Inside the Community – Nathanael Iversen – How to Find a Musical Theme

When accessing the Creative Pool, one must vary the approach based on what one needs. That is why it is easier to go back repeatedly than to get everything at once. Let us first consider getting a theme for a new composition. A good theme most often contains a few simple notes. Long complex themes full of syncopation and odd rhythms aren’t usually good themes because they are already fully developed. Where can you go if it is already fully decorated, subdivided, syncopated and developed in every way? No, we need a clear, simple statement that is just nebulous enough to have lots of possibilities to expand it, comment on it, restate it, and modify it.

So, when listening for a theme, we have to slow down and find beauty in the simple. I find that wild improvisation, trying to be impressive, or even trying to be harmonically “cool” are all counter-productive at this early stage. Just a simple idea that spawns more ideas is what I’m looking for. If I can take a short 2-3 bar phrase and then 16 bars of commentary spill out, that’s perfect. More than enough. So my search is for an interesting two or three bars that leave me stranded, away from the tonic, and needing more to find the resolution. I’m not looking for a whole piece or even a section.

I can sit at the piano and play for 10 minutes, fancy parts, beautiful lush harmonies, complex interlocking parts – something that is pleasant enough to listen to, and yet, it may not contain a single theme. It may be too dependent on the craft and fancy bits. Sounds nice, but may be too developed.

So how to approach getting a theme? I find it easier in scales that I know very well, and harder in scales that are not as familiar. But this is where simplicity and ease can save the day. Just play with the scale, particularly around the altered notes. Let’s consider a scale like the “Gypsy Minor” (it contains the altered scale tones -2, -3, -7) or Scale #6 in M.I.T.A. terminology. Most of us probably don’t improvise often on a scale that has scale tone -2 in it.

But that’s exactly where to start! That -2 is close to the -7. Those two alterations to the scale sound much different than a standard minor or major scale. That difference provides the color of this scale, so why not try to feature it, exploit it, or otherwise use it? Play around with lines starting, ending or passing through these notes, and I’ll bet something occurs to you. Does this scale prefer an authentic or a plagal melody for the register and key you want? Put that knowledge to use!

You can do the same with the chords in an unfamiliar scale. Write out the interval formulas for the chord built on each note of the scale. Scale #6 has two minor (3+4), one major (4+3), two 4+4 structures, a 3+3, and a strange 4+2 structure. So we can immediately see that this scale has outstanding harmonic possibilities – just not very normal ones! Three structures with a “4” interval all want to go places – really almost anywhere, and the 3+3 connector ties perfectly back to Scale #11 (that’s the Harmonic Minor Scale), which is the reflection of Scale #6. So before we even get going, we know that this scale implies several unstable harmonic “gateway” structures, and connects seamlessly to Scale #11 in multiple ways. If we mix and match, with Scale #6 and #11, we can get major or minor chords for the V-chord, and lots of color and modulation opportunities. How we choose to use these possibilities will define the character of our piece. But we don’t need that for a theme, that will all get used later in sketching and developing. For now, it is enough to just discover these possibilities and let them germinate.

The scales, reflections, and chords with intervals exercise takes 8 measures to write out, and perhaps 5 minutes in total. I always do it. Even on familiar scales. It is good to put black marks on the paper. Now it is not empty! If I have something on it, I know I can put more things on it. It is an easy start, so I take it. Every time. This way I never have to fear the blank page! I start with something almost mechanical, and the page isn’t blank anymore.

If you’d prefer to continue using tools to generate the theme, instead of listening, consider the “odd” interval – the 4+2. 4+2 (or its reflection 2+4) both occur several places in the Matrix of Ear Training (see the M.I.T.A. Basic Course). Run out these intervals or play them with various combinations: 4+2+1, 4+2+2, 4+2+3, and so on. Invert these like 2+4+1, 1+2+4, etc. … what pattern tickles your ear? What other scales contain this interval pattern? What chords are only one chromatic step away from this structure? You can use all of this to start your theme. Then what happens next? Raise it, lower it, contract or expand the intervals. And you are off – the start of a theme and one that has built-in harmonic implications.

Pretty powerful stuff. Best always and see you in the next article,


About the Author

Nathanael Iversen

Nathanael is a person of many talents!

He is a very successful entrepreneur and a passionate music-lover. Not only is he the “face of Music Interval Theory Academy” but also a generous contributor to the community, like M.I.T.A. round-tables or the Facebook group.

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