Chapter 11.

Getting started pt. 1

Method 1, creating a plan

For our first foray into TONL we can start by finding something we would like to translate into a musical experience.  It can be anything at all. This idea of having a musical sound represent a thought or emotion I have taken from Steve Vai’s 1989 publication Martian Love Secrets part 3, Emulating a State of Experience and adapted it to work for me. Steve Vai is a guitarist who wrote this particular column to help guitarists who claimed to have writer’s block, or who had got stuck in a rut of writing the same kind of music.  I found this method extraordinarily useful in helping me to find my own musical voice, and it has played a large part in the development of TONL.  I have quoted a portion of the column below.

“If you ever feel you’re just meandering on guitar, or bogged down, here’s an exercise that will help improve your rapport with your instrument. Think of the last few days, and break them down into a series of individual events. Pick one event and play it back in your head a few times. Your emotions will probably change as you feel that state of mind again. Now construct a musical situation that reflects that state of mind. It could be a chord, a progression, a lick, a melody, a sound effect, a whole sonata, or just a single note.

If you are thoroughly saturated in that state of mind, your playing will reflect it. This is where the magic power of music comes in. Take, for example, a simple chord: a construction of notes being struck, strummed, plucked or hacked a certain way can represent a state of mind. Start by imagining the type of chord you think best suits the state of mind you’ve hypnotised yourself into. Once you hear that chord in your head, try constructing it on your guitar. If you feel you’re losing sight of your goal, replay the event in your head and imagine the sound of the chord again. When you think you have a harmonic structure that represents your state of mind, play it over and over, keeping your mind fixed on the event you’re emulating (as we did in Martian Love Secrets Part 2). Your playing approach, and maybe even the chord itself, may change to suit the mental environment more precisely.

Next, try stringing a few chords together to help represent your state of mind. They can be simple or complex, familiar or unusual. There’s a chord progression performance to match every human experience that ever was or ever will be. With that in mind, you’re not likely to run out of ideas.

Now try playing a riff, single note, or melody that reflects the events in your mind. When you find something satisfactory, keep repeating it as the event runs through your head. Remember, finding a tempo and groove for your state of mind is important — it’s one of the biggest factors of expression. We all know how different grooves make us move and feel different ways.

Eventually you’ll find yourself changing what you’re playing a bit, in order to better match your state of mind. The bridge between what you’re playing and what you’re thinking will get smaller and smaller until it feels as though you and your instrument are one. It’s very special when this happens. It takes work, discipline, concentration and patience, but sometimes it happens when you don’t even realise it (and it’s important not to get strung out if it doesn’t happen).”

Martian Love Secrets

If we take his method away from the guitar and apply it more generally to composition as a whole, it's not a far stretch to see how we can use this method to translate anything into music.  It could be a piece of art, or a poem, or standing in line at the DMV, or the first sip of hot tea on a cold morning.

Start with a plan - This is quite simple.  Essentially, before we write any notes we decide how many beats, bars, seconds, or minutes we want for each kind of harmonic section.  For the sake of completeness I will show how this might look in the micro sense as well as in the macro. By planning out a piece like this it forces us to follow a formula which makes the composed music distinctly more structured.


1 - 3

Expose tone-row material slowly, use long note values and reveal row note by note

4 - 10  

Allow tone-row notes to begin to intermingle, expose primarily moderate dissonances when notes sound together

11 - 14

Harmonies expressed in the previous measure get developed. Begin to jump around tone-row non sequentially but still don’t allow any notes to take precedence. (in other words, move away from the serialisation of the row, but keep the chromaticism that the row provides intact) 

15 - 18

Start gradually eliminating contradictory tones to allow the key of Bb dorian to be heard. (Bb dorian’s pitches start to take precedence over other tones)

19 - 29

Allow unfettered Bb Dorian to reign throughout most of the passage but around the halfway point place a jarring contradictory tone (E natural) in an extreme register.  Doesn’t need to be dynamically accented.

30 - 40

Let the previously heard E natural start to become more prominent.  Stop using Bb and Db but maintain other Bb dorian pitches.  (C Eb F G Ab)

41 - 42

Have the now rather prominent E natural tonicise in E major. Avoid B, keep G around but hidden

43 - 55

E major and E minor vye for exposure, F natural continually makes an appearance in the bass.  Quietly at first and then with building fervour.

56 - 57

Bb dorian material starts to reappear but with G flat (Use Bb dorian material but this time in Bb Aeolian)

58 - 61

Start to hint at serialised row again.   Introduce snippets in three and four note sequences.

62 - 70

Row is fully realised by the end of 70.  There can be brief remembrances of the Bb dorian episode and the E major/minor episode.


You might describe the larger structure of this piece as being in some kind of sonata form although you can easily adjust the above plan to suit another formal structure.


0:00 - 3:00

Open with a melody and accompaniment texture.  Harmonic material is dark and clouded melodic material is bright and clear.  By the end of this section the texture dissolves into a driving rhythm.

3:01 - 4:30

Driving rhythmic figures prevail, avoid melodies.  Outbursts of chords distract from the driving rhythm.  Chords should follow this pattern:

Triadic—close cluster—wide less dissonant cluster—quartal chord
4:31 - 5:15

Pitches from the bright and clear melody gradually work their way into accompanimental figures.

5:16 - 5:45

Opening melody appears again this time using pitch patterns that fully contradict the accompanimental material.  Dark has become light and vice versa.

5:46 - 6:00

End with a non sequitur. Maybe pitches dissipate leaving only a rhythmic motive from earlier.  It can’t be too obvious, for example put a duple time figure into compound time so as to obscure its connection to earlier material.


Planning in this way can be a great way to give programmatic impetus to a work.  You can put as much or as little detail into the plan as you find helpful.  You should also allow yourself to stray from and return to the plan as needed.

What we must try to avoid is the feeling of constantly switching between tonal and atonal music, or serialised music and diatonic music.  If we are utilising the method well, then we remain always somewhere in between these different worlds.  Even when we are seemingly, fully within one tonal realm or another, we can’t allow it to overly, firmly establish itself, otherwise it weakens the other sections and weakens the composition as a whole.