Composers will occasionally pause to think about about what they do and why they do it and then get on with their daily business. Some will rarely think about it at all. But it can be interesting to assess current attitudes against the background of what has gone before.

For example, many years ago music was approached more in the spirit of craftsmanship than of art. Composers had more in common with plumbers and stonemasons, which was understandable when we consider that this is exactly how their patrons perceived them to be.

Composers were very often employed as organist or as the composer-in-residence at a royal court or palace. Aware that they were paying out money on a regular basis to someone who earned a living doing what most perceived to be more of a pastime than a job, patrons developed the habit of calling for services to be rendered as and when they pleased. There was also a vague notion of composing as being something that the talented could do almost without thinking, much as we all write a letter.

‘Please write me an oboe concerto by Friday’.


‘And I’ll write another dozen pieces for you next week’.

To cope with demands that made no allowance for ‘inspiration’ or ‘creativity’ composers regularly carried notebooks of unused ideas which could be used or even re-used, with modification. They also jotted down ideas before they disappeared forever. The reason for all this was simple; if they couldn’t meet demand they didn’t get paid.

This would have seemed strange to those who grew up in the post Romantic period. Whether or not people changed their ideas about these matters or, more likely in my opinion, began a counter-reaction (see footnote) to what had gone before, the idea of an artist or musician as being someone driven by divine, unthinking passion became the favourite conception.

Critics also embraced this idea because they could claim, not directly, but by implication, that they and their idols belonged to an exclusive club from which lesser mortals were excluded.

If you have to ask, you’ll never understand’.

Words such as ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ would have been used far more frequently, the idea being that the object of our worship is not merely someone who has lots of ability, like so many others (only more-so), but that they are a race apart, having certain attributes that are entirely missing in lesser mortals. The TV pop talent programs of today are a good example of how convenient it can be to assess people in this way and to leave it at that, especially where money can be made by perpetuating the myth. Time, as always, is the best judge of validity but with popular audiences being so fickle it can be difficult to be sure about anything.

Of course composers, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes and it would be ridiculous to suggest they all changed their ideas to fall in line with the prevailing good-think. In any case, it’s impossible to write a lengthy orchestral composition, with due consideration to instrumental possibilities and characteristics and with diligent attempts to ensure consistency of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic treatment without there being a strong underlying cerebral element to it all.

Even now, many will still believe that conscious attempts to get things going during a fallow period by ‘constructing’ ideas, especially where there’s a deadline to meet (and isn’t there always, one way or another?), are a crime.

Working methods have always varied widely from one composer to another. Witnesses recorded their astonishment at seeing Mozart writing swiftly and without hesitation. Listening to his music, it’s difficult to believe he hesitated over a single note. In contrast Beethoven, the supreme architect, worked slowly and laboriously, with much erasure. There would frequently be little resemblance, in the finished product, to the germ of an idea.

I belong to a forum in which a young composer asked for advice on dealing with a ‘mind-block’. My reply, which drew a compliment from the editor, was as follows:

You’re probably relying too much on ‘inspiration’ (whatever that means). Please believe me the greats didn’t work like that and a professional with deadlines to meet can’t, anyway. I wrote my first arrangements in 1958 and have worked professionally at all levels (ever since I became good enough to, which took a while!). Although we have such things as ‘free form improvisation’ etc. the main stream of ‘conventional’ music involves a thorough understanding of the materials at your disposal. Play around with developing them harmonically, rhythmically, melodically and ‘ideas’ will come bursting out. You won’t use all of them (this isn’t ‘painting by numbers’). And that’s another point; you may be using too many ideas. I absolutely promise you that if you work in the blind belief that your own wonderful abilities will shine out for all the world to see your music will suffer, as mine did in the early days. Composition involves a delicate balance between craft, knowledge and art (and humility)…

Composing at the piano…or not

Another aspect of the composing process involves the question of whether to write at the piano or not. I learned a lot in the early days by transcribing compositions for jazz orchestras and big bands and found that being able to write down the melody, counter melody, lead part of instrumental sections and the string bass part, purely by ear, speeded up the process immensely. By the time I’d done all that, sitting in a chair with pencil and paper, I had a pretty good idea what the chords were doing, too.

But writing by ear and writing away from the piano are not necessarily the same thing. For example it can be very useful, especially in longer compositions, to sketch out ideas on large sheets of plain paper, indicating the rhythms and the general shape of the music in order to get a handle on things. Different colours can be used for clarity and the pitch and harmonies are sorted out later. Another advantage of this technique is that it frees us from inhibitions, especially where overlapping instrumental sections occur, something that cannot be emulated by a keyboard instrument. Having done this, we use our technique and knowledge to make the music work, changing the harmonies if necessary.

Composers always had differing views on this matter and I believe that the style of music they wrote influenced their thinking. In the time of the Bach family those who wrote at the keyboard were disdainfully referred to as ‘keyboard knights’ but it’s worth bearing in mind that Bach’s mechanical style of music lends itself to being ‘engineered’. Once you understand the contrapuntal interrelationships, the resolutions, the inertial properties and the importance of leading tones created, rhythmically, by anticipations, retardations and syncopation, it becomes surprisingly easy to emulate the style, if not the genius.

(This comment could get me into a load of trouble but I can only say things as I see them.)

 Stravinsky, on the other hand, liked to work ‘with the physical presence of sound’ i.e. at the piano.

And yet Delius, who had a remarkable ability to go directly from concept to paper (even when dictating his music to an assistant as his body was steadily destroyed by syphilis), dismissed the music of the European classical composers as ‘scales and exercises’, a view I have a great deal of sympathy with.

It will obviously require more effort and ability to mentally ‘hear’ music involving extreme dissonance or the use of unorthodox scales (especially when polytonal/polymodal) – where we can’t fall back on a familiar language that becomes second nature from daily repetition. But in making judgements about expected standards we will always be imprisoned within our own limitations; no one knows for sure what it’s like to be another person.

There is also the problem that, by placing too much emphasis on aural training, a composer will be constrained to write only that which he is capable of identifying aurally. I know people who are quite happy to spend their lives working in this way because they were taught to do this.

Two world wars and the growth in scientific knowledge heralded an era of positivism, causing many to question religious views, resulting in another counter-reaction, this time away from spiritualism and the related concept of divine inspiration. I recently discussed these matters with the vicar of my church and he made an interesting observation:

‘It always surprises me’ he said ‘that, at a time when we see dwindling church attendance, there’s a growth in spiritualism and the occult in film and TV scripts’.

I had to agree he had a very good point.


A good example of action/reaction comes from the world of jazz where musicians in the early ‘sixties, tired of the flirtation with legitimate forms and the sterility that sometimes ensued, developed the back-to-the-roots movement using a predominance of traditional gospel-type harmonies and a much earthier style of interpretation. The point, as I see it, is that these reactions occur because people get bored rather than that they wish to see evolution go in a certain direction. The problem is that there are few things worse than yesterday’s ‘trendy’.


6 thoughts on “Composition

  1. Wow. Too many things to react to and ponder on.

    In music theory class, if I remember correctly, the piano was treated as the master instrument of composition. Firstly, the range of the piano covers the entire range of the orchestra so one could play any pitch on the piano that any other instrument could and one need only pretend that a certain range represented a certain instrument. Secondly, the arrangement of sharps and flats are taken from the arrangement of black and white keys on the keyboard so a theoretical understanding of the music is best lent to understanding the keyboard. Basic keyboard skills were required of every music major, in order to understand theory.

    The problem with working something out on the piano keyboard is that the fingers, in a given key, want to fall a certain way and what is natural to play on an oboe or a guitar are not necessarily the same notes as will naturally or fortuitously fall on another instrument.

    Craft must trump inspiration. Without craft one cannot realize the inspiration. Without grammatical skills one cannot properly express a thought in writing. With craft something can be done, without craft almost nothing can happen. One is limited by one’s mastery of craft. Inspiration is largely a romantic notion, but without it the craft lacks a certain beauty. A table built by craft will function perfectly well. A beautiful table held in the imagination cannot be built without certain knowledge of working with materials and thus remains a flight of fancy that will never become a reality.

    The current state of musicians as artists of great value today seems to be a function of mass-market hysteria. The simplicity of what is popular also speaks to the taste and lack of education of the masses. Most opt for fast food and candy, few appreciate the subtleties of a fine meal which they cannot afford in any event. I sometimes think that I am fortunate to have limited gifts because that makes what I do more approachable to most; indeed, I am now striving to be more simple and effective rather than complex and sublimely brilliant.

    I teach craft to the degree I am able. And I teach musicality at the expense of what is “impressive”. A well played simpler piece is of great value, and a poorly played difficult piece is rubbish. So too I am trying to stay within my means as I write music, to do something simple and well. Mastering the simpler things leads to doing more “worthy” endeavors in any event as one is forever chained to what one has truly conquered as second nature.

    Wonderful article, John, as always.

    • ‘And I teach musicality at the expense of what is “impressive”.’

      This seems to me a curious comment – can you define ‘musicality’?

      ‘The simplicity of what is popular also speaks to the taste and lack of education of the masses.’ – You sound a bit like Adorno here. I agree that consumer fetishism is not a good model for art, but resorting to lofty condescension has thus far proven ineffective.

      • I would need to write volumes about what a vibrant waltz should sound like as opposed to a funeral dirge, how to properly execute a phrase, etc. The thrust of what I intended to say is that I try to focus the student on what they are able to play instead of what they cannot. The reason to even mention that is because students often want to do things far beyond their current capabilities and are often not interested in mastering simpler things which would lead toward what they want to do.

      • When you put it like that it sounds far more reasonable! I think anyone young, myself included, wants to run before they can walk… such is the curse of drive and ambition.

      • Yeah, that’s why I am trying to tone down my own efforts in composition, moving away from what impresses me to what is interesting and doable. How do you impress yourself rather than being lucky that one time? My way of looking at things is that you cannot do what impresses yourself because you can only reliably do well what you have mastered and that has become no big deal to me personally. A little push into something new each time while not losing control seems to be my own preferred rate of progress.

        The frustration in teaching is that sometimes the student sees the teacher as a magical being who can wave their wand and grant powers. The reality is closer to the teacher being able to point out a path and suggest specific strategies to traverse it, but the student must take it on themselves to ultimately walk down that path on their own.

  2. Where you put it like that it sounds far more reasonable! I think anyone young, myself included, wants to run before they can walk… such is the curse of drive and ambition.

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