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The technique, part 1 (inversion)

A full description of the composition technique, with examples.
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Chris Gibbs
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The technique, part 1 (inversion)

Postby Chris Gibbs » Tue Dec 14, 2010 2:39 pm

What is inversion?
The inspiration
My next inversion

Let's begin.

I'll start with the actual name I've coined to the technique - inversion synthesis. Firstly to deal with the "inversion" portion of the name, which is the core part of the process.

What is inversion?

Inversion in the musical sense is basically playing melodies upside-down. This means to create an inverted version of a melody, for every movement that the original melody makes (such as a semitone or a major 3rd), the inverted melody also makes exactly the same movement, but in the opposite direction.

So, if a melody goes from C to D to E, then an inverted version of this melody starting on C would be C to Bb to Ab, i.e. two whole tone movements for each melody but in opposite directions. Likewise, a melody that goes from C up to F then G, when inverted (and starting on C) would go C down to G below then F, i.e. a perfect fourth and then a whole tone in each case.

The most famous example of inversion is the 18th variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff, which is based on an inversion of the melody of Caprice No. 24 by Niccolò Paganini. This was also the primary inspiration for the development of my technique, which started in early 2009 when I became curious about inversion and how exactly these two pieces were related.

Take a moment to listen to the main melody of each piece here:

Paganini's 24th caprice:
Rachmaninoff's 18th variation:

Both pieces are very famous and widely performed pieces in their own right, but before 2009 I had no idea they were so closely connected. You may recognise the 18th variation from a number of films (including Groundhog Day and Somewhere in Time).

I suggest at this point actually sitting down at a piano or your instrument of choice, and try playing through the two extracts of the melodies:


Notice that the step between each note is the exact opposite for these two melodies. Also, if you are able to play by ear then when you play the rest of the melodies, then you may notice that it is not an absolutely exact inversion, as the rhythm is different and one or two notes have been added or removed in Rachmaninoff's version. So essentially the 18th variation is based around an inversion of the theme, but is not an exact inversion, which I come onto shortly.

The inspiration

After playing the above two pieces, I then wondered how successful this technique would be when applied to any other melody. The very first piece I attempted to invert was the song No Surprises by Radiohead, as the intro has a simple rhythm.

Take a listen to the introduction to this song here, the first 30 seconds or so:

The top guitar line is in the key of F major:


I then sat down at my piano and worked out note-by-note the exact inversion of this melody, starting on Ab:


This forms the introduction to one of the early pieces I composed using the technique, take a listen to the first 30 seconds or so here: Inner Version - Us Prisoners (Piano Sketch)

Notice that in my piece I also inverted the underlying chord sequence as well from a F major chord (Radiohead) to a F minor chord (my piece). If applying the inversion strictly to both the melody and the underlying chord sequence, then in general any major chord becomes a minor chord, and vice versa. Note that I could have used any minor key as the starting point for my version, I found that in this case F minor seemed to be around the right pitch to create a suitable mood for the piece.

You also may notice how the uplifting guitar melody of the Radiohead song becomes this beautiful melancholic melody in the inverted form. This inversion of the mood of the piece became a regular pattern as I tried to invert more melodies.

My next inversion

Next, I tried to invert a more gloomy piece also by Radiohead, the song Street Spirit (Fade Out). Again, I just took the guitar line of the introduction to keep things simple to begin with, take a listen to the first 20 seconds:

In this case, the acoustic guitar melody is in the key of A minor, and like the first song No Surprises, also has a simple rhythm and is repeated a few times during the introduction:


And sure enough, the inversion came out as this uplifting melody, here in the key of D major:


The melody seemed to sound like it was floating on clouds, and forms the introduction to another one of my early pieces, take a listen to the start of the piece here: Inner Version - Cambric Clouds (Piano Sketch)

At this point I strongly recommend taking these two examples and making sure you are fully familiar with how the inversion process works, as this is the most important part of the technique. Don't worry if you find it time consuming to begin with, it should get a lot easier and faster with practice - when I first started I found it took quite a while to do the initial few inversions, but I'm now at the stage where I can do most inversions in my head relatively fast without even needing a piano.

In the next part, I go into the "synthesis" part of the technique, along with how to begin forming a complete piece.

Continue to The technique, part 2
Chris Gibbs (Inner Version)
Musician/Programmer at Inner Version Ltd

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