Music Composition 7: Mixing Musical Styles

by Gary Guttman · 4 comments

The basic vocabulary of music as we know it has been around for centuries, dating as far back as Medieval times. While we know ancient music existed, it hasn’t been well documented.

Since the early days of documented music, our melodies and harmonies have evolved to the point where virtually any combination of notes is accepted as music. This hasn’t always been the case. Hundreds of years ago, the interval of a simple tritone (C to F#) was shunned and even named diabolus in musica, or “the devil in music”. Nowadays, we wouldn’t think twice about using the tritone interval.

Over the years, musical styles have evolved as well. The simplicity of Gregorian chants from Medieval times transformed into the complex and ornamental lines and counterpoints of the Baroque period. This gave way to the simple melodies and phrasings of the Classical period. This was followed by the Romantic period, when harmonies and melodies emphasized emotion and fantasy. This led to the Impressionist movement, where new, exotic harmonies created dreamy clouds of sound. The response to this was modern music where dissonance and bold gestures knew no bounds.

In recent times, we’ve witnessed the rapid procession of differing styles of popular music. One need only to compare ragtime to techno and big band to hip hop in order to see the dizzying array of recent musical styles. And thanks to our modern age of travel and communications, music of cultures throughout the world are easily accessible to the curious listener.

It’s virtually impossible to create a new musical language or style that hasn’t been heard before. Any new style will simply be a derivation of a previously existing style. That’s why the trend these days is to combine previously existing styles into new sounds. While the individual elements might not be new, the resulting mix is a refreshing change.

By use of imagination and experimentation, any musical style can be bred with any other musical style. One wouldn’t normally think of the electronic sounds of techno music blending with the traditional instruments of a symphony orchestra. But that’s just what we hear in this short musical example.

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Notice the contrast between the rich tones of the violins and French horns, and the sharp, energetic groove of the electronic techno instruments. While the electronic instruments play fast musical patterns, the symphonic instruments alternate between slower melody lines and fast, accented ones. In addition to the violins and French horns, we hear from the trumpets, trombones and xylophone. No one instrument sounds out of place. They all work together to create a rich and exciting tapestry of sound.

Experiment with combining totally different styles of music. Even if the genres differ wildly from each other, you can always find elements within a style to complement another style. Enjoy the process. You might be surprised with what you hear.

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Mohammed Ajaj September 22, 2009 at 11:36 am

I am a sinniger and compos songs in sudan I want to be the one who make music and improve myself in music and also study and teach music

ishmael nyamuda September 25, 2009 at 6:59 am

i liked your site but would like to learn how to read music and learn how to read notes can you help me please

devonte lowe April 24, 2010 at 7:03 pm

i been learning music composing and theory for five years. i have a question that im trying to get.
1). how do i learn 2 do different styles of music? is it based on the chord progression? im trying to get my melodies to be in different styles also, i play piano and make beats. please help?

Gary Guttman April 25, 2010 at 2:17 am

Hi Devonte,

Excellent question. There are several elements all working together that shape music into specific styles. The most obvious one to our ears is the instrumentation itself.

For example, if you a take a rock song and rearrange it for a string quartet, the music will now take on a strongly classical flavor. You could also take that same piece of music and rearrange it for the accordion, acoustic bass and drum set and it will sound like polka music. And you could also take that same piece and make it sound jazzy by using jazz related instruments such as the vibraphone and saxophone.

So the first thing the ear picks up on is the instrumentation itself. But to really make the music sound authentic to a specific style, you also need to focus on other elements such as tempo, meter, harmony and melody. For example, to make your rock song sound a little more like polka music, you might have to speed up the tempo a little to give it that fun polka feel. And if you want to rearrange that song to have a jazz flavor, you might want to adjust the meter of your music so that it’s in a swing or triplet feel.

Then there’s the issue of harmony. To give a piece of music an authentic jazz feel, you will want to use jazz harmonies like the Major 7th chord, as well as the 9th, 11th and 13th chords. Jazz also uses a technique called “chord substitutions” that help color your harmonies in a very cool way. For example, in pop music, if you’re in the key of C and are playing the tonic chord and want to go to the IV chord – the F chord – you might insert a C7 chord to help emphasize the move to the F chord. But in jazz, you would substitute the bass note of the C7 chord with the note F#, and remove the note G in that chord. So instead of a C chord to a C7 chord to an F chord, you would use a C chord to a C7 chord with an F# bass (and no G note) to an F chord. If you try this, you will immediately hear that the music sounds more jazzy.

And then there’s the issue of melody. Since most pop melodies are based on scales, you would use different scales to create the melodies in various moods and styles. For example, the natural minor scale is very effective for sad ballads. The pentatonic scale is very effective for rock songs as well as “world music”. The diminished scale can also help color your music with an exotic flavor.

I would strongly recommend you check out the Secret Composer software where we teach you the various styles that can be created by using different scales, harmonies, rhythms and orchestration. You also asked if different styles are based on different chord progressions. I think you would really enjoy the chapter called “13 Lucky Chord Progressions” where we demonstrate how chord progressions are used in several varying styles.

As you can see, there is no simple answer to your question. But the more knowledge you have about music, the easier it will be for you to compose in any style of music you desire.

Hope that helps!

– Gary

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