Music with just a few notes

Music with just a few notes

The idea of restricting the number of notes used in a piece probably came originally from the Schönbergian 12 note technique but it differs from it in one major point. When one has a set of 3, 4 or 5 notes then there is no need to use a serial system, indeed ordering so few notes would lead to a ridiculous predictability. The notes can therefore be repeated as often as one wishes and the order in which they are used is free, the only restriction is that one uses exclusively the notes of the set chosen at the outset.

This is quite a severe restriction, but in this lies the challenge to be able to use the few notes expressively. One can of course, use octave transpositions which greatly increases the interest in this sound material.

The choice of notes for such a set has similar recommendations as for a 12-tone row: one avoids tonal combinations, although this is very difficult with just a few notes. The choice of the number of notes is also free: from about 2 to 6. The larger the number, the more it will sound like a Schönbergian row and therefore will probably need to be used serially, much as Stravinsky does when he limits the number of notes in his serial works (cf. “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas” - Do not go gentle into that good night in which he uses a 7 note row).

My student colleague at the Cambridge summer school in the early 60s, Robin Maconie (later famous as Stockhausen biographer*), wrote a piece for string quartet using just two notes (E & F, in all possible octaves). I don’t remember ever hearing a performance of this but the score alone impressed and inspired me.

*Maconie, Robin. 1976. The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press

4 Carols on 4 Notes for Choir SATB (1979)

My first piece in this system “A Carol for Christmas” (SATB – a cappella, 1961), was written while still a student. Later I made a suite of 4 Carols on 4 Notes with the original piece as the fourth movement. The technique lends itself particularly well to sung compositions because within a short time of working on a piece, singers have a strong feeling for right or wrong notes, the latter being all those not in the set chosen for the piece.

Even with just a few notes, it is possible to reserve one or two of the set for 'special' moments:

In “Now I Joseph was walking” (the first song of 4 Carols on 4 Notes) just two notes (C and D) predominate. At the climax however these two notes are “widened” to a chromatic cluster (see bars 14-16 and 19-23 in the link below):

Suite for Solo Trombone (1961)

This work has 5 movements. The even numbered movements use the following tone row:

The odd numbered movements use just the last four notes of this row.

Trombone Suite Tone Row
Trombone Suite Tone Row

See first two movements here.

Chinese Songs for Soprano and Tape (1988)

This song cycle was planned so that each song uses a small selection of a 12-note tone row. The tone row is repeated (below) so as to be able to show the way the notes for each song are selected. There are groups of 3, 4, 5 and 6 notes.

The numbers above and below the row refer to the songs with “Tao” texts – the “I Ching” texts are given with graphic notation and correspond to the missing numbers.

Chinese Songs Tone Row
Chinese Songs Tone Row

See score here.

Canticle from the “Kyrie” of the Missa Profana for tenor solo and orchestra (2010)

This is the first solo and “profane” song from the Missa Profana. The note set is A, Bb, C, D#, E.

Both the soloist and the accompaniment are restricted to these notes. The woodwind and brass are not used in this piece.

The ideas of Delight and Innocence as expressed in Harlow’s poem are an example of a “profane” text with sentiments which (in our view) are missing from or insufficiently dealt with in the liturgy.

This setting with just five notes helps underline the ingenuousness and freshness of the text:


This young boy and his sister on their skipping way to school and everywhere tossing shouts of laughter into the air. In a shower of light on the bright whitewash wall of the Church of Saint Dionysia, they throw their shadows. They sign themselves and their animal friends, letting words talk to each other; they tell their dreams. They do no less than risk delight: despite every dark thing there is in the world, there will always be music. And they wonder: what is the name of this song?

Michael Harlow

Scheint den die Sonne heut’ nicht? (2022) Walser-Vertonungen. New version for three singers (S, A, B) and Ensemble

The earlier version of this work is mentioned in connection with Abelian form. It is however also an example of 'music with just a few notes'. Here are the notes used in the 9 songs:

Walser Cycle Tone Row
Walser Cycle Tone Row

Songs 1, 5, 9 are all self reflecting and as one can see above, no. 9 (“Trug”) has only 3 notes (A#, B, G#), which makes a further challenge on the placing of these notes, so that the text is effectively expressed.

Here is the opening of the last song in the version for 3 singers and ensemble:

Only the singer is restricted to the three notes, the instruments use all 12.

Important to mention is the goal set at the beginning of this work:

When one reads these Walser texts, one is first struck by the passion and the strength of his message.

On closer observation (of the German) one sees a strict structure.

With these settings I have tried to achieve both: Passion and Structure.

Although this song "Trug" uses just three notes, I believe it is one of the most passionate songs I have written.

Soprano part of no. 9. ("Trug")
Soprano part of no. 9. ("Trug")

Works using just a few notes:

  • Suite for Solo Trombone
  • 4 Carols on 4 Notes
  • Pied Beauty
  • Chinese Songs
  • A Shout (3rd song)
  • Alles unter einem Hut
  • Missa Profana (Canticle)
  • Was Liebe ist
  • Microzoic Piano Suite
  • Scheint denn die Sonne heut' nicht?