How to Use Constant Structures to Inspire New Composition Ideas

Ever get bored of playing and composing the same old “go to”, normal-to-you solos or songs? I never do either! (Kidding, of course!)

Here is a compositional idea I like to use when trying to spice up my musical endeavours. I promise that you, too, will have massive breakthrough solo ideas and earth-shattering compositions. (Who knows? It could happen!)

WARNING: Knowledge of music theory may be needed.

My all-time favorite compositional concept is Constant Structures.

What Are Constant Structures?

No, it’s not some deep, brainy theory you learn in astrophysics class. (Maybe it is, but I never took that class!) It’s not a building that is always under construction. A constant structure is a chord progression in which all chords share the same quality. (By chord quality, I mean Major, Minor, Dominant, etc.) 

For example: Amaj7 | Bmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Dmaj7 :|| would be a constant structure chord progression.

It’s important to keep the same voicing from chord to chord. Constant voicings. (I just made that up.)

Importance of Symmetry

Symmetry in the root movement will help enhance the feel (or sound) of having no tonal centre. The above example progresses up a whole step from chord to chord. There are many options but think symmetry!

Keep It Sounding Ambiguous

To qualify as a Constant Structure progression, you need to use at least three separate chords to avoid sounding diatonic.

So, we could modify the above progression like this: Amaj7 | Bmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7 :||

It’s still a constant structure. It has three chords that are all Major7, even though one chord is played for two measures and not just one.

Of course, if you so choose, you could have this:

Amaj7 | Emaj7 | Bmaj7 | Gbmaj7 | Dbmaj7 | Abmaj7 | Ebmaj7 | Bbmaj7 | Fmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Gmaj7 | Dmaj7 :||

And maybe you should! A constant structures 12-tone row in 5ths.

Outline A Triad

One cool idea I enjoy is to outline a triad with Constant Structures. For example, take a G Major triad – G B D – and use each of these notes as the root of your chords.

Let’s do Minor: Gmin7 | Bmin7 | Dmin7 | Dmin7 :||

The bass movement outlines the G Major triad. I think this is pretty cool!

Or change it up to bring it back to the starting chord – Gmin7 – like this:

Gmin7 | Bmin7 | Dmin7 | D7sus4 :||

Bonus points if you can explain why I chose D7sus4 to lead back to the Gmin7!

It’s still a constant structure progression because I have three consecutive chords of the same quality.

Composition Using Constant Structures

Sounds amazing, Lee, but how do I write a song with this fancy-pants concept?

I don’t know how you would do it, but here is one way I might use it.

Take a simple AABA song structure and use a Minor(7) tonality for the A section and a Major(7) tonality for the B section. Here we go!

A section:

Amin7 | Amin7 | Bmin7 | Bmin7 | Cmin7 | Cmin7 | Dmin7 | D7sus4 :||

D7sus4 leads nicely into the next section. Why? Because D7 is the V(5) chord of G, which is the first chord of the B section. And I still have my three consecutive Minor chords to qualify as a Constant Structure.

B section:

Gmaj7 | Gmaj7 | Amaj7 | Amaj7 | Bmaj7 | Bmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7  Cmaj7/B ||

The last measure with the Cmaj7/B is a nice bass movement back to the Amin7 of the A section.

Modes

Another cool thing about this concept is that I’m free to choose which mode I use to compose my melody or with which to improvise a solo. For example, I could use Dorian on the Amin7, Aeolian on Bmin7 and D Minor Pentatonic on Dmin7 and D7sus4. Or just keep it simple and choose the same mode for each chord.

Improving Improvisation

Constant Structures is a great way to practice improvising with different scales and modes, really solidifying the sounds or moods of each one in your ear.

It can also help with improvising over chord and key changes rather than finding a backing track on YouTube of Giant Steps and soloing over those changes. (Eesh! My brain hurts just thinking about it!)

Okay. I’m sure some Jazz guy is calling me a wuss right now for saying Giant Steps is hard to improvise on. Well, it is for me!

I actually had to do it once when playing a Jazz gig for a NASA convention out in the Rocky Mountains many years ago. Lo and behold, after we hacked our way through it, a “real” Jazz guy came up and said that we were gutsy to pull it off. Perhaps he was being polite! But we were pleased to get any feedback with such a quiet crowd.

I got sidetracked there. Reminiscing!

Now Go Create!

Hopefully this quick overview of Constant Structures has inspired you a bit. At the very least, I hope it helped you understand a bit more about composition and the many ideas out there that can add to your colour palette when composing and improvising.

One last thing: Never take these rules or theories as the law. I insist you hack them up and twist them around to your liking and develop your own unique musical voice!

 P.S. If any of you decide to write the 12-tone row Constant Structures tune, I want to hear it! Or maybe we can collaborate on one. Wouldn’t that be fun?!

Until next time… practice hard!

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