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“What shall I do next?” – Musical Form

Posted By: ryan On:


One of the greatest music books I’ve ever read is “Musical Structure and Design” by Cedric T. Davie. I have read many books on musical form, and this one is in my top three. Rather than just spell out the patterns of typical forms (Rondo, Sonata, etc.), he gets into the theoretical details of why certain forms work, and how to put that knowledge to practical use.

But of all the great wisdom in this book, the most brilliant moment is right at the beginning. He manages to sum up the precise problem myself and every student I have ever worked with has struggled with and been tormented by.

Ever since there have been men who have deliberately set out to compose pieces of music, and to give them a more or less permanent form by recording them in writing, they have been faced with one problem above all others. That problem arises at some point during the progress of the composition, and stated badly, it takes the form of the question “What shall I do next?”

Writing music to picture is easy. You just do what has to be done in the space you are given. But writing music away from picture is difficult, especially at the begin when you’re staring at a blank page (or more likely, screen).

A study of form is the key to learning how to go from an idea into a full blown piece of music.

Davie’s book is great, but I recommend “Analyzing Classical Form” by William Caplin even more. That book really blew me away, which I’ll discuss in greater detail another time.


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