Category Archives: Rick Louie


Hello my fellow music theory travelers. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded to me by Indaba Music to draw attention to a topic which often goes too unnoticed when younger or new musicians are trying to navigate their way through the musical jungle. While the following post is my opinion (and, beyond that, my personal philosophy), I firmly believe the message is sound. We live in a modern world. All the music you could ever hope to listen to is available at the click of a few buttons. While I’ll leave the implications this has on the wider world of the music business to the executives, I believe it has clear implications for the burgeoning composer.

Billy Pilgrim

For those of you who haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel Slaughterhouse-5, I’ll attempt to briefly summarize. Billy Pilgrim is the hero, who travels (or seems to travel) elastically through time. At one point, he finds himself as an attraction in an extra-terrestrial zoo, where the ET’s explain that time has no meaning for them in the human sense, that they simply exist at all points in time simultaneously. In this sense, we exist in a musical atmosphere where all music past and present can be considered equal. At no other time but the modern age have you been able to listen to a Lil’ Wayne album and a Gregorian Chant album in succession so easily, literally at the click of a button. Undoubtedly, this has had a profound affect on how I treat my listening sessions, bouncing around from genre to genre.

Try to live, sonically, at all points of time simultaneously. Try to put aside your preconceived notions of Bach, or even Pérotin, being dated and listen to them as if they were created last year. Likewise, don’t shy away from Arcade Fire and Rick Ross because they don’t meet a western ideal of high art. I urge you, when approaching composition, to treat the sum of your influences equally as if they were all just created, as if time and music history doesn’t exist. Treating music as if it exists outside of a timeline will open up your ears and will guide your pen.

Nico Muhly

Composers, historically, have always bridged the gap between high art and the vernacular. In today’s world, the gap between high art and the vernacular is narrowing constantly.

Take modern composer Nico Muhly. Nico is a graduate of Colombia and Julliard, worked with Philip Glass, and has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera in London to write a new operatic work. He has several well regarded pieces to his name and has all the credentials to step upward in the traditional world of high art.

And yet, Nico is a child of the modern musical climate. He is plugged into the modern, vernacular world. Foul mouthed, a constant Twitterer, he spills his opinions about everything from Justin Bieber to M.I.A. to xylophone patterns. He has created gorgeous string arrangements for Grizzly Bear, and most recently, has created amazingly majestic arrangements for Jónsi’s (of Sigur Rós fame) newest album Go, with whom he toured playing keyboards and glockenspiel. He relishes the complicated music of the modern classical world, but doesn’t assume a Pierre Boulez additude, as he constantly touts the simple sonic eloquence of bands like Loney, Dear and isn’t above orchestrating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”.

Check out Nico’s piece “Mothertongue”; in a word, eclectic. Nico would be the first to say that he is the sum of his experiences.

To Sum It Up

You are a sum. Everyone is born more or less carte blanche. Everything you listen to (or at least, everything that you listen to that affects you) has the potential to bubble up and appear in your writing. It’s fun listening back to albums I haven’t heard in years and realizing, “Oh! That’s where I got that from!” It’s always a lightbulb, a quick flash, and it allows me to reflect. This reflection helps me keep me grounded. It helps me harken back to my roots, back to music I listened to before my ears matured to the “next thing”.

So, go forth, listen, and compose!

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Continuing Onward

Hey everyone,

I hope, thus far, you’ve all found these lessons to be helpful, easy to understand, not too out there, and beneficial. As of yesterday, I posted the last lesson of the “core curriculum” for this theory blog. I have a few ideas about what I might like to cover in the future, but I would also like your input. If you have a second, please comment below with topics you would like to see covered. I would like to tailor future posts to topic you guys feel most useful a practical to what you want to accomplish. Hopefully we can find a consensus and get going with some interesting things. I might have a few guest posts coming up in the near future, so look out for that. Also, continue submitting music to the Critique Forum, there have been some great compositions- keep it up!


- Rick 

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Music Fundamentals – Lesson 10


Ah, the last post in our series of 10. We’ve focused on notes, keys, scales, chords, and reading rhythms. This post, I want to talk about putting some of these elements together. The core of composition comes from the combination of a melody working with the chords, and the progression. Progressions are groups of chords which drive the song forward, creating the necessary tension and release. The most common progression in the western compendium of music is the V-I cadence. V-I is everywhere. From Lil’ Wayne to Mozart, V-I is inescapable. What is V-I? Well…

extreme vi


extremem V I example.mp3 Extreme V-I Example

That’s V-I. Its name is derived from the major scale, as C is the I (one) chord of the C major scale, and G is the V (five) chord of the major scale. You’ll notice, both are major triads; however, the V chord, which is G in the key of C, is also known as the dominant chord. the I chord, which is C in the key of C, is also known as the tonic. The relationship of dominant to tonic (V-I!!) has been the driving force in western music since the mid 1600’s. Since that point, the Baroque era, composers have been figuring out ways to delay V-I as long as possible, sometimes through the most elaborate music trickery.


In the most simple rock tunes, and in the blues, the way to get to V-I is through the IV (four) chord. In the key of C, that chord is the F major chord. The IV chord is also known as the sub-dominant chord, because it is the scale degree directly below the dominant (hence the sub). You may have heard this type of sound before, especially in the 1950s type of sound:




I IV V example.mp3 I-IV-V-I Example

This forms the basis for, literally, thousands of tunes, rock, classical, folk, country, jazz, gospel, and many other genres. Where does this harmonic functionality come from? Well, without getting to confusingly in depth (that’s saved for the next theory block), here’s how it plays out on the major scale:

C major example


So, I challenge you to write a composition to be uploaded to this lesson’s dedicated session focusing around these three chords to start. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can expand the harmonic vocabulary. The only thing you must to is upload a WRITTEN OUT version of your tune on staff paper in the session, and if you choose, something recorded. You can print free staff paper at, or write music online for free at

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Music Fundamentals – Lesson 9

Scales #2

We’ve talked about major scales and minor triads, now what about minor scales? Minor scales tend to sound darker when used in composition that major scales, which leaves them pigeon-holed as the “sad” sounding scales. Though this is a generalization, it is a fair assessment of the scales quality, and, historically, minor has been used to convey sadness, tension, and malice. But really, it’s just another compositional color you can use to generate a bit of difference in your compositions.

On to the discussion!

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is derived from the major scale. You arrive at the natural minor by starting the major scale from the 6th degree. This is also called the relative minor. For example, in C Major the 6th scale degree is A; therefore, the relative minor is A minor. Let’s take a look at the A natural minor scale:

A Natural Minor


A natural minor.mp3 A Natural Minor


This scale, in half-steps and whole-steps, follows the pattern- WHWWHWW. Notice, the root, third, and fifth of the scale create an A minor triad.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor scale is very close in relation to the natural minor scale, with one important change: the 7th scale degree is raised by one half-step. This creates an augmented second interval (more commonly referred to as a minor third interval), which in turn creates a “leading tone”, a the 7th degree of the scale which wants to resolve to the root. Listen for the leading tone sound in the scale example below:

A Harmonic Minor


A harmonic minor.mp3 A Harmonic Minor


This scale, in half-steps and whole-steps, follows the pattern- WHWWHH.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor scale is an oddball. Ascending, it is, essentially, a major scale with a flatted third. Descending, it is the natural minor scale. However, in use, the descending portion is often changed to a harmonic minor, or is disregarded altogether. Jazz musicians have based a large portion of harmonic theory around the eschewing of the descending portion of melodic minor.

A Melodic Minor


A Melodic Minor.mp3 A Melodic Minor

This scale, in half-steps and whole-steps, follows the pattern- WHWWWWH. The distinguishing sound of the melodic minor ascending is sequence of 4 whole steps after the first three degrees of the scale (this creates an augmented triad from the flatted third!). 

Listen well to how each of these scales sounds. Though these scales are all minor, they all have unique sounds. Utilizing minor scales will give a feeling of considerable depth to your compositions.


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Intermediate Music Theory Lesson 8 – Composition Techniques

And, we surge into the final lesson in the series. We’ll use this final lesson to discuss some ways to attack composition. You can think of composition as the practical application of music theory. Yet, there is, of course, a mystical element to composition. The ultimate goal is to find a balance between the flow of the melody and the harmony so that they work together in a way which expresses what you truly mean to say in your song. Use your knowledge of theory as your tool, but don’t rely on it itself to create music. Just because you know a fair amount of theory doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to compose. Composition takes practice and cultivation, your first time out may not be successful, but don’t be discouraged. What theory will help you with is putting what you hear in your head down on the page.

So, onto some methods for attacking composition. First, melody first composition.

I’m sure it happens all the time: you’re in the shower, walking to work, doing homework, in a meeting, and a tune will get stuck in your head. Chances are, what you’re hearing is a pretty cool, and natural melody. How do you take that melody line and work it into a song? Well, for starters, lets start with a melody:

Melody 1


Melody 1.aiff Melody

Here’s a simple melody, four measures long in 4/4. Now that it’s sketched on paper, you can go to the piano, DAW, or whatever instrument you prefer, and get it in your ear. The correlation between what you’ve naturally heard while humming the song before writing it down and its inevitable harmony is strong. Once its in your ear, you will start hearing some harmonic places it will want to go naturally. At first, it might take you a little while to translate these innate sounds into written form, but keep playing with the harmony and you’ll get there. For example, when I sat at the piano for a second, I came up with this:

Melody 1 With first set of Chords



Chords 1 Mel 1.aiff Melody With First Set of Chords

This is the first harmony I heard after firmly imbedding the melody in my ear. Most likely, these are the chords I was hearing when I first started humming the tune, but couldn’t solidify until I sat at my instrument and played a bit.

Now that the two base ideas are down, it’s prudent to change things up a bit. This could mean a few things- new melodic material, new harmonic material, motivic development (building off of the main idea). I’m going to make a conscious choice to add some harmonic material, so I’ll play the same melody as a repeat, but completely change the chords underneath. After playing with the harmony, I came up with this

Melody 1 with Second Set of Chords



Chords 1 Mel 2.aiff Melody with Second Set of Chords

The melody is the same, but the chords have moved to do something very different from the original. Let’s come back now to the concept of motivic development. A motive is, in short, a musical idea, usually a short one. Using motives to develop melodies is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book. Now, let’s take those motives and use the two different harmonies I came up with to start developing this tune. Putting it all together:



lesson 8 composition 1.aiff Composition 1


Now it’s starting to sound more like a composition instead of just a sketch. This is, of course, a very small example.

Another approach to tackling composition is harmony first composition. This method tends to be more favored by people who play harmony instruments like guitar and piano. Personally, I tend to work more harmony first, though I try to push myself to do both. When I come up with a progression that I like, there is usually a melody already starting to form. Most chord progressions have a skeleton melody, whether it’s in the top notes of the voicing or in the way the harmony moves. When you’re trying to come up with a melody to put over a chord progression, start the same way as in melody first composition- really get the chord progression in your ear. Once the progression is in your ear, melodies will start to form.   

Here is the chord progression I’ll start with for this example:

Chord Progression


Comp 2 Chord Progression.aiff Chord Progression

Once you have a chord progression you like, it’s time to return to your instrument of choice to play around with it until your ear latches onto a melody. I do this one of two ways, either I’ll use my pinky and ring finger of my right hand on the piano to play the chords, bass, and start forming a melody; or I’ll play the chords and try to hum something. If you make a conscious effort to hear where the chords are taking you, especially if it’s a progression you’re really in love with, a melody will naturally begin to emerge. Here’s the melody I heard for this progression:

Melody 2


So, sketched together they look like this:

Chords and Melody

Comp 2 Melody and Chordsaiff.aiff Composition 2 Chords and Melody


Now, once I’ve put down the first few motives and ideas for the composition, I can begin to grow it, either by adding sections, defining a form, adding different chords. For this example I’ve chosen to play around with different textures and changes the harmony from the first statement:



Lesson 8 Composition 2.aiff Composition 2


Composition can be a tricky business, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. One guideline I try to follow myself is to write first, analyze and revise later. When you’re in the “composition zone” the last thing you want to think about is what you’re dong technically. Let it flow. Once it’s all down on paper, that’s when you can go back, play through it, listen, analyze, and start revising (unless your brain is Mozartian; in that case, you’ll accomplish all steps inside your head before you write it down).

So, now that it’s come down to the last paragraph of the last lesson in this series, I’ll leave you with a little simile. Often in these lessons I’ve compared music theory to mathematics. Mostly, I’ve used this to relate how numbers in music relate to numbers in math. However, there is another, perhaps, more apt comparison: Music theory is to math as composition is to physics. What I mean by this is,  while math is the theory of numbers, you use math in practical application to solve physics problems. With music, music theory is likewise the means toward a compositional end. Knowing theory is an important skill, but it does not trump the beauty of music. You don’t need to know how gravity works to know that it works, and you don’t need to know the theory of music to know what sounds good. So, go forth and create, please.

Write a composition and upload it to the Indaba Music Composer’s Critique Session!

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