Instruction manual - Pizzicato 3.6.2 EN750 - Revision of 2013/05/29


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Composing music (3)

Subjects covered:

What is a chord? [Professional] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro]

The chord is the common element so that the various instruments play together in a harmonious way. We will learn in more details how they are created and how you can sequence them. This lesson does not claim to teach harmony but constitutes a set of principles you can use to understand and create chords progressions.

We can define a chord in a general way as a context of notes (2, 3, 4 or even more) heard simultaneously. The relations existing between these notes is what characterizes the sound colour of a chord (see the lesson on Composing music (1)).

By using this definition, any group of notes can be a chord. Nevertheless, if a chord must be harmonious, the notes in it must have related elements, otherwise the chord will sound like an aggregate of dispersed notes rather than a harmonious set of notes.

The common element must be found in how notes are transmitted from the instrument to your ears. We have seen that the sound is made of an air vibration. By playing two notes simultaneously, we thus have two different vibrations propagated to the auditor and interfering one with the other. By playing for example two C notes separated by an octave, the vibrations have a ratio of 2. By playing for example a C note and a G note, the vibrations are in a 3/2 ratio. C and E have approximately a 5/4 ratio, etc.

In addition, by listening to various chords and groups of notes, one can notice that some give a very harmonious impression while others are more unpleasant or more dissonant. Is there a rule to measure this degree of harmony? Yes, it is the degree of the mathematical relationship complexity between the sounds of a chord which determines the dissonance degree of this chord. In other words, the notes in a ratio of 2 will appear more "in agreement" that notes in a 15/13 ratio. This rule is empirical and is just a basic guide. The preferences of the composer, in connection with what he wants to express, will determine if he wants to use such or such chord in his composition, the concepts of harmony or discordance being themselves rather subjective.

Tonality and chords [Professional] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro]

You can conceive the musical keyboard as a series of 12 keys (7 white and 5 blacks) repeated several times. Music composition then consists in simply determining which notes will be played and how they will be linked in time. By taking the problem in this manner, the number of possibilities is so enormous that the beginner will be completely lost and will compose nothing at all. Thus let us use the principle of "divide to reign better" and divide the notes in contexts called Tonalities.

The simplest tonality is the C Major tonality. It is a subset of keyboard notes containing only the white keys. A piece of music (or part of it) written in C Major will use in theory only the white notes of the musical keyboard. All instruments of the score agree on a series of notes to use. It is the first way to divide notes in order to harmonize the relationship between the instruments. We thus lay down our first working rule:

In the series of all possible notes, let us select a subset of notes with which we will compose. This subset becomes our context of notes to use and is called the tonality.

The 12 major and minor tonalities (see the lesson on key signatures) form contexts of notes. We advise you to use them at the beginning, because these contexts are rather well codified from the chords point of view. Most classical music and light music is written by using almost exclusively these contexts. For this reason they sound very natural and familiar because it is what most people is accustomed to hear. You only need to open the radio to hear music based on tonalities. Nothing prevents you from defining new contexts of notes or laying down your working rules.

With a context of notes, we have notes the instruments can use in a musical passage. This passage can last one measure, 20 measures or even 200 measures, it is the composer who decides. Then it may change context for the next musical passage. This first division does not specify yet which notes will sound well together. Let us take the tonality of C Major. Our context of notes consists of the following notes:

We displayed only the notes of one octave, but consider that all notes of the higher and lower octaves are also included (all white keys of the piano).

We have seen that the notes of the scale are numbered as degrees, based on the scale starting note (here C for the C major tonality). We use Roman numerals from I to VII and start again from I for the next.

Inside a tonality, there are still lots of possibilities. Experiment will show you that by playing only the white keys, it is difficult for a beginner to create multiple melodies which harmonize with each other (for example a bass and a song, the two hands of a piano…). Too much possibilities still exist and no directing rules exist. We will again divide the tonality into sub-groups of notes called chords.

A chord consists of 3 or 4 (or even more) notes heard simultaneously. They form sub-groups inside the tonality context. Let us start with the groups of three notes and build on each degree of the scale a chord formed by consecutive thirds (you take one note out of two using the white keys). We get the following chords:

The black keys are not distributed equally (there is no black key between each white key), thus the relationship between the notes of the chords are not the same on each degree of the scale. By analyzing the distribution of each chord, you will find 3 different types (see the Composing music (1)). By counting the intervals between the black and the white keys, you will get:

  • Degrees I, IV and V: 4 + 3, it is a Major chord
  • Degrees II, III and VI: 3 + 4, it is a Minor chord
  • Degree VII: 3 + 3, it is a Diminished chord

Our second rule of work will be stated as follows:

Inside a tonality (context of notes) and at every moment of the score, the instruments will play mainly the notes which belong to the same chord, this chord being selected among those of the tonality (degrees I to VII).

The two stated rules are based on the same principle: to select a set of notes among a larger number. The application of this principle is initially done for a context of notes (valid for a variable number of measures) and then inside this context itself to determine the combinations of simultaneous notes.

By laying down rules of composition, let us remember that those are there only to help you structure music. They should in no case become a constraint to respect in an absolute way. They do not constitute an end in themselves. They form a guide, a practical method which gives fast results to sort out possible sound combinations. If your inspiration specifies a sound combination you like and which communicates what you want, use it without hesitation, even if this combination does not respect the stated rules. This remains valid for all lessons about composition.

By establishing chords of 4 notes on the degrees of the scale, we get other sub-contexts of notes, these notes belonging to the main context of C Major:

By analyzing the intervals separating the notes from each chord, you will find 4 types of chords:

  • Degrees I and IV: 4 + 3 + 4, a chord of seventh major (Maj 7)
  • Degrees II, III and VI: 3 + 4 + 3, a chord of seventh minor (min 7)
  • Degree V: 4 + 3 + 3, a chord of seventh dominant (7)
  • Degree VII: 3 + 3 + 4, a chord of seventh sensible (min 7 B 5)

With each major tonality there is an associated minor tonality. By taking the sixth degree (VI) of the major scale, you can build a new scale on this note. The minor scale associated with C Major is the scale built on A (degree VI of C Major) and is called A Minor. It contains the same context of notes but has other sound characteristics. Here is the A Minor scale:

The degrees are numbered starting from A. As you may notice, degrees VI and especially VII are sometimes raised in a minor scale. It is a characteristic specific to minor scales. These accidentals are especially found when a melody plays the scale upwards. By going down, the melody will again use the non accidental notes. This aspect contributes to give its colour to a minor scale. Besides that, we can see that the context of notes is the same than for C Major. It is possible to build chords in the same way than with the major scale. Those however will be distributed in a different way, because the intervals are laid out differently.

By working with a scale, all degrees do not have the same importance. Degree I is the most significant because it is the degree on which the scale is built. The next important degree is the V, because its speed of sound vibration is in a ratio of 3/2 in relation to the first degree. Then it is degree IV, which has a ratio of 4/3. Then the degrees II, III, VI and VII with a ratio more and more distant from the first degree.

The relative importance of the scale degrees will influence the use of these degrees. The musical speech will be oriented mainly around the most significant degrees (I, V and IV). These degrees could be used as points of support for melody and rhythm. The less significant degrees will be used more like a transition. Again, these rules are more tendencies than immutable laws.

We now will do some practical exercises so that you can hear the sound result of chords.

We have seen that the Chords library - 1.piz and Chords library - 2.piz documents contain chords classified by types, with for each one of them the chords built on all white and black keys. As we explained, chords may be regarded as subdivisions of tonality. By composing a musical passage in a tonality, it would thus be more logical to classify chords by their membership to a tonality. It is what the Chords by tonality.piz document provides for 5 major tonalities and the 5 corresponding minor tonalities. Open this document in the Music folder (inside DataEN). Its main view appears as follows:

The 5 simplest tonalities were selected. The central column contains C Major (no accidentals on the key signature) and A Minor which is associated with it. The column on the left is F Major (1 flat on the key signature) associated with D Minor. On the left, B flat Major (2 flats on the key signature) and G Minor. The fourth column contains G Major (1 sharp on the key signature) and E Minor. Lastly, the fifth column contains D Major (2 sharps on the key signature) and B Minor.

Each column contains 4 different folders. The first contains the chords with 3 notes built on the 7 degrees of the major scale. The following contains the chords of 4 notes built on the 7 degrees of the major scale. The two following are similar but built on the degrees of the minor scale.

For each tonality (5 major and 5 minor), you thus have two folders respectively containing the chords of 3 and 4 notes.

Double-click on Score 1. The score view appears in the bottom of the screen. The first measure contains a rhythmic library element (invisible) of an ad infinitum repeated whole note. You just need to drag a chords folder so that the 7 measures are automatically filled with the chords of the 7 degrees of the scale.

Drag one of the folders into measure 1 and observe the notes which compose the chords. Listen to the sound result and use the keyboard window to visualize the keys. Do the same with the other folders and observe each time the following facts:

Close the score and open the Score 2. Here is how the score appears:

Warning ! You now will start to compose !

The purpose of the following exercise is to show you in practice that by creating a melody with the notes of a chord, this melody always sounds harmoniously with the chord.

Do the following steps with several of the chords folders (major or minor, 3 or 4 sounds), until you can do it easily and understand what we explained just before.

  • Select one of the folders and drag it into the first measure of the lower staff, named Chords. The 7 chords corresponding to the selected tonality appear in the lower measures.
  • With half notes only and by using the notes encoding tools (tools palette), complete the 7 upper measures (2 half notes per measure). Use only the notes which belong to the chord located in the lower measure. You can also use notes which bear the same name. In other words, if the chord contains a lower C, you can either use this C or the upper one or even higher. This leaves you already a lot of choices. For the moment, select the notes as you want, so long as they belong to the chord located just below.
  • Listen to the sound result and notice that the notes of the melody give the impression to be in harmony with the chord that is played.
  • Erase the upper staff only and start again the exercise with quarter notes (4 per measure). Vary the notes and possibly modify them according to what you hear. You can also repeat notes.
  • Erase the upper staff and start again these steps with another folder.

Sequencing chords [Professional] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro]

In the course of a score, the instruments are coordinated by a chord progression. It is the main direction which guides them. The chords progression specifies how chords will follow each other and for how long each chord will be played.

By going from a chord to another, it is thus the notes context that changes (even if you remain in the same tonality). The melody will follow by taking its reference points on the chords.

The two preceding exercises used the scale degrees in the scale order. Here are some rules which can be used as a basis to establish more interesting chords progressions. We will use them with practical exercises.

  • By composing a musical score, one of the essential points consists in doing a coherent work. In other words, you need to mould the raw musical matter and to channel it so that it forms an organized set rather than a chaos formed by various parts having nothing to do with each other. You need to create and to maintain links between each part of your composition (instruments, chords, melodies, rhythms, sound effects…). For the chords sequences, this rule becomes:

Sequence chords having characteristics in common

This common characteristic can be for example:

  • one or more notes shared by the two chords,
  • the chord type (major or minor),
  • the same tonality (C major, G major…).

This common characteristic will help the transition between two successive chords and will give the impression to the auditor that these two chords are really made to be sequenced, even if the auditor cannot really explain where the link comes from.

To structure a musical work, it is a little like building a sentence. You have a great number of words and you must arrange them so that they form a direction which communicates what you want. To randomly place chords, without taking into account a note context and the links to connect them would be like building a sentence randomly by taking words in the dictionary. The sentence would not have any coherence.

  • We have seen that all degrees of a scale do not have the same importance. Use the most significant degrees (I, V and IV) at the key points of a work, such as for example at the beginning and on the end point of the melodies (I and V), for the conclusion of the chorus and verses (especially I), on the melody support points (I, V and IV),… These degrees tend to confirm the tonality you are in. Use the other degrees (II, III, VI and VII) as bridges to go between the main degrees (pillars of the tonality).
  • Several sequences of degrees are very current and are abundantly used in almost all music styles. Each one of them satisfies at least two of the criteria given above. Here are some of them:
V I     G => C in C Major
        E => A in A minor
IV V I   F = > G = > C in C Major
        D = > E = > A in A minor
II V I   D = > G = > C in C Major
        B = > E = > A in A minor
VI IV V I A = > F = > G = > C in C Major
        F = > D = > E = > A in A minor
II IV V I D = > F = > G = > C in C Major
        B = > D = > E = > A in A minor

These chords sequences are called cadences. They tend to affirm the tonality. Notice that most of the degrees used are important degrees of the scale.

  • When you change tonality (this is called modulation), the same principle applies. Establish a link between the two chords which form the transition. By observing the contents of each tonality folder, you will be able to realize that some chords are found in several different tonalities. You can thus use them as transition.

Let us take a simple example. You do a IV - V - I sequence in C Major, which gives chords built on F - G- C. To continue the progression, you can observe that the C Maj chord is also present in the tonality of G major where it is placed on degree IV. You can thus again start a cadence IV - V - I in G major, which would give :

  F G C D G
C Major tonality IV V I    
G Major tonality     IV V I

The chord built on C is the transition between the two tonalities.

You can use only one chord of a tonality and then directly return to the original tonality. One speaks about a chord "borrowed" from another tonality. You can also do a complete change and remain in the new tonality. It is called a modulation.

Nothing prevents you to go often from one tonality to the other. If you wish to affirm a tonality, you will have to use more than only one chord of it. For that, it is easier to use one of the cadences, the minimum being the transition V - I because it is the best to establish a tonality.

Let us make some exercises to create chords progressions.

  • Here are the steps to create and listen to a new chord progression:
  • In the Edit menu, select the New element… New Chorditem.
  • Name it as you want and check the Chords progression choice as well as the check box Duration associated in multiples of whole notes.
  • Click OK and open this folder.
  • Open a folder that contains chords and drag some of them inside the new folder, in the desired order. If you need it, move the folder windows so that they are laid out in a practical way to work.
  • Close the folders and open the Score 1. Drag your new folder in measure 1. The chords appear. (Notice that if you placed less chords than the number of measures, the last measures will be filled with the last chord).
  • Use the space bar to listen to the result.
  • We will first work with only one tonality, which corresponds to the elements contained in only one folder. You will create chords progressions as specified above, by selecting a folder and by using only the elements of this tonality. Here are the directives for the first exercise:
  • Create progressions which contain from 4 to 7 chords,
  • Finish each progression with a V - I cadence,
  • Use only the 3 notes chords of a tonality,
  • Sequence only chords having 2 notes in common (except for the end V - I cadence).

Create between 5 to 10 folders of this kind, with various tonalities. Listen each time to the sound result and locate the passages which you find particularly harmonious. For this exercise and the next, we recommend to save these folders in a separate document. Therefore, you just need to:

  • Create a new document with the New item of the File menu,
  • Drag one by one the chords folders in its main view,
  • Save this document.

These chords progressions will be useful for the continuation of the exercises, when you will add melodies and rhythms to them.

In order to locate the chords which have notes in common, we advise you to print Score 1 on paper with the folder of the selected tonality chords.

  • Do the same exercise with chords of 4 notes (4 to 7 chords finished by V - I, with two notes in common except for the V-I).
  • Same exercise, but this time you can mix 3 notes and 4 notes chords (coming from the same tonality).
  • We now will work with two tonalities. Add 5 measures to Score 1. Here are the directives:
  • Select the two tonalities you will sequence. The most natural and easy modulations are:
  • between the major tonality and the associated minor tonality,
  • between two successive columns (in this case the tonalities have only one note which differentiate them and thus 6 notes in common and several chords also).
  • Start the exercise with 4 to 6 chords of the first tonality. Place then from 4 to 6 chords of the second tonality.
  • As well in the tonality as when changing tonality, sequence only chords having at least 2 related notes.
  • You can use 3 and/or 4 notes chords.
  • Finish with a V- I cadence.
  • Same exercise, but you can use sequences where chords have at least one note in common.
  • Add 6 measures more to Score 1. You now will return to the starting tonality to have in the order:
  • 4 to 6 measures with tonality 1
  • 4 to 6 measures with tonality 2
  • 4 to 6 measures with tonality 1.
  • Once you can easily create scores of some measures, you can lengthen the exercise freely and create 16 or 32 chords progressions. You can go from one tonality to the other and use the 3 and 4 notes chords. Use and try out all the aspects seen in this lesson and give free access to your imagination.

The exercises suggested here relate only to the aspect of sequencing various types of chords. We will see in the next lesson that you can modify the position of a chord, i.e. the way in which the notes of the chord are distributed. This possibility will help you create more pleasant progressions and to enrich the sound effects. Do not hesitate to spend time over these exercises because only intensive practice will bring you to better locate and use the most adequate sequences of chords to express what you want.


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