#1
On another guitar forum that I frequent, the question was asked: How can I give my music a particular mood or feeling. Here is my response to that, thought some of you might be interested. This was written drunk at 5 am so it is a little long and wordy....... I am probably going to expand this into a few chapters worth of material for my book.

Long ago when I was studying composition I wondered the same thing: did certain chords, scales, keys, etc... have a mood or the power to invoke one?

The answer is yes and no with qualifying factors. To start with, it must be understood that our responses to sound and music are to a very large degree, learned. Malcolm mentioned modes having moods or feeling to them, this is only true because we have a "control" built into our ears by which we may make a comparison.

The Lydian mode, for instance, gets a lot of press for being "quirky" or "happy" or "airy", etc..... Even these terms mean different things to different people. But it is not the mode itself which imparts these feelings, it is the manner in which this mode differs from the traditional diatonic major scale which gives it it's character.

We are tuned into the major scale and it's characteristic interval structure and the chord progressions it yields from birth. Instantly upon leaving the womb, there are a myriad of aural stimuli bombarding us, tuning us in. Nursery rhymes, TV songs, music other family members are listening to, all of that plants itself firmly within our subconcious and tunes us in to the diatonic system that has been in popular use in western music for the past 400 years.

This musical conditioning occurs subconciously, and even within the musically inept. Common chord progressions, major/minor scale derived melodies (99% of the music one is likely to encounter "accidentally" while growing up), common rhythms; all of these form our basic musical vocabulary and it is from this that we make aesthetic judgements on new music that we are later introduced to.

Back to the modal example, when we hear a piece of music derived from a different type of scale, say something so common as the Lydian mode, even with no musical training, we are able to grasp that something is different about the music.

With all this in mind, I believe there are a few universal factors that can and do present themselves in music. These are, in no particular order:

1) It is generally agreed that sharper keys are brighter, flat keys are darker. Helmholtz (sp? Too lazy to look it up) has an excellent book on how physics and psychology work together on the ear, for a better explanation about the brightness of sharps and darkness of flats, read his book "On The Sensation Of Tone". I believe this to be a must read for any serious musician.

2)Loud and sudden sounds tend to be disconcerting, especially if heard without warning. Soft sounds which we are gradually introduced to tend to be soothing.

3)Dissonant sounds, that is to say sounds in which there is a high incidence of non aligned vibrations, tend to be percieved as harsh. Conversely, consonant sounds are percieved as smooth and harmonious. Important!!! Consonance/dissonance are relative qualities. As time moves on and music evolves, we are moving ever more in the dissonant direction. Chords that we commonly use today in eras past were deemed too harsh to be musical. In modern music, genres make this even more relative. A guy who plays jazz may hear music that does not employ dissonant and frequently changing harmonies as stale, vanilla.

4)Minor keys have been known to produce very diverse and expressive music, ranging from Rachmaninoffs "Prelude in C# Minor" (my all time favorite piece of music) to Stormy Monday to Fade To Black. Minor pentatonic scales are the basis of much blues, a music many find depressing. Yet, those same exact minor pentatonic scales form the basis of much "chinese sounding" happy music, an effect I myself have employed.

Another aspect of minor keys is that typically when employed by a competent composer, there will be borrowed chords (most notably V7 from the parallel major) and secondary dominants present, which adds a bit of color to the scale.

5)Chromaticism is often employed to throw the ear off center, even to completely dissorient the ear. This can, and often does, lead to some very intersting results. Most music moves through at least a couple of keys. A symphonic movement in the key of D Major will surely move to A and eventually G, as well as visiting other keys, but will resolve back to D.

This departure would seem to weaken the tonality, but, on the contrary, it strengthens it. By moving properly between various keys, we set up the expectation of resolution, a skillful composer knows how to prolong this expectation, build it to a frenzy, and deliver the resolution in such a way that we are effected emotionally based on our musical conditioning.

6)Textures matter. I love Danny Elfmans film and TV music soley because he is a master of textures. I have been known to sit through movies I did not particularly care for just because he scored the films soundtrack. Busy counterpoint can affect the listener just as busy traffic might. Counterpoint may be used in slow settings too, a slow string motif played at a barely audible level and then repeated in the horns at a nice low level can invoke images of mystery and wonder.

If you have ever heard the theme from "The Simpsons", you may have noticed that the actual theme is quite relaxed and slow moving, but the accompanying parts are all frenzied and active, there are counterpoint parts going crazy all over the place. The simplistic, relaxed melody allows room for this, and when heard as a whole, it is actually a quite stimulating piece of music.

A loud amplified Mesa/Boogie has an exhilerating affect on some folks, on others it is disturbing or scary!! When trying to invoke a mood, the instrumentation and organization of parts is a prime concern. One wouldn't generally think of expressing sappy sentiments with a full heavy metal band cranked to 11 at 220 bpm!!!

7)Tempo. This is pretty straightforward. But be aware that even knocking a piece down a few clicks, say from 144 bpm to 134, makes a substantial impact on the listener. Also, tempos which are static, that is to say, never changing, can get old. Ritardando, accelerando......these are friends of the composer who wishes his music to breathe like a living thing.

8)Meter.... This one is also kind of a common sense thing. Rhythm is so powerful in music. I have said it a trillion times, play an out of tune note, good chance is most of the audience won't hear or care, as long as it is not too out front!! Play an out of time note, cause a train wreck!!!!!

The human mind has a love of symmetry. We have conditioned ourselves over millions of years of evolution to seek it out in our mates as well as our art. I saw a show on the Discovery Channel in which this was explored. There was an experiment in which infants were shown faces and thier reactions judged. Almost 100% of the time, the infants preferred symmeterical faces.

In nature, there is a symmetry found in everything from shellfish designs to human faces, acoustics, etc... and this is called the Golden Mean, which is roughly 1.618. Our scales and harmonies are built upon these numbers. My point is, we are hardwired to appreciate symmetry.

Meters which are symmetrical, ie 4/4, 6/8, etc...... are easy to move to. Meters such as 7/8 have a jerkyness that is often difficult to overcome. This can be, and often is, exploited to great effect. When you want a disjointed, odd feeling section, shifting meters is a great way to achieve this.

One last word on rhythm, like everything else, rhythm is scalable. When heard as a phrase, a 7/8 meter may sound very symmetrical, if it is grouped in sets of 2 measures, for instance.

All of this goes back to my initial statement, that we are all trained and our musical experiences as listeners are formed by lifelong conditioning, whether we are concious of it or not. A guy from India who has never head any western music may hear something like Beethovens 9th Symphony and rather than be awe stricken by the power of LVB, he might percieve it is a noisy distasteful mess.

In art, there are no REAL absolutes, the above generalizations are just that. It is this that allows us to interpret music in such a personal way. Five people may hear a Beethoven symphony in very different ways.

Person #1 might hear elevator music.

Person # 2 might go into a small trance remembering time spent with a family member who loved this particular work of art, thus experiencing deeply powerful emotional stimulus from an extra musical source, yet forever tied to that particular music.

Person # 3 may have been beaten while hearing the same music, and thus their perception and emotional reaction to stimuli would be much different than person # 2, although the same apparatus would be at work stimulating them.

Person # 4 might be a music major who is all hung up on serialism, and they may hear this as outdated, bland work by an overrated composer.

Person # 5 may be Person # 4's classmate, and he may be in awe of LVB's harmonies, or instrumentation, or may be swept away in the music, riding it's tension and release cycles like a junky riding out his binge and purge cycles!!!

Take all of this in mind as you attempt to force your music to invoke any particular mood.
#3
Mostly agreed upon, nice stuff. You basically summed up what I've been trying to put into words for about a month.

One question though...

Quote by spaivxx
Meters which are symmetrical, ie 4/4, 6/8, etc...... are easy to move to. Meters such as 7/8 have a jerkyness that is often difficult to overcome. This can be, and often is, exploited to great effect. When you want a disjointed, odd feeling section, shifting meters is a great way to achieve this.

One last word on rhythm, like everything else, rhythm is scalable. When heard as a phrase, a 7/8 meter may sound very symmetrical, if it is grouped in sets of 2 measures, for instance.


Now, I'm pretty sure at least some Eastern European countries make use of meters like 7/8 very frequently, and that it is nothing unusual to them. Is it that they find it natural since they've heard it since birth, or does the actual writing style make it more fluid than a 7/8 written by a guy who is used to 4/4? I am only asking because I know very little about the subject, and I'm curious if you could clarify this.
#4
Some of my favorite composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, among others, have made great use of the various odd meters.

But what I said about them producing uneasy or jerky rhythms is a generalization. It is an inherent quality or such meters. Of course composers will (and often do) bend generalizations to meet their specific needs. For instance in a group of 4 measures in 7/8 there appears the symmetrical pattern produced by the grouping of 4 measures. A pulse of 1,2,3,4 might be percieved if the first beat of each measure were properly accented. Yet, look at the patterns within each measure and there is an inherent asymmetrical structure.

I mention scalability often in discussing both harmony and rhythm. Handling odd meters in a way that produces symmetrical structures is a perfect way to observe how the rhythmic structure on one level may be vastly different on the next. An asmmetrical structure at the otivic level is balanced out by the symmetry of the phrase level rhythm.