The goals of learning music theory do not have to be confined to mastering instrumental performance. No matter what role music plays in your life, learning music theory will make things clearer, more understandable, and enjoyable. Music theory and notation form the basis of composition; there are several types of musical styles and many more genres as well as sub-genres, but they can all be expressed through notation for the purpose of sharing them with performers. Becoming a composer means learning music theory at its highest level.
When composers write musical scores, they are immersed in music theory. Composition is an artistic endeavor, but it needs to be learned through an academic process that starts with understanding abstract concepts and how they associate with sounds and melodies. Children who complete the Prodigies programs during their early ages are in fact learning concepts that apply to music theory; once they are familiar with these concepts through fun activities, they advance to playing notes that they can associate with notation and symbols. In essence, Prodigies students work their way to reading sheet music thanks to color-coding of notes, and they can start doing this around the age of 6.
There is a good chance that children will learn about types of music composition and classical styles at some point during their elementary and secondary school years; this is often part of music appreciation courses that barely skim the surface of music theory and notation. Students who already know music theory from early learning will have an incredible advantage by the time they start with the history of music styles because they are able to envision how composers worked as they helped to create musical forms. This can also get them interested in composition. With all the above in mind, let’s review the classical types of music composition that have inspired musical creators through the ages:
The Basics of Composition Styles
We can boil down musical form down to Notation, Contrast, Variety & Repetition.
All the elements of music are highly flexible. Variety in composition is what defines musical styles. You can mix and match elements at will; moreover, you can also alter elements in order to come up with musical form. Learning about composition styles involves more than just history; musicians are inspired when they are able to distinguish established forms. The types of composition listed below go back as early as the Middle Ages, which is when music theory started to become an academic discipline.
Some music theory historians argue that concertos are at the highest level of composition, but not everyone agrees. It is easy to defend the argument of operas and symphonic works being more sophisticated than concertos, but what sets them apart is the solos. Early concertos featured three movements, but German composers such as Brahms preferred four. We can see this in his Piano Concerto Number 1, which is structured as Maestoso in D Minor, Adagio in D Major, Rondo in D Minor and Allegro in D Major.
A concerto is composed with more than just the orchestra in mind; the soloists are somewhat detached, and the high pressure to achieve perfection starts with the composer before it is transferred to conductors and performers. The double concertos of Antonio Vivaldi (Photo Source) come to mind in this regard; they are sublime, but they also require considerable effort from all performers.
You can think of a cadenza as being similar to a concerto minus the orchestra. Masterful soloists are called upon to perform these compositions, but they do not need to compete against other performers. The trick to composing a cadenza that resonates with audiences is knowing when and how the soloist will start playing. When a cadenza is part of a symphony, the orchestra can come to an abrupt or dramatic stop before the soloist takes over. This classical style of composition inspired the instrumental solos in blues, jazz, and rock genres.
This composition dates back to the Baroque period, but it was perfected during the Classical ages. In essence, a sonata is written for a soloist, duo, trio, or quartet. Although there is a single key for sonatas, they can be composed in two or four movements. Harmonization is crucial when writing sonatas for two instruments. The sonatas composed by Beethoven and Mozart are highly melodic; they resonated so much with audiences that they were later incorporated into other types of composition such as symphonies.
When you listen to Beethoven’s Third, you can easily discern the four movements played by the orchestra. This separation of movements proved to be very popular among chamber music audiences in the Classical period, which is why many modern composers stick to this structure, although they may throw in a sonata in the middle so that the symphony sounds like it consists of two halves. In the Romantic era, the distinction between the separate movements of the symphony began to dissolve. Beethoven himself thought that contrasting movement did not agree with audiences. Many music theorists since his time have tried to explain what he meant by this, and many have argued that there should be no clear-cut division between movements in a symphony.
The overture to a symphony or concerto is instrumental in nature and is meant to get the audience in the right mood for the work to come; a short sonata is a very common overture composition. These preludes are like short films or movie trailers that play before the main feature in modern cinemas. We can also think of them as opening bands for headliner rock concerts. In fact, the original purpose of overtures was to give music audiences time to settle in their seats at performance halls, but some of them became so famous that they stand as classics on their own. The William Tell Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and 1812 are examples of blockbuster overtures.
The structure of arias makes them sound easy because they involve just one singer who is tasked with showing off singing skills and vocal range but writing these compositions is not easy. Interestingly enough, some of the most respected aria composers in history could not sing at all, but they were mesmerized by the voices for whom they wrote. We know that the human voice is the most unique musical instrument, which is why arias can sound completely different from one performer to another.
These compositions are musical theater at their finest. In order to write an opera, the composer needs to follow a story that will need to be acted on stage. As a composition, operas are based on the principle of arias or vocal numbers. There are two forms of opera. One is the opera seria and the other is opera buffa. These two forms are the most popular of all the musical arts and have been around since the seventeenth century. The music is usually in the form of a short and simple aria or arioso with a short drama played on stage; there are exceptions such as Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which is not simple at all. In the first act, there may be some recitatives which are the dialogues between the characters in the scene. After the first act, there will be some movements played in between each act. Many operas last between five to six hours, and they can be exhausting for the performers.
Medieval church services in the Christian faith gave rise to plainchant, which can be performed by one singer, a chorus, or an entire audience in unison. Plainchant composers do not write music for instruments; however, this kind of composition can be challenging, particularly if there is an intention that the piece will become a hymn. Plainchant music has a distinct flavor to it and is usually performed in a one-voice setting. However, some compositions include more than one voice, particularly if a large chorus is performing. Plainchant is also written to be accompanied by instruments, but this is done using written instrumentation, so it is not the same as the singing of instruments such as with Gregorian chants.
Composers through the ages have appreciated the sheer beauty of Gregorian chants, which can be described as cantata compositions. Choral music takes things further by combining singers with orchestras. You need to write choral music with at least two singers in mind, but you can also borrow elements from other styles. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is written for as many singers as you can assemble in a choir, which is why it is referred to as the Symphony of a Thousand, but its first performance featured less than 500.