One Note Compositions


By restricting musical options the musician discovers ways to use other elements of music to greater effect, insights into the nature and role of musical elements. Restrictions help us to make choices and can spark creativity. The ultimate outcome is to demonstrate that there are no rules to making music, only principles and stylistic trends.

Example Assignement (assignment #0)

Your piece may utilize one note only.

Problem Solving

You may wish to begin by asking yourself, and others, a few questions.

  • What is a note?
  • What are the parameters of a note?
  • Can I alter any of these parameters without compromising the instruction?
  • Are there conditions where the pitch of a note can change and still be considered one note?
  • What is the difference between a note, a pitch, a tone, a sound, a note’s symbol, a position on an instrument?
  • If an note is embellished with a grace note, slide, bend, turn, appoggiatura, etc., is it still a note?
  • What else can I do with a note?
  • Can I subject the note to electronic or digital processing?
  • How can I shape a musical piece and create musical meaning out of one note?

Musical Responses

Here are a few pieces that may or may not meet the requirements of this assignment.


“Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” (James Tenney, 1971)

  • Performed by Danny Holt. Mapping Sound, 2009.
  • The title of this piece is a little joke. This was Tenney’s first commission for a percussion piece.
  • The piece utilizes the inherent complexity of the gong’s timbre; each area of the gong’s surface and the force of the percussionist’s attack yield new timbres. This one needs to be heard live!

“3 Minute Wonder – This is Your Youth: ONM (One Note Music)”

  • I’m assuming this is a joke, but I’m not sure it should be (I can’t detect irony anymore!).

“Music on a Long Thin Wire” (Alvin Lucier, 1977)

  • Lucier took a long wire and attached the ends to an oscillator. As the wire vibrates, various combinations of harmonics emerge (read description below YouTube video for a more complete description).

“Tuvan Throat Singing Demonstration” (Alexander Glenfield, 2010)

  • Alex is an old acquaintance of mine, here he demonstrates several of the vocal styles used by Tuvan throat singers.

“One-Note Samba” (Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1963)

  • Ella Fitzgerald scats on this standard.
  • There are many notes here, but the beginning of her performance demonstrates some one note singing

“For Anne Rising” (James Tenney, 1969)

  • Tenney utilizes what is now referred to as a Shepard/Risset Glissando or a Continuous Risset Scale which is an illusory sonic effect much like a barber shop pole where a tone seems to rise continually
  • This is among some of the earliest computer music pieces

“One Note Song” (Tenacious D)

  • “Universalsheep” comments that “it is one note because he plays D and D flat. D flat is not a separate note, it is only a variation of the D note.

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