Resources for music composition & theory

Transcribe is a pretty great tool to help with this sort of thing. It can slow down sections, loop them, and also help you identify pitches. I used to use it a lot back when I was a student. It costs a bit of money but it has a 30 day free trial.

Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw songs don’t follow a pentatonic scale



in the first repeat, the performer seems to be learning/remembering the song, and/or searching for the key; then they are quite consistent from about 1:20 on. there is also another performance with a low male voice that may be easier to follow.

so, gonna disagree here with @ElectricaNada that this is a difficult transcription project or even a “bad” performance (definitely not a “bad” musician, how rude… say “inconsistent performance” if you must critique.) it’s an unaccompanied vocal melody, within 1 octave, with repeats, and only 5 scale degrees. and you have a personal connection to it. so it’s a perfect exercise. just ignore the first two repetiions (out of 6 or 8 whatever.)

i also think this tuning is not supposed to be quite 12tet; the alterations to the 6th and 3rd seem consistent and deliberate, so maybe that is confusing.

below, i’m assuming that the song form is intended to be repeating and that the first two repeats are not exemplary. so, considering the first note of the song at 1:20.

for ease of discussion i’m going to assume that the “key” is G and the initial interval is ascending P5. so this opening G-D establishes the tonic and fifth.

[i always approach transcription as interval recognition first, and think in terms of scale degrees- even in highly chromatic or microtonal music. i find this level of abstraction helpful but others may not. for unaccompanied vocal melody, where all intervals are within a fifth, it just makes sense.]

starting from the opening fifth, it goes pretty easily. in my brain, it helps to break things up into figures, and then determine ther relationships, using some easily-identified figures as milestones; e.g.:

  • the repeated, descending whole-note figure that ends back on the tonic, at 1:28 and elsewhere

  • the low note of the melody, which anchors a transposed version of the opening figure near the end of the pattern (1:45, etc). the transposed figure ends back on the tonic and the low note is the fifth again.

so yes, this can be analyzed as a major-pentatonic melody. (on first hearing, i first tried to analyze the first two repetitions as a chromatic / microtonal thing, which was interesting! but probably wrong.)

anyways after identifying “milestones” it goes pretty easily and you get something like this:

(actually i’ll hide the specifics in case you want to give it a go yourself, first, and compare)

i’m not really sweating the rhythm at this point. i’m just assuming a steady 5/4 and that the drum pattern is something like this:


i am not familiar with the performance style - vocal / drum downbeat relationship seems loose, which could be more or less deliberate - and locking into a time signature is often problematic for styles of music that dont use a rhythmic grid in the first place. (like, i’m almost certain that my depiction of the durm pattern isn’t “correct” by its own terms - the “4th beat” is contracted, for example - it’s just a way to reconcile with western notation.) given that, i think simplification is fine with the caveat that metric placement should be taken with a grain of salt.

(there’s a long and interesting tangent here on the history of “folk” music transcription - choosing the right level of “quantification” is really an art in itself.)

(notes about typesetting)

i used lilypond to typeset this quickly. lilypond is a free program and markup language for music notation, and is very convenient if you happen to be comfortable with those paradigms. there is a web editor here

the melody in lilypond looks like this:

\relative {
\time 5/4
r1 g'4 
d'1 (e8 d) 
b4 a2. b8 (a) 
g4 g2. b8 (a)
g4 a2 (g4) r4
g4 e d d g
e4 d2 r4 d4 
a'1 (b8 a8)
g4 g2 r4

i’m sorry that i caused offence; if we want to further discuss choice of words let’s do it privately.

i think this question of consistency and transcription is really fascinating.

i wanted to say that i don’t think my (very fast) “transcription” should be taken as anything but problematic. i don’t know anything about this style of music; for all i know, the tonic frequency is intended to be flexible, writing down the melody at all misses the point; etc. anyone in my position w/r/t this music should just assume that we don’t know what is “correct” and what is not.

i can only assume that transcribing to european notation (maybe there is a better notation for this music) is intended simply as an expedient mnemonic. hence the assumption of periodic structure.

within that assumption, varying repetition is simply something we have to deal with when memoizing captures of live music. maybe this is not a performance but a practice or brainstorm session. in any case we likely do not have a choice of materials.

to get back to hopefully a helpful direction, my tip for dealing with this is simply to 1) identify repetitions, 2) listen comparatively to each of the repetitions, 3) identify those that seem the most consistent between them, and transcribe those ones. don’t worry about perfect “accuracy” in things like meter if the point is just to be able to remember and communicate the song.

i agree with @ElectricaNada to the extent that step 1) is complicated in this case by the first repetitions drifting to a different tonality and choosing a couple different notes. after that i think it is not difficult at all.

if there aren’t enough repetitions to compare, or the variance is nonstop, then you get into really interesting territory between transcription and interpretation. i think a lot about this when looking at transcriptions of jewish folk music - especially for the solo violin (i grew up playing a lot of this.) stylistically, the form is supposed to be elastic and discursive, and intonation is used expressively. some transcriptions go absolutely nuts with metric changes, glissandi, half-accidentals &c - as if notating a classical concerto; some simply render a simplified schematic and allow the rest to be implied - which is i guess my tendency.

that said: if in this case, the tonal drift is expected / intentional, the variations in metric relationship are something you want to capture, &c: having a “schematic” version will still maybe be helpful as a basis for comparison when you go back for further detail.


For those who are using music notation software to create projects, how would you compare to midi entry of notes? Other impressions?

My beef with notation software and note entry is that if you played a staccato eighth note passage it wouldn’t write eighth notes with an articulation, It’d probably write 16/32nds. You swing 8ths and it sees triplets. It just generates what I’d consider garbage to a sight reading player. Your brain sees all these funky looking stuff and my background puts me into “new music mode” where I’m subdividing every rhythm under the sun to nail the passage when it might be a simple groove - counter intuitive.

Conversely you take your killer, super annotated score and extract midi from it everything becomes rather uninspiring. But in terms of reading/processing a score vs piano roll I’m wayyyy faster reading notation but that’s based on 20+ years of reading notation on a regular basis.

Thanks for your insights!

Just wanted to drop a quick plug here for Tone Gym, I’ve been using it to refresh my ear training and it’s pretty well-designed. I bought a paid year for $50 because I wanted tailor-made training but it turns out I have to use it a bunch before it can get a good assessment of where my skills are. So I’d recommend starting a free account first and see where it gets you.
In addition to the “gym” exercises you can also do unlimited warm-up drills and pick what intervals and chords you want to practice (might only be a paid feature?).
I’m not super stoked on the standard midi sounds, but there’s a feature that allows for different instruments if you practice enough.


Been reading Writings on Music by Steve Reich and it has me thinking about writing for a group (as a composer does) compared to writing as a group (as most bands do). Is there any writing on this concept? I can’t be the first person to think about it.


i’ve been doing one on one discord audio and screensharing for lite theory/harmony exploration with folks at varying skill levels, backgrounds and countries of origin. i try to do “office hours” where i’m just available up there for random questions. just a fun little creative community community.


Really enjoying watching Khyam Allami’s talk from the CTM Festival, covering the history of tunings, the repressed possibilities caused by 12 tone equal temperament tools, and the tools he’s developed in collaboration with Counterpoint to explore microtonal tunings and generative music:

Repressed Possibilities – An Introduction to Apotome:


this is a glorious resource - it has immediately made so much about the tooling behind alternative tunings so much more accessible to me. From the MTS/SCL zone of things through to what the intervals actually look like/feel like/sound like.

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I haven’t seen this mentioned here and thought it might be interesting to folks here. It’s basically a way to write down melodic and harmonic ideas (microtonal too) and share them via an easy link.


oh that is a decent little device, thanks for sharing
will use it with my students

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This is absolutely lovely! Thank you so much for posting. Very useful. I’ll use it for my studies.

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For those who want a methodical introduction to actual practice of tonal composition, I strongly recommend Schoenberg’s Models for Beginners in Composition. Elementary in a good way.


Looks awesome, had to buy👍

While we’re talking about music sketchpad type tools, this is the best implementation of Lilypond in the browser I’ve seen, complete with MIDI playback within the browser of your piece.


Where can we learn more about Lilypond?

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It’s a textual notation language, inspired by the ideas behind Tex…