Small assignment: One-note composition
You can write music using just one note! This will focus attention on other musical elements.
Goal and output
In-depth focus on writing and reading rhythms, tonal colour, musical vocabulary, harmonisation, playing and/or singing.
Realising that it is possible to create a surprisingly wide range of interesting material by focusing on musical elements other than pitch.
A composition that employs only one pitch but is varied in rhythm and sonority
If the assignment is to be completed using register variety (i.e. one pitch class but in multiple octaves), then first review the ranges and colours of the instruments to be used.
• Each student selects a note, individually or in pairs or in small groups. They may be in different registers, and the assignment may also involve identifying octaves. This will require knowledge of the instruments used, and the assignment will be more challenging. For beginners, it is easiest to restrict students to one note (one pitch, no octave shifts).
• The individual students, pairs or small groups select one or more time signatures for the piece. The number of measures may be decided in advance.
• Invite students to invent an interesting, varied and vivacious rhythm that allows for (the repetition and development of) characteristic rhythm motifs. Have the students think about how sound and silence alternate in the measures. Where are the short notes, where are the long notes, and what is their relationship to each other? Rests are also music! The students may practise rhythm patterns while thinking about this. Inspiration for rhythm patterns can initially be found by suggesting a theme, such as names of birds: What would be the rhythm in which you say: pigeon, Canada goose, peregrine falcon, kingfisher, eagle owl, Arctic tern, cockatoo, kookaburra, thunderbird, macaw, parakeet, budgerigar, oystercatcher, spoonbill, black-headed gull, corncrake, chaffinch, sparrowhawk, etc.? Write bird names on the board and write out the corresponding rhythm patterns. Use these patterns to create pieces with only one pitch.
• Think about instrumentation: which instruments is this piece for? Is there a solo instrument that is then replaced by another solo instrument in the middle of the piece, or even in the middle of a measure?
• Have the students think about tonal colour. What kind of colours should be used to play the notes, and how should they vary during the measures? Could some notes fade away into a breathy tone or crack or become distorted?
• Have the students think about dynamics and articulation, and add details to the measures. What associations are prompted by the piece, or by parts of it? What is the mood?
• The piece can be harmonised if desired.
• Perform the pieces and comment on them.
• The assignment can also be executed by agreeing in advance the pitches to be used by each student (which may form interesting harmonies), the metre and the number of measures.
• For a more demanding variant, agree on the number of beats but not on the time signature, which may lead to polymetric results.
Option 3, specialised level:
• Explore the potential of using a single pitch by listening to various works (see list below): what are some of the ways in which movement and variation can be created? How can the composer sustain interest and create tension? How can a note be decorated (bends, ornamentation, etc.)? This is also a useful tool for introducing the concept of 'root note'.
• Have the students create a piece that orbits around a single root note. Talk about dramaturgical evolution in music.
Topics in the assignment
Henry Purcell: Fantazia upon one note à 5 (1680)
Giacinto Scelsi: Quattro pezzi su una nota sola (1959)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Aeriality (2010/2011)
See also assignment 27.
Assignment suitable for further study