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What Exactly Is a Nocturne, and How Do You Write One?

nocturne music

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Despite what many people think, classical music isn’t just a single, monolithic genre of music written by an old, stuffy bunch of dead guys. In fact, European classical music is so diverse that the only common denominator shared amongst pieces in its vast repertoire is that modern Western musical notation was basically invented in order to be able to read and interpret it all with seemingly no loss in translation.

Symphonic music is one of the few genres that relies almost solely on written musical notation and has spawned the invention of many instruments, harmonic concepts, and ensemble formations (the most influential being the symphonic orchestra) that are used in all styles of music today. It has also led to the creation of countless, elusive, multilingual terms like sonata, aria, opus, etude, and fugue — which is a lot. It’s hard to know what you’re actually listening to sometimes.

Eventually, we’d love to demystify all of these terms, because whether you’re a burgeoning composer or a prolific bedroom beat maker, it’s great to be able to identify what distinguishes a piece of music from another, but let’s start with one of the moodiest, emotionally gripping ones: the nocturne. 

Defining the Nocturne

A nocturne is a musical composition that reflects the moods and feelings of night time. Although the name nocturne comes from the French word for “nocturnal,” the origins of the term in music were first used in Italy in the 18th century. The Italian notturno signified the time of day the piece should be performed (typically after 11pm) and was commonly used as to described a piece with several movements which were meant to be played at different times of night.

The name at this point was just a marker of time and had very little to do with the actual musical content. Mozart’s “Notturno” in D, K.286 and “Serenata Notturna” K.239 are examples of this early style of nocturnes. But what we consider today a nocturne is pretty different, and that traces back to almost a century later in Ireland.

Romance on the Piano

Irish composer John Field is credited as the father of the romantic version of the nocturne that we know and recognize today. The style typically features just a single-movement piece predominantly written for solo piano with arpeggiated, almost guitar-like fluttering in the left hand and a song-like melody in the right hand.

The emphasis on simple melodies (usually with slight chromatic embellishments) are a defining characteristics of the romantic nocturne. One doesn’t need highly trained ears to notice the stark differences between John Field’s Nocturne In B-Flat below and Mozart’s piece above.

The delicate use of the sustain pedal is also a key characteristic that came to define this style. Dynamically, these pieces tend to drift between pianissimo and mezzoforte. The use of ostinato bass lines helps to give the music a tender sense of tranquility, almost like a lullaby and reflective of the night’s dwindling hours. Just listen to Field’s Nocturne in C Major and tell me it doesn’t make you at least a little sleepy.

Field moved from London to Russia in 1802 and spent a large portion of his life there, gathering influence from many Russian folk songs he picked up. Some of his first published work after arriving there were piano variations of Russian folksongs: Air Russe Varié For Piano, 4 Hands in A minor, H.10, and Kamarinskaya For Piano, H.22. This emphasis on folk melodies are what give the nocturne its song-like and almost vocal, melodic quality.

It is thought to be a main component of the nocturne that the right-hand melody imitates the inflections and melodic nuances of a singer.

Chopin Takes the Helm

One of the biggest proponents of the nocturne was Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. Chopin is most notably responsible for popularizing the form as a style accepted within the classical music lexicon. His 21 Nocturnes are considered the gold standard in which all other nocturnes must be measured.

Chopin and his contemporary, Franz Liszt, were both huge admirers of John Field’s work. In fact, Chopin’s early work was so similar to Field’s that many people assumed that Chopin was his student. Field was not a big fan of Chopin, however. When the two finally met, Field was dismissive of the young composer’s talent.

Unfazed by his hero’s disapproval, Chopin did what any young and eager composer looking to prove himself to his musical idol would do — he decided to take Field’s most celebrated style of composition and perfect it.

Differentiating himself from Field, Chopin’s nocturnes took more influence from Italian arias in terms of how he structured his melody. He also broke away from using strict ostinato patterns, and was more creative in the ways he used rhythm — time ebbs and flows and melodies speed up and slow down much like the musical tapestries of his other hero, Mozart. He also made use of counterpoint as well as borrowing ideas from other classical forms like the sonata.

In all of this, he managed to create a more mature, refined sound, which eventually led to his work with nocturnes being considered some of the greatest pieces ever composed for the piano.

So, How Do You Write One?

It’s quite simple really: Nocturnes don’t have a set formal structure like for example, rondos, sonatas, and fugues. Instead, most composers of romantic style nocturnes just follow a few simple guidelines:

  • Write or improvise a solo piano piece first (some composers like Claude Debussy expanded their nocturnes with orchestrations for larger ensembles)
  • Take a simple melody or folk-based melody and embellish it with some chromatic notes as decoration
  • Write a bridge, or B section, and then return to the first melody
  • Use the left-hand accompaniment to create an ostinato bass line with broken chords providing a rhythmic bed for the melody
  • Use the sustain pedal to create a more tender atmosphere
  • Use lots of arpeggios. Arpeggios are your friend.
  • At some moment, break the ostinato pattern and extend the melodic figure unaccompanied
  • Start in one key and end in that key (even if there are slight non-diatonic modulations in the harmony, the piece should always end where it began)
  • Diatonic harmony works. Using a common progression is perfectly acceptable.
  • Study the scores of famous nocturnes
  • Last but certainly not least, make sure your music conveys a “night time” vibe

Maybe it’s a bit more abstract, and less straightforward, but the above guidelines offer a great place to start. Maybe one day, we’ll do a Quick Tracks challenge around composing a short nocturne! When learning how to write in any new style of music, my best advice is always to study pieces written in that style that resonate with you personally.

So with that in mind, here are some other notable composers of nocturnes. Notice how these pieces vary greatly, but still keep the foundational essence of “night” at their core.

More Nocturnal Composers

Erik Satie

Satie was also an undisputed champion of the nocturne. He wrote a handful of them in 1919, and they stand among the last works he ever wrote for solo piano. If you want to learn way more than you actually need to know about just how strange Erik Satie was, I urge you to read this article.

Franz Liszt

Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Claude Debussy

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Lyapunov

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Charles Burchell

Charles Burchell is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and diplomat from New Orleans, LA. He has studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the New England Conservatory (B.M. ’12), and most recently completed the Masters of Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Ed. M ’13). Burchell has recorded and produced albums with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Delfayo Marsalis, Ran Blake, Ciel Rouge, his band The Love Experiment (featured in Touring on a Shoestring), and has performed and given master classes at various music festivals around the world. Burchell also works as a cultural diplomat with the Next Level Program and is currently a teaching artist for Carnegie Hall’s Digital Music Production Workshop and Musical Connections Program in which he works with court involved youth and students from various boroughs throughout New York City. Burchell continues to perform regularly around the U.S. and internationally as a DJ, drummer, and bandleader.