Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Music composition conventions

I want to ask a question regarding music composition; that is, why is it so important for the bass line to have the bottom part?

First off, I want to say I have no experience in composing or arranging cello music what-so-ever, so I’ll probably be putting my foot in my mouth a lot during this post! :) But, I will happily listen to people’s explanations and will change my way of thinking if provided with good explanations and examples.

So let’s commence with putting my foot in my mouth…  ;)

Here’s the scenario:
I organize a group of adult beginner amateur cellists, and it’s been difficult to find appropriate mixed level music for the group, but we have some fabulous volunteer composers who provide music for us, and am EXTREMELY appreciative of their support. This is not directed at any of my composers (I/we LOVE you guys and gals!!!).

I typically give our composers the guidelines that Part 4 must be in all first position with no extensions, and no difficult rhythms, i.e. mostly half notes and quarter notes (if it can be helped). While Part 1, 2, and 3 can increase in difficulty so more advanced players don’t get bored, and then we allow our cellists to pick whatever part they want to play. This provides the opportunity for beginners to play alongside advanced cellists! Cool, right? ;)

The issue that has cropped up is that the music convention is that the bass line is typically given to Part 4 in a cello quartet largely due to historical and orchestral reasons. It was explained to me that the lowest part is always listed last in score order (SATB for choirs, Violins, Violas, Celli, Bass for strings, Horns, Trumpets, Trombones, Baritones, Tuba for brass, same idea for woodwinds), so when every part is written for the same instrument the lower part numbers will naturally have those corresponding parts. Bass lines naturally go to the lowest instruments, melodies go to the highest and countermelodies/harmonies go to the second-highest, and therefore the 3rd-level parts are least important as a general rule.

It was also explained to me that some compositions are closely tied to the historical conventions of order. Bach chorales are one of those situations, because the convention is Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. It’s used universally for choral music, and it would "simply be incorrect" to change that because it serves as a constant reminder of the choral nature of this music and therefore provides an educational opportunity. 

In a few cases, I received arrangements that had Cello 3 as being easier, while Cello 4 was more difficult, so being ignorant of the convention, I simply asked the composers switch this. Much to my surprise, they were all extremely reluctant to do so, and I learned the reasons for their reaction as mentioned above. 

Arguments for Keeping the Bass Line in Part 4:
Being my typical self, I asked why was it so important to leave the bass line in Part 4, besides the orchestral and historical mentioned above, and received some other reasons:

1) It will encourage our cellists to look at other parts which is good ensemble practice instead of focusing solely on, for example, the bottom line.
2) We shouldn't assume what factors our cellists use to judge what is “easier” for them since what one person would find easy, another would find difficult, so it’s better just to leave Part 3 where it is and not move it to the bottom. Our cellists can determine for themselves what is more difficult. 
3) We’ll miss opportunities for historical educational moments.
4) In terms of seating the parts, that's a matter of preference, and that is more of a conductor/director's choice based on the style of the selections, but they should still be listed in the standard order of the score. I'll explain this in more detail below. 

Arguments for moving the Bass Line to Part 3:
I’ll address each point in the order above.

1) This is based on two assumptions: First, our beginner cellists know how to read a score (which some of them do not) and secondly, that our beginner cellists can read the parts and determine accurately which part would be appropriate for them. We have beginner cellists who have only been playing for 4 months so they are unfamiliar with reading scores, and in some cases just learning how to read music. 
  • When I first started this group a year ago, I had no idea how to read a score, and I’ve come across a lot of adult beginners in the same boat! It is a little embarrassing to admit, but it’s true! I've had a few people say, "You're joking, right? Reading a score isn't that difficult!" To which I typically have to explain that I don't have a musical background and the cello is my first instrument, so where would I have learned how to read a score if I didn't participate in an ensemble in the first place? How would I possibly know that I had to jump to the line that had the corresponding part number if I wasn't told to do so?? It is a common mistake for absolute beginners just to read the following line since that is how we read sentences, solo music, books, etc.! And the repeat signs...oh my goodness... that was a DISASTER for a while (and I still get confused) until I learned just to draw a line to where to go next!
  • And forget about determining which part I could play! I would freak out if the first few measures were difficult and didn’t bother reading the rest, and this applies to a lot of the beginner cellists in our group. Fortunately, I have very good patient teachers who have taught me how to read a score (how to write in cues, what to watch and listen for, general ensemble playing technique, etc.). Utilizing a score and actually knowing how to use one at a high level is a completely differently story too - one can take a whole semester on just that! 
2) We can assume that first position without extension is “easy” because that is the position that is most commonly taught, especially in my area. I have heard that some cello teachers start with 4th position, but I haven’t personally met anyone (yet) who started in 4th position.
  • Again, this is based on the assumption that our beginner cellists know how to read a score and can accurately assess their own skill level too. I have local cello teachers volunteering to help the group play together, and the consensus seems to be if we assign a part that is always "easier" it helps beginner cellists to know what to expect, know which part to practice and not be overwhelmed by the music. 
3) Educational moments are always nice, and I love learning about music; BUT, if someone is learning how to play in an ensemble, I can almost guarantee that they are probably more worried about reading, bowing, listening and following what everyone else and the conductor is doing!
  • I still get confused when I play with a group, and I’ve been playing with a group consistently for a year now! I can typically play the music by myself, but introduce outside factors like other people playing different rhythms, changing dynamics and speed, watching and listening for cues, etc. then learning about the historical significance of the piece (though interesting) is definitely last on my mind when I'm trying to coordinate all those tasks at once. I do love it when our conductors interject with small snippets of info, but I can expand my learning outside of rehearsals as well, and I've found adults are very likely to do this anyway. 
4) I had commented/asked a couple of our composers that, "there are a lot of orchestras and famous string quartets that put their cellos in the center because they provide the 'foundation,' so why is it such a big deal if we move the bass line to Part 3? They'll be nearer to the center then, right?"

For our group, I've also discovered that since the bass line provides an "important role" it is helpful that they are seated closer to the center, and that "important" parts are better suited for more advanced cellists, and not to beginners who have been playing for four months. This is because if the "foundation" is having intonation issues, than it will most definitely make it more difficult for the group to play together.

Is this a case of form over function?
From a play-ability standpoint, I think that setting the expectation/standard for my group that "Part 4 will always be 'easier'" regardless if the bass line is not found in part 4 is NOT a big deal, but apparently composers do feel this poses an issue and that I am missing the point.

However, I think it comes down to form over function in this specific group setting.
We do play "normal" arranged music in our more advanced group, and also in our concerts, that don't have this limitation so our players can experience "normal" written music.

Honestly, I think the problem stems from the fact that musicians (who for the most part, are also the composers) learn about music while they were young kids just don’t remember how it felt when they first started learning how to read and play music; and I think music written "back then" was written for musicians who had a "musical background" or a the very least knew how to read a score, not for beginner adult musicians - not to say that beginners cannot play this (or want to play this) when they are ready!

I understand music has historical significance and has its conventions. I understand it, really I do!! But then again, I’m not really a “traditionalist” either. However, in this case, I think it’s more about form over function. Am I wrong to think this???
Bottom line: Writing music in a way that allows people of varying abilities to play together would be a wonderful idea, and if that means moving the bass line to another part, then what's the big deal? 


  1. Hey, I think you might find my book a useful resource. It's called Cello Chords and it details 11 different chord types in all 12 keys. It's great for writing music and improvising. You can check it out here:

    1. Thanks Bryan for contacting me! I'll definitely share it with the group. :)

      Btw, funny vids!!! ;)

  2. there's a rather eloquent quote from Brahms, “For me, almost only the bass is of any significance. It is sacred to me and is the solid foundation upon which I tell my stories. What I do with the melody is only a game, a spirtual game. For over a given bass line I truly discover something original, I give to it new melodies, I create”.

    but even by this, he didn't literally mean the bass limited to purely bass lines but more towards identifying the bass as the "essence of the theme".

    Bach was even more meticulous about the bass when teaching composition (he allowed his students to compose freely only when they were highly proficient!) so much so he adapted them into a set of rules -

    perhaps what you're questioning is the structure of an already established formulaic medium and why this tradition remains unchallenged?

    by the way, as i understand it, the reason why new learners should be allowed to play "foundation roles" and actually encouraged to do so could be explained in a different scenario - management. delegating more and greater responsibilities to the lower rung of a workforce betters the greater whole. the theory being, by doing so, it forges greater self-worth which should hopefully improve the relationship of trust between employer and employee. theoretically, the less advanced cellists will see the challenge and better themselves and in return, better the entire orchestral group - you're only as strong as your weakest link.

    at least that's what i make of it. i could be, or probably am entirely wrong! still, interesting discussion :}

    1. Hi Shi,

      I really want to make the group as inclusive as possible; available to a wide range of levels and abilities. Unfortunately, we still run into the issue that new players aren’t comfortable with extensions and shifting, and more “difficult” rhythms, so it really limits the bass line part if new players can play it only.

      However, you make an EXCELLENT point regarding allowing new learners to play “foundation roles”! I agree with you that it would provide a good “challenge for new learners so they can better themselves and in return, better the entire orchestral group - you're only as strong as your weakest link.” WELL STATED! :)

      And thank you for forwarding that PDF! I don't quite understand it, so I'll have to bring it to one of my teachers to explain! lol! ;)