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I’ve talked about duration in any post where I’ve mentioned rhythm. This is a bit tricky to talk about. But interesting. Really interesting.


Two types of time

We live by two basic types of duration: clock-time and experiential time. Clock-time breaks our lives into chunks. Experiential time happens when we “lose track of time.” At these times we experience time going by more (or less) slowly than we thought.


We experience time as a flow instead of chunks.


Time and listening

When we listen to a piece of music we generally can’t tell how much time has gone by (unless we sit there counting seconds). We experience time based on our relationship to the music.


If we like what we’re hearing, time flies. If we hate it, it takes forever. In either case, we don’t separate time into equals portions. Instead we mark it by noticeable events in the music.


Music markers

So if we hear the guitar start we unconsciously create a time-marker. When the voice comes in, that’s another time marker. Then we might notice the bass, or the keyboards. Maybe the horn section plays a couple of shots in the verse.


All these things interact, occurring at different points in time.  The cool thing about music is that we notice some of it on the first listen, and something else on the second listen. And something else on each subsequent listen.


And then one day, we just stop listening.


Different time-senses

But while we listen, we get a different sense of time each time we do. If the song-writer or composer has done a good job, some of the stuff they’ve written will be “hidden.” “Hidden” just means supporting stuff like strings that sneak in and then disappear. Or a bass line where a couple of notes jump out of the texture.


Sometimes we notice these things, sometimes we don’t. And this means the song seems a bit different each time we listen to it. This is partly because the things we notice become time-markers, and our experience of time shifts on each listen.


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Types of Rhythm

Small-scale rhythm, large-scale rhythm, medium-scale rhythm. What do these things mean?


Essentially, it’s a matter of perception. How does the listener perceive the sounds that are coming at them? How does the composer control the sound in order to control those perceptions?


Small-scale rhythm

Small-scale rhythm is what most people think when they hear the word “rhythm.” It’s what you’re most aware of when you hear music. More than pitch or harmony, you hear and retain small-scale rhythm.


Here’s an example.



This kind of thing can be repeated over and over to create a type of hook.


Medium-scale rhythm

Medium-scale rhythm refers to where the stress is placed in each bar. Over the course of a phrase of music (say 3 bars), a listener will be aware of accents in each bar that add up to a coherent rhythm.


So take the rhythm above and add accents, and you might get this:

medium-scale rhythm


As a listener you notice those accents and unconsciously form a background rhythm superimposed on the small-scale rhythm.


Large-scale rhythm

Large-scale rhythm is more abstract. It’s usually communicated in musical events that stand out from those around it. These don’t occur that often, but a listener notices them.


They could be the entry of a new instrument, or a chord that’s louder than all the ones around it. It could be a change of rhythm. These types of events act as mile-stones.


Thinking about what the musical milestones are in both songs and instrumental pieces gives you something to move toward when you’re writing. It also makes the whole thing more coherent for the listener.


These large-scale things often occur intuitively as you’re writing, and it’s easy to miss them. Stay aware, and you’ll have material to build the whole piece around.



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There are a ton of resources on the net for learning about composition.


From my Pinterest page (where you might find other things of interest).


If conventional composition is what you’re looking for, try this resource.


I’ll keep trying to put stuff up that you won’t find anywhere else. Not that the ideas are totally unique. But I  haven’t found them expressed in this way anywhere else.



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Repetition 2

Create a phrase of music that demonstrates repetition. Then use the list from the last post to vary it.


Here’s an example.

phrase for rep1a

This isn’t intended to sound musical. It’s just a few ideas strung together. The focus is on how to change it as it repeats.


Here are a few variations.


Variation 1: change the bass

phrase for rep1

Variation 2: change the bass and treble

phrase for rep2

Variation 3: add chords

phrase for rep3

Variation 4: add chords change melody

phrase for rep4

Look over these variations and you’ll notice that pitches change, but the rhythm stays the same throughout.


Also notice that the pitches in the top staff all stay inside the staff. Most of the pitches in the bottom staff do, too. So rhythm and register are really constrained.


Think about all the stuff you could do if you varied the rhythm a bit, and stretched out with the pitches…

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Repeat stuff

In the last few posts, I defined some relationships for a simple musical entity. Now what?


This is the question every composer asks after the initial idea presents itself. What do Ido with what I’ve got? We answered that question in the last post by adding articulation, dynamics, and instrumentation. But how do we make it longer?



Play it. Play it again. Play it one more time, but change it a bit. This technique has been around for quite awhile. The trick lies in how you make things repeat.


Make a list of how to do that. Here’s a start.


When you repeat an idea:


  1. Play it exactly
  2. Change one note
  3. Add one note
  4. Subtract one note
  5. Numbers 3 and 4 using two notes instead of one
  6. Change dynamics
  7. Change anything else
  8. Change one note while adding or subtracting one note
  9. Think of other combinations
  10. Think of completely different ideas

There’s so many things you could do. Don’t censor yourself as you generate ideas; change stuff after you’ve tried it.


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Change the relationship

Let’s add some more ways to play those two note ideas I’ve been talking about. Doing this creates new relationships.


Idea A: Dynamics

 music relationship1


Idea B: Instrumentation

 music relationship2


Idea C: Articulations

music relationship3


So we’ve created three ways to say the same thing differently. Pretty simple. If you were using language this could be thought of as a change of tone.


Mixing ideas

Mixing these simple ideas together can yield complex results. What happens when you follow idea A with idea C? How does going from a quiet dynamic to staccato make you want to proceed? (The complexity emerges from how you proceed, by the way; just sticking a couple of things together doesn’t do it.)


Respond intuitively, then analyse what you’ve done (intuition to intellect). Maybe just thinking of dynamics made you repeat the figure, get gradually louder and end loud and staccato. Or maybe you alternated between quiet/staccato and quiet/no staccato.


Don’t just take these ideas and stick them together. Play them and let stuff happen. Think of all the things you could do. Then write that stuff down.


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