Lyle Murphy’s Horizontal Composition, the Equal Interval System: An Assessment by Michael Mitacek

 The following is a description of Mr. Lyle Murphy’s music composition method, “Horizontal Composition, the Equal Interval System,” or EIS, in historical context. We will see evidences of the accidental, the serendipitous and the transcendent as we follow and observe Mr. Murphy’s historical journey.

Initially, it should be noted that Mr. Murphy’s method may have never come about but for a World War II veteran. This GI, just after the war ended, approached the famous Spud Murphy to ask him for music lessons. He was very surprised when an even more surprised Spud Murphy told him he did not teach, and to find somebody else. The veteran, however, was not to be deterred. He persisted and finally, after numerous refusals, was told by the new teacher to come back next week for his first lesson.

From that point on Lyle Murphy, the teacher and creator of the Equal Interval System, began taking students –  almost all of them from the jazz and entertainment industry. EIS began with a single page, but it expanded greatly and rapidly. Each new page added to the text had to pass muster: every student had to be satisfied that there were no questions about the new page before it would be published into the final version. Interestingly, the method is still being revised and expanded to this day, and this will continue as long as Spud is alive to do so.

Spud was starting a new method of his own, a method remarkably unique. The highly original approach is apparent from the very beginning, yet how many students have I taught who said, “Finally, we have a theory method we can use in real life, in our everyday circumstances.” This originality was not for the sake of the ego of the author, but for the benefit of his students!

Since Spud had gained fame and fortune in the music industry, he wanted for his students the same or even greater success. Therefore his method relies heavily on examples by the author and by his numerous students.

Understandably it bears more than a little of the imprimatur of the music industry style of the day. However, the written text of the method continually reasserts the classical theoretical approach of objectivity and abstraction. Indeed, as Spud says in his Preface to Book I, EIS is the exposition of a pure theory of music. It does not teach a musical “style.” What you learn here can be applied to a church hymn, to a heavy metal song, to the symphony orchestra, and to the music of the past and the present –   to any of the genres we encounter in every day life. A Juilliard graduate can just as easily benefit from it as the film composer or song arranger.

And the method, so much like its author, begins at the beginning and leaves nothing out; there is nothing for the student to wonder about or be unsure of. All material is painstakingly presented, explained in various ways with accompanying CD’s, and then validated with numerous examples by the author and his many students. Consisting of some 1200 pages, Mr. Murphy’s marvelous method brings with it the feeling of “flying high” in the course of this incredible musical journey.

For Spud and his students, the focus is always toward working in the music industry. The objective theory has to serve the practical needs of the students. The enormous reputation of Spud and his method among working musicians in today’s music business is a testimony to its effectiveness and its success.

In fact, the method is so “sure fire” for working in commercial venues that something very important is overlooked: in writing a “working musicians’ manual” for composing and arranging in the TV and movie studios of the late 20th century to the present in order to get jobs for his students, Mr. Murphy the Scholar and Visionary has written a huge method of universal interest and application for music students and musicians everywhere.

Describing Horizontal Composition, the Equal Interval System of Spud Murphy is a nearly impossible task. There are as many facets, embedded truths, brilliant theories, examples, and revelations about every known aspect of modern composition as one could only dream of. Furthermore, from page one everything presented by Spud logically supports and complements every other concept and practice. It is a totally non­ contradictory exposition of encyclopedic music text and examples. In my opinion, it is unparalleled in the history of music theory pedagogy. The only book I know that attempts so much is Rameau’s Treatise of Harmony.

Rameau is a kindred spirit to Spud Murphy: both are fearless in their examination of music as it exists. Both are tireless in endeavoring to understand it. And both are comprehensive in explaining it for the good of their students… but, really, Spud attempts and achieves so much more. And his theories do bring about new, original musical sounds, so captivating to the ear and yet so very scientifically conceived.

To set the cornerstone for this unparalleled composition method, Spud invented a new set of harmonic progressions, consisting entirely of equal divisions of the octave. These “equal interval” progressions immediately give a modern feel to the musical examples. He also introduces a new technique of voice leading, based on the numeric interval or distance between the highest voice and the lowest voice. This idea of the importance of the “outer voices” is certainly nothing new. Every music theory book on the market and from historical archives emphasizes the importance of the melody in the treble, and the second melody in the bass line. Generally, all of these methods emphasize contrary motion between the treble and the bass. Spud Murphy, however, is the one who discovered a numeric basis for this relationship.

When the bass ascends, the position* of the treble descends. When the bass descends, the position* of the treble ascends. *The intervallic distance between bass and treble, expressed by a number, such as “5.”

This is a simple formula, but one which has profound and far-reaching applications. It sets the tone for all that follows, and it makes composing easy and even enjoyable. The truth of these two statements can be easily validated by concrete, existing musical examples that everyone can understand.

Moreover, this new Change of Position voice leading, when complemented by his concept of Bracket Voice Leading for chords of higher dissonance, can be applied to the analysis and composition of all traditional and modern music, without exception.

This marvelous journey of musical delight and discovery is like a sight­ seeing trip of the musical universe with wonders of every kind on all sides. Ingenious solutions are also discussed, overcoming all obstacles; the student always comes out the winner.

The scope of the method is universal as far as today’s musical understanding is concerned. From triadic harmonies and fifteenth chords, through quartal, quintal and secondal harmony, Polytonality, interval relations, music with no chords and no scales, tropes –                                           Spud’s version of serialism –  and more… it’s all there.

The practicality of the method is its motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Everything in the method is to be used, and Spud teaches the student how to do that. The surplus of musical treasures is awesome to behold! But it never ceases to please and reward the many musicians who use it every day.

Spud’s humanity toward his students has extended into his work as a Member of the Board of Directors of Professional Musicians Local 47, where he has also helped write contracts that have benefited working musicians in the same way his theory method has benefited composers, arrangers and performers.

Our hope today is of great expansion of the familiarity of the Equal Interval System in music schools, conservatories, and the music classrooms of elementary, middle and high schools around the globe. This is an ever­ present goal. The universality of EIS, and the ease with which all students can learn it, is one of the great hopes for tomorrow. This theory method transcends cultural barriers, and will constitute a common ground among peoples of different races and backgrounds in something everyone holds so dear –       the love of music. In so doing, Horizontal Composition, the Equal Interval System, constitutes potentially one of the greatest unifying inventions among mankind of this or any age.

Michael Mitacek © 2004