How Does a Composer Know What to Write?


While in college studying music, I watched a series of lectures on PBS given by Leonard Bernstein at Harvard in which he talked about music as a language.  WOW.  Before those lectures, I had not thought of music as a language.  Bernstein illuminated how music communicates ideas and emotions through a system of notation.  Spoken language does the same.  The notation in music represents sound produced by instruments or the human voice.  The rules of composition are its grammar and syntax.  Every musician learns them.  How a composer uses those rules, or breaks them, gives a sound or “voice” to the music unique to that composer.

As a literary writer, my ideas come as images or words.  A composer’s ideas arrive as sounds or are stimulated by something visual like art, literature, movies, etc.  In Perceval, Owen te Kumara, Evan Quinn’s composer friend, hears sounds arranged according to the rules in his mind rather than a description in words, such as “in c major, begin with a chord….”  He’s steeped in music’s language and the sounds.  Thinking in sound comes as naturally to composers as thinking in words.

The idea or series of musical ideas dictate what form the piece will take, e.g., symphony, sonata, concerto, etc., and what instruments will play it.  Sometimes a composer may want to compose something for a specific instrument he likes or for a particular musician, or an orchestra or conductor commissions the composer to write something.  Throughout the Perceval series, Owen works on a symphony in memoriam of a dear friend, so his emotions about the friend, the friend’s personality and the friend’s musical instrument (piano) will influence what Owen writes.  The form Owen chooses, a symphony, reflects his friend’s personality, i.e., big.

Each composer has her own approach. Some sit in silence, listening to the sounds in their minds, writing the notes on score paper. Others sit at the piano and test out chords and phrases as they write. Or they work at the computer, using software that will check their writing against the rules every step of the way and then produce the sounds for them to hear.  However a composer works, she is invariably alone.

As his writing progresses, the composer may share it with trusted musician friends or family or not.  Owen shares his work with Evan because Evan has agreed to conduct the world premiere. Sometimes, if a foundation or contest is funding the composition, the composer may be required to meet certain agreed upon milestones and submit proof that he’s met them.  Sometimes composers work closely with the musician for whom they’re writing the work.  For example, Samuel Barber consulted pianist John Browning while he composed his piano concerto for Browning.

How long does it take?  There is no set duration, just as there is none for literary writing. Some composers work faster than others.  Sometimes the music comes in a white heat, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. If the work is a commission, the composer may have a deadline — he’ll need to finish well before the premiere performance in order for the musicians and conductor to learn the music and rehearse it.

As part of my degree work in college, I composed music.  The ideas never came fast and my musical grammar and syntax were clumsy.  As with a foreign language, it takes time to learn the basics and the rules, and facility comes with practice. I’ve found learning a foreign language easier than composing music, so I have the highest admiration and respect for people who compose music well and produce a large body of work.  And I love hearing new music for the first time.

Owen te Kumara is a fictional character — the music he hears in his mind remains inaccessible to me.  But I wish that he existed so that I could hear the music I imagine him composing…..

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2 responses to “How Does a Composer Know What to Write?

  1. Pingback: Writing and Composing | Anatomy of Perceval

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Posts of All Time on Anatomy of Perceval | Anatomy of Perceval Blog

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