I’ve been preoccupied the last few days with this idea about composing music. The idea is that, before a composer starts a piece, he or she needs to determine what constitutes a wrong note in this particular piece. When a musical idea comes, composers ought to work with it so that it sets up a musical space that favors some notes over others. This system of “right” and “wrong” notes ideally leads to an approach to consonance and dissonance within a work.

So how do you write your “wrong” notes?

19 Responses to “Wrong Notes”
  1. Steve Layton says:

    Setting up some selections before starting can work just fine (though keep in mind that it’s not really “before starting a piece”; the piece has already started). My own method of “note” composition (the quotes because to some people or styles specific pitches may not be a prime consideration) starts with throwing a gesture out there, without paying much attention to specific pitches. It will define a certain shape and space, that I’ll either see possibility in or not. If it’s something I want to work with, I’ll go back then and see what pitches are in there.

    That gesture has within it a number of different points of weight and attraction (“consonance & dissonance” if you like), related not only to pitch but also register, timbre/intensity and place in time. They all contribute to the identity, but can be squished or stretched either by themselves, or by additions to the space around the original gesture. All that can change the centers of “consonance & dissonance”; what was once a “wrong” note may suddenly be “right”, as all these centers shift.

    So at least in my case, there normally aren’t any prior absolute exclusions (unless purely a parlor game, like writing a piece with no “C”s in it).

  2. I’m going to say that I don’t subscribe to the idea that before a composer composes he or she has to decide very much of anything – key signature, ensemble, genre – all negotiable with the material as it takes shape. Different works have had strange origins – piano solo pieces have ended up for orchestra – symphonies have become concerti, and large works have been compressed down to chamber size.

    What is important is to have ideas – ways of joining the large and the small, the melodic and the rhythmic. It helps to have a concept of the work or movement – whether it is “a traditional sonata” or “the result of several simultaneous unrelated strands”.

    The wrong notes are often the right notes – it is often where you have reached beyond the ordinary or the past that the music, at first, looks or sounds “wrong” – but in fact it is a case of “ooops, I made a clean spot”. The part that is wrong is really the part that is right, and it is really other parts of the work that need to change to reach up to the level of the “wrong” note. The first time a novice composer trips over a diminished seventh or augmented triad – it sounds “wrong” – but only because it has a potential far more powerful than the surrounding diatonic music.

    And once a composer can embrace what look like “mistakes”, but are, in fact, the pull of the unknown, there are larger worlds to explore.

  3. David Salvage says:

    See — that’s what’s wonderful about traditional tonality: you can say, Well, these parallel fifths are wrong. And because they’re “wrong,” you can create a context in which they sound “right.”

    I envy the composers of the high classical period. So balanced was their language that their audiences could appreciate disproportion and strange voice leadings, and see how great composers like Haydn used them to great effect.

    But now that everything’s allowed, we accpet everything as “right.” It’s not so important that we have objective standards of distinguishing good and bad music; but, if anything, this emancipation has made the composer more God-like than ever (as Taruskin argues about Cage).

    The thing about being God is you don’t have to answer many questions. You can just say, Well that’s the world, and mysterious are My ways.

  4. david toub says:

    David, parallel fifths are perfectly beautiful. The rules against them had more to do with promoting independent voices than promoting great sound, which is illogical to me. The composer determines what is pleasing to him or her. There is no “right” or “wrong” if the end result produces something that grabs the composer.

    I am in the same camp as Stirling. Many things I’ve written started out very differently, and I don’t have much of a clue where things are going to go until I’m there. The opening of my string quartet for philip glass originally was going to be for string orchestra; a piece for electronic organ began life as a work for chorus. Mapping everything out, having a good sense of what the piece is going to sound like, what the notes will be, etc. all from the start seems to me to be too constructionalist for my tastes—kinda like the difference between an accountant and an abstract expressionist.

  5. It’s a question of statistics. The tonal system works so well because it has an elaborate set of rules that govern its statistical properties and prevent sonic outliers: In the key of C, you get more notes that are acoustically close to C than notes that are acoustically distant. You get more consonant intervals than dissonant ones. You can only move between harmonies with certain acoustical properties, and those moves are set up to establish statistical norms — thus a diminished 7 chord in the context of nothing but I and V for a long time seems out of place, but it seems perfectly at home if you have chromatic chords appearing regularly.

    Serialism, on the other hand, is the establishment of a new set of statistical rules. Each pitch is appears about the same amount, and the resulting reduction in consonant harmonies makes highly consonant harmonies seem out of place.

    Minimalism is about selecting a very limited statistical model so that small variations stand out more.

    “Wrong” notes are, thus, generally speaking, statistical outliers. There may be other rules that govern rightness and wrongness of notes too, but I think this one is dominant.

  6. andrea says:

    david, for wonderful parallel fifths in a ‘tonal’ context, check out william billings. nothing ‘wrong’ there.

    i don’t think about right and wrong when i pick the materials for a piece. yes, you can certainly say that by predetermining anything that automatically deliniates what i picked as ‘right’ and what i didn’t pick as ‘wrong.’ i just don’t think that way.

    there’s more than just statistics at work in functional harmony. rhythmic placement has a lot to do with its aural effect, too.

  7. rodney lister says:

    I’m not sure that it’s true that in serialism each pitch appears about the same amount of time–I don’t think that’s true of either Schoenberg or Babbitt’s music, and if you’re talking about various other kinds of serialism–Peter Maxwell Davies, for example, it’s certainly not true. As for consonant harmonies (whatever that means in the context of this conversation, but I presume triads), there are plenty of triads in Babbitt—and they sound pretty wonderful.

    Parallel Fifths do sound wonderful in Ravel and Debussy and Vaughan Williams (parallel triads, also–for instance, the beginning of the Third Symphony, but (with my theory teacher hat on) they can sound pretty lousy in harmony exercises of my students.

  8. It’s not the “You’re in, you’re out” bureaucratic mentality that makes music interesting. Simply don’t think about wrong notes. Concentrate entirely on the right notes – on what you want people to hear. A wrong note is nothing other than any note that doesn’t cut it – the worst notes are generally not the ones that “sound wrong”, it’s the ones that sound as if their presence doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.

  9. Without wrong notes there can be no melody.

  10. Rama says:

    i think you might be right jeff, but by your definition melody is basically tied to tonality. i think that melody can also exist by replacing the word “notes” with “sound” instead.

    Wikipedia says Melody is ‘a series of linear events or a succession, not a simultaneity as in a chord (see harmony). However, this succession must contain change of some kind and be perceived as a single entity (possibly Gestalt) to be called a melody. Most specifically this includes patterns of changing pitches and durations, while most generally it includes any interacting patterns of changing events or quality. “Melody may be said to result where there are interacting patterns of changing events occurring in time.”‘
    that’s a bit overboard, but i like the openness of possibilities there.

  11. Cary says:

    Some of my favorite pieces are mostly wrong notes. When they’re ALL right, somethings probably wrong.

  12. Rama says:

    in a choose your own adventure world, there is no such thing as wrong notes; only wrong decisions.

  13. That’s rationlization, Rama… white bread post-modern rationalization into dull meaninglessness.

  14. Rama says:

    maybe. but that’s all very subjective. i don’t really believe in right and wrong.it’s pretty late, and i’m typing and tipsy, and i don’t mean to get all existential, but i don’t see anything out of the ordinary about basing experience on rationalization, meaning logic….looked up rationalization on wiki,.. Rationalization in psychology is the process of constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process.
    Rationalization in hypnosis is the rational justification for obeying a suppressed post-hypnotic command.

    obeying a suppressed post-hypnotic command is interesting… i’m not sure that ‘s what it is,… but maybe! :) post-modern rationalization is why i have such a hard time reading the news! :) but then again that’s why i try to compose beautifulness, the best i can and the only way i can rationalize it is to find the beauty in the nonsensical.

  15. I’m wondering if the whole way the original question is framed is not somehow misleading. A dissonance was never a “wrong” note, just a note that required a special type of treatment. But that’s all dependent on context. David’s question seems to be, “how can I provide context so that certain notes can get to sound privileged?”

    This is often cast in a different way – according to which expressive notes are somehow the notes that disagree with the musical system and therefore carry tension. I wonder how far back the idea that “stepping outside the system” as an expressive device goes. Monteverdi?

    At any rate, the idea that a note would have this privileged, expressive position within a piece of music doesn’t seem to me to be a question of the composer “assigning” somehow to notes some “right” or “wrong” status. In the end, much as I love constructions, you do it by ear and you *can* only do it by ear. If I think up a system for deciding on arbitrary formal grounds which note is “right” and which is “wrong”, this may not be what my ears tell me.

    Now basically, on note level, what seems to me to be the way to get this sense of surprise is really very simple. You can have a “strange” note simply if it substantially diverts from the harmonic context it appears in. So if you have pentatonic music for a couple of minutes and you suddenly introduce a minoi ninth, that’s going to be heard as a special event. If you have a clear referential pitch (tonic), then every other pitch you introduce that works relative to this tonic is going to be an event.

    In all these things, distribution in time may be much more important than purely vertical note distributions assigning the “favored” notes. If you have pentatonicism for half a bar, then chromaticism for a quarter bar, then pentatonicism again, etc. it’s not going to be much of an event. Half an hour of pentatonicism and then you minor ninth might work though.

  16. pgbach says:

    No note is right or wrong in isolation. Rather, one must consider the context of each note by what proceeds and what succeeds it. In functional tonality, that is the “reason” for write prepapations and resolutions of “dissonances.” What I look for is the process which underlies each note. If a note is congruent with the process, the note is “right.” If a note is not congruent with the process, the note is “wrong.” I am reminded of the introductory lecture given by my 16th century counterpoint teacher: “This semester, I will teach you 110 rules. Next semester (in 18th century counterpoint), I will teach you have to break each of those rules.” This is a statement that reveals the very complexity of the compositional proces.

  17. pgbach says:

    “that is the ‘reason’ for write prepapations…” should be, “that is the ‘reason’ for writing preparations…..”

  18. Chris Sahar says:

    First off, great commentary so far for such a broad question. As someone who loves to compose but only took it seriously a few years ago (in my late 30′s) with private study in composition, organ and improvisation, I have written pieces with many “wrong” notes before my studies had me write stuff that I could consider good.

    My take on this topic is that the idea of wrong and right notes is really a part of a greater study in psychology. Tone and rhythmn, when organized in a highly satisfying structure, really can have a profound psychological effect — think of the music that you return to or admire . You may have hated it at first or loved it or it just fascinated you but it comes to you again and again. To attain this vital and profound effect a series of psychological expectations need to be set.
    So I’d be in the camp where there is no wrong note but rather a context of psychological expectations you choose and thereby you structure your composition. Of course it isn’t something which is always foreseen or planned — many ideas are fractured motifs delved from our sonic environment and with some work become the cellular material of our works – gesture. And if you are in a society where the musical language is tied to a series of emotional states and rhetorical devices as much of Western art music had been until the early 20th century, then the task is easier. In fact, that is late 20th and 21st century composers’ greatest challenge — how to compose for each other when many elements of music have been severed of the past’s extramusical associations (or we try to do so in any case).

  19. Rob Huebsch says:

    Delighted to have come across Sequenza21, in part for the quality of comments here on “right” and “wrong” notes. What’s peculiar for me is that only one writer, Stirling Newberry, said anything about what’s most important for any composer: having ideas. Or IDEAS. Maybe I’m just an old fuddyduddy at 71 now, but I’m appalled at how many composers are producing hours of music sans viable, expressive ideas. (I don’t mean pretty tunes!) No amount of craft and technique –regardless of style or musical philosophy– can make up for the lack of an IDEA, without which every note is necessarily wrong. And most likely, simply boring. Like 95% of Minimalism! The hard fact is that only truly gifted composers are capable of producing these ideas, the ones that grab us, and continue to do so. These fortunate ones are probably born to produce them, and their works have the unmistakable quality of seeming to grow organically from the inside out, whatever technique involved –and yes, including 12-tone– being applied in the service of the idea, as mortar to bricks. What I hear too often today is the work of highly skilled craftsmen or -women composers whose music seems to come from the outside in, uninformed by any deeper idea, any real inner voice. The inevitable result is a failure to communicate in purely musical terms (I don’t mean merely pleasing an audience), often resulting in shallow eclecticism, inappropriate –because untransformed and transcended– pop borrowings, and worse. It’s a sad day when so many, especially here in the USA, are of this sort, particularly if they’ve found positions of influence. Chris Sahar seems on to some of this. What it comes down to in the end: we await –or at least I do– the next Bartok, the next Lutoslawski. In the meantime the search for quality art music, assuminmg the very term is not yet obsolete, becomes ever more difficult. Any suggestions?

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