A beginner’s guide to Schönberg’s twelve tone technique

with No Comments

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

Today’s blogpost is about twelve tone technique. I still remember my first reaction to the assignment in my first year at the conseervatorium: “Why would anyone want to write that kind of music, without any recognizable (and catchy) melody?”

But atonal music, and twelve tone technique with it, is a reaction to the romantic period: some classical composers felt that everything new that could be done with tonal music (music with a clear tonal center: a tonic, dominant, etc) had already been done. Tonality became more and more unclear and after a much needed and long retreat, a now very important composer in history named Arnold Schönberg came up with his twelve tone technique.

So what on earth is this twelve tone technique?

It is a very rigid, one could even say obsessively ordered system where every note is equal to another. There is no way to indicate a tonic or dominant or leading tones. There are strict rules about the notes you use. However, you are totally free in choosing your rhythmic motifs.

The result is (in my ears) totally unpredictable, even though there is a lot of mathematical logic behind it.

Why and how should I use it?

Of course, we are long past the experimental phase of this music, the period where this technique was new and interesting and artistic and innovative. I even wonder if there are any composers out there at the moment who still use this technique to write complete works.

In my eyes, every artistic and innovative technique in any form of art, becomes a gimmick over time, and after that, it becomes a way to achieve some kind of effect. Usually film music is heavily romantic music, but tons of film composers nowadays know exactly how and when to use techniques from 20th century classical composers, or the contrary: when to use composing methods from the classical or baroque period.

But not only in film music you can use this quirky twelve tone technique. Years ago, my friends Ruben once analyzed a very weird guitar solo from a certain progressive metal band (sadly can’t remember the name) and he discovered it was written using this method!

And my boyfriend Paul listens to progressive and technical rock and metal too, such as Last Sacrament. They use techniques such as microtonality, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they used twelve tone technique as well.

The basics of twelve tone technique

Create a tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

Let’s create a tone row to start with. It will be a series of all the twelve chromatic tones, no more, no less. You can put them in any order you like (but just a chromatic line might be a bit boring). Octaves don’t matter, so it’s easiest to just put your notes in the middle of the staff without the hassle of ledger lines.

Add the basic transformations of your tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

  • Retrograde: Your tone row backwards.
  • Inversion: Your tone row upside down. This means you invert all intervals: a major third up will become a major third down. That way of thinking.
  • Inversion of retrograde: Your rtrograde tone row upside down. You know the trick.

You may use any transposition of one of these tone rows in your work, so you have 4 x 12 = 48 variations of your tone row to work with. When you start with one, you have to completely finish it before picking another variation.

Some rules to keep in mind

Of course, just like any method, this one comes with a certain set of rules. But they are quite flexible!

• • •

1 – Every note you write, may be transposed any number of octaves up or down.

• • •

2 – You are completely free in choosing which variation of your tone row you use. They are all equal. This also applies to the prime tone row you started with.

• • •

3 – You can use multiple variations of your tone row at once, or overlapping. This also means you can stack the notes to build a chord.

• • •

4 – You may repeat a note, chord or motif multiple times, as long as you finish your row before picking a new variation.

• • •

5 – When your next tone row begins with the same note your previous variation ended with, you don’t necessarily have to repeat it. You can “glue” the two variations of your tone row together with that one note.

• • •

You can also combine these rules: maybe you use half of your tone row to create a repetitive motive and the other half as a chord or a melody.

So this is the basic knowledge you need to compose using twelve tone technique! The funny thing is that everyone who can read notes, can write twelve tone music using this set of rules. It’s a very mathematical way of thinking. Of course you are not bound by these rules, you can twist and turn this technique any way you like to achieve a certain effect or desired result. And that is where feeling and musical talent come in.

When we had to create a piece of twelve tone music for our teacher all the way back in 2008 (I feel ancient now…), my tone row was really chaotic, but one of my fellow students created a neat set of 3 similar motifs of 4 tones. He already created some recognizable, transposed pattern in the tone row itself.

But why use the traditional 12 tones? Maybe you want to use quarter tones as well and you end up with a 24 tone row! Or you choose an exotic (or less exotic) scale and order those notes using the twelve tone system. Anything is possible!

How would you use twelve tone technique? Don’t be afraid to discuss in the comment section! 🙂


Support me on Patreon!

My favourite books on music creation

with 2 Comments

My favourite books on music creation • CharlotteBax.nl

As with every craftsman, I keep some professional literature on my bookshelf. Well… Some? A whole boat load actually! Books from basic music theory to songwriting to music in films and games – I have a whole shelf full of useful, impressive, (sometimes boring) and very interesting resources about writing and arranging music.

But which books on music creation are my favourites? Which ones are the most inspiring? Which are the must-have titles for you to buy?

1 – The Sound Effects Bible

By Ric Viers

This book is your complete guide when it comes to recording and creating sound effects. What kind of sounds effects are there, what are they used for, how do you synthesize them? How can you build your own foley stage, what do you need for field recording, and how do you pick the best place and time? All these questions will be answered very elaborately. Creating is sound effects is way more than just holding a microphone to a creaking door!

2 – The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films

By Doug Adams

When you buy this book, I feel you have to get the Complete Recordings too. This book is full of analyzed fragments of the score, cue by cue, riddled with sketch scores written by Shore himself.

When you listen to the LOTR soundtrack, it is unavoidable that you will recognize themes and link them to certain places or characters. The way Shore braided all these themes together is very impressive, to say at the least.

This book tells you all about how the themes are related, what sub-themes are derived from other themes, how every theme develops with the story and at last a chapter about recording the bunch. A great way to dive into the creation of my favourite soundtrack of all times. I get inspired every time I open this book.

Can’t wait until The Music of the Hobbit Films will hit the stores!

3 – On the Track

By Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright

A very heavy and expensive book, but totally worth it. This is your complete guide to the world of film music. Who are in the production team, what function to these people have, what do you need to take into account when crating a film score, in which ways can you use melody and harmony, how to recordings and post-production work – literally EVERYTHING is written down in this book.

Cool bonus feature is that the book is riddled with interviews from the big guys such as Hans Zimmer and John Williams, and of course a lot of score fragments, so you can literally learn from the best!

Buy the books

Want these books on music creation for yourself? Get them through the links below!

The Sound Effects Bible - Ric Viers

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films - Doug Adams

On the Track - Fred Karlin & Rayburn Wright

Support me on Patreon!

Style copying: 5 steps to using someone’s musical style without losing your own

with No Comments

Style copying: 5 steps to using someone's musical style without losing your own • CharlotteBax.nl

As a composer, there comes a point in your career when someone asks you to write a piece that sounds like “composer X”. For example a film producer who want a score that sounds like Mozart for a historic drama, or a score with the sound of some other movie’s score. For example they want a scene that sounds like the Breaking Bad intro.

It’s not weird or uncommon that people ask for this, or when they send a mockup of the film with some tracks added to make clear what they want.

Howver, there is a little bump in the road: you can’t just copy some other music. That’s plagiarism. But how can you write music, using some other composer’s style, without losing your own sound? Without braking any copyrights? Charlie to the rescue with 5 steps to style copying!

5 steps to musical style copying • CharlotteBax.nl

1 – Listen to inspirational music

Don’t only listen to the example track someone sent you, but check out the entire album. Look for other music by that composer. Find music that originates from the same period and genre. Spotify is your best friend! Mark your favourites, create a little inspo playlist or write down what parts really inspire you.

2 – Analyze what you hear

Analyze the music. Try using your ears and a piano, or get hold of an orchestral score. Look at used rhythms, chords, melodic characteristics and what instruments are used in particular functions, for example melody, countermelody, pads, arpeggios.

Take notice if a composer uses particular instrument doubles for a part. For example I use harp doubled with celesta quite frequently. You could say that’s a characteristic for me as a composer.

I know lots of musician really hate this part (guilty too!) but trust me: it’s totally worth it to actually know what the hell you’re doing.

Share this blogpost with your friends!

Learn how to write in the style of your favourite musician! Click To Tweet

3 – Compare to… you!

You probably noticed lots of things while analyzing your inspirational music that you like. Things you like to do yourself. Little things like a certain chord progression, or a particular instrument double, or a little motif that caught your eye (or ear)…

Make a list of all those things, but only – and I mean ONLY – when you really like said chord, motif or thingy.

Long long ago, when I was a young student in Groningen (that really is long ago!) we had to write a piece using the style of Ennio Morricone. Our teacher showed us the movie Cinema Paradiso (check it out, it’s very beautiful. I even cried) and we had to choose one of the musical themes to work with. I chose the title theme and these things really captured me:

  • Very long melodic phrases
  • Phrases often start with an anacrusis
  • Countermelody does a lot of 3rd / 6th parallelling
  • Pedal point
  • All filled in with arpeggiated chords

4 – Choose your characteristics

Now it’s come down to picking the characteristics you want to work with. Do you need to write something that sounds like it could’ve been written by said inspirational composer? Choose more characteristics. Do you have a lot of creative freedom, make it more your own thing by choosing less features!

Two questions that can help you:

  • Which characteristics are most typical for this composer?
  • Which characteristics suit my own style really well?

5 – Style copying – write that stuff!

Time to make it all your own! Write your own thematic material and crate something beautiful from it by using some of the other composer’s features.

Don’t stress out if you don’t use everything you wanted to use,and don’t be afraid to try something you initially didn’t choose. Remember this is a trick, a formula, not an absolute rule. It’s important to have fun!


Want to hear an example? Check out my “Morriconic” music.

   “Cinema Paradiso” by Ennio Morricone on Spotify    “Child theme” by yours truly on Soundcloud

Support me on Patreon!

How to up your virtual orchestration game in 6 easy steps

with No Comments

How to up your virtual orchestration game in 6 easy steps • CharlotteBax.nl

As a composer or songwriter, there’s no way you haven’t ever worked with MIDI or virtual instruments. Sure, you can produce some music with just your voice and a piano or guitar, or record some other musicians (and that’s perfectly fine!), but eventually you want more. You want strings, exotic instruments or maybe even a whole orchestra.

Problem is, people are expensive. Every person has an hourly rate for their work and an orchestra can easily be made up of 60 people or more! And then I’m note even talking about finding a recording studio big enough…

So, people invented MIDI. People invented awesome virtual instruments which, if used correctly, can sound like the real deal. But how on earth do you create a virtual orchestration that sounds like the real thing?

This is my plan of attack!

6 steps to upping your virtual orchestration game • CharlotteBax.nl

1 – Create your arrangement

Firstly, you need some music to start with. Choose your instruments and write your parts down in the piano roll window. You can do this by clicking with a mouse, or by playing on a MIDI keyboard, or by importing MIDI fils rendered by Finale or… Whatever suits your style and workflow.

I use the virtual instruments from the East West Composer Cloud. They sound wonderful and you have tons of different instruments at your fingertips for a reasonable monthly fee. Comes in quite handy if you can’t pay a few hundred dollars per package. ~ €30 per month is really affordable for even students.

2 – Add keyswitches

Whenever possible, I add the master keyswitch instrument to my track, and not just legato or staccato or whatever. This way, I can change the expression of every note in a part very easily by just placing a keyswitch note just before it. When you sing or play a melody, it’s never entirely legato, or staccato. There are tons of options: portato, with or without sordino, pizzicato, slides, trills, with or without vibrato, soft or hard attacks… Anything is possible!

3 – Set the velocity

Velocity is basically the speed with which you start a note. For example on a piano: if you slowly press a key, it will give a soft tone, quickly or more aggressively pressing a key results in a harsher tone.

For my way of virtual orchestration, I do this in two rounds: firstly, I set the general velocity for every section. When I’m done, I’m on to the details: accented notes, crescendos and decrescendos.

Share this blogpost with your friends:

How to make an awesome virtual orchestration in 6 steps! Click To Tweet

4 – Humanize

Logic has this great function called “Humanize”: it lets you select a part (or all) of your notes and humanize them: displacing them a little, making them a little longer and shorter or softer or harder using a random algorithm, combined with some parameters you set yourself. No human ver plays everything perfectly straight like a robot, so neither should your virtual orchestration sound like one.

5 – Tempo

Just like not every note is played the same, neither is the tempo always exactly the same. The beginning and end of every musical phrase are a little slower, and at its peak it’s always a little faster. It takes some time, but add little, almost unnoticeable tempo changes in your song.

6 – Volume

This is largely coherent with velocity. When you have soft or loud parts, sometimes just low and high velocitis don’t cut it. A crescendo or descrescendo needs to actually sound like one. Use small volume changes to enhance the effect of your velocity changes.


That’s it! Now get to work yourself! Let me know if you have any questions, or just post a link to your music if this blogpost helped you a great deal! You can do that in the comment section below or on social media. I’d love to hear from you!

Support me on Patreon!

4 different apps to style your sheet music

with No Comments

4 different apps to style your sheet music • CharlotteBax.nl

As a music creator, chances are big that you have to write some sheet music once in a while – whether you are selling the stuff or need it for studio musicians helping you out – a clear score and parts are essential.

But how do you produce a neat piece of sheet, huh? Old-fashioned pen and paper is nice for sketch scoring, but in most cases not suitable for creating a really beautiful set of sheet music. Unless you have fabulous handwriting of course. And the “scores” automatically produced by digital audio workstations such as Logic and Cubase simple hurt your eyes.

Anyway, for those of us who want a neat, typeset score, there are different options to choose from. Today I’ll show you all the sheet music software I’m acquainted with and give you the pros and cons. Then choose what works best for you!

1 – Finale

Available in two different versions: Notepad (free!) and Printmusic (more advanced and thus not so free). I’ve worked with Finale for quite some years and must say it’s rally easy to use and you get a decent score. However, it is difficult to align similar items sometimes, such as crescendo and decrescendo signs. Furthermore I think the default settings look a bit big and childish. Anyway, you can put notes in bars by just clicking, so anyone could actually crate something decent with this software. If you’re just starting out, Finale Notepad is great.

   Go to the Finale website

2 – Sibelius

I haven’t used this specific sheet music software myself, but have seen it countless times. Friends used it as a alternative for Finale. Just like Finale, Sibelius work with a simple point and click principle. If you want something weird – I mean, modern -, chances are you can write it down better or easier compare to Finale. Also, it is optimized for the Microsoft Surface Pro and your final result looks just a tad more elegant than Finale.

   Go to the Sibelius website

3 – Staffpad

Seriously guys, this thing is on my wishlist. It’s a Surface Pro based kind of sheet music software which lets you create elegant scores in a few seconds. Just like Sibelius, it combines the ease of writing with the neatness of a typeset score. Big pro is that it’s a lot cheaper than Sibelius.

   Go to the Staffpad website

4 – Lilypond

This is what I use right now: in my eyes the best open source sheet music software available. Lilypond lets you customize basically everything and you can do anything you want – even writing really weird stuff such as different time signatures simulaneously. (Let that sink in. Your soprano can do a 4/4 and your alto a 3/4 and Lilypond can just do that. I couldn’t figure that one out in Finale…) There’s one big downside: you have to code. It’s a Latex related kind of coding and it’s not really difficult (ad lets you do a boat load of complex stuff), but it takes a lot more time than just writing it down or the point and click based software.

   Go to the Lilypond website

What’s your pick? If you use anything not listed, please tell me more in the comment section below!

Support me on Patreon!

1 2