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From score study to original musical composition: How research and creative activity inform each other

From an interview with Thomas McKenney, Professor, Composition and Music Theory

Johann Sebastian Bach was very much a tonal composer who wrote contrapuntal compositions, “which are linear in design with some vertical concepts as well.” For example, Bach would have the basses sing the melody at one point, and the altos later, creating a linear, contrapuntal design. Through such research into the work of other composers, McKenney seeks to understand how other composers have handled a certain idea, concept, or technique.

Employing harmonic vocabulary

From an interview with Thomas McKenney, Professor, Composition and Music Theory

Tonality refers to the tendency of music to gravitate toward or around a pitch (or pitch class). It’s a kind of harmonic vocabulary frequently used by composers, so that “as long as there’s some pitch that’s pulling everything to it, we refer to it as ‘tonal,’” he explains, playing some chords to illustrate the tonal concept that influences and is defined by Western ears. According to legend, when Mozart sat down one evening and wrote the overture to Don Giovani, the ink was still wet when he gave it to the players. We marvel at this kind of prolific genius, yet music theorist Morton Subotnick contended that “Mozart was really improvising within a tonal system that was already set for him. He didn’t have to be concerned about the harmonic function of stuff.” One chord seemed to lead naturally to another. “The problem for twentieth-century composers,” says McKenney, “is that they must design their own tonal systems.” One might see this freedom as a blessing, but McKenney contends that, as far as composing music goes, sometimes too much freedom isn’t a blessing at all: “At some point in time, you have to put shackles on yourself and limit yourself; otherwise, it can be chaotic as far as the piece goes.”