Counterpoint and How to Use It in Your Music

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So is the distance between F and G, E and F, etc. The distance between a C and the D above it is called a whole tone tone, or whole step. The distances spanned by intervals can also be referred to numerically. Here, either a semitone or a whole tone can be regarded as the interval of a second. The distance from the note C up to the note E is the interval of a third, as can be seen from the major scale below, where the number of notes spanned from C to E is three C, D, and E :.

If these two notes, C and E, occur simultaneously instead of one after the other the interval is likewise called a third:. From C up to D is the interval of a second. From C up to E is the interval of a third. From C up to F is the interval of a fourth. From C up to G is the interval of a fifth. From C up to A is the interval of a sixth.

Counterpoint ā€“ A blog about Music

From C up to B is the interval of a seventh. From C up to C is an octave the interval of an eighth. From C down to B or B up to C is the interval of a second. From C down to A or A up to C is the interval of a third. From C down to G or G up to C is the interval of a fourth. From C down to F or F up to C is the interval of a fifth. From C down to E or E up to C is the interval of a sixth. From C down to D or D up to C is the interval of a seventh. From C down to C is an octave the interval of an eighth. When two notes that are the same occur simultaneously, it is called a unison.

According to the above table, from C up to F is a fourth:. This is determined by counting the notes between F and C, beginning with F and ending with C. That makes the interval from F up to C or from C down to F; i. A fifth is the inversion of a fourth the fourth that results in going from C up to F, for example. The inversion of an interval is its "mirror-image," or complement interval, so to speak, and it can be determined, again, by counting the distances between notes.

To find out what the inversion of a second is, for example, it might first be considered that from C up to D is a second. Turning it around, it might then be asked what the distance is from D up to C. The progression from one note to the next can take place either by step or by skip. Consonances are said to sound pleasant to the ear, while dissonances are said to sound harsh. By contemporary standards, this doesn't always hold true, but can be taken as a loose definition of the terms.

Consonance, then, provides repose, while dissonance creates tension. All other intervals within the span of an octave are dissonant. The fourth is a unique interval, in that it can sometimes be regarded as a consonance. More on this will be said later, but for the time being regard the fourth, along with the second and seventh, as dissonant. Consonances are divided into perfect ones and imperfect ones. Parallel motion is the type of motion involved when two parts move in the same direction, either upward or downward, by the same numerical interval, as in Fig.

Similar motion is the type of motion involved when two parts move in the same direction, either upward or downward, by different intervals, as in Fig. Contrary motion is the type of motion involved when two parts move in opposite directions, one upward and the other downward, as in Fig. Oblique motion pronounced ob-leak, or oh-bleak is the type of motion involved when one part moves while the other remains stationary i. When entering into a perfect consonance, either contrary motion or oblique motion may be used.

When entering into an imperfect consonance, any of the four motions may be used. In it, one note is "pitted against" another, so to speak, in melodies whose notes are all of the same length. Each of its notes are held for two beats, except for the last, which is held for four beats. The tempo, or speed, at which you count off beats in this book can be set at any pace that's comfortable for you. Begin by playing this melody on your instrument:. The melody in Fig. Your first task will be to write a countermelody, or counterpoint cpt. In doing so, you'll be using only consonant intervals.

You'll be having the composition begin and end on a perfect consonance. You'll be using various types of motion, and employing the principles of motion. Go back whenever necessary and reacquaint yourself with these concepts. You'll be using, for now, only the notes of the C major scale C, D, E, F, G, A, and B , so that the counterpoint will be in the same key as the fixed melody.

You'll be making each note of your counterpoint two beats in length a half note , except for the last note, which will be a note of four beats a whole note. Also, you'll avoid using a unison i. Lastly, there'll be the cadence of the composition to contend with. The cadence of a composition or melodic phrase has to do with the way in which it ends. As stated, a perfect consonance should be used in the last measure, for the last pairing of notes.

However, the next-to-last pairing of notesthat is, the penultimate pairingshould also be handled in a particular way. Since the fixed melody is in the lower part of Composition 1, a major sixth should be used for the penultimate pairing of notesmeaning that the next-to-last note in the lower part should be accompanied in the upper part by the note that is a major sixth above it. For its first pairing of notes, Fig.

From the first pairing of notes to the second in Fig. From the second pairing of notes to the third in Fig. From the third pairing to the fourth in Fig. From the fourth pairing to the fifth in Fig. From the fifth pairing of notes to the sixth in Fig. From the sixth pairing to the seventh in Fig. From the seventh pairing to the eighth in Fig. From the eighth pairing to the ninth in Fig. From the ninth pairing of notes to the tenth "penultimate" pairing in Fig.

And finally, from the penultimate pairing to the last pairing in Fig. The approach taken in Fig. While doing so, you can also refer to the following list of guidelines: Keep the principles of motion in mind as you work. Use only consonant intervals. Use a perfect consonance at the beginning of the composition. Make each note of the counterpoint except for the last a half note.

In general, use perfect consonances more sparingly than imperfect ones. Use the interval of a major sixth for the penultimate, "next-to-last," pairing of notes. Use a whole note in the last measure of the counterpoint. Use a perfect consonance in the last measure of the composition. If you're able to print the composition out on a printer, you can do so. If you compose on computer, you can use that method. Or you can simply use music writing paper, and copy the composition out by hand in pencil 1. You can use Fig. The counterpoint accompanying the fixed melody in Fig.

Think things through, and see what possibilities of your own you can come up with. Proceed now to Composition 1, and compose a counterpoint for its upper part. The first problem with Fig. From the first pairing to the second, the composition goes into a perfect consonance, the fifth, by way of similar motion, which is in violation of the principles of motion, which state that when entering into a perfect consonance, either contrary or oblique motion should be used. The fourth problem with Fig. It instead uses the interval of a fifth, making for a less satisfactory ending.


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In Composition 2, the fixed melody is in the upper part. Your task now will be to write a counterpoint in the lower part to accompany this fixed melody. Use the same guidelines as before, with the following exceptions: Since the fixed melody is now in the upper part, a minor third should be used for the penultimate pairing of notes.

Also, in spite of the fact that the fifth is a perfect consonance, and that a perfect consonance should be used at the beginning and at the end of a composition, a fifth should not be used for either the first or last pairing of notes in Composition 2. The reason for this is that the use of a fifth would begin or end the composition with a pairing that's better suited to the beginning or ending of a composition in another key, namely that of either F major or F minor:.

Avoid using the fifth in such cases, and use a unison or an octave instead. Now, complete Composition 2 by writing a counterpoint for its lower part. From the first pairing to the second, contrary motion is used, resulting in a fifth in the second pairing. From the second pairing to the third, contrary motion is again used, resulting in a third in the third pairing of notes.

From the third pairing to the fourth, oblique motion is used, resulting in a sixth in the fourth pairing. From pairing four to pairing five, contrary motion is used, resulting in a third in the fifth pairing. From the fifth pairing to the sixth, parallel motion is used, resulting in a third in the sixth pairing. From the sixth pairing to the seventh, oblique motion is used, resulting in a sixth in the seventh pairing. From pairing seven to pairing eight, parallel motion is used, with a sixth resulting in the eighth pairing. From pairing eight to pairing nine, contrary motion is used, resulting in a third in the ninth pairing.

From the ninth pairing to the penultimate pairing, parallel motion is used, resulting in the required minor third for the penultimate pairing. And from the penultimate pairing to the last pairing, contrary motion is used, resulting in a perfect consonance, a unison, at the end of the composition.

Notice, too, that in Fig. When oblique motion is used in two-part writing, the same note should not be repeated more than once in writing of three or more parts, more than one repetition can take place, since its effect is mitigated by the presence of additional parts. Also, notice the use of contrary motion in Fig. Contrary motion is desirable both for the pleasing effect of having one part move upward while another descends, as well as for the sense of independence it produces between parts.

In general, progression by skip requires greater attention and care than progression by step.

Timeline: Bach's Counterpoint And Chopin's Melody

In the type of writing with which we're concerned, certain skips have tended to be used more frequently than others. It's important to understand that not everything that's traditional to counterpoint has relevance or constructive use with regard to the way contemporary music is madeavoidance of the skip of a major sixth being a case in point. In fact, let the use of the words tradition, traditional, and traditionally be a signal to you throughout this book that the particular topic or convention under discussion may have little or no relevance or practical use in the context of a modern-day song or musical arrangement.

Remember, too, that even the composers who inspired these conventions were known to violate them on occasion. The skip of a seventh is not at all common, and is generally avoided:. This interval is known as the tritone because it's made up of three whole tones F to G, G to A, and A to B, in the first example above. The inversion of the augmented fourth is another tritone, the diminished fifth. Like its augmented counterpart, it tends to be avoided in writing of this type:. These are the notes you should generally use as you work. Bearing in mind what has been said so far, compose a counterpoint for the upper part of Composition 3.

Composition 4 in G major places the fixed melody in the upper part. Proceed by writing a counterpoint for its lower part. Can you spot four flaws in Fig. The first flaw in Fig. From the third pairing of notes to the fourth, similar motion is used to enter into a perfect consonance, the fifth, in violation of the principles of motion. Furthermore, this fifth is used for the penultimate pairing of notes, where a major sixth is required.

Finally, the composition ends on an imperfect consonance, a third, where a perfect consonance should be. It doesnt pose a problem at the beginning of a composition, which nothing precedes, or at the end, which nothing follows. But in between it may thin out the sound to too great an extent. And in a composition that's sparse to begin with, having only two parts, this effect isn't usually desirable. The situation is similar with the octave, but, since it provides a somewhat greater sense of harmony than the unison, the octave can be used during a composition, though with a degree of caution.

In a composition of three or more parts, both the unison and the octave can be used more freely. Parts are unfolded via a process known as voice leading the terms voice and part are largely interchangeable. In your writing, you may at times find yourself using either thirds or sixths in repeated fashion, such as below:. This is natural, and all but unavoidable at times. But be aware that the more this type of parallelism is used, the less independent the parts will be.

There are no hard-and-fast rules as to how many thirds or sixths may be used in succession. In the context of our work here, though, you can loosely consider four or so thirds or sixths in a row to be a reasonable limit. In species other than counterpoint, rhythm, along with melody, helps to establish a part's individuality. The movement into an octave from a tenth was also originally avoided, but became more acceptable over time, owing to the fact that stepwise motion is used in both parts.

The progression from a unison into another interval by step is likewise to be preferred. However, Fig. That being the case, the guideline cannot be followed if the composition is begun with a unison, since it's the fixed melody itself that moves by skip. Another aspect of counterpoint is the tendency of parts or "voices" to occasionally cross, with the higher part temporarily becoming the lower, and the lower becoming the higher:. With Composition 5 we enter the realm of minor tonalities.

Composition 5 is in the key of A minor. The notes F and G may, when preferred, be substituted for F and G. These two notes, F and G , are primarily adopted in the cadence, but can also be used elsewhere in the composition. With this in mind, add a counterpoint to the upper part of Composition 5. With the fixed melody in the upper part, write a counterpoint for the lower part of Composition 6.

Here, a filling in of the intervening steps between notes is useful for clarification. For example:. The above example goes from an imperfect consonance, the third, into a perfect consonance, the fifth, by way of similar motion. The lower part moves by step.

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The G above C forms a hidden fifth, which is followed by another fifth, A above D, which is not hidden but open, or apparent. The same can be seen when similar motion is used in going, for example, from an octave into a fifth:. Here, parallel fifths result when the C below G, a fifth, progresses in hidden fashion into the open fifth of D below A. There are various explanations as to why a prohibition on the use of parallel perfect consonances i.

Of these, one that seems especially pertinent involves how a lessening of harmony, or harmonic richness, can result from their use. Perfect consonances, it should be understood, provide a lesser degree of harmony than do imperfect consonances. This becomes apparent when it's considered that the unison, the most perfect of the consonances, provides in itself no sense of harmony at all putting aside any variance in tonal coloring that may result from different instruments playing the same note, or even from two or more of the same instrument playing the same note.

The octave, being less perfect than the unison, provides a somewhat greater sense of harmony. And the fifth, the least perfect of the perfect consonances, provides a still greater sense. It's the imperfect consonances, then, that afford a composition its greatest degree of harmony which explains why more imperfect than perfect ones should be used during a composition. That being said, it's also true that parallel unisons and octaves are used all the time in music, whether in the overdubbing of a voice in a song, or in the doubling of instruments in an orchestra.

Parallel fifths, too, can certainly at times sound quite beautiful. Ultimately, it'll be up to you whether or not to use parallel perfect consonances in your music. When you've reached a point where you're prepared to take responsibility for their use, then you'll be free to use them. For the time being, however, in your work here, observe the prohibition against the use of parallel perfect consonances, and refrain from using them except in instances where they're allowed these will be pointed out later.

Going into a unison by way of parallel motion results in parallel unisons; Going into an octave by way of parallel motion results in parallel octaves; Going into a fifth by way of parallel motion results in parallel fifths. Going into a unison by way of similar motion results in parallel unisons one of which is hidden ; Going into an octave by way of similar motion results in parallel octaves one of which is hidden ; Going into a fifth by way of similar motion results in parallel fifths one of which is hidden.

Counterpoint in Music

In it, two quarter notes are written against a half note:. Dissonant intervals, which had no place in the first species, come into play here. It fills in the space between two notes that are a third apart. As stated, the first of the two quarter notes should always be consonant.

If the first quarter note moves to the second quarter note by skip, then the second quarter note should also be consonant:.


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  • The same general principles that were used in counterpoint also apply to counterpoint. Try your hand at counterpoint by writing an upper part for Composition 7 in C major. Composition 8 places the fixed melody in the upper part. Proceed by writing a counterpoint for the lower. In counterpoint, the following type of progression, though it appears to be acceptable, is generally avoided:. Though the fifths in the above example are brought about, suitably, by contrary motion, this type of progression isn't generally used because the skip of a third isn't considered adequate to compensate for the effect of consecutive fifths.

    The secondary notes occur on the offbeat, a weaker, unaccented beat. The first and third beats of a measure are considered onbeats. The second and fourth beats of a measure are considered offbeats. The skip of a third, arrived at on the offbeat, isn't considered a large enough skip to cause the ear to overlook, or ignore, the occurrence of consecutive fifths on the onbeat. It isn't considered adequate for reconciling consecutive octaves, either:.

    Similarly, if the secondary note were removed altogether, with the C, now a half note, descending directly to A, the progression would be in violation of the principle that states that perfect consonances should not be entered into in similar motion. The skip of a fourth on the offbeat negates this violation, and renders the progression acceptable. In it, four eighth notes are written against a half note:. The first of these eighths is always consonant.

    If a series of four eighth notes progresses in stepwise fashion in the same direction, and the first and third of these are consonant, then the second and fourth can be dissonant:. With the first and third eighths consonant, and the second eighth dissonant, the fourth eighth, while dissonant in the above examples, can also be consonant:.

    Although stepwise motion predominates in counterpoint, skips also occur. As in counterpoint, any skips used in this species should be from a consonance, to a consonance. Put another way, this means that there are no skips into, or out of, dissonance. Dissonant intervals in this species are generally passing tones that are entered into by step, and departed from by step in the same direction:. There is, however, an exception to the use of dissonances as passing tones. It involves what are known as neighboring tones or auxiliary tones.

    These are notes that ornament an initial, main tone by rising or falling from it by step before returning to it. There's a lower neighboring tone, an upper neighboring tone, and a combination of both called double neighboring tones. The upper neighboring tone is a note that rises by step from an initial tone, and then descends by step back to a repeat of the initial tone:.

    Although the upper neighbor was used less freely than the lower by one of the most influential composers of counterpoint, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, more recent theorists have not drawn so great a distinction between the use of the two. Double neighboring tones make use of both an initial tone's upper and its lower neighbor. Here, beginning on an onbeat, a series of four notes are involved, the first and last of which are the same the main tone. Typically, the series rises by step from the first note to the second i. This variation, however, is not considered to sound as fluid, possibly because it places the upper neighbor a higher, more salient tone in the position of an accented eighth in the measure.

    To help with keeping the double neighbor as much in line as possible with the overall flow of the melody, it's preferable to have its melodic curve continue stepwise in the same direction to the series that follows it:.

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    The decorative relationship of the two middle tones to the main tone in the double neighbor is reinforced when one of these is a half step, rather than a whole step, removed from it. It might also be mentioned that it's perfectly acceptable if either of these tones is consonant, as is sometimes the case. Due to the skip of a third, either into or out of dissonance or both , that takes place between its two middle notes, the double neighbor constitutes one of only two exceptions to the principle that dissonances should be entered into and departed from by step.

    Along with double neighboring tones, an exception to the principle of dissonances being approached and departed from by step lies in what's known as the changing note or changed note, or exchanged notea translation of the Italian nota cambiata. The changing note, in its most common form, can be said to involve a series of four notes, the second of which is or can be a dissonance that, instead of proceeding stepwise, moves by skip a third downward:. While seemingly having little relevance in the context of modern-day music, the changing note was nevertheless a highly favored melodic idiom in the stylistic tradition of counterpoint.

    It's worth taking into account both for its relevance to counterpoint and for the exception it provides in the treatment of dissonances. The melodic curve of the changing note should continue stepwise in the same direction into the series that follows it. It's important to note that in counterpoint stepwise motion is generally used in proceeding from one series of four eighth notes to the next. This is illustrated below, where the first eighth of the second series the note F fills in the skip of a third that occurs between the third and fourth eighths of the first series the notes G and E :.

    By these means, a certain continuity and fluidity is maintained from one series to the nextor, more accurately, from one onbeat to the next. Also, the changing note can be used, occurring either mid-measure, as in the first example below, or between measures, as in the second example:. Here, it might be mentioned that, although eighth notes in this species are broken up into four-note configurations or "series" for the purpose, among other things, of making it easier to understand the processes involved , it should be understood that a melody isn't generally written in four-note chunks.

    The Cadence. In the cadence of this species, the leading tone should be used as the penultimate note in the counterpoint i. This applies whether the counterpoint is in the upper or lower part. The leading tone is the seventh degree of the major scale, the note that precedes the key note, and leads smoothly by half step up into it. In the cadence examples below, the note B is the leading tone, since these examples are given in the key of C major:. An eighth rest can be used in the first measure, in place of the first eighth note.

    Try your hand at counterpoint by composing a counterpoint for Composition Composition 14 follows, with the fixed melody now in the upper part. In two-part writing of this species, a unison can occur with any of the four eighths in a series other than the first, but can be used with the first eighth in the first and last measures.

    Octaves and fifths can be used with any of the four eighth notes, including the first. If used in consecutive series, however, its preferable to have them occur at least four notes apart as opposed to using an octave or a fifth with, say, the third note of one four-note series, and then with the first note of the next seriestwo notes apart. With regard to skips in this species, when they occur they're commonly followed by movement in the opposite direction.

    Skips wider than a third are frequently compensated for either by stepwise motion in the opposite direction, or by a skip in the opposite direction:. Compositions 15 and 16 in the key of G major follow. Can you spot seven errors in Fig. The first error in Fig. The second error occurs at the beginning of the second measure, where a unison is used with the first eighth of a series. In two-part writing, unisons, though they may be used with any of the other three eighths, are only to be used with the first eighth in the first or last measure of a composition.

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    The third error is also in the second measure, where the first series ascends stepwise from F up to B, forming a melodic tritone, an interval that's generally avoided horizontally as well as vertically in two-part writing. The fourth error concerns the note B at the end of the first series in the second measure. This note is an augmented fourth, a dissonant interval which, as such, should be departed from by step, and is not.

    The fifth error is at the beginning of the third measure, where the fifth formed by the notes F and C is entered into in similar motion. The sixth error is at the end of the third measure, where the leading tone should be used with the last eighth note, and an octave is used instead. Finally, the seventh error occurs in the last measure, where the composition ends on an imperfect, rather than a perfect, consonance.

    How to Write Counterpoint - Music Composition

    Continue now with the remaining compositions for this species. This species, like the second species, involves two quarter notes being written against a half note. Here, however, a tie is used to extend the quarter notes on the offbeat the second and fourth beats of the measure over to the onbeat the first and third beats of the measure :. As in the example above, a quarter note that occurs on the offbeat in this species should always be consonant.

    A quarter note that occurs on the onbeat can be either consonant or dissonant. If it's consonant, it can proceed by step or skip to another consonance:. This latter note on the offbeat is the note to be considered in determining the progression of the parts. For instance, if the example above were written without syncopations, the progression of the parts would be as follows:. A rest should be used in the first measure, in place of the first quarter note. In the penultimate measure, the cadence, with the fixed melody in the lower part, should consist of a seventh on the onbeat and a major sixth on the offbeat.

    With the fixed melody in the upper part, the cadence should consist of a second on the onbeat and a minor third on the offbeat:. Try it. Ideally, syncopations should be used consistently throughout a composition in this species. If at some point, however, a syncopation can't be used, or if its use would bring about an undesirable progression, two untied quarters may occasionally be used in its place:. Composition 20 places the fixed melody in the upper part. Unisons and octaves can be used in this species:. These are somewhat more acceptable when the syncopations are in the lower part:.

    Since octaves and unisons provide a lesser degree of harmony than fifths, the repeated use of fifths is considered less objectionable than that of either octaves or unisons. In connection with the degrees of perfection of perfect consonances, a word on the resolution of dissonances might be added here. As a rule, it's preferable to have dissonances resolve to imperfect, rather than perfect, consonances. However, when a dissonance does resolve to a perfect consonance, the less perfect the consonance is, the better.

    Progression by step involves the least amount of motion i. Downward motion is preferable, in part, because upward motion, in and of itself, would add a degree of weight and thrust while no motion at all, of course, would simply maintain the dissonance. The natural law of gravity is also a factor, and this type of movement from a dissonance to a consonance via downward step can be equated to the movement from a state of tension to one of relaxation via the shortest path of least resistance.

    The four previous species reach their culmination in this species, in which any or all four may be used. There is no predefined rhythmic pattern that must be conformed to, and whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteen notes can all be used, allowing for a much freer hand in the writing of melodies and use of rhythm:.

    Dissonances in florid counterpoint are resolved in the same manner as they were in , , and syncopated counterpoint. The notes that follow regarding syncopation and dissonance pertain to circumstances that arise uniquely in this species. Recall that in counterpoint, a quarter note occurring on the offbeat can be dissonant if it's used as a passing tone. The same holds true in florid counterpoint.

    Eighth notes that occur after ties or dotted quarter notes or their equivalent can be dissonant, and treated as dissonant eighths in counterpoint would be:. It's even permissible for such eighths to resolve, not only by downward step, but by upward step as well:. As we know from syncopated counterpoint, a dissonant syncopation might normally be resolved in this way:. It can also be resolved, however, by adding a note between the dissonant syncopation and its note of resolution. Notes that intervene in the above manner should be consonant.

    An anticipation, as it's called, can also be used in the same way:. Traditionally, sixteenth notes come in pairs that either ascend or descend stepwise. They are used only where the second of two eighth notes might otherwise occur on the unaccented portion of the beat; that is, the second half of the beat. While they may occur at any point during the course of a composition, a typical use is in cadences. Due to their rapidity and brevity, either, neither, or both sixteenths can be dissonant:. The quality of the melody that you write is of especial importance in florid counterpoint. Make an effort each time to write as good, as pleasing, and as satisfying a melody as you can, selectively using a variety of note values, along with the elements of the various species, to do so.

    Give it a try with Composition 25 below. In Composition 26, the fixed melody in C major is placed in the upper part. Proceed by writing a melody in the lower part to accompany it. Composition 27 in G major follows. Remember as you go to be attentive to the quality of the melodies that you write. Composition 28 is next. The Climactic Point. Two notes that are worth paying special attention to in a melody are its highest note and, to a lesser extent, its lowest note. One valuable technique in composing and songwriting is to arrange the course of a melody so that its highest note is felt to be the point at which it reaches its peak of intensity, its climactic point.

    The climactic point commonly arrives after the middle, but before the end, of a composition, sometimes preceding a cadence. Though it doesn't necessarily have to occur on a melody's highest note, it frequently occurs on a note that's relatively high, as well as one that tends to be of longer, rather than shorter, duration. It's sometimes considered most effective to use this note only onceor to, at any rate, minimize the number of its repetitions. This applies to a composition's lowest note as well, further reflecting how minimum use can sometimes be said to result in maximum impact.

    It's nonetheless worth attempting, since putting it into practice here with uppermost parts would at very least begin to incorporate the notion of a climactic point into your writing, and begin making it a habit- knit part of your creative process. In the UK, we are cutting back on supporting young musicians and yet it is a vitally important part of education across our nation. Teaching and The Blues began with the Spirituals. Here we can see one of the British heroes of this rich genre playing a hymn.

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