possibilities. Even within the confines of the 12 tones of western music, I still find powerful and expressive music. And although I want my music to make sense to the listener, I do not limit myself only to traditional or extended jazz harmony. Many times I find myself relishing musical passages that seem to not to have a key or scale. For me the unpredictability of such music has a great sense of freedom and exhilaration! But sometimes random or even intentional composing without the guard rails of tonality can lead to unintelligible chaos. To find a sound that makes sense without using a scale or tonal center, I am exploring ways of using a sequence of all 12 notes. This mode of creating music (know as serialism) was developed by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his followers during the 1920's.

Schoenberg did not see himself as a radical usurper, but rather he saw his methods as a completely natural outgrowth of the same musical ideals practiced by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. In my local community college library, Pasadena City College, I discovered the 1952 publication "Composition With Twelve Notes Related Only One To Another". It has been very helpful in giving me a better understanding of Schoenberg's approach. The book was written by one of Schoenberg's students, Josef Rufer, and translated from German into English by Humphrey Searle. My interest in the book caused me to hold it way past due, but I finally purchased an out of print copy and made the appropriate return!

A good composition could be like a delicious vegetarian banquet or a juicy cheeseburger! Every lover of music delights in cultivating their own unique musical taste. What I love is music with a wide range of expression that brings home a meaningful purpose. For me, each new composition is the opportunity to explore new possibilities. Even within the confines of the 12 tones of western music, I still find powerful and expressive music. And although I want my music to make sense to the listener, I do not limit myself only to traditional or extended jazz harmony. Many times I find myself relishing musical passages that seem to not to have a key or scale. For me the unpredictability of such music has a great sense of freedom and exhilaration! But sometimes random or even intentional composing without the guard rails of tonality can lead to unintelligible chaos. To find a sound that makes sense without using a scale or tonal center, I am exploring ways of using a sequence of all 12 notes. This mode of creating music (know as serialism) was developed by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his followers during the 1920's. s.

These 12 notes could appear written on a musical staff this way:




Here are the simplified rules I followed in accordance with Schoenburg and Rufer:

1) The 12 notes can appear in any octave register.

2) The 12 notes are used only in the order as shown above. This means you cannot go back and repeat a note after it has been dropped. However you can sustain or repeat notes while others are sounded.

3) To help me understand the character of this sequence of pitches (called a tone row) for now I restricted myself to the original (prime) form - no usage of inversion or retrograde (That would be turning the sequence upside down or sounding it backwards.) Schoenburg and Rufer encourage us will explore these possibilties - but for now I want to keep this exercise really basic and see what happens.

4) I was free to choose any rhythms or durations.


As an experiment I composed and performed six examples below:


My conclusions from this exercise.

1) Even though the order of the notes (pitch names) remained consistent (with the exceptions of repeated or simultaneous notes) I was still able to find a fairly broad expressive range.

2) The examples sound strongly related but still have contrasting moods .

3) I found I still had a great deal of freedom in the rhythm, melodic contour, multiple stops, and dynamic phrasing, and articulation.

4) It might be possible to take the above elements to greater extremes and still maintain a consistent sonority amongst the whole group. That could be another exercise with more examples.

5) The intervals created by this row of notes creates its essential character. This character is unchanged whether the notes move up or down, or whether they are played faster or slower. However, how the notes are played can create a vast range in the musical expression.

6) This particular row of notes will always produce intervals or the related interval inversions (the interval produced by the same notes upside down) in this order: tritone, perfect fifth, major ninth, perfect fourth, perfect fourth, major third, minor third, tritone, whole step, perfect fifth, and perfect fourth.

7) Each example has the potential for further development. I am most drawn to number 1 and number 3 because of their lyrical qualities.


If you have read this post and listened to the examples, I welcome your thoughts.

Do you have a favorite among the six? If so tell me why?





















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