Atonal system of composition?

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Slowitta

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Joined: 09/11/19

Posts: 1

I have the following problem: whenever I let myself noodle and discover a chord progression I love, that chord progression turns out to be atonal, or practically impossible to fit into a key (e.g. Gmaj-Bbmin-Ebmaj-Dbmaj; or Dmaj#11-C7). And I do love atonal music; by contrast, I am often repelled by patently tonal, diatonic chord progressions. So it seems like the music I compose must be atonal, or at least chock-full of chromaticism. If it's not, I won't like it. But such an approach leaves me paralyzed with an excess of creative freedom. An embarrassment of riches. The next chord can be ANY of the 24 basic triads. No tonality, no limitations. But that means that I can write more than two hundred and fifty-five THOUSAND different four-bar progressions, with a chord change in every bar. How the hell am I supposed to choose which of these 255,000 four-chord progressions I want to have in my song? I don't know how much time it would take me to actually try out all of them; and if I start experimenting with chord extensions and longer progressions, the number of possibilities becomes even bigger. That's why I need a system of composition that will pare the possible chord progressions down to a manageable amount; but that can't be the plain old tonal system, because tonality doesn't really work for me (or I still haven't found a way to make it work).
I have quite extensive knowledge of musical modes and experience of modal mixture (e.g. I have composed a piece using eight different modes; I crammed them all into two minutes)... but modality isn't really a system beyond tonality, is it? And in any case, if I can borrow chords from ANY of the 21 parallel modes (which is what modal mixture is about), I'm still spoiled for choice, and therefore confused. How do I choose the Next Chord when I have so many chords to choose from? Is there any atonal (or semi-tonal, or polytonal) system of composition I can use?

#1

I have the following problem: whenever I let myself noodle and discover a chord progression I love, that chord progression turns out to be atonal, or practically impossible to fit into a key (e.g. Gmaj-Bbmin-Ebmaj-Dbmaj; or Dmaj#11-C7). And I do love atonal music; by contrast, I am often repelled by patently tonal, diatonic chord progressions. So it seems like the music I compose must be atonal, or at least chock-full of chromaticism. If it's not, I won't like it. But such an approach leaves me paralyzed with an excess of creative freedom. An embarrassment of riches. The next chord can be ANY of the 24 basic triads. No tonality, no limitations. But that means that I can write more than two hundred and fifty-five THOUSAND different four-bar progressions, with a chord change in every bar. How the hell am I supposed to choose which of these 255,000 four-chord progressions I want to have in my song? I don't know how much time it would take me to actually try out all of them; and if I start experimenting with chord extensions and longer progressions, the number of possibilities becomes even bigger. That's why I need a system of composition that will pare the possible chord progressions down to a manageable amount; but that can't be the plain old tonal system, because tonality doesn't really work for me (or I still haven't found a way to make it work).
I have quite extensive knowledge of musical modes and experience of modal mixture (e.g. I have composed a piece using eight different modes; I crammed them all into two minutes)... but modality isn't really a system beyond tonality, is it? And in any case, if I can borrow chords from ANY of the 21 parallel modes (which is what modal mixture is about), I'm still spoiled for choice, and therefore confused. How do I choose the Next Chord when I have so many chords to choose from? Is there any atonal (or semi-tonal, or polytonal) system of composition I can use?

Carl King

GuitarTricks Video Director

Joined: 10/08/07

Posts: 349

I love this post, because you’re getting into the types of chord progressions I like. I wouldn’t call it atonal though. If it were totally atonal you probably wouldn’t have such consonant chords vertically. I think what you’re talking about are very abrupt modulations to new triads for the most part.

Here’s my solution, which I use myself (which has nothing to do with theory) : I always begin with “What is the PURPOSE of the piece of music?” I’ve written so much that I now start with the core goal, otherwise, yes, you can do anything in the next moment.

The “Purpose” gives me basic parameters. I get hired to write music that is used for things. So if I’m writing a rock backing track that someone will be talking over, or a spooky horror track for a ghost-hunting video on YouTube, or a podcast theme about business in China, these all give me the parameters.

If I’m just writing music for myself, for the hell of it, I also have some sort of Purpose. For instance, a few years ago I decided to write a 45-minute piece of sci-if rock music focused on developing my theme and variation skills. I took very simple rhythmic motifs, maybe 5 or 6 of them, and played around with them for 45 minutes, seeing how far I can take them, disguise them. That was the Purpose and I achieved it. Otherwise, I’d be stuck in that “any note or rhythm can come next” problem like you’re describing.

So yeah, it sure helps to set parameters and purpose to constrain your work. That applies to every art form. Writing, drawing, etc.

Thanks for the very interesting topic, which I love!

-Carl.

Carl King
GuitarTricks Video Director / Producer

#2

I love this post, because you’re getting into the types of chord progressions I like. I wouldn’t call it atonal though. If it were totally atonal you probably wouldn’t have such consonant chords vertically. I think what you’re talking about are very abrupt modulations to new triads for the most part.

Here’s my solution, which I use myself (which has nothing to do with theory) : I always begin with “What is the PURPOSE of the piece of music?” I’ve written so much that I now start with the core goal, otherwise, yes, you can do anything in the next moment.

The “Purpose” gives me basic parameters. I get hired to write music that is used for things. So if I’m writing a rock backing track that someone will be talking over, or a spooky horror track for a ghost-hunting video on YouTube, or a podcast theme about business in China, these all give me the parameters.

If I’m just writing music for myself, for the hell of it, I also have some sort of Purpose. For instance, a few years ago I decided to write a 45-minute piece of sci-if rock music focused on developing my theme and variation skills. I took very simple rhythmic motifs, maybe 5 or 6 of them, and played around with them for 45 minutes, seeing how far I can take them, disguise them. That was the Purpose and I achieved it. Otherwise, I’d be stuck in that “any note or rhythm can come next” problem like you’re describing.

So yeah, it sure helps to set parameters and purpose to constrain your work. That applies to every art form. Writing, drawing, etc.

Thanks for the very interesting topic, which I love!

-Carl.

Carl King
GuitarTricks Video Director / Producer

Carl King

GuitarTricks Video Director

Joined: 10/08/07

Posts: 349

The blog below is the basic idea — but it’s also important to pick some good restraints. Choosing good restraints becomes sort of a skill / matter of taste itself. :/

https://sivers.org/restr

Carl King
GuitarTricks Video Director / Producer

#3

The blog below is the basic idea — but it’s also important to pick some good restraints. Choosing good restraints becomes sort of a skill / matter of taste itself. :/

https://sivers.org/restr

Carl King
GuitarTricks Video Director / Producer

snojones

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Joined: 04/17/13

Posts: 254

It sounds to me, like you are already on the right path. You know what you like! Further more you are able to noodle around and find progressions you enjoy. When I have worked on music that used chromatic scales or odd modulations it came from knowing what I liked and noodling around. Some times the chord would just jump out and make it self at home. Other times I would have to start with a single note and experiment with adding others until I got what I heard in my head. It might use extended chords or diads, or diminished chords or what ever. If I just listened to how it sounded, that was how I found my way.

In other words... You are on the right path, so DON'T FORGET IT as you delve into the complex world of harmony and disonance. Your ear is the ultimate arbitor of your music. That, and patient, persistant, practice are the recipe of all the music that ever was!

#4

It sounds to me, like you are already on the right path. You know what you like! Further more you are able to noodle around and find progressions you enjoy. When I have worked on music that used chromatic scales or odd modulations it came from knowing what I liked and noodling around. Some times the chord would just jump out and make it self at home. Other times I would have to start with a single note and experiment with adding others until I got what I heard in my head. It might use extended chords or diads, or diminished chords or what ever. If I just listened to how it sounded, that was how I found my way.

In other words... You are on the right path, so DON'T FORGET IT as you delve into the complex world of harmony and disonance. Your ear is the ultimate arbitor of your music. That, and patient, persistant, practice are the recipe of all the music that ever was!

hsnoeckx

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Joined: 12/03/19

Posts: 207

I would call that more like jazzy explorations, listen to the song " Bluesette " composed by my country fellow man Toots Thielemans who played with about every big jazz musician in the states, this song goes all around the circle of fifths exept for one tone and still it sounds amazing beautiful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xLw61bTfJU

#5

I would call that more like jazzy explorations, listen to the song " Bluesette " composed by my country fellow man Toots Thielemans who played with about every big jazz musician in the states, this song goes all around the circle of fifths exept for one tone and still it sounds amazing beautiful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xLw61bTfJU