Shape Shifting Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you will compose music inspired by Density 21.5 for solo flute by Edgard Varese. Resource created by Ben Markland.

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Shape Shifting 

Composer Edgard Varèse composed Density 21.5 in 1936 for George Barrère’s platinum flute. The title refers to the specific gravity of platinum, which is about twice the density of silver. On May 4th 2020, BCMG's flautist Tony Robb performed Density 21.5 as part of a series of online concerts featuring the music of Edgard Varèse. Have a listen:

Just for fun, imagine....

.... your instrument being made out of different material. How would it sound? Can you play like your instrument is made of feathers, stone, jelly…?

image combination

Here is Jenny, Oboeist and BCMG Learning Coordinator imagining her oboe is made out of jelly!

Varèse based Density 21.5 on two melodic ideas from which all the musical material is developed. Varèse often wrote melodies that used particular intervals (the distance between two notes), in this case - semitones, fifths and tritones. This gives the melodies a particular character and shape.

Look at the score, Varèse uses F, E, F#, C# and G in the first 5 bars (red), then swaps the F, F# and E for A, Bb and C for the next 5 bars (green), keeping the C# and G.

Score density

Here are the two sets of pitches/notes from the first 10 bars:

note sets aListen to Jenny playing around with the order of the first set of notes and notice the different shapes she creates. She does this by not only putting the notes in a different order, but by putting the notes in different registers and playing around with rhythms and durations:

Another idea we are going to borrow from Varèse is how small musical ideas/cells keep returning throughout the piece to create structure and unity. Notice how the first 3-note motif returns throughout the piece: repeated, transposed, expanded and altered and, how dynamics and articulation are varied each time.

3 note motif

Please send any music you create to 

For a PRINTABLE version of this resource CLICK HERE


All examples are performed by oboeist and BCMG Learning Coordinator Jenny Wood.

Your Turn!

In this activity, we are going to think about creating and transforming melodic and dynamic shapes. 

Listen again to Tony playing the opening phrase of Density 21.5. Follow the contour of the dynamics (see below), instead the pitch contour.  Also, notice the changes in tone and vibrato.

dynamic contour

Warm up:

Choose any 3 pitches/notes and improvise an opening phrase. Try following the same dynamic contour as the one above but with your own notes. Try again, this time really expanding your dynamic range. It might help to think of the sound changing density as you move from piano (quiet) to fortissimo (loud). Listen to Jenny trying this:

As you become more familiar with your notes, explore performance techniques and different registers (what octave a note is in).

Solo improvisation - note swap:  

note sets b

  1. Start by using these sets of notes or your own two sets. Try playing them across the whole range of your instrument.
  2. Begin your improvisation, using one set of notes – noodling, remembering to repeat some of your ideas.
  3. After a while, begin to pick notes from the other set to add a different flavour to your melody. You can add, swap or switch the entire set.
  4. Return to your original set of notes and try to repeat some of your original material if you can remember it. Musical memory is a really useful skill to develop.

Create short melodies to begin with, extending as you become more confident. Listen to Jenny trying this idea out:

  1. Try again, this time focusing on expression and dynamics.
  2. As you become more confident, spend more time moving between your two sets of pitches, dipping in and out, and exploring different combinations.
  3. You could try also this technique using the opening pitches from Density 21.5.

If you can, record yourself and evaluate your ideas and performance. Try to notate some of what you have created. 

Final piece:

Varèse talked about 'groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various force'. Using the activities you have explored above, choose one of the following ideas for your final piece:

Atoms and molecules: imagine your musical ideas as atoms and molecules interacting. How do your atoms (ideas) move through the piece, how do they attract other atoms to form molecules (new ideas) or how do they repel other atoms?

Shape shifting: use your music to tell the story of an object or character changing its shape, form and density. What is its shape to start with and how does it musically turn into something else?

Learning how to develop a melody is important to both composition and improvisation. Often, the movement of the melody is more important than choosing the ‘correct’ notes, particularly when experimenting and exploring sounds. The more you practice, the more control you will have over the shape and direction.