Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hard Truths About Composition

I had an interesting group meeting with my composition students yesterday. The main theme of the meeting seemed to be frustration. Some students work primarily in digital media, but are interested in creating music to be performed by live musicians on traditional acoustic instruments – they’re frustrated by the limitations of those instruments, and the notation they read. Some are primarily acoustic instrumentalists who are interested in using notation software as a compositional tool – they’re frustrated by the steep learning curve of the software, and the notational mistakes that the software still allows them to make. Before this meeting, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about the issues that my composition students have brought to my attention in recent years in broad sweeping terms – what my work with what I call “digital-first” composers has meant to my internal definitions of what constitutes musical literacy, how I might help students from the digital world compose effectively for acoustic media and vice versa, etc. However, after this meeting, I came back to some hard truths about composition that I hadn’t pondered for a long time:

1) Imagining new music is easy (well, relatively easy).
2) Bringing it into the world is hard, and takes skills.
3) Mastering those skills takes work.

Lots of us have great ideas for new music in our minds – a little snippet of something, or a big extended something. Bringing the music out into the world is a different matter, and happens for different people in different ways. Whatever your way happens to be, if you want to bring the music into the world as you imagined it, you have to have a set of deep skills to make that happen. If you’re creating stuff for digital media, you have to have deep knowledge of your digital audio workstation in order to bring your imagined music into the world exactly as you imagined it. If you’re creating stuff for you to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of your performing medium. If you’re creating stuff for other people to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of both their performing media and the language in which they want your compositional intent communicated to them. If there’s something you want to use as a tool to help you in your compositional work, you need to have deep knowledge of how that tool works, too. Developing each set of deep skills takes time, dedication, and concentration, and the skills don’t necessarily cross over – in my case, for example, my experience as an acoustic composer is no substitute for DAW knowledge when I’m creating music for digital media.

It’s actually taken me several hours of thought and false starts to get to that simple statement, and I imagine that my future posts will follow up on some of those false starts, but I think this is a good place for me to start this whole blogging adventure. Whatever else I might think or say about composing music, it’s important to acknowledge that parts of it are flat-out difficult, and require skills, knowledge, and hard work.


  1. Best wishes on starting a composition blog. I hope people will find it useful.

    As a very amateur composer (no reason to listen to me,) I offer two quotes which I've taken as basic principles for music composition:

    La musique doit humblement chercher à faire plaisir, l'extrême complication est le contraire de l'art.

    -- Claude Debussy

    and on song writing:

    Musicologist Robert Spencer wrote of the songs of Thomas Campion that his priorities were of the order of priority "poem, melody, and lastly singer, " and Campion himself defended the deliberate simplicity of his technique thus: 'A naked Ayre without guide, or prop, or colour but his owne, is easily censured of everies eare, and requires so much the more invention to make it please.'

    1. I agree with both of these statements, Jon. I've certainly found in my own work that the simplest-sounding sections/textures/etc. require the most compositional thought and planning. I'm also absolutely "text-first" in my works setting text. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to state this so clearly. It's a great reminder for me. As a "young" composer (but older person), I have been writing for acoustic instruments, struggling with notation software always, and I'm now learning DAWs and digital music creation. What you present here is a perfect description of what my music life feels like. Always challenging for me. Thanks! The points above are going on my wall as a reminder that what I'm feeling is normal.

    Keep blogging, please. I can't wait to read what you have to say next.