What are some of the best lessons you learned about structure in your music?

sIR dORT

Active Member
Hi all,

I'm struggling a lot with structure in my pieces (themes, A B and C sections, etc.), and so I thought that I might as well see what you all have learned about it before I go into a full-fledged study of it (which I'm considering). Lots of you have more experience than me with music generally so I like to see what you guys have learned from it.
 
Interesting question. My quick take:

1) Often, if not always, less is more. The best scores are often comprised of a very small amount of thematic and/or motivic material, skilfully manipulated and varied. That's to say that your B and C section needn't be totally different from your A section in terms of the core material, and it's often better if they aren't.

2) Satisfying structure is mainly about appraising proportions, a skill mainly gained through careful listening and practice, and whilst theory can help give you a grounding, it can also tie you down with stuff that's not ultimately useful.

3) The more experienced you get, the less pre-occupied you'll be with structure. As with everything, as it becomes more intuitive, it becomes easier.
 

eph221

Member
I'd study an instrument and learn how to improvise over chord changes. Jazz players do this ad absurdum (including me). It creates this natural sense of structure and form that can easily translate into composing. Be like bill clinton and learn the sax? guitar? piano?
 

Uiroo

Active Member
I'm also struggling with structure, and started to look how pieces I like are structured.
Can be very interesting.

For example, I noticed that in John Williams Hedwig's Theme, which structure I really like, the first half of the opening theme happens three times and then just doesn't comeback again. But the SECOND half gets picked up again twice during the end, as a closing.

Here's a little "analysis" I did:

John Williams Hedwigs Theme.png


I think it's a nice way of understanding the form.
You can see how the parts start large and seperate from another and mix more and more during the end, and how something new gets introduced right before the end (pink).
Or how he uses many little bits in between parts for transitions, or small pauses from the main material.
And how often he actually just repeats stuff, but itdoesn't feel like it because he always changes the orchestration.

It's obviously way better if you do this yourself.

edit:
A is Red
B is Yellow
C is Blue
D is Pink

Grey is stuff that just happens once, the rest are fillers that happen multiple times.
 
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I'm also struggling with structure, and started to look how pieces I like are structured.
Can be very interesting.

For example, I noticed that in John Williams Hedwig's Theme, which structure I really like, the first half of the opening theme happens three times and then just doesn't comeback again. But the SECOND half gets picked up again twice during the end, as a closing.

Here's a little "analysis" I did:

View attachment 24370


I think it's a nice way of understanding the form.
You can see how the parts start large and seperate from another and mix more and more during the end, and how something new gets introduced right before the end (pink).
Or how he uses many little bits in between parts for transitions, or small pauses from the main material.
And how often he actually just repeats stuff, but itdoesn't feel like it because he always changes the orchestration.

It's obviously way better if you do this yourself.
I sometimes colour-code the regions in my pieces in exactly this way so I have an extra cue for noticing if maybe one section is over-repeated or a different one could come back later.

Eg as here, where the sections are also named so that A' means one variation of A, while A'' means a second variation, etc, and I have also named the regions with the keys they are in in case I want to swap them round and either modulate differently or transpose.
 

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BlackDorito

Active Member
If you have a great beginning and a great ending noone remembers what happened in between.
Hehe, this is absolutely true ... if you are performing. As a member of a handbell choir, whenever we are performing in church, the director concentrates on a stable start and a great ending. I suppose if someone is listening to a recording over and over, the middle could get meaningful too.
 
OP
sIR dORT

sIR dORT

Active Member
Thank you all for the replies!
I'd study an instrument and learn how to improvise over chord changes. Jazz players do this ad absurdum (including me). It creates this natural sense of structure and form that can easily translate into composing. Be like bill clinton and learn the sax? guitar? piano?
I'm already a piano player and have been taking lessons for 5 years roughly, but I can't say I have felt that natural sense of structure. One thing that I've been wondering about is if I move on from sections and ideas to quickly, not giving them their due so to speak.
The more experienced you get, the less pre-occupied you'll be with structure. As with everything, as it becomes more intuitive, it becomes easier.
This is what I wondered/was afraid of. I've so far had the same experience with beginning to use EQ, compression, and other things. It kind of just comes when it wants to. I guess it gets a little tiring when you write some great music and then look down and see that it is 50 seconds long. And in general I don't feel like my pieces flow. It feels like the theme is either too repetitive or not obvious enough, among other things.
 
OP
sIR dORT

sIR dORT

Active Member
I'd add that I think that a lot of my struggles with structure stem from listening to soundtracks more than anything else. Not a great place to learn structure.
 

Sears Poncho

Senior Member
I'm struggling a lot with structure in my pieces (themes, A B and C sections, etc.), and so I thought that I might as well see what you all have learned about it before I go into a full-fledged study of it (which I'm considering).
Mozart is your guy. Listen/study the string quartets, anything really but especially those. It translates easily to the modern world. I think it some point there's an "Ahhhh, I get it" moment. He was the grand champion of structure. He always followed the rules. Except when he didn't. :) Those places make for some of his most interesting material. Why does Symphony #38 have 3 mvmts. when the others have 4? Because. Just because.

Lots of question/answer stuff. He's usually very formulaic but he's Mozart so that's a compliment and not an insult. Exposition, Development, Recapitulation. Minuets are Minuets, Rondos are Rondos. The music isn't that complex (until the last few years). Theme, second theme, develop them, recap but change it up a bit etc. It's all there. It's all pretty easy to follow: He has one section, the second section is usually in a related key. It all seems effortless, but a look under the hood can really explain how he connects sections and makes everything cohesive.

Beethoven Symphonies: Listen to them as he breaks down the classical structure and basically throws it away by the 9th. Great composer, bad "rule guy".
 

Dan

New Member
I wouldn't consider myself an experienced guy, but from what I have learned by listening to classical music of all periods and attempting to find out why the things work that I feel "just work", this is my impression for working with thematic material:

1) Repetition is not bad if it serves a purpose. I used to really avoid repeating my material in my writing because similar to @Nova I was afraid of getting repetitive and losing the interest of the listener. But now I feel that it can be very important to repeat thematic material, especially if you plan to do smart and interesting things with it later, because the "new" things you are going to introduce when you develop things later in your piece are only going to work for the listener if they had enough time to digest the main ingredients first. I think this is why music of the classical period usually repeated the exposition part in live performance, because without recordings concertgoers usually had very few chances to hear a piece at all, and since you had their undivided attention in the concert hall, you could really hammer your themes in their brains before you blew their minds with your smart development of the material.
In the recording age, there is of course the possibility of anyone tuning out at any given moment, so the fear of losing them with repetition is real. But I think if you do repetitions and reprises in an original and interesting way that always adds or alters a little something while still feeding your listeners the important stuff for later on, it still works.

2) Different sections don't have to stay on their own. You can plan beforehand how they are going to interact. To me, a piece is always more interesting if at some point you realize as a listener that elements that previously stood on their own suddenly work beautifully together. This could be very simple, for example a few notes or a rhythmic pattern from your A theme continuing to play on when your B theme is introduced to form a simple rhythmic or ostinato accompaniment. It won't be in the foreground and won't steal the attention from the B theme, but it will create a satisfying unity between your material. What I especially like is if the different themes work in counterpoint, so you can suddenly have them play together at some later point in the piece for a real listening highlight. But there are so many different ways in which one can create a strong whole out of very different material.

3) This is maybe the most important point for me and not that different from the previous two: Thinking big in terms of structure is a good thing, but to me the smaller context is more important. I always find myself abandoning structural plans I had beforehand because in the process of writing I realize that the material has to grow organically in some other way. Because in the end, your listeners will judge the piece on the basis of what they are hearing and will quickly recognize if it offers a satisfying development musically. They are not going to have a checklist with structural elements of music and say "Okay, but here I was expecting the start of part 2 of the B section, what happened!? Boooo!"
I think of it in terms of a staircase. It is of course not unimportant if the stairs make a right turn or a left turn on their way upstairs, but nobody will care about that if your steps aren't even and walkable.
It is kind of a similar point to the one South Thames was making earlier. Intuition helps with that a lot, and when in doubt, I think it is always better to go with what feels right musically than to get tied in some structural corset.

Hope those ramblings made some sense.
 

Nova

New Member
Maybe write some EDM, as a kind of exposure therapy?
As much as I loathe EDM I would do it if I knew it would help. I'm fairly new to orchestral composition and get in my head too much where every idea gets ripped apart. The last piece I worked on I was really proud of the piano sketch. I orchestrated the A section and everything was fine but when I started orchestrating the B section it had a contrasting style that was coming off too abrupt. I knew I needed to do a repeat of the A section so the B section would come across as a surprise and not just 'random wtf'. The thought of repeating the A section with different colors and slight variations brought on so much doubt that I just abandoned the whole thing.

I'm just a hobbyist and deadlines aren't being missed so that led me to another recent thread here (https://vi-control.net/community/threads/how-to-connect-ideas-within-a-single-composition.86932/) and buying a couple of books on structure.
 

dzilizzi

I just hang around pretending I know something
Try writing in a standard progression for your type of music. Or pick a piece of music you like and use the chord structure they are using but maybe change the key. Then write a melody line for that new chord stucture. Once you get the hang of it, start varying it.

I get melodies in my head, but they don't always follow the standard progression. It was hard for me to turn them into music. So I have been trying to do the opposite, start with a standard progression and listen for the melody that comes. Then I change it to fit my new melody, if that makes sense.
 

giwro

Member
I think it depends on what style of music you’re writing... as a classical composer, I can see it’s much harder to do the movie stuff and stick to classical forms and development - writing short cues and “supporting” a scene doesn’t always allow for much development.

That said, just listen to what John Williams does with themes and structure in the Star Wars stuff - he combines themes, writes recognizable melodies for characters, etc... that’s an amazing way to write.

If you want to hear a master composer beat the same theme to death and be amazed by the invention, you can’t do better than Camille Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony... he uses basically the same theme for the entire piece, but it transforms so cleverly that it never loses interest (and then, when it comes back in its final form in the Finale, I’m always gobsmacked... sheer genius).

Finally, the best advice I ever received was actually connected with improvisation - I shared one of my organ improvisations with a French conservatory professor, and he said “that was nice, full of energy and fire, but you must MODULATE!”....

If I have one returning pet peeve with a lot of the stuff I hear, it’s that it never leaves its “home key” (or worse yet, I can tell someone just copied and pasted the same progression over and over, trying in vain to creat interest with varying the texture). If I hear the same chord progression 3x in a row, you’ve already lost me - I want to hear development and modulations AS WELL as varying orchestration/texture...

My 2¢ for what it’s worth....