Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (1)

[From a 9-part series for my introductory composition class.]

1. Originality and Quality of initial musical ideas

Everyone who has ever played a musical instrument or sung has probably come up with their own musical ideas (a melody or melodic fragment, chord progression, rhythm, etc.)
at some point. Sometimes, this gives rise to the impulse to create a complete musical composition, but many people have told me that they did not follow through on this impulse because they felt their initial musical idea was 'not good enough,' or 'unoriginal.'
f this has ever happened to you, I would like to suggest two possibly radical concepts to consider:

The quality of these ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that might emerge from them; and

The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

While it would
probably be a better plan to start with a high quality, original idea, a good composition can start with an uninspired, not-particularly-original idea!

•Consider 1 & 2; can you think of any examples?

If true, what the above statements suggest is:

The way in which your musical ideas are extended and developed into complete compositions matters more than the quality/originality of the ideas themselves.


Composition is a craft. The harder you work at developing your craft, the better your ability to compose the kind of music you'd like to hear.

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Kim Codner said...

I think these statements are completely true! If you like something you are writing, you should stick with it. What's the point of writing something if the end result is only to write what you think people WILL like? You would then be writing something that isn't completely in your own style, and slowing the growth of your own style. I'm sure there are reasons for stopping the writing process of something "unoriginal"... perhaps the writer is afraid that they will be accused of musical plagiarism. Maybe sometimes we try to strive for something that is too advanced for us to write. We hear this wicked music in our heads that could be extraordinary... but by the time we write out one of the voices, the others have been forgotten. I think the creative process of writing music can also follow the models of music we find intriguing. I once heard an improvisation by misha stefanuk that blew my mind. And for months i was literally trying to recreate something as cool as what i had heard. But everything i wrote was "not as good"... maybe it was as good in another context? But i was so stuck on that improvisation that i would not settle for anything i was writing. Eventually i got over it, but it reminded me of this blog. I like the quotes on this blog! They are inspiring.

Jill A. said...

I know that I have definitely worried about originality in my works. After listening and being exposed to so many different types of music i'm always concerned that I may unknowingly use material from other composers works. Another issue has always been that I could never seem to write what I hear in my head. I'm sure everyone has experienced that at some point.
I think these quotes are great!
After taking this course I don't worry about these issues anymore. I have more faith in my ideas and write what I feel is right. It's been a great experience!

Robbie b said...

It is quite funny to come back and read this entry after completing the cliche composition. You address the idea for composers to strive for a unique and original idea for every piece they write. this is not necessarily a bad point of view for composing, but it completely rules out the options of sampling, mimicking and redefining already used musical ideas. The cliche assignment was just as effective as the atonal assignment was to me, in the way that I would be entirely ignorant to even the thought of the idea to even incorporate it in a piece of my music. With just these two options alone, I have already written 2 compositions that would never cross my mind before this class. I'm excited to see what else there is I have to learn!

Philip said...

Robbie mentioned the fact that it was funny to read these posts again after the cliche assignments... I agree completely! I don't think my ideas are particularly good, but I try to work as hard as I can on developing them. Having said that, I also feel that often I don't develop my musical ideas very well. So what am I saying? That I'm a bad composer? well, that may be true, but more importantly, I think that, as Dr. Ross said at the end of this post, you really need to practice composing. It really is an art, and that is definitely something I've come to learn through this course.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I come up with ideas all the time that I want to use in my compositions, but then I usually forget about them or ditch them after awhile. I also hear many things in other music that I'd like to use bits of, but then I'm worried about 'stealing' it.

I don't often worry about not being original, but I have had a few comments in the past about something I wrote sounding like something else.

I find it so much easier to start composing a piece with a bunch of little ideas in my head or written down. I like to have somewhat of a plan, but then 'go with the flow' as I get into it. Having the little ideas from the beginning really help me out when/if i get stuck later on.

Tim said...

I can think of a bunch of examples of themes that do not sound original or interesting / "high quality" by themselves, yet in the development of those themes, a highly intricate and amazing creation unfolds. Many scores that I have done or am currently studying and playing can attest to this property. (Beethoven - Pathetique Sonata 1st mvt. - theme is pretty much an ascending scale yet it is accompanied by exciting harmonies and driving rhythms. Mozart K333 uses a descending scale spanning a sixth, but when the dissonances are placed on strong beats, the level of intensity grows)

As someone who loves to improvise at the piano, I often try to improvise for a few minutes on a single small motive. This helps me to expand my developmental techniques when composing.

I find it very interesting to hear how composers' original materials change over the years and how it develops over the course of their lives.

David said...

This is exactly right. If there's one thing I've learned from studying composition so far it's that it's not so much about the ideas that you start with but more so how you develop them. If you think about it, it's really the same as speaking. You can say any given phrase countless different ways and they will all evoke different tones and ideas. Most of the pieces I've written have started out with an idea that I didn't really think was completely original or outstanding but through working with it and trying different things with it I've come to results that I've been at least satisfied with if not quite proud of. I think that even if you do begin with material that is similar in concept or even pitch material to something else then through the filter that is you, the individual, you will inevitably come to something that is original. Unless of course you're following the model note for note. I don't personally spend too much time anymore worrying about being original, I feel like my taste and instinct will always carry me in an original direction simply by virtue of the fact that everyone is different and will carry a given idea in their own direction one way or another.

Joshua White said...

I agree totally with this. Most people consider Beethoven to be one of the best composers of all time. Was the source for his themes and melodies particularly interesting? or original? well, it all depends on your opinion of major and minor triads is I guess.

What made Beethoven stand apart from the rest was his development of his unoriginal triadic themes into larger spanning forms, and the way in which he used them to trick the listener.

This being said, I never stick with an idea I consider to be "boring" or "unoriginal". This may simply be due to an insecurity in my developmental chops, however I tend to push myself to use better musical ideas.

Aiden Hartery said...

I think about my originality often when I sit down to think about/begin to write a piece. The skill to becoming truly original is definitely within your ability to develop your ideas. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach...the b'ys totally knew how to take simple motives and transform them in a way that one one else could; hence their infinite stardom.

I try not to be too concerned with whether or not I am being 100% original. People often criticize movie composers like John Williams because they "steal" from past composers and pass it off as their own. Mr. Williams is only doing what musicians have been doing for years: sampling a motivic idea and then changing it to make it your own. Sure when you listen to Holst's Planets suite you think about Star Wars, but pieces like that were the sources of inspiration that Williams drew from. It isn't "copying"....he isn't being "unoriginal".

I like to listen to a lot of music and try to branch myself into as many different genres as I can. When I find something that I like, or can relate to, I may experiment within that field. It doesn't make me unoriginal, but rather I use it as a fuel to help me develop my originality.

Olivia Budd said...

It's hard, when writing music), not to worry about originality. However, I think that even the most unoriginal, boring little motive can be expanded upon enough to create something really interesting. Major and minor scales are, in themselves, fairly boring, but somehow Western composers during the past centuries have managed to create some pretty interesting things. I think it's always possible to create interest out of something uninteresting. It can be a really good exercise to try to create an original composition using only three or five notes.

Robert Godin said...

I had a great experience with a bad musical idea turning into something I was proud of. There was this little 4 note figure. It wasn't particularly interesting or complicated. So I just started with some repetition. Things began quiet and uneventful. But I slow changed bass notes, then figured if I'm switching harmony I could switch rhythm as well. And going forward I used the pattern but with different accents, in pitch, and in rhythm. It was a great experience to go from very small to a full piece that way. Little changes can often hold big results!

Kelly Perchard said...

Though this post was very short, it may have had the most impact on me compared to the other posts. I have always had the fear that I was "stealing" another musical idea I had heard from somewhere, even if I couldn't remember what the original source was, or even if it did previously exist. It has discouraged me from composing on several occasions. The statement that "The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much" blew me away because it is the single thing that has kept me from writing so many times before. I know that I can't go too far in the opposite direction as to start actually composing things that are very unoriginal, but it has put my mind a little at ease to know that other people have struggled with this, and that I shouldn't be worrying too much about it.

Josh Penney said...

I think this is a very interesting topic. Small musical ideas are most often the foundation of great musical work. However like a house, the foundation standing alone without anything built on top of it isn't much of a house.

What I'm trying to say is, you can take lots of musical ideas from large scale works, and these ideas standing alone may not be the most interesting this ever written. I truly believe it takes a great composer to come up with these small interesting ideas, but of greater importance is being able to take any idea, and great something much bigger based on it. This is something I try to do in my music as music as I can, because it can often lead to a great piece with lots of unity, but also it can be a great exercise in compositional flexibility.

Flutiano said...

The first example that comes to my head is Beethoven's fifth symphony ( By itself, the four note motive that the first movement is built from so completely is not original, and has the potential to be turned into a very uninteresting composition by a lesser composer. However, this is one of the most famous pieces of classical music today, because Beethoven did such a masterful job of turning this little kernel of an idea into a wonderful symphony.

Another relatively simple motive is the one that Bach used for his first two part invention ( Scale fragment, decorated tonic triad, all from the first five notes of the C major scale - could become dull fairly quickly. But it doesn't, and he keeps using it over and over again through the entire (albeit short) composition.

These are only two of the most obvious examples. So much of classical sonata and concerto repertoire is built out of scales and arpeggios and more scales and arpeggios. Those certainly aren't original. It is when they are put together and developed in interesting ways that these technical patterns become works of art.

I'm not sure if the relative unimportance of the material makes composing more or less intimidating . . . it means that you don't have to start with ingenious motives, but it also means that craft is very important. It takes a lot of work to learn how to make a simple motive into a stunning composition!