Made From Scratch Part III

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

-Igor Stravinsky


I’m very pleased to bring you the third part in our series on composing from scratch! I continue to have hurdles get in my way, technological and otherwise; unlike the average blogger, I don’t have the most regular access to internet (on account of working in the middle of the ocean or in unusual parts of the world with no WiFi). I’ve actually been ready to post this video for about two weeks but haven’t had the internet to do it with!

I’ll be back on land in 3 months, so I’ll post one more Youtube video before then and another right when I set foot on solid ground. In the meantime, I’ll make another post or two directly to the blog (since they don’t take the same amountĀ  of bandwidth).

As promised in the video, we’ll be chatting today about moving between key centers. This is a basic, but important part of composing larger forms. There’s a few ways to approach this, but most of them start with the circle of 4ths:

Circle of 4ths

The simplest and most basic movement is around the circle, in either direction. Moving counter-clockwise is the more traditional route (C to G or E to B, for instance), but circling to the right is also effective. There’s something important missing from the larger picture, however:

Circle of 4ths with relative minors

The above circle of 4ths is completed with each major key’s relative minor. The relative minor is always the 6th step of the corresponding major scale. The major key and its relative minor also share the same key signature (Bb major and G minor both have two flats).

Moving between the relative major and minor keys is always a strong motion, and this modulation is probably the second most popular after moving a 5th away. Much like the previous example, you can also move left or right around the circle of 4ths in the minor mode (Bb minor to F minor or F# minor to B minor, for example).

This also opens up new possibilities, as we can jump inside or outside the circle at any time. So, if we are in the key of C, we should consider G major, F major, A minor, E minor, and D minor all as strong candidates for a new key center. The latter two (E and D minor) are not as strong, but still function very well.

We’ve been successful moving around a circle, but what about other geometric figures, like a triangle?

Circle of 4ths + giant steps

When we add two sides to our figure, we get a slightly weaker relationship. However these new key centers are still strong candidates and add a lot of color. Jazz aficionados should immediately identify this relationship as the heralded Coltrane changes. They’re also exhibited in the bridge of the classic “Have You Met Miss Jones?”.

Using this geometric method, the triangle should always point towards your particular home key. Right now it shows Cmaj-Abmaj-Emaj, however I could easily rotate it for Gmin-Ebmin-Bmin. Likewise, I can always move outside the circle and transpose from A minor to Ab major. These relationships are more distant, but still useful to consider. Composers as old as Bach would cadence to the minor 4th (C major to F minor, for instance).

Let’s try another shape:

Circle of 4ths + tritone subs

As we add sides to our geometric figure, we get a more fleeting harmonic connection. The most common movement here would be from C major to C minor. However, the other transpositions are still fair game. It isn’t often someone composes a theme in G minor and moves to Db major, but it’s still a viable option.

Circle of 4ths + half step

Now we’re getting into shapes that don’t quite fit. I finagled my pentagon to show the C-Db transposition -which is especially common in pop and Broadway literature. Let’s try one more:

Circle of 4ths with hexagon

Well, at least the hexagon fits. You’ll notice that we’re chasing our tails now, since the hexagon identifies the same three keys our triangle did. The only new relationships are the 5th of the 5th and the 4th of the 4th (D major and Bb major in this case). Of these two directions, the most common might actually be C major to G minor (which I actually use as a cadence as the end of my A section in the above video). Still viable, but less relative.

We’ve exhausted our geometric options, but I hope that I’ve identified some strong key relationships to help inform your future compositional endeavors. If you get bored moving around the circle, experiment with the triangle, square, etc. You’ll find your music taking on new color and beauty.

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