Saturday, March 01, 2008

Top Down Music Composition

In a previous article I proposed that Top-down and Bottom-up Design approaches common to software development might also be applied to modern music composition and production.

This article expands on the concept of Top-Down composition.

If you're not familiar with the term, Wikipedia defines Top-down as follows:

"...essentially breaking down a system to gain insight into its compositional sub-systems. In a top-down approach an overview of the system is first formulated, specifying but not detailing any first-level subsystems. Each subsystem is then refined in yet greater detail, sometimes in many additional subsystem levels, until the entire specification is reduced to base elements".

Traditional music composition is, by and large, a 'Top Down' process. Let me explain by first beginning with a postulation:

Melody is a series of pitches that relate to one another in a sequential and linear fashion. In traditional composition a composer is first inspired by a melody, or that melody is the result of inspiration resulting from impressionable thought, enlightenment or experience.

This initial melodic information may be small, a motif perhaps, or it may be a fully developed musical statement, comprised of several variations upon a single motif and include a series of phrases in its development and eventual conclusion.

Any melody –in fact, every melody– will by itself imply a suitable harmony, a result we intuit based on intervallic relationships we experience as we step through the series of tones.

Typically, melodic information is sounded using tonal information performed with higher pitches relative to the accompanying harmony. In fact, we perceive the tonal information that makes up the harmony as supportive of the melody and we call its specific arrangement an accompaniment.

Think of a singer, especially a soprano, delivering a vocal expression seemingly 'above' an orchestra or band. Beneath the singer we can hear the bass at the very bottom of the register. In between we have 'inner voices' inhabiting a mid range.

Whether you look at a notated score or use only your ears to judge, it is natural to sense melody as positioned ‘on top' of all other sonic information.

Clever composers, improvisers and songwriters will suggest or play around with chord substitutions, but for the purposes of this entry, let's stick with basic implied harmony.

However a work of music is arranged, a basic harmony part (or parts) is usually performed using tonal information below the register inhabited by the melody. We say harmony supports melody, and therefore think of harmony as beneath melody even though up and down is really just a construct of our own making.

So when I describe ‘Top Down’ Composition, I mean a musical work composed in the following manner: Melody as the first frame of reference followed by harmony made manifest in so far as it may be implied by the melody (albeit arranged into an accompaniment of the composer's choosing).

Bottom Up music construction, which I'll describe further in the next article, shares more in common with sound design than with traditional composition.

Center Out, meanwhile, is marked by organic meandering common in processes that expand outward from an undeveloped idea. Whenever the germ of the idea is less than a complete melody, the process is Center Out (or a combination of Center Out and Bottom Up if Time and Rhythm have been established).

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Click on any link below to read all the articles in the six-part series detailing the changing relationship between Traditional Music Composition and Modern Music Production:


Part 1: Top Down, Center Out and Bottoms Up
Part 2: Top Down Music Composition
Part 3: Bottom Up Audio Production
Part 4: Film Composer, Sound Maker or Music Designer?
Part 5: Songwriter Vs. Song Designer
Part 6: Music By Design