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Piano duo

I’m in midst of writing a piano duo. Here are the first bars of the left hand of one of the pianos.


2pianos,bar 1


Basically, it’s the same four chords repeated. At a certain point this stops being interesting if you don’t change something. There’s a lot that can change. In this post I’m just talking about melody.

But first some terminology.

When there’s four notes in a chord, it makes it easier to talk about if we give each note a name. Conventionally,we do this using vocal terminology.


The lowest note is the Bass:

The second lowest note is the Tenor:

The second highest note is the Alto:

The highest note is the Soprano





Movement of voices: notes

Maybe it’s just me, but I like to identify possibilities by creating categories. When there are lots of possibilities, this can keep you from going crazy, and allow you quicker access to your ideas. I’m working with two categories here: notes and intervals.

A note is a single thing; an interval implies a relationship between two notes.

When I think about changing notes, I don’t think about changing relationships. If I’m not changing the relationship between notes, the entire melody stays the same, since I’m maintaining the same intervals between the notes (bear with me here).

If I want to maintain the melody of any voice but change the notes, all I can really do is transpose the entire sequence. This makes it really clear that the voice is changing. Here’s the soprano melody transposed up a whole step. I know: not much of a melody, but it gives me room to move.


sop melody transposed


I can do this with any one of the voices, or any combination of them. If I move only one of them, I can’t go far before I get in the way of the other voices. Outer voices can move further (i.e. soprano can go higher, bass can go lower).

If I move all of them, completely new chords emerge, and there’s a sense of expansion and contraction as voices move apart and back together.


Movement of voices: intervals

When I think intervals, however, I can change any one of the notes and leave the rest. I can also change two, three, or four notes; I don’t have to concern myself with maintaining the original melody of the voice. This opens things up tremendously.

Having said that there should be some relationship to the original. If you’re changing one note, that means the other three will maintain their original shape.


sop melody,1 change


Changing two notes makes the original less distinct, although if you maintain the contour that helps.


sop melody,2 changes



Or you may just want to destroy the whole thing and rebuild it. This allows you to use  transformation to make things more interesting. Here’s a simple example using the soprano melody.


sop melody changed


If you want, you can make the process from transformed melody to original melody take a lot longer, and the melody can be as chromatic as you want it to be.

So if you think intervals, you get more options. The danger is creating lack of clarity. Always try to find a way to refer to the original statement if you want the listener to follow you.

And remember: I’ve only talked about a single voice so far. Every change I make in one voice creates new relationships between it and the other voices.

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