The Trivium Method in Musical Composition

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Musical composition is the process of making or forming a piece of music by combining the parts, or elements of music. As a starting point, it helps to understand that composers are generally not creating something out of nothing when they write a new piece. Instead, they are creating out of past experience – their understanding of music theory, what they’ve studied and listened too, what they would like to hear themselves – or maybe even just to answer some specific musical question they have. These are the things, parts, or elements they use. It really is about putting together the different elements of music

Our goal is to eventually create something new and unique, but not before we master that which has come before us. How then, do we go about learning to compose music?

The Process of Learning Musical Composition – The Trivium

The first step in learning to compose, is realizing that you are just beginning, and not to place too heavy a burden on yourself. Our job as composers is not to create masterpieces, but instead, piece together a master. A great corollary to learning to compose is found in the greek method of the Trivium. The Trivium follows three distinct phases if learning:

1. Grammar: A solid grasp of the fundamentals.
2. Logic: The ability to create logical arguments.
3. Rhetoric: The ability to persuade.

The Grammar of Music
There are many resources for learning to read music out there, and a quick google search should point you in the right direction. You’ll quickly find there isn’t all that much to reading music. The challenge lies more in becoming fluent, than becoming familiar. But also part of the fundamentals are the basics of music theory. Things such as scales, triads, and seventh chords. These are your building blocks. If music notation the alphabet, these are your words. And much like a child, you probably already have an aural knowledge of these “words”. You know what a major chord sounds like, or what a minor chord sounds like. But as a composer, your knowledge needs to go beyond the aural and superficial level. You need to understand exactly what they are.

The Logic of Music
Know the basics of theory, such as scales, and triads, the next step is to learn how these combine to create small scale, simple music. That is in fact exactly what my free beginner’s course teaches. Music’s apparent logic, comes from the fact that most of the music we hear follows the same guidelines. These guidelines become ingrained in our ears, and we expect to hear them. These expectations are built into the music. The logic is in understanding how to use these expectations.

The Rhetoric of Music
Great composer know about these expectations, and know how to use them to their advantage. Most of the time, they follow expectations, but sometimes they don’t. This is what great music is about. It is at this level, that you are like a greek rhetorician, persuading people to your musical view point.

Start With Basics
The Fundamentals of Music – Why you should focus on learning, or re-learning the basics? In this article I talk about the basics of not just composing, but being a musically minded person. Having the skills to look at and understand written music, or to play back by ear something you’ve heard, or even just listening to music is very important, and should be cultivated by anyone wanting to learn the fine art of music composition.

The Stages of Learning to Compose Music – Where are you on the path to becoming a composing master? Not all people are at the same place in their efforts of learning music composition. It is very important to take a step back and evaluate where you are in the spectrum of knowledge. Why? Well for one, it will give you focus in what you are learning, but almost more importantly, it will allow you to accept what you compose, based on your actual knowledge of the craft of composition. You can’t be too hard on yourself if you want to write like Mahler, but you’ve only been composing for a month. Be patient and the melodies and harmony will come to youe.

SOURCE: Jon Brantingham (2018) “Art of Composing”
Facebook Page: Music Psychology Research (MPR) 2010 / Psychological Assessment and Research Evaluation (PARE) 2014