[Thank you to David Kessler for permission to use the fantastic images and the initial inspiration.]
Visual artists have it great. The number of books, techniques, methods and overall resources for developing your craft as a painter or illustrator are astounding. The available resources for learning how to compose music feel almost non-existent in comparison. (I’m not talking about the individual skills of harmony, orchestration, etc. I am referring to a comprehensive method for actually putting it all together.)
But although the methods for painting and composing are not perfectly relatable, we can borrow many of the lessons from the visual arts and adapt them to writing music.
The “value study” is a technique I learned about recently and I immediately wondered about how the same principle could be applied to our craft.
What is a Value Study?
A value study is a middle step between a sketch and a finished work. Artist David Kessler has written a fantastic article on the subject and I strongly encourage you to read it to get a thorough understanding of the concept.
A “value” is a degree of shading, with different values referring to different degrees of light and dark. The idea is to take color out of the equation and focus on the more fundamental aspects of contrast. Before getting all fancy with colors and textures, you work out the focus points of the composition and check for a good balance between the different shades.
I’m a big believer in sketches and working out fundamental elements before moving on to details, and the value study is a great way to consciously work out your basic structural points before getting bogged down with surface level details.
What does this have to do with music?
The main principle to borrow from the artist’s value study is not literally “light and dark”, but the absence of color. In our case, we can consider orchestration and timbre to be the equivalent of a painter’s color palette.
When you strip away the color of instrumentation, you are left with your bare elements. Melody, harmony, form. Variation, unity. Do they hold up? If your big orchestral piece was played on solo piano, or even by a synth with a sine wave patch, would it still be compelling? When you take away that repetitive ostinato pattern in the background, is it still interesting?
Dynamics as the Composer’s Value
A near cousin to light and dark in music is loud and quiet; our version of planning the shading is planning dynamics.
In his example, David Kessler used four values of light and dark:
- White (or light)
- Light midvalue
- Dark midvalue
For our purposes, I suggest we use five dynamic layers:
We can take a slightly different route from painting. Rather than using white as the base and darkening in from there, I think it makes more sense to start with mf, a middle dynamic, as our starting point and then going up or down from there.
A Composer’s Value Study – Step By Step
Here is a proposed step by step approach you can use to apply the concept of the value study to composing music. Bear in mind that every composition is unique, and obviously the more complex the piece the less basic this process might be. But take this general idea as a starting off point for approaching your own work.
- Take your bare-bones sketch of the composition, perhaps just melody with chord changes or a basic accompaniment, with the entire piece at mf.
- Decide on your next level values, meaning decide where you want things to be quieter and where you want them to be louder. Place f and mp.
- Decide on your extreme values, ff and p. Keep in mind that your extreme levels will shine brighter the more sparingly you use them. So perhaps find just one special moment for each extreme.
- Finally, add nuance and subtlety . Crescendos, decrescendos, sfz, etc.
- Of course not every piece requires every shade of dynamics, and some pieces may even be better suited for no dynamic changes at all.
To quote David Kessler’s conclusion, “Remember this is not a finished painting, only a tool. Don’t spend time “staying inside the lines”. Concentrate on distinguishing the shapes and developing contrast.”
The same principle could be applied to texture quite easily, with varying degrees of density. Perhaps a piece could be assessed by the number of voices present at any given time.
However you apply the idea, taking time to zoom out and look at the big picture is always a wise move.
What do you think? Have you ever noticed similarities between painting and writing music? Or do you think they are too distantly related to share meaningful lessons? Share your thoughts in the comments!