Music Composition 1: Musical Formulas

by Gary Guttman · 6 comments

As a working composer, I have to create large amounts of quality music in very short periods of time. This is not meant to sound boastful. It is simply the requirement for working as a Hollywood composer “for hire.” I’d like to say that I produce absolutely original, never before heard pieces of music every time I have an assignment. But that’s simply not the case.

Not even the great masters of musical composition can make that claim. It’s simply not possible. Whether it is Beethoven, Brahms, The Beatles or Beck, great music is created with the aid of musical formulas. While the formulas themselves may change as styles and tastes change, formulas still provide the necessary ingredients that make music appealing to the ears. Just as chefs rely on time­ tested recipes when creating their dishes, composers rely on their own set of musical recipes.

So what kind of musical formulas do we use? Well, for starters there are melodic formulas. These are often connected to your choice of musical scales. For instance, if I wanted to compose a melody filled with wonder, I might first try using the lydian scale for my choice of melody notes. If I was trying to express a pastoral feeling, I might employ the pentatonic scale. And if I needed to create a quirky mood, I might use the diminished scale or possibly the lydian scale again. Just the sound of these unique scales can inspire a melody.

There are also harmonic formulas. Chords such as minor 6th or minor 9th chords can create melancholy instantly. A major 7th chord can sound wistful and an augmented chord immediately makes us take notice. Just like the sound of a musical scale, a certain harmony can set your melodic wheels in motion. Choosing the right harmonies greatly accelerate the process of composition. If you’re not confident in your choice of harmonies, simply use one of the dozens of well established chord progressions. Since the choice and the order of these harmonies have been predetermined, you simply have to craft a melody that complements the chord progression.

Rhythm also has its share of formulas. You couldn’t create a march without some instrument playing a steady pattern of eighth and sixteenth notes. It would be hard to create a swaying feeling without employing either a 3/4 or 6/8 meter. And delicate love themes should employ a minimum of rhythmic movement so as not to be distracting.

And finally, there are orchestrational formulas. Whether writing for a full symphony orchestra or a jazz quartet, instrumental formulas are always in play. For example, magical moments are typically accompanied by harp glissandos. Musical tension is frequently emphasized in the string section by use of the bowed tremolo. Comedic moments are enhanced courtesy of the xylophone. And sharp dissonance is easily achieved when the brass are playing minor 2nd harmonic intervals.

There is nothing wrong with using musical formulas in your own compositions. If Beethoven and The Beatles did it, so can you. Learn the most successful musical formulas and much more in our new Secret Composer software. Hear what each formula sounds like and discover how best to use them for your own compositions. Composing becomes simpler once you have the right tools at your disposal.

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Baba May 25, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Hi Gary,

When should I start looking forward to SC II. SC is the best music program ever.

Please keep me imformed.


Gary Guttman May 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Hi Baba,

Thanks so much for the great compliment. It’s nice to hear that our efforts are appreciated.

I would estimate that it will take us at least another year or two to finish volume two. As you already know, besides the basic writing of the text and the musical compositions, there is a ton of computer programming that goes into creating the finished software.

What I will try to do in the meantime is to create more blog posts that contain musical audio examples and text. So you can look forward to some more mini lessons in my upcoming blog posts. Those do take some time to create, but they’re not as intricate as the software lessons.

Thanks again for your note – it’s always nice to hear how we’re doing.

– Gary

Baba June 3, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Hi Gary,

could you please continue to post those vital comments and suggestions such as musical composition, musical formulas, what film composers should know and so on. I really do enjoy those comments and reading from you as well.


Gary Guttman June 3, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Hi Baba,

I just added a new post today on “odd meters”. Check it out.

– Gary

James Handshoe January 31, 2010 at 2:57 pm


I love the program so far. Every lesson is great and useful for my personal compositions and great for teaching my music theory class. Is there a chance to get some posts on latin music? That would be a great addition to SC! Take care and thanks for the great software!

James Handshoe

Gary Guttman January 31, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Hi James,

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the program! I’ll add your suggestion about Latin music to my ever increasing list of topics that I’d love to cover. Since you’re a music teacher, you’re probably already teaching your students about the particular scales and rhythms that are most popular in Latin music. And of course it never hurts to end the composition with the root minor 6th chord.

Best of luck with your teaching and composing!

– Gary

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