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  How do they  Vladimir_sibirski at 17:05 on 23 January 2010

Hi readers. Thank you in advance for your possible answers.

Because I don't understand, because I can't figure out how composers in the past used to work on entire

orchestral pieces when they weren't first finishing these pieces entirely in their heads. I don't

understand how... Please, help me understand.

I actually thought all composers were always finishing their music in their heads first, and I believed

that, until not long ago I read a line that went: "...a few composers used to finish the music in their

heads first...", and it's the "a few composers.." which made me question about how others then managed to

do it, those who didn't then first make the music in their heads..

Nowadays, there is the computer and the music notation softwares which allows you to play any part, but

then? Ok hearing in their imaginations, but how could they read twelve lines in the same time for

example? That's what I can't understand. How composers in the past working on complexe orchestral pieces

were capable of checking the scores of their works and continue to work on them, particulary on these

parts which included many instruments playing together, counterpoints, plus various other details? Or were

they memorizing as they were writting on the score, and thus progressing part by part? I can think of no

other way but that they perfectly knew the pieces in their heads, they had them complitely memorized

(perhaps the whole piece, or one movement, or just one section of a movement - depending on memory), and

that the only thing they had to do is write it all down.

  Re: How do they  scott_good at 21:43 on 24 January 2010

Most composers worked with machines as well - they are called pianos. Many elements of the musical composition can be organized at the piano. Compositions can be built around some basic parameters - melody, harmony, bass etc, and then orchestrated.

Some could do much (most...all) in the head. This comes from practice, study, and the ability to concentrate. Perhaps sections would be heard in the head, and then sketched on paper, then fine tuned at the piano.

There is no one way as there is no one imagination. But there are general skills and techniques used to build large scale works.

  Re: How do they  Misuc at 23:12 on 16 February 2010

Composers work in the same way as you do when you are posting this email. You didn't know at the start of your email what words you were going to use in what order. That just came as you wrote. Your ability to do that comes about because of the properties of language - which connects phonemes into words and words into phrases and sentences etc. i.e grammar. There is a grammar in every [non-nonsensical] piece of music.

What you write at one moment conditions what you write the next which constrains what follows after that. One phrase is like a question answered by another phrase, but the two together may be a sort of 'question' which has to be balanced by a different kind of 'answer'.

This is one way of thinking of some music.

Nearly all movements of most pieces in the latter part of the 18th century are either 'rondos' of some kind (where a short tune keeps on coming round again interspersed with other little tunes) or is in sonata-form, where a number of phrases establish the tonic key, break it up, take you to the 'dominant' (five notes higher) and leave you waiting for a cadence in that key-region- than play freely with various key regions then bring you back to the start and repeat the whole thing, but transposing the 'dominant' bit back on to the tonic. Put like that it sounds like a dry formula, but there is incredible variety and richness, humour, drama etc. in how this is done in practice. If you were to break down what you wrote in terms of subject/object verb, pronoun, subordinate phrase etc. that would also sound like a dry formula, but it is necessary if you are going to say anything meaningful. It is the assimilation of all this that gives the imagination something to 'feed' on and could allow one over-sentimental lady to write of Mozart that he saw a whole piece in his head like lightning lighting up a whole landscape. Once you know how it works it is no big deal at all to have a complete picture of how a sonata-form movement goes with most of the detail.

There are also pieces made up of a patchwork of little sub-pieces. These sub-pieces might 'want' to expand and break their boundaries, or they might 'want' to contract. There might be a sort of fight between the bits and the whole. Bach who wrote very quickly and must have had a good memory certainly did not conceive of the St Matthew Passion in one go. He set the words and they made little songs and recitatives etc.

The complexities of the counterpoint did not come to him 'out of the blue' either. There are routines,'rules of thumb' etc. born of study and experience, which make it possible to go beyond what is exactly imagined, or to train the imagination (like you train a climbing rose.)

There are also many ways of 'cheating'.

Tallis did not imagine or remember each of the 40 parts and how they fit together in 'Spem in Alium' (although he followed rigid rules about which notes were allowed to go with which other ones) - nor did Ravel hear every note of the lush orchestral effects of 'Daphnis et Chloe' in his head before he put pen to paper. For such effects it is sometimes enough to know e.g. that a rushing upward scale on the violins will sound very exciting against a downward scale on the woodwinds and to have experience, of what such things will sound like.

I have always found it very hard to 'cheat'. Maybe I am revealing a prejudice in even using this word, but I find it difficult to 'hear' the implications of the sounds I imagine. Discovering what they are and remembering them, learning how to 'manipulate' them or allow them to 'manipulate' you is a source of inspiration and also tremendous exasperation. This is because, like it or not, all composers now have to invent their own grammar: something which is actually impossible.

That's what's so wonderful about Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Boulez, Carter etc.