It isn’t uncommon for me to write tunes
that are often based on all 12 notes. The
notes are organized in the order of how my
ear likes to hear them. Also, I don’t repeat
a note until all the other notes are played.
I write one at a time, carefully listening to
the interval between each note and the next,
the same as anyone would when composing
a melody. I like writing with 12-tone rows
because it gives me my own unique voice.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is
the foremost 12-tone composer—he was
writing 12-tone tunes in the 1920s! Frank
Zappa composed some songs using this
technique, and Ron Jarzombek is a modern
metal composer who routinely uses tone
rows in his compositions.
Last Chance to Reason—the band I play
in—has always been a little outside of the
ordinary when it comes to tonality. We’ve
always used dissonant sounds we may have
picked up from extreme genres such as prog
and metal. Our drummer, Evan Sammons,
and I decided to write some 12-tone music
in 2006 for our first album, Level 1. Most
of that record contained various tone rows,
their inversions, retrogrades, and rhythmic
variations. Less that 10 percent of the
record consists of tonal melodic music.
Our next record, Level 2, used tone rows
extensively, but transitioned from them into
more harmonic and melodic sections.
To compose a row, I often write down
all the notes of a chromatic scale, from A
through G#. As I compose the row on my
guitar by ear, I cross out the notes in the
chromatic scale and write the note names of
my new melody below the chromatic scale.
The intervals or distance between each note
give my tone rows a distinct sound. Like
other melodies, not every tone row will
sound good. Mine are carefully composed
one note at a time and reworked until the
whole melody rocks.
Shown in Fig. 1, the tone row in
“Upload Complete” uses a combination
of my favorite intervals, or movements, to
make up a heavy melody. This line is used
in many variations throughout the tune. In
order to critically analyze how these lines
are composed, you are going to need to be
pretty solid on your intervals.
There are a few intervals I want to
highlight here. The first one is the distance
between the first two notes—a major seventh.
This is a very modern and powerful
sounding interval. The last two notes of
the first measure outline a minor ninth,
which is probably my favorite melodic
movement. It seems to be very popular with
the more rhythmic metal and djent bands.
Going into the second measure we have an
augmented eleventh, which is the largest
jump so far. This is what is referred to as a
compound interval. A compound interval
can be considered two intervals stacked on
top of each other. In this case, we have an
octave plus a tritone between C and F# an
The intro phrase in “Upload Complete”
is shown in Fig. 2. Our drummer Evan
and I combined five or six motifs to make
a grooving rhythmic phrase. A motif can be
thought of as the smallest form of a musical
idea, and a group of motifs make up a
phrase. Each of these motifs used three or
four notes from the tone row.
This is a more musical way of developing
a tone row than anything on Level 1.
I like to call it a motifically developed tone
row because three- or four-note motifs are
repeated and expanded upon until the notes
are used up. It then resolves with the tone
row in its entirety.
If we start to dissect the phrase, it starts
with the first four notes of the tone row
repeated twice. Then, we go to the next two
notes of the row, and back to the first group
of four notes again. The double-picked
16th-notes go between the fifth and sixth
notes of the tone row. At this point we add
notes seven and eight to the phrase. After
we make a four-note motif with notes five,
six, seven, and eight, we repeat them and
tack on the ninth and tenth notes. The
last four-note motif of the riff includes the
twelfth note. I skipped the eleventh because
my ear didn’t want to hear it.
Let’s take a look at how we can vary a tone
row to make it more interesting. The row
shown in Fig. 3 is from our song “In Portal.”
This is the original form and each measure
of the phrase takes a different approach, but
keeps the order of the notes intact.
Fig. 4 is the same row transposed down
an octave. It’s a very simple idea, but the
different fingering options give us some
new patterns to work through. The third
measure, shown in Fig. 5, is my favorite
and the most challenging. We combine
some string skipping with octave displacement
to create a very angular sound.
Applying octave displacement—where you
just move certain notes in the phrase either
up or down an octave—adds an instant
sense of urgency and tension to your lines.
I move to 7-string guitar for Fig. 6. In this
measure I play the row down an octave and
harmonize it in fourths.
Getting around writer’s block is tough for
any musician. Learning about 12-tone rows
and how they function is a great way to compose
a song because your melody instantly
sounds original—and it likely is. In heavy
music, there are a few techniques, sounds,
and styles that most guitar players gravitate
toward. If you use 12-tone rows to compose,
your riffs will have a different sound and vibe
from other songs you’ve written.
a member of the video game-inspired metal
band Last Chance to Reason for the last eight years. Their latest
album, Level 2, is full of mathcore riffs, facemelting
chops, and even contains a Metroidstyle
video game. For more information, visit facebook.com/lastchancetoreason