Classical composition/structures for modular

Ive only got a popular/folk music education but I’ve just started educating myself a bit more deeply into classical music, watching some basic videos on form, differences between sonata, theme and variation, concerto, symphonies ect. and so much of it seems like a good way to approach ambient and generative modular music. I was wondering if there is anyone creating modular music or electronic using or influenced by these structures? For example, creating a theme on a sequencer, building it up, playing it through different voices, expanding and varying it, then taking it back to basics again (in my limited understanding - a sonata)
Or the counterpoint in a fuge done by two voices playing the same cv sequence, but with one of the cv signals modified with more cv?

This sort of relates to the composing on modular thread - please move it there if needed but I felt this was a broad enough subject to warrant its own thread :slight_smile:

Would like to hear what modular musicians with a deeper classical understanding have to say on this. And I’m sure there are lots of examples of people using classical methods without realising! L


This comes to mind!


I totally had ann annies work in mind when I asked this, even with her more traditionally sequenced work, it has the feeling of swelling and moving as an orchestra might, but I guess someones musical background influences all areas of their music making.

No classical understanding on my part at all!
But, a guy I’ve know for many years certainly does have. His youtube channel may have some inspiration for you :slight_smile:

Katelyn Aurelia Smith also comes to mind…

@josephbranciforte has written here and elsewhere some thoughts about electronic orchestration.

I’ve started reading Orchestration by Walter Piston. The first half of the book talks about all the instruments, somewhat anachronistic for this thread, but the second and third parts talk about songwriting for the orchestra and I have found some inspiration there for how to think about managing a variety of timbres across the frequency spectrum.

So much to learn…

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Classically trained here! To my ears, the thing Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith gets the most use out of her classical training is her knowledge of orchestration, more than forms.

(If you’ll permit me an irreverent gloss) Orchestration is an aspect of production or songwriting, but also mixing, where you choose which notes in the song that you’ve written, are given to which voice. Some pieces, like Ravel’s Bolero, are more or less entirely exercises in orchestration, since if you listen to that piece, the main source of “interest” is how he gradually builds the melody, giving it by turns to different instruments, and adding other voices as he goes.

One of the reasons Debussy’s violins, and Kaitlyn’s synth choirs sound so lush is because their parts are orchestrated with a few voices playing many different notes to form one texture.

Sadly, most of the classical forms are kind of living fossils—not that there’s nothing to be gained from learning the sonata or the fugue form, but they’re not the deep sources of inspiration they were to Beethoven or Bach, respectively.

Personally, I like to analogize the sonata to the pop song: in both you have two main thoughts (verse and chorus in the pop song) and you develop them however you’d like, but often the really delicious core of the piece is that third thing, the bridge, or the poorly-named “development section” of a sonata.


I loved this interview! It’s the main source of my speculation.

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Caterina Barbieri has a similar approach. She structures everything around variations of a sequence.
Seeing how she does it live is quite amazing.


Nikmis does this, great stuff with many classical inside jokes:

i’d say @chapelierfou’s work, especially in his last album, displays a broad use of “classical” writing techniques. (it’s probably slightly bad netiquette to drag someone into a conversation but i wanted to highlight this album which has many listening levels and is indeed a work full of details and subtleties.)


I sure hope folks will tag me if they think I’d have something to contribute to a thread!

I’m honored that you thought of my music, but I’m not sure this is totally relevant. Although there is some modular synths used in my records, they are mostly sequenced by Ableton Live, or played with a keyboard.
I’m in the process of writing classical canons these days, like this on for instance (more focused on classical instruments):

To me, Teletype can be a fantastic way to make canons with the modular. You can read pattern data and play it in so many ways that can mix canon, fugue and strange counterpoint techniques.
It could also embrace the concept of variation. Imagine it recording an incoming sequence and then play a modified version of it.


Does anyone with a formal music background, or knowledge in the field—@alanza maybe?—have a book they’d recommend for someone who wants to learn a bit about classical music forms?

I’ve googled around a bit—it’s a hard to avoid all of the “Classical Music For Dummies” BS though.

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Well first, let me clarify: what aspects of classical forms are you most interested in, and for what purpose? (Just so I don’t give you analogies when you want the nitty-gritty or vice-versa) And: how much knowledge of “music theory” do you have?

Good clarifications. It might answer your question for me to say that I don’t know exactly how to answer your question? Like, I want to have an understanding to potentially apply the knowledge to the music that I’m making, but I don’t know enough to say what aspects I’m most interested in.

I like nitty gritty, but I feel like I am at the point where I would benefit from a high level intro so that I can figure out what I want to go nitty gritty on.

Re: music theory, I’m comfortable. I am currently reading Volume 1 of Musimathics and the non-math parts (so basic music theory) has been straightforward enough (I don’t remember where I learned this stuff but I did at some point).

Thanks for the response!

Off topic, but oh man, it’s funny to see the author’s plea to help him combat piracy as compared with the policy of most mathematics authors I’m familiar with. Then again, it is a more “general audience” book.

Okay anyway, if on the off chance you’re interested in actual textbooks on this stuff, the main ones we used in college were Aldwell & Schachter’s Harmony and Voice-Leading and Salzer & Schachter (I just realized it’s the same guy) Counterpoint in Composition. My editorial on them, as, like, someone who cares equally deeply for classical/art music as pop/ular, is that there’s a lot to be learned, but the assumed mindset might be a little tough to fit yourself into. This is, like, notes-on-staff-paper exercise stuff, and both are really more focused on technique and effects than form, per se.

Also in that same vein I’ve been meaning to return to and really give Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre another go now that I’ve clarified to myself what the point of all this theory muck is gonna be for me. Probably a very poor recommendation, it just came to mind.

As for things that focus on form explicitly, there’s really not much that I’m aware of, unfortunately. (NB – I am not an expert.) Part of the reason for this could be (I contend) that there really is no magic to a classical form, just like there’s no magic to the two-verse pop song form. At the end of the day, it’s just a shape to pour your ideas into, and a constraint to be enlivened by.

But, on a very high level, classical forms often involve “subjects” or “ideas” or “motifs,” little prominent snippets of melody that recur throughout the piece. “Hooks,” if you will. The form comes with a few low-level suggestions about what one might do with these hooks, and gives you a few high level “sections” to work within, just as a pop song might be expected to have verses, choruses and that third thing.

Another idea that maybe is only implicit in these books is that classical forms were a… well, a discourse!—a way for composers to be in conversation with one another and their audience. To my mind, some of the most interesting classical pieces are so because of the way they play with the expectations I have of a piece of that type, just as any piece of genre art is perhaps most interesting when it challenges its genre. (Think how Watchmen introduced a note of moral ambiguity into every subsequent superhero piece.)

Sadly, the discourse around many of these forms has really fallen off so much that it’s hard to innovate, just because there are so few audience members able (much less willing) to follow you. Which is maybe why living composers of “art” music typically don’t use them so much?

Sorry for the length and the decidedly impractical “suggestions” :sweat_smile:


A bit of discourse is happening:

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I was about to create a thread with a similar title for a very selfish reason (which I’ll get into in a second), but I guess it’s worth bumping this one as this is a subject very close to my heart.

Form is a really good way to create structure, and maybe set some boundaries for your modular gardening. Tackling structure from the modular (re: non-standard) perspective, it can be liberating to see: a) how you can make a modern thing like a modular performance fit in such a limiting box as a classical form, b) come up with new and better forms that work best for a/your modular setup.

Lots of things to discuss and tons of aspects to consider! Reviving this thread will hopefully get some people sharing thoughts, processes as I’m very curious to read how people work towards structure.

Back to the selfish reason I wanted to start such a conversation. I’ve been asked to talk about my use of the Noise Engineering Clep Diaz module, and how I use it to create phrasing in my performances. I created a small, very simple, video showcasing its use in combination with the ADDAC306 macro controller.

Phrasing is an important brick in the structure, as it not only serves as a building block to larger pieces, but also serves as a test bed for variations. The above video is only changing dynamics and note length. More to come, including some book references!

PS: Here’s a good book on structures I posted about on IG:


I’ve been rewatching the Bernstein Harvard lectures. I’m only on the first, atm, but it may be interesting to those less acclimated to the classical world looking for an in.

If I recall it’s mostly harmony related, though I believe there’s one of the lectures that goes into detail on form.
When/if I get that far in the series I’ll post that specific one.

First lecture