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Unifying techniques in musical compositions

Any musical composition may be analyzed from the perspective of attempting to reveal its various facets of unity and variety. A work may often prove to be satisfying to the listener when these elements are in judicious balance. Notwithstanding that, however, the predominant features of any given musical masterpiece are unquestionably the work's successful unifying elements. Unity in music is achieved when a composer creates musical relationships, thus making the various aspects of the music seem to fit well together. By contrast, variety is attained through the avoidance of such relationships or through the introduction of new material. A composer's formal musical training traditionally concentrates mostly on the mastering of unifying techniques in musical composition.

Some years ago, Dr. Martha Baker-Jordan and I authored two books whose primary purpose is to teach certain basic unifying compositional techniques: Learn to Compose & Notate Music and Composing at the Piano, both published by Hal Leonard Corporation, both still in print, and both required texts in my Fundamentals of Music courses at NYC's Pace University. In introducing these books to my classes every semester, I enjoy presenting a sartorial unity/variety color analogy to my students by pointing out to them that my brown shoes, brown socks, brown trousers and brown belt are unifying color elements, and my green shirt is the contrasting color variety element.

Specific techniques of unifying musical relationships

Some of the most commonly seen compositional unifying techniques include:

• Exact repetition of a motive (a short musical idea) or phrase.

• Exact sequence of a motive or phrase. Sequence refers to repetition starting on a different pitch, with the intervals between any two consecutive pitches of the original motive or phrase duplicated exactly.

• Interval inversion, which refers to the intervals of a motive presented upside down, in mirror image. (As an example, if in a given motive an interval goes up three half-steps, then in interval inversion the interval will instead go down three half-steps.)

• Retrograde, which is the presentation of the pitches of a motive in backward order, usually (but not always) in the same rhythm in which the motive appeared in forward order.

• Altered-interval sequence, which refers to sequence at times with larger intervals (intervallic augmentation), and/or sometimes with smaller intervals (intervallic diminution). Composers generally use altered interval sizes in sequences for two reasons: to generate variety and surprise, and to enable the composer to stay within a key or scale.

• Altered-rhythm repetition, which refers to the repetition of the pitches of a motive in an altered rhythm, such as smaller durational note values (rhythmic diminution), and/or larger durational note values (rhythmic augmentation). These techniques offer the ability to create variety and to enhance the music's dramatic effect.

• Fragmentation, which refers to the re-appearance of a portion of a motive rather than the motive in its entirety.

"God Bless America"

I have been a lifelong New York Yankees baseball fan, having been born and raised in the Bronx, the home of Yankee Stadium, where I attended many games over the years. At the conclusion of the top of the seventh inning of every home game, there's a short break referred to as the "seventh inning stretch." In recent years, during this brief break in the action, a recording of Kate Smith singing Irving Berlin's song "God Bless America" is played, as fans and players stand quietly at attention, often singing along with the recording. I only recently came to the realization that this wonderfully patriotic and heartwarming song provides outstanding examples of many of the admirable traits of unity in music described above. This song's various unifying aspects demonstrate Berlin's marvelous instinctual feeling for creating musical relationships, thus having made all the parts of this song seem to fit together so perfectly.

Here is this totally diatonic song, followed by a brief analysis of some of the unifying compositional devices contained within it: 


Measures 3-4 are a sequence of the motive of measure 1-2. However, in measures 1-2, note that there is an interval of a minor second between melody notes C and B, but in the sequence found in measures 3-4, the interval between B and A is instead a major second, which represents an interval augmentation, employed by the composer in order to stay within the scale of C Major. Also, note that in measure 3, the dotted quarter and eighth notes represent a rhythmic diminution of the rhythm of the first two notes of measures 1-2; and similarly, in measures 3-4the half note G tied to a whole note is a rhythmic augmentation of the half note A of measure 2.

So in these four measures alone, we see the compositional elements of motive, sequence with interval augmentation, sequence with rhythmic diminution, and rhythmic augmentation. 

In measures 6-7 Berlin uses the notes C, D, and E. This is an interval inversion of the pitches B, A and G of measure 3-4. 

In measure 9, the interval between F and A is a minor sixth, but in the measure 11 altered interval sequence of those two notes, the interval between the E and G is a major sixth, which represents an interval augmentation. 

The measure 14 pitches D, C, and B, are presented in backward order (a compositional device known as retrograde) in measures 16-17. 

In measure 17, the interval between D and G is a perfect fifth, whereas in the altered-interval sequence of measure 19 the interval between E and G is a major sixth, an intervallic augmentation. And in measure 21 the interval between the F and B is a diminished fifth, an intervallic diminution. These interval size variations are obviously done by the composer in order to stay within the C major scale. 

In measure 27, we see the scale tones E, D, and C, followed starting in measure 29 by a rhythmic augmentation (larger durational values) of those same pitches. Also note that the song's final four pitches, F, E, D, and C represent an example of fragmentation, the statement of only a portion of the larger motive A, G, F, E, D, and C starting in measure 25. 

End note

The partial analysis above highlights only a few of the many wonderful examples of unifying compositional elements to be found in this amazing piece. If I were to structure a high school or college course in songwriting or composition, this work could very well serve as an excellent model or template for the teaching of several important compositional techniques. 

God Bless America®. Words and Music by Irving Berlin. © Copyright 1938, 1939 by Irving Berlin. Copyright Renewed 1965, 1966 by Irving Berlin. Copyright Assigned to the Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. This arrangement © Copyright 2017 by the Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard LLC 

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