Sunday, February 24, 2013

Playing With Expectations (Part Three)

My previous blog on this topic (part two) just scratched the surface in exploring ways in which Beethoven plays with listener expectations in his Piano Sonata No. 21 ("Waldstein;" op. 53). If examining this aspect of the "Waldstein" interests you, I recommend listening to the rest of the first movement several times if possible (video of this with scrolling score embedded at the end of today's blog entry), trying to identify places in which something unexpected occurs.

However, if you have the entire movement memorized, perhaps nothing would come as a surprise; you would presumably be expecting everything that occurs!

Or would you?

I discuss the "Waldstein" sonata every year when I teach musical form, and every time I hear it, I am delighted/excited/amazed, and yes, even surprised, when we reach the recapitulation. Without getting too specific,1 Beethoven does some absolutely outrageous things during the recapitulation, and even though I know what's coming, it doesn't temper my visceral reaction of surprise when they happen.

Why is that?

It could be because I am slow of mind, incapable of remembering what's coming next. I won't deny this, but, even if true, I think there may be another explanation as well, and it has to do with dropping a heavy object on my toe last summer.

Here's what happened: I was helping one of my kids assemble an office chair in his room, and an extremely heavy part (the pneumatic gas cylinder, which is central metal post upon which the chair rests) fell about four feet onto my foot. I remember that the pain was about as extreme as anything I had ever felt, but I don't remember the pain itself. Put another way, I remember that something really painful happened, and I remember the cause, but I cannot recreate the visceral quality of the experience itself, unless I were to drop something heavy on my toe again. I do not plan on doing this, although life being what it is, I'm sure something similar will occur at some point in the future… :(

Here's another analogy, this time involving no pain: There are some roller-coasters that I have ridden so many times that I know in advance what to expect, and yet they thrill me every time.

Remembering an emotional response is not the same as experiencing it.  When I hear the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, I know what is coming next. I also know that in previous hearings I was astonished at various points in the piece by the ways in which Beethoven plays with our expectations, but this knowledge does not prevent my experiencing a similar level of astonishment — I can't believe he just did that! AGAIN!every time I hear this composition.

This strikes me as one measure of a work's greatness; it can astonish, surprise, delight, or otherwise move you every time you hear it, even if you know what is coming next.

For composers, this is extremely valuable information! If we find ways to engage our listeners and play with their expectations, there's a chance our music will continue to have a similar effect on people for a very long time to come.

If you'd like to listen to the entire first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, here's a video with scrolling score:

1. I often ask students to identify the various unexpected/surprising things that occur during the recapitulation of this sonata, which is why I am not being more specific about what they are. I don't want to give too much away in this blog entry, because I would like students to discover these wonderful moments for themselves.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Playing With Expectations (Part Two)

Here's a link to my previous post, Playing With Expectations (Part One), in case you missed it.  It's very short, and sets up today's blog entry.

Rewriting Beethoven might strike some as sacrilegious, inconceivable, or merely foolish, but this is what I will do in today's entry in order to explore how Beethoven plays with our expectations, or, put another way, the issue of predictability vs. unpredictabilityHow will my re-write sound? You can judge for yourself (there are audio clips), but here's a hint that may shock you (or not): Not as good as Beethoven's version! 

But what makes Beethoven's version better? In exploring the reasons for this, we may better understand an essential component in great compositions, and use this understanding to improve our own creative work.

Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 21, op. 53, "Waldstein" is one of his greatest works. This is how the first movement begins:

Have a listen:

There are two basic ideas: The repeated chords, labelled a, and the short "tag" to these chords, labelled b; the b motive is varied and repeated two octaves higher.

Do you see or hear anything unexpected so far?

I know it is difficult to know what to expect when we first hear a piece, but I think most people bring at least some expectations to their listening experiences, and upon hearing just a few bars of a composition, more expectations are formed. If, for example, you have listened carefully to several classical piano sonatas, you probably have some expectations before hearing a sonata for the first time, such as:
  • You would expect that a work with the clever title of "Piano Sonata" would be (i) written for piano and (ii) a sonata. Beethoven does not let us down here; sure enough, it is for piano, and it is a sonata! How predictable! ;)
  • You could reasonably expect the conventions of 18th- and 19th-century harmony and voice-leading would be followed (since they are based on the practices of composers of that period, of which Beethoven was one), and sure enough, they are, albeit with some unexpected harmonic choices along the way (more on this below).
  • Experienced listeners, especially those who have studied musical form, might also expect that the first movement of a sonata be in "sonata" form because that is usually the case (and is the reason this musical form got its name; it is also called "first movement form"), and once again, this proves to be the case here. As with the previous point, however, Beethoven makes some creative and unexpected choices within this form.
However, this four-bar opening already does some unexpected things, such as:
  • Most piano sonatas begin with a melody in the right hand, and an accompaniment figure in the left hand, or, alternatively, with a short, attention-grabbing passage in octaves, as occurs in several sonatas by Mozart (K. 284, K. 309, K. 457, K. 570, K. 576). This sonata does neither; it opens with the repetition of a single chord for the better part of two bars (the chord changes on the last beat of bar 2), and the repetitive eighth notes continue unabatedly in the left hand until bar 11 (which you can see below). Beethoven's opening is highly unconventional in this regard.
  • You also might expect the right hand notes to be in the treble clef, because that is generally where they are found at the start of a piano sonata, but once again we find that Beethoven does not do this in the first three bars, placing the right hand in an unusually-low register.  This changes in the fourth bar, where another surprising event occurs:
  • The melody in bar 4 begins two-and-a-half octaves above the previous melody note in bar 3.  This extreme register shift is very unusual in classical piano music, and especially so just a few bars into the start of a composition.
  • You also might expect the key (C major) to be established unambiguously at the beginning, because this is what most compositions do; it is considered good compositional etiquette.:) Here again, Beethoven plays with this expectation: The chord that is repeated so frequently over the first two bars is indeed a C major chord, but the next one (at the end of bar 2) has an F sharp in it, which is not a member of a C scale. The F sharp is part of a D7 chord, which "tonicizes" the G chords in bars 3-4.  If you do not have a background in music theory, all this means is that when we hear a G chord preceded by a D7, the G chord can sound like it is the "home" key, not C.  This is not all that unusual, but it isn't a very common way to open a composition either.  
  • The "what key are we actually in?" confusion continues over the next bars as well, because Beethoven avoids a dominant-tonic (G7 to C) chord progression, and this is the progression needed to establish a key. We finally get a G7 to C progression in bar 12, but Beethoven throws in another wrinkle by making it G7 to C minor.  The attentive listener probably knows at this point that the music in C, but is it C major or C minor?
In short, Beethoven is messing with our minds.

Beethoven's continuation of the above has more expected and unexpected elements, but to help illustrate the point of this blog (and for fun), I made up a continuation that you probably will find less satisfying than Beethoven's; the questions, if you agree with this, are where does it begin to sound weaker, and what is the cause?  
Have a listen to the above (Warning: Beethoven connoisseurs  may become apoplectic):

At what point does it begin to sound less convincing?
  • Some might say bar 5, which is where it begins to differ from Beethoven's version. However, I don't think it sounds "wrong," or unconvincing there, probably because Beethoven does something almost identical to this in bar 18, and it sounds fine when he does it!  
  • My rationale behind writing the second line of music above was simple: In most compositions, the opening musical idea (i.e., theme, motive) is repeated, either exactly or varied in some way. Bars 5-8 above are a repetition of the first four bars, but transposed up a step (sequence).  So far so good.
  • In bars 9-10, I cut the first 4-bar idea in half, and this is sequenced up another step.  The tail end of the b' motive is inverted just to add a touch of the unexpected. 
  • Bars 11-12 continue this pattern; they constitute another sequence (up by one step) of the previous two bars, and once again the tail end of the b' motive is varied slightly.
So… Where's the problem, and what is the cause?
  • To my ears, bar 9 is when things begin to sound unconvincing; perhaps this is because at that point, it becomes a bit too predictable.  Bars 5-8 are a sequential repetition of the opening four bars. Hearing this, the part of my brain that recognizes patterns immediately begins to wonder if another sequential repetition will occur in bar 9, and when it does, I find it disappointing because that is exactly what I expected. Cutting the four-bar idea into two bars mitigates the predictability problem somewhat, but not enough to justify the continuation of the sequence in bars 9-10, at least for me. And doing this one more time in 11-12 just exacerbates the problem.  At this point, if I were in the audience, the composer would have lost me; I would be so unimpressed with the music that I would be unlikely to continue listening in a positive frame of mind.
  • The unusual harmonic progression — specifically the use of a B minor chord in bar 10, surrounded by F chords on either side — doesn't sound all that good either.
What about the last line of music above? Let's trash that now!
  • Bars 13-17 sound fine to me; not brilliant, just fine. I don't think we need to "trash" this line. The ascending, stepwise pattern in the bass continues using only the a part of the theme. Delaying the b portion until bar 16 seems to work, probably because because my brain is expecting it to arrive earlier, based on previous patterns. Delaying an expected event can heighten the listener's anticipation, and can be an effective way to play with expectations. But it must be done artfully; too much delay, and our interest in hearing the expected event may wane; too little, and we have not had an opportunity to build any anticipation, kind of like that old song, "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"
  • This works its way back to the beginning of a varied return of the opening theme in the last bar above.
Let's look at and listen to what Beethoven actually wrote:

Recording of the above:

What makes Beethoven's version work better? 
  • Nothing!
  • Just kidding… Well, in LVB's version, the first four bars are given a sequential repetition in bars 5-8, but down a step, not up.  This may not seem like much of a difference, but the significance is that the listener is not expecting bar 5 to begin in Bb and then tonicize F. Why? Because this is a very unusual thing to do at the beginning of a composition in C major!  So, once again, we have something expected (a sequential repetition), along with something unexpected (the move to Bb and the tonicization of F).
  • A second advantage of continuing in this way is that it allows the bass line (the lowest note) to descend chromatically from C down to G (C-B-Bb-A-Ab-G). This allows Beethoven to explore some interesting and unexpected harmonic colours on the way from the opening C chord to the G chord in bar 11.  
  • My bass line has some patterns, but it also has a kind of meandering, aimless quality if you play it by itself; Beethoven's has a strong sense of building towards a goal, that being the arrival at the G chord in bar 13.
  • Another point of harmonic interest is that LVB's version touches on C minor as it arrives at bar 13; this too is unexpected.  
  • The continuation past bar 13, which is the beginning of the transition section, begins similarly to the opening bars, but this time there are three subtle but significant differences:
    1. Instead of repeated 8th-note chords, we get oscillating 16th notes; this produces a more unsettled effect and ramps up the intensity.
    2. The register is not the same as the opening; it is an octave higher.  Again, this produces a subtle but possibly unexpected colour change.
    3. The second phrase, which was sequentially repeated down by step the first time, is sequentially repeated up a step in bar 18.  Again, not a huge difference, but perhaps not what the listener might be expecting at that point.
  • We have only begun to scratch the surface here; many more surprises remain in this movement, including an unusually-long transition, modulating to E major for the secondary theme group (the expected key would have been G, and the expected mode of E in the key of C is E minor, not E major), modulating to Ab for the secondary theme group in the recapitulation, and the lengthy coda, which functions as a second development section.
As I wrote in my previous blog, doing unexpected things in your composition is not of itself particularly challenging, but great works seem to find an ideal balance between the expected and unexpected, and understanding this is one of the keys to growing from a "pretty good" composer to a very good one.

A good way to develop a feel for this ideal balance in the composition you are working on is to experiment – a little more predictable here, a little less-so there; then vice-versa – but just being aware of the value of playing with listener's expectations is a great way to start.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Playing With Expectations (Part One)

One of the best ways to become better at making something is to study good examples of the thing(s) you admire in order to learn what makes them work.  If your goal is to build a better car, you could look at (by which I mean take apart!) good cars, and try to understand the function of each part as a way of learning how cars work.  If your goal is to become a better composer, you could study good compositions (by which I mean take apart!) in order to understand how they work.

In both cases, the objective of learning how things work is partly general interest (if you love something, learning more about it is its own reward), and partly self-interest (you are hoping to discover and understand aspects that you can borrow, improve, or otherwise modify in your creations).

An aspect I enjoy most about my job is that I get to analyze music on a regular basis for various courses that I teach. There are different types of musical analysis, but I think they all revolve around the fundamental question of how a composition works. Or, more generally, how does music work?

There is no single answer to this question — the reasons that any composition works are many, and different compositions work in different ways — but it seems to me that there is at least one thing common to all good music, and it is this (drum roll, please):
Good music plays with our expectations. 
(To enhance the dramatic effect of the above, play this short clip immediately!)

By "playing" with our expectations, I mean that the music sometimes does what we expect (and how does it do that?), and sometimes doesn't, and the ways in which expectations are created, fulfilled, and thwarted, constitute an essential part of the reason we are drawn to the music. Understanding how this works can be an extremely valuable skill for a composer.

It is easy to introduce unexpected elements to a composition, but this, by itself, does not produce compelling art. Really good compositions somehow set-up expectations and leave us guessing as to which will be fulfilled and which won't be, as we go along for the ride.  How do they do this?

More to follow in parts two and three.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Judge Me By My Composition, Do You? (Part Three)

Today's post looks at Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music (1957), and grows out of two earlier posts on evaluating and critiquing new compositions:
Some people are better at critiquing compositions than others, and, as discussed in my previous blog, there are undoubtedly different reasons for this.  Some may be related to personality type — some people are by nature more comfortable expressing opinions than others — but it may also be related to not knowing what to listen for.

Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music (1957) proposes that there are three ways (or levels) of listening to music, which he describes as "planes."  Below is a summary, all in Aaron Copland's words:
The Sensuous Plane — "The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. … It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else and absentmindedly bathes in the sound. … The surprising thing is that many people who consider themselves qualified music lovers abuse that plane of listening. They go to concerts in order to lose themselves. They use music as a consolation or an escape. … Yes, the sound appeal of music is a potent and primitive force, but you must not allow it to use up a disproportionate share of your interest. The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story. 
The Expressive Plane — "Here, immediately, we tread on controversial ground. Composers have a way of shying away from any discussion of music's expressive side. … But that should not lead one to the other extreme of denying to music the right to be "expressive." My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, "is there. a meaning to music?" My answer to that would be, "yes." And "can you state in so many words what the meaning is?" My answer to that would be, "no." Therein lies the difficulty.
The Sheerly Musical Plane — "Besides the pleasurable sound of music and the expressive feeling that it gives off, music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation. Most listeners are not sufficiently conscious of this third plane. Professional musicians, on the other hand, are, if anything, too conscious of the mere notes themselves. They often fall into the error of becoming so engrossed with their arpeggios and staccatos that they forget the deeper aspects of the music they are performing. …  The intelligent listener must be prepared to increase [their] awareness of the musical material and what happens to it. [They] must hear the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the tone color in a more conscious fashion. But above all [they] must, in order to follow the line of the composer's thought, know something of the principals of musical form. Listening to all of these elements is listening on the sheerly musical plane."
Perhaps there are other planes than this, or at least sub-planes?

"Functional music" can be considered as a category of music (gebrauchsmusik, in German; learn more here) ; this would include music for marching, dance, exercise, meditation, etc.  This music is not limited to mere functionality, of course; any of these genres can be affective — which may arguably be part of their function — and musically interesting as well (meaning they can stand up to scrutiny on the "sheerly musical plane").

This makes me wonder if we also listen to some music on a primarily functional plane. We may march, dance, or exercise to the beat of the music, which is similar to Copland's "sensuous" plane, except that we are using the musical pulse to guide the pace of our movement. Our primary focus may not be on the "sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself" (Copland), but instead on the activity in which we are engaged (dancing, exercising, etc.); music, in this case, is essentially a tool that helps to get us moving.

Possibly there is also a background plane for music to which we pay little attention; it's just there, in the background, as we drive, shop, eat, clean, etc.  I am for the most part incapable of experiencing music on a background level; if there's music around me, I tend to listen (or rather, it tends to hijack my brain), which can make shopping and dining out a rather unsettling experience.

Copland's assertion that professional musicians are (often) overly concerned with the "sheerly musical plane" — the harmonies, melodic lines, structure, etc. — to the exclusion of the expressive plane is interesting, but this has not been my experience.  I suspect that many musicians would argue that they are intimately and passionately concerned with the expressive side of music when they perform, and that communicating this aspect to the listener is extremely important in preparing for performances.

And even though I love finding out how music works and teach many courses in which the majority of the work we do involves listening on what Copland calls the "sheerly musical" plane, I frequently find my critical faculties turning to mush as I get carried away by a particularly moving work, which presumably means I am listening on sensuous and expressive planes.

In any event, I present this as food for thought.  Returning to the issue of critiquing compositions (both others' and your own), perhaps one way to approach it would be to ask yourself how well the music works on each of these different planes.
  • Does music have to work on more than one of these planes in order to be successful? 
  • Is it valuable to learn to listen on different levels, or to be aware of the plane on which we experience music, at the moment we are listening to it?
  • Are there other listening planes, beyond those suggested by Copland (or myself)? 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Judge Me By My Composition, Do You? (Part Two)

In my earlier post on this topic, I discussed judgement in general, and specific ways in which this can be applied to music.  In today's post, I will write about the challenges in evaluating compositions, and suggest twenty-one aspects to consider when evaluating a new work.  In my next blog, I will look at the the three ways, or "planes," of listening to music proposed by Aaron Copland in "What to Listen for in Music" (1957).   At a later date, I will continue this series by writing a blog on judgement in composition competitions, and in the academic setting.

The subtitle for today's entry could be, "It Takes a Village," because it is about something that can be extremely valuable in the creative process:  Seeking feedback from others, and giving feedback to others.  Just as in the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," it also takes a village to develop a composer.  We don't become good composers on our own.

One way in which this is manifested in our composition classes is that everyone is encouraged to comment on others' weekly presentations.  Evaluating a composition we are hearing for the first time can be challenging; it can be difficult to sort out our reaction to the work, and even more difficult to know what to say about it.  When students play in-progress works for each other in our composition class, we sometimes struggle to come up with comments that are constructive, insightful, and honest.

Perhaps because they make us feel good, the easiest comments to make are positive ones, such as:
  • "That was great!"
  • "I really like it!"
  • "I really like the [rhythmic freedom, text setting, harmonic language, colour, use of space, etc.]!"
There is value in all of these in that they are supportive and encouraging, both of which can help motivate the recipient to continue composing. This is a good thing, because whatever your level as a composer, you are likely to improve by sticking with it.

However, the last comment above is the most helpful because it is the most specific. It is heartening to get positive feedback, but a composer usually wants to know how to make their compositions better; honest reactions from others are essential in achieving this.

More difficult to articulate are comments that might be seen as being negative.  Most of us would prefer to avoid being confrontational with others (unless, of course, they cut us off in traffic!), but what do we say if we don't like, or don't react well, to sections within the composition, or even the entire composition?  

My suggestions are to (i) find something positive to say if you can, but (ii) be truthful about what didn't work for you. You don't necessarily need to know how to fix a problem, or even exactly what the problem is, in order to comment on it. However, if you can, (iii) try to be specific; below is a list of twenty ways to do this, and they don't just apply to evaluating others' works; ask them about your own compositions as well:

21 Things to Consider when Evaluating a Composition (in progress, or completed)
  1. Are there aspects that could be better notated?  Note spellings, rhythms, etc.?  This can be a good starting point for a critique, because it is seen as being a more objective area on which to comment, which makes it a "safer" starting point than critical subjective comments (such as, "okay, I gotta be honest here, bars 20 to 120 make absolutely no sense to me! NONE! ZERO!!! What the hell were you thinking there?"). But even notation issues can involve some subjectivity; when it comes to enharmonic spellings, for example, some choices are clearly more logical than others, but there are times when what is more logical to one person is less-so to another. But, for the most part, notation aspects are indeed more objective than compositional quality aspects.
  2. How is the opening? Does the opening grab your attention, or does it draw you in more gradually?  Either way can work, but if neither occurs, you may need to rethink your opening.
  3. Does an idea/section go on too long, not long enough?  The latter is fairly common in works by inexperienced composers.
  4. Are there too many ideas? Too many idea, like information overload, can overwhelm the listener. If you use a limited number of ideas and grow at least some of them in various ways, the listener may be more drawn into the music. 
  5. Are musical ideas heard once and then abandoned? This is related to the previous point — chances are that if there are too many ideas, some are heard only once — but theoretically, a composition with only a few themes could present some of them once. Either way, it's generally a good idea to organize your musical architecture so that main musical ideas are heard again in some form (e.g., exact or varied repetitions; motivic development and/or transformation of the theme). That said, not every idea needs to be heard more than once… A composition can seem pedestrian if every theme is repeated, varied, developed, etc., in some way.
  6. Which are the important ideas? How does the music convey this to the listener?
  7. Do the musical ideas seem unrelated?  Not all thematic material in music needs to be overtly related — contrasting ideas are also welcome — but one of the fundamental organizing principles of classical music composition over the past millennium has been the presence of some degree of organic unity.
  8. Does it have a mixture of stability and instability?  Longer-form classical works have sections that are harmonically stable (such as thematic presentations), as well as other sections that are less stable (such as transitions, and development). Instability creates tension, and stability provides a sense of release; both are important elements in music.
  9. Does it seem "stuck" around one particular pitch? Could it benefit from a "modulation" at some point? Modulation in non-tonal music may seem like a strange idea (how can you change key if you're not in a key?), but it can be achieved by establishing a "home" pitch class (e.g., D), then moving away from it to establish new (and probably temporary) "home" pitch classes (e.g., Bb, Ab, etc.).
  10. How are cadences created?  Are they effective?  Do they sound out of place, perhaps because they are borrowed from traditional tonal cadence formulas? Cadences in tonal music have varying degrees of strength in terms of the closure of thematic ideas; how do we create varying degrees of strength in post-tonal cadences?
  11. Does it have artistic integrity?  This is difficult to define, but it is something we tend to recognize when we hear it… Perhaps I will post a blog entry about this at some future point.
  12. Is it too predictable?  Is it so unpredictable that you find it confusing? Or does the balance between predictability and unpredictability seem just right? If so, is does it always feel "just right?" Or are there parts where things feel overly predictable?
  13. Related to the previous point, when ideas are repeated, are they varied in any way?  "Copy and paste" capabilities in computer music notation software make it easy to repeat material, but consider varying repeated material as well. Too much exact repetition becomes too predictable, and this can lose the listener's interest; little (or big) changes to repeated material may surprise the listener, and maintain or increase interest level. 
  14. Does the texture ever change? Does it change too much, or not enough?  
  15. Is the texture too busy? If so, it can be hard for the listener to know what the relative importance of different lines is?  Always be clear on the hierarchy of your musical materials.  What line is most important? What elements have a background, or middle-ground role?  If our main melodic idea is covered up by the other instruments, the listener may not be able to focus on it. Alternatively, you may wish to write a piece in which texture itself is the focus; no single line is meant to be most prominent, just the entire texture as gestalt. Well-known examples of this include Ligeti's Atmosphères, and Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; this approach is sometimes called "sound mass" composition.  Whichever approach you take should be clear to the listener.
  16. Is there a clear climax? Does it arrive too early or late?
  17. Does it have an identifiable musical character, within sections or overall? Is the musical character consistent within sections? Does it evolve in an effective way, or do mood changes seem disconnected/unrelated? Sometimes we may write very fine musical ideas that are not connected in any way to the rest of the composition; perhaps they would fit better in a different composition, or different movement?
  18. Does it sound too much like the musical style of someone else? This is a tricky issue; I have written blogs on originality, the gist of which is that originality is important in art, but not as important as many tend to assume. See links below for more on this. Also, imitating a composer or compositional practice is a time-honoured way of developing craft. If you are going to imitate someone's style or technique, however, all I suggest is that you (a) be aware that you are doing it, (b) acknowledge it in some way, and (c) try to find a way to put your own spin on it, which is where originality comes in.
  19. Does it have all necessary score details (tempo indication, dynamics, articulations, phrasing slurs, breathing slurs, bowing slurs, pedal markings, percussion identification chart, percussion beater indications)?  Do they make musical sense?  Don't put these into the score last, after the piece is otherwise complete; better to put them in as you go, taking your time with them, Doing otherwise causes us to rush through this process, often resulting in score details that make little sense, or are inconsistent, or applied in some sections but not in others.
  20. Does the score communicate the composer's intentions clearly, or are there confusing or ambiguous aspects?  Many composers have had the experience of writing instructions on the score that we thought would be clear to the performer(s), only to find out that they are not, and the performer interprets our score in a way we had not foreseen, and in a way we do not like. In a professional situation, where performers are paid by the hour, clarifying your instructions/intentions can be expensive, which in turn can lead to the organization that programmed your music being disinclined to programme it again in the future (unless you become a celebrity, which in our society allows you to get away with bad behaviour!). It can also cause performers to lose confidence in you as a composer ("I have no idea what this composer wants here!  S/he clearly has no idea of what they are doing!").  Sad to say, this is an attitude most composers have probably encountered and have had to overcome at some point in their careers.
  21. Is it written idiomatically, meaning does it sit well for the instrument(s) or voice(s) used in the score?  A passage may be idiomatic but still difficult; if it is difficult, is there a good reason for it? Most good performers do not shy away from learning difficult passages, but they can become frustrated if they spend a lot of time working on a passage, only to learn at the first rehearsal that their part is buried in the middle of a thick texture that no one can hear.

Sometimes we have difficulty articulating a criticism in a focussed way. We may need to hear the piece again (and again) in order to formulate a well-articulated suggestion. But if this isn't possible — and in our composition class it often isn't, because there are many students' works we need to listen to every class — then you could say something like, "around the top of page two, there was something that I wasn't sure about, but I'm not exactly sure what it was… Do you know what I mean?"  If the answer is no, perhaps someone else from the class will jump in and say, "yeah, I wondered about that too; I think it may be that the mood suddenly changes there," or some similar, more specific comment. This occurs a lot in our class, in my experience.

If you have a constructive critique to make — meaning a specific concern, idea, or reaction to the music — take comfort in knowing that the recipient (a) is probably, like you, hoping to hear honest reactions to their music, and (b) does not need to act on any of the opinions expressed about their music; you are just suggesting things for them to think about, some of which may help make their composition stronger.

When receiving feedback, try to:
  1. Understand it. If you do not, feel free to say, "I'm not sure I understand; could you clarify?" Or, "Do you mean the top of page 2? I wasn't sure about that section either, but didn't know what to do there." Or, "You are suggesting I burn my score and take up something useful in life, such as a training programme to become a WallMart greeter (or Costco shopping-cart wrangler, or elevator operator in an ancient building that still uses such people, etc.). Is that about it?" This last one works particularly well with a touch of frost in your voice.
  2. Communicate that you welcome feedback. On rare occasions in the past, a student has responded to comments in what seemed like a defensive way (or they have not responded at all; no acknowledgement, no disagreement, and no indication that the comment was heard, let alone understood… basically, non-response as a form of passive aggression; read all about it here), which has created an awkward atmosphere that quickly shut the door to further comments from classmates.
  3. Take notes on the suggestions.  Sometimes a comment can seem rather lame at the time, but later, upon further reflection, it might begin to make more sense… Try to keep track of all comments made, both as a way of acknowledging them (which shows your willingness to hear what others have to say), and as a way of acting on them later if you so choose.
  4. Feel free to disagree. All that is asked of you is that you understand and consider what others have to say, but there is no expectation that you will necessarily agree with it.  Here's an example:  "I agree that this opening idea is very short, and that we don't hear it again, but my plan is to come back to it later and extend it into a much bigger section." Or, "yes, the texture is very busy and confused, but my plan is to gradually make it clearer in this next section." Or even, "But there is a musical climax! It's here!" (while gesticulating wildly in the general direction of its location on your score). However, know that disagreeing too much can come across as defensiveness on your part, which in turn can discourage others from sharing honest reactions to your music with you. Always remember that it takes more courage to make a constructively-critical comment than it does to make a non-specific, "that was GREAT" kind of comment, and try to encourage others to be completely honest in expressing their reactions to your music; if you are seen as being defensive, you are unlikely to get many honest reactions to your music that could help you make it better.
One of the qualities that I believe is shared by all great or good composers is having the courage of one's convictions; there may be times when others don't see/hear things the way we do, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are right and we are wrong, or vice-versa. One of the things we learn as we develop as composers is to have confidence in the value of our ideas, but I don't know if you ever reach a point where you don't welcome and consider feedback from others.

There is a fine line between having the courage of one's convictions, and being so stubborn that you signal an unwillingness to consider opinions that are counter to your own.

If we receive feedback in the spirit in which it is given, it can help us to improve our music.

I'm evidently repeating myself; here's what I wrote on this topic quite a while ago (my second-ever blog entry, in fact!):
Invite criticism from others.  
 • While it is true that most of us need occasional encouragement in order to go on, we also need honest and constructive feedback from others if we are to grow as artists. The reason for this is that the creation of art is an inherently subjective process, but art itself generally has a communicative (or at least affective) function; in order to learn what effect our art has on others, we need people to tell us their thoughts and reactions to it. Invite criticism from friends and family, of course, but also from people you do not know as well — It is sometimes easier for a stranger to be honest with you than a friend. (Why is that?)

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