Learning How to Write Music – Using Tone Color

“What to Listen for in Music” is a book written by 20th century American composer ImageAaron Copland, originally published in 1939.  I read it 5 years ago and am now re-reading it and finding it extremely insightful for understanding more theory behind song writing.

Music has four essential elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.  These four ingredients are the composer’s materials.  He works with them in the same way that any other artisan works with his materials.  From the standpoint of the lay listener they have only a limited value, for he is seldom conscious of hearing any one of them separately.  It is their combined effect – the seemingly inextricable web of sound that they form – with which listeners are concerned for the most part.

I like how he describes these four ingredients in concrete terms, ‘as any other artisan works with his materials’.  Music itself cannot be seen or touched, so it’s hard to think of writing music in concrete terms, and the process or writing or finishing a song can start to feel completely nebulous.

Taking the element of ‘tone color’ as an example – I might get an idea to play a “C” note on the piano in the background of a chorus.  if I’m writing a song in an abstract sense, I might get caught up in deciding simply whether to go with the “C” idea, or skip it.  Or maybe I would get distracted and start experimenting with what it might sound like to play a “D” or an “E” instead.

However, let’s think of the “C” as dab of yellow paint on a palette.  Does the painter only think “Should I use the yellow or not”?  No, the yellow can be used sparingly, liberally, can be mixed with any color, can be watered down, can be thickened, etc.

In the same way, the “C” note on the piano can be played loudly or softly.  On a full 88 key piano, you have the option of playing a C somewhere in the low, middle, or high register of the keyboard, each one creating a slightly different feel in the song.  You can play the C in quick 16th notes, quarter notes, or hit the C one time and let it ring for the whole chorus.  Already there are so many possible combinations, it would take hours just to try them all.  I think it’s important while writing music to maintain a frame of mind where I’m thinking of musical elements as organic materials

1 Comment

  1. I’m sharing this with some songwriters I know. It makes me want to paint something in cadmium yellow light. Great post!

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