In Episode 13 of the Art of Composing Podcast, I talk to William Caplin, author of two of my favorite books on form and music theory in general. This is a great interview where we go into all sorts of
What is in this episode:

* What is form?
* How did great composers like Beethoven actually think about form?
* How can you apply it to your own compositions?

Support the Podcast!
Click Here to go to Jon's Patreon page, and support the podcast!


About William Caplin

William Caplin is the James McGill Professor of Music Theory at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is author of two of my favorite books, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which won the Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory, and the more recently published, Analyzing Classical Form: An Approach For the Classroom.

Dr. Caplin studied Music Composition at the University of Southern California and then followed on with Graduate Studies at the University of Chicago working with Leonard Meyer and others, as well as further studies at the Berlin Technical University where he studied with Carl Dahlhaus.

Dr. Caplin served as President of the Society for Music Theory from November 2005 to November 2007 and continues to serve on the editorial boards of Eighteenth-Century Music, Indiana Theory Review, Rivista di Analisi e Teoria Musicale, and Eastman Studies in Music.

Resources and Links Mentioned in this Episode:

William Caplin's Books

*These are affiliate links to Amazon.
United States


00:00:00welcome to the art of composing podcast I'm John brantingham and together we're going to unravel the mysteries of musical composition if you've ever wanted to know how music works then stick around this episode is brought you by the art of composing Academy what do you're an absolute beginner looking to build a foundation or you're a veteran composer looking in to fill in some gaps the art of composing Academy will give you that Web of Knowledge that's really required to feel confident in the kinds of music that you want to write so if you're ready to connect the musical dots head over to Art of composing. Com free and sign up for the free beginner's composing course
00:00:47I guess today is William Kaplan the James McGill professor of Music Theory at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal Canada he is author of two of my favorite books classical form is Siri a formal functions for the instrumental music of Haydn Mozart and Beethoven which one the Wallace Beery award from the society for music theory and the more recently published analyzing class form and approach for the classroom Dr Kaplan study music composition at the University of Southern California and then follow it on with Graduate Studies at the University of Chicago working with Leonard biar and others as well as further studies at the Berlin Technical University where he studied with Carl dollhouse Dr Kaplan served as the president of the society for music theory from November 2005 to November 2007 and continues to serve on the editorial Boards of 18th century music Indiana Theory review revista revista da Nella CA teoria musical I don't speak Italian and Eastman studies in music
00:01:46Dr Kaplan welcome to the art of composing podcast
00:01:50thank you so very much and congratulations on such a nice set of podcast that you put together or not traffic website oh thank you very much how you became interested in studying musical form
00:02:04well it came about in a kind of interesting way I I was studying working on my doctorate dissertation in Berlin with Carl doll houses you mentioned and then I got my first job actually my only job so far at McGill University back in the 1978 and I was just asked to teach a course part of the undergraduate curriculum that was who's this topic was effectively form for the music of Haydn Mozart and Beethoven and when I started teaching the course I realized that I hadn't studied much in the way of form at all during all of my graduate education study music ecology in music theory the theory of musical form simply wasn't on the picture was on anybody's radar at that time so I just went back to my old textbooks and tried to figure out how I should approach this music I had been however extremely lucky to have taken a course by Carl doll house just before I came to Miguel that was on
00:03:04series of musical form by the way the Germans and austrians we're approaching it particularly the work of Evan Roberts who turns out it's been a student of RR Witcher American labor so I start to use those materials that I had learned in Dallas this course which were quite different from what I had learned in my own undergraduate education using such books as Wallace Perry's approach to musical form is back in the 1960s and satisfied with the typical text that were being used and I found at the work that I had learned from Dollhouse at through rots was extremely interesting and then I discovered that it was effectively the approach to musical form that Arnold Schoenberg and developing who had published that in is the art of music
00:04:04fundamentals of musical composition exactly so I started to bring introduce those materials into my classes and slowly began to realize that there was just something much more to do that deal for us for research and for doing a developing the theory much more extensively than what does Sherbrooke a done and basically I did that in the course of my teaching a career it so no other words my research of my approach to ethical form and develop directly out of my teaching experience in the classroom I was extremely lucky to have had is a colleague at the time of Professor Janet schmoll fell to subsequently left Miguel to work at Yale University and then most recently at tops and she and I did a lot of collaborative work together we we discussed many many points of the theory that I was developing and she was working on as well so it was a really rich environment to to do the development of this approach to musical form both with my students at Mcgill and with my colleagues
00:05:05it's actually very interesting what how do you conceive of musical form I guess kind of has a big it's a it's a big question but if you were had to explain it to somebody who doesn't really have any experience with it how would you explain it to them sure I guess we all know that musical composition is clearly divided into different parts and it's not usually just one gesture that's taking through the entire piece but there are multiple ideas in their various parts in sections and the study of musical form is effectively really quite simply how are the different parts of the musical composition put together how are they structured why are they organized the way they are what is the logic of white one idea occurs now and then another ID occurs later and and it's and and in its place I think it's a fairly Common Place idea we think about a a play or is organized into acts and scenes in the same kind of way at a musical composition is organized into law
00:06:05intersections and then within those sections that are smaller units in the nose smaller units are divided into little Parts in other words there is a hierarchy in the in the organization of musical compositions and the study of form is an attempt to make sense out of those various parts that make up a composition to your Siri how is your theory different from previous theories of form or other competing theories out there sure my Approach is based on a fundamental idea that was introduced by sure Bergen developed by rats which is the formal function I wasn't exactly sure myself what I thought formal functions were about until I developed the idea much more extensively it took me many years to figure it out but in the end I really think that it has to do with how musical materials Express their sense of being in the temporal world
00:07:05other words we all have a general notion that that that were at the beginning of something and then we're in the middle of doing something and then we bring something to a close this if this very generalized notion of it beginning being in the middle and ending I think that we fight at throughout musical compositions particularly music of the 18th and 19th century music that's written in what we talk the language of tonality and so mighty retries to really explain how it is the various sections of a piece Express the sense of their beginning something and are continuing on into something that might be in the middle of some kind of a formal process and then of course the section needs to bring a degree of closure to itself so the idea of how music musical Parts Express this temporal idea is at the heart of my notion of what musical of what formal functions actually are my theory then tries to give very technical details again explain exactly
00:08:05where in a piece the the sense of form of functionality is is is is expressed how it's developed by the composer what are the very specific techniques that are used and I think that's what differentiates my Approach from most of the standard approaches which tend to focus on identifying the musical materials will hear something will call in a section in and out here's a b section and now here's a C-section or something along those lines my attempts to provide a more unified approach to the idea of how the various parts of a musical composition are related to the temporal ideas that I mentioned before Beginnings middle ends and self-worth the first thing that struck me is this is just a new way of conceptualising music it's it's this emergent feature that that comes about of how does Harmony and Melody and you know the Rhythm and
00:09:05the harmonic Rhythm the surface you know surface for them all come together to create these feelings of temper out at it just for summer it blew my mind thanks so much and I have to say that I really I really like the way you use the term emergence I think it's an excellent way to think about it I might start adopting it myself or regular like the idea that it's not just it's not something that's kind of preconceived it's not something that's just out there is a kind of a shell or a framework in which you just sort of poor in musical content that's very old fashion way of thinking about form the idea that form arises out of the interaction of so many of the different musical parameters this emergent quality I think that's that's a wonderful way to think about how formworks music yeah and and what's interesting at you know I'm coming from this is the standpoint of a composer you know trying to figure out how can I integrate their sin and in particular in in Phil music which I do
00:10:05how to film scoring people will say oh you know we don't we don't have formed of the film is the form but I try to tell them well I I disagree that the form is how does your music relate to time and regardless of whether you've got to have a scene change or you've got to quit changing the tempo or feel you're still using the same techniques that Beethoven or Mozart would have used just in a different way yes I think so but what you point out is extremely important to and that is there are generalize Notions that are common to lots of different music but then there are also very specific ways for a very particular musical style on how how form is is understood conceived in best explain one of the one of the things that differentiates my Approach against groups going back to the earlier question I can if the sizes enough is that it is directed on it a relatively narrow musical style What's called the high classical. Haydn Mozart and Beethoven I think
00:11:05what are the problems with many earlier theories of form was that they tried to to cover true brought a stylistic perspective as a result it wasn't possible perhaps to make the kinds of detailed observations that is associated that that comes from studying of a more restricted style. And that's something that I've tried to do it at the same time stay well I think some of my ideas might be transferable to other styles but then it's up to other theorists and other composers to see how they are realized in a wide variety of musical styles is anybody tracing your line of thought through the 19th and 20th Century to see how it develops be on Beethoven
00:11:51yes there been some attempts in that direction I done some of it myself I've had some students who have worked along those lines but I have others who have just got off on their own I think particularly been a number of people that worked on revelant NWC and they have applied some of these ideas or there's a music theorist whose work done for coffee after trying to see how that works of course since Sherbert and some ways is the Godfather of this approach to music theory that that I'm involved when in in his music has also been analyzed by a variety of other Scholars and trying to see whether his own ideas about form I realized in his own music as well and there's been some good cases made for that one of the bait major problems of course is that my Approach is rooted so strongly in tonal Harmony that when Music Stops referencing the the functions of tonal Harmony then it's much less it's it's it's less easy
00:12:51to apply in any kind of direct way the various categories of musical form that I have that I proposed for Beethoven and so forth and then of course in the 19th century we fight all together a kind of how can I say a breaking down of of total thinking and therefore a kind of breaking down of some of these formal functions as well analyzing Brahms you can do it to a degree with my Approach but many things have to be modified as well I kind of stepping back back to Beethoven and Haydn Mozart how do you think they would have conceptualized form or were they thinking form as a concept when they're composing
00:13:31that's a relief a fascinating question I'm honestly ask this constantly just in my class yesterday one of my students said to me do you think Beethoven understood what he was doing here and from everything that we can tell from the people who study the history of Music Theory it seems that there was very little in the way of explicit conceptualization of these matters by composers if you wouldn't seem that they were able to talk at all about musical form in the way we talked about it today but that doesn't mean they didn't entirely understand what they were doing it's clear that they did they're such a consistency in usage such as such a way in which they over and over again they do the same kinds of formal procedures they obviously had internalized their understanding but this understanding was never made explicit they don't write about it they don't there's no way that we really know and of course we can't I talk to them today there's no way of knowing
00:14:31how they may have verbalized what their understanding was we understand what they know by what they did and of course that's what composers do they compose it's music theorists the job of those of us who come later to say well how do we understand what they did to me make sense of what they did can we provide labels and two procedures that they do regularly but there's no particular evidence the day spoke anything like this in when they talked about music what's what's getting me really excited about all this is how is your theory going to be interacting with Robert Urich against theories on music in the style or from his book used in Pottstown obviously everything that's come after that have you seen I know you did an article about the printer and a closure in the printer how are you interacting with those kind of Revelations about part of mint tea
00:15:31Andy's Comstock phrases being passed out Georgia sanguinetti Rome about your turn again who I see that you interviewed and I've been following the work very closely in fact I was one of the reviewers pre-publication reviewers for a year to get this book and so I'm I'm really very familiar with with his approach I think it's wonderful and it's been tremendously influential on many people today and I'm many on my own work for that matter as well I think those that what what year did again stopped a little short doing which number people of recognize is that many of the schemata that he talks about he doesn't give always such clear form functional scriptions exactly how those schemata work form functionally there's a degree of it in his work but I think that he himself recognizes that that's another that's another level that has to be addressed and there are various music theorist I'm thinking of Vasily beer
00:16:31Northwestern University was a colleague of of the erdogan's are our understanding realizing that the time now is be ripe to take the schemata that that you're hurting is identified and try to integrate them relate them to the sense of formal functionalities Express in this music and I think there's very strong ways which that can be done
00:16:52so if somebody was just starting off they have real no experience in formal analysis how how would you get somebody started in recommend that they proceeded yeah that's a tough question because my own particulars theory is strongly rooted on a very solid grounding in the fundamentals of Harmony it's pretty tough to do but to go very far in my own particular theoretical approach without having a clear grasp of harm of harmonic analysis and I'm very aware that many beginning. Composers or musicians were beginning to look at these will not necessarily have that kind of approach so probably going back to the old traditional ways of thinking about form I just recognizing the pieces are divided into various parts that there are some common patterns that are used over and over again these are refer to often as that's a the ternary form where and ideas presented some
00:17:52is brought in contrast to that idea and then the ideas brought back again that's a very generalized notion and it can be applied to all sorts of different kinds of musical styles and all sorts of different kinds so we have the ternary form we have the Rondo form where ideas are an idea is a new contrast is given it comes back again so there are some generalized broad-scale formal patterns that have been used throughout the centuries and western music so that's probably a good place to start and then once a student or interested musician really gets a master's the foundations of Harmony I think then what he or she could begin to start studying for minimum or enriched systematic kind of way
00:18:47do you have a a process that you go through when you're starting at the analysis of a new piece
00:18:57I guess that there is I've discussed this with my students again just recently I was talking with him about this their kind of two ways you can approach a piece you can if you have a if you have a very quick and intuitive idea what kind of formal situation you're involved with you can take what's what we often call a top-down approach to the analysis that is you can start with the general theory let's say eat well I think the pieces in Sonata form development recapitulation and let's say I find something that seems like it's next position I can now move down again top down and say what do I find the the main parts of an exposition and then that's how I identify the transition and then I can say well how's the transition exactly structured so you can take a kind of top-down approach if you have a already and intuition of the formal situation that had. Let's say you don't let say you really are not at all clear what's going on then I suggest you take what's called
00:19:57approach so you just start the first couple of hours of the PC say well what's going on here and how does this idea group or contrast with what follows next and you begin to build up the form from the bottom as you as you work through the peace those are two different methodologies that I think her off in a good way I think the most important thing is that when you first encounter a new piece just listened to it many many many times just fully internalize it and then start to ask yourself what do I find interesting in this piece what really stands out what's what's exciting what what what grabs me about this piece and to try to use that as a way of moving into the analysis as well as pieces I go I listen to new pieces and I feel like a form is much more pallid you know I can feel it as opposed to before I go to just listen from beginning in maybe not been able to divide it up in my mind
00:20:53right well I have to save it probably the most important experience I've had in working on this whole theoretical approach is my own personal physical education I just hear music now in such a vastly different way than I did 30 years ago that say when I was starting to work on this I just simply hear hear music very differently. And that's why I think that the study of Music Theory doing analysis really can enrich your experience I know that many musicians are worried that if they analyze a piece is going to lose the magic for and sometimes that happens because you just hope that you're having to listen to it too much and it gets a little bit boring but you know it when you come back to it again I think that that match it can be revived and discovered and hopefully after the study that you've made you will have a greater and enriched experience with the peace you will hear more in the peace at least I'd like to believe that that's the case
00:21:53you graduated your undergraduate was in music composition you still compose often really don't I occasionally right little pop tunes just for my own interest I was something I was doing about 20 years ago were so I collected a bunch of them just to play for my friends but other than that no I I discovered in the course of my studies and composition that I didn't feel that I was really a composer and that I was stunning composition for the purposes of learning about music and it was a great experience I learned a tremendous amount of studying composition but it wasn't something that I feel the need to do I think genuine composers simply have to compose this isn't something that they choose or that it just something they have to do just like a painter has to just paint that I found that I was much more interested in how how is it the pieces put together how does this come about compositions work this way so no studying composition was just a great way to move
00:22:53music theory where I can then start to deal with these questions in the more formal kind of matter have you found that there's consistent problems or questions that students bring up in your classes with regard for there's some well as I said some I get some of the same questions over and over again though what did the composer know about this and and I've noticed that the the process of learning how to analyze pieces formally they're always some some of the same stumbling blocks it's as those students have to make the same mistakes if we're almost obliged to make these mistakes learn from this these mistakes and then and then move on you know in the textbook version of my book that the recent textbook I added all of these little text boxes the song to the book and focus on function so forth
00:23:53Xbox they won't make the mistake well it seems like the mistakes have to be made and no matter how many times you try to warn a student you know be careful of this watch out for that try to avoid this in some ways these are pitfalls that just just almost have to happen that I think it's just simply part of the the process of learning of maturing of of refining your ideas we all make these mistakes when I speak about mistakes I'm just saying you know there isn't necessarily a complete Rights and Wrongs to everything but just certain pitfalls that one runs into and I try to help in the textbook and in my teaching of course I try to get them over those barriers and to move on to another level of understanding
00:24:36so what is what's your current Focus for research are you going in a different direction are you developing and later in time 20th century or 19th century actually in some sense I'm both narrowing and expanding my interest so I have been for the last number of beers been involved in a large-scale project looking at music Cadence so in other words the ending functions that I was talking about how closure is brought about so I have been focusing a lot of attention on the Edens concept so and that's what I've been narrowing my interest to a particular formal function they leave the ending function but at the same time I've been expanding my interest because I've been looking back into the beginning at the early 18th century and up through the end of the 19th century other words covering a broader Stylistics scope that I didn't lie in my book on musical form per say so I have really enjoyed that I find the kittens
00:25:36tremendously interesting they're highly misunderstood they create lots of pitfalls of the type that I was mentioning before so many aspects of of analyzing form really depend upon a careful understanding of cadence so the current project I'm working on is looking at Cadence's from the early broke broke broke in the early 18th century through the various style. The garage. The classical. Of course the early romantic and then into the mid to late 19th century and that's what my current project is about and I've been thoroughly enjoying working on composers other than just Haydn Mozart and Beethoven fridge yeah yeah I look forward to seeing that I am a big mall or fan so I have always been curious about yes he has closure where there's apparently no real Cadence in a harmonically so this is true and so I'm trying to deal with some of this I think that what I'll be doing is
00:26:36effectively introductory I think there will be even after this big book if it ever gets finished and published I think it will only be a kind of starting point for all sorts of the detailed investigation Wikipedia pursued what do you have a working title for the book yet or well I guess at the moment I simply called Cadence a study of closure in tonal music. Do you have a projection when you think it'll be done or is it just too early to tell well I've drafted most I have three more chapters to draft and I've got about seven chapters completed at different stages I'm at the process right now of trying to put together a proposal to see if I can get some publisher to actually agreed to publish this book it's turning out to be very big is so hard to say how long is going to take I think another couple of years for sure it's basically for the show thanks for coming on
00:27:36I've really enjoyed it I hope that this has been interesting to you and that I hope that your listeners enjoy and continue to be interested in music music composition and all of its related aspects this everybody's going to be very excited about this I mean I've been talking about your books for years now so I'm excited it came on the show and I'm sure the audience is going to love it will thank you so much and good luck with your project and all the best okay thank you it was good talking to you
00:28:10okay thanks for listening to the art of composing podcast I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did it's been one that I've been looking forward to for actually years now I I've been wanted to interview him and the time was right yeah if you like this style this format I'm trying to do a few more interviews here just let me know you shoot me an email or leave a review on iTunes and yeah we've got more exciting stuff coming up in the future I'm currently working on a course on orchestration which hopefully I'll have done in the next few months so if you're interested in learning orchestration that'll be up at the Academy but in the meantime if you want to get yourself prepared then check out my music composition 101 and 201 courses what a one is all about learning the fundamentals about setting a foundation for yourself that's really solid so we cover Harmony Melody we go over form new putting it all together writing complete pieces 201 is all about
00:29:09how can you take those skills and write something that's like 4 5 6 minutes long it's it it's something that I think a lot of composers face and they don't know how to handle so go to Art of composing, and check it out and if you've never signed up for the free course now is your time here is the time now to start learning composition is probably something you put off for a while so go to Arthur closing.com / free sign up for the free course eventually 21201 and orchestration till next time I'm John brantingham and this was fun

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Jon Brantingham, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.