The composition process is different for everyone. My own process has undergone many changes over the past 6 years, and I have no doubt that it will continue to change. With this post, I mean to discuss three process-related questions that have been occupying my thoughts. Hopefully, this will help you think about the process in some new ways or at least spur some interesting discussion. Please feel free to comment your thoughts.

1) Should I play an instrument if I’m a composer? If so, should I use it to assist me in the composition process?

This is a multi-faceted question and one that doesn’t have a “correct” answer. First, I don’t think it’s necessary to play an instrument as a composer, but I have always been a proponent of it. I feel that my experience as a performer has positively influenced my writing and allowed me to think more idiomatically. On the other hand, if that’s not something that concerns you, it doesn’t really matter.

Still, I find that my performance proficiency allows me certain advantages that would not otherwise be accessible. The first and probably most important is improvisation. Because of my familiarity with the marimba and percussion instruments, I am able to comfortably move my hands around the instruments and “feel things out.” Without having to focus on technique or experience discomfort, my improvisations frequently produce material that I find appealing and can quickly record or write out.

I am also familiar with the timbre of those instruments, so I know better than most what will sound “good” or how I can achieve the sounds that I audiate. This makes it far easier to choose a sound from my head and produce it on the instrument of my choice. Also due to my performance experience, much of the music I write for percussion has a natural playability to it or “fits in the hands well.” This allows me to eliminate a lot of confusion for the performer by specifically notating, marking articulations, and writing sticking choices.

That being said, there are certain instances when not playing the instrument you’re writing for may be a good thing. First, the music you create is not biased by your inherent skill at the instrument. I think this can be and is a very limiting factor in a lot of music written today. The subconscious (or conscious) impulse is to keep the music within your range of expertise, because that’s what’s easier for you. This concept relates to many disciplines. In bouldering, it is quite difficult to set a good problem above your ability, because you don’t have the strength or facility to imagine the moves that are possible. If you’re not limited by your prowess, you can more easily compose music of any difficulty.

Also, without instrumental experience, the music you compose often pushes the limits of playability, which can be good and bad. Some passages may simply not be possible, but others could push beyond what performers are used to and broaden the horizons of composition for that instrument. There are pros and cons to any approach, and even if you have performance experience, I recommend working with another performer during the process.

2) Should I use notation software to compose?

Yet again, there is no correct answer. I know composers who do very well without using it and many who do. It’s essentially your preference. While I believe improvements in technology will keep increasing the efficiency and usefulness of software, there are merits to using a pencil and paper that may never disappear. Personally, I like to use a mixture of both. But I’ll get to that at another time.

3) If I do use notation software, should I use the playback to help me develop the work?

This is a difficult question, because any decision will have its own pros and cons. First, the quality of the playback depends completely on the program you’re using. The sound will only be as good as the program’s library of recorded files. While software has made great progress in this over the past decade, there is still much room for improvement.

If you decide to use playback, you probably can’t hear the score in your head. Which is FINE. Very few people can. After a few layers of sound, I am no longer able to audiate the music on the page. Playback then allows me to hear large or dense harmonies or roughly what a cluster of timbres will sound like.

However, because playback typically sounds nothing like the real thing, you can never really be certain of how well passages or sounds will fit together. It is also usually difficult to perceive balance through the MIDI playback. For example, a piano bass trombone sound can sometimes be heard over an entire orchestra in playback. That is unacceptable.

Though it attempts it, playback also does not have human response. It struggles to give certain notes inflection and shape phrases. Hearing this somewhat robotic sound instead of a singing line leads to my last issue with it. I have found that listening to playback has a tendency to convolute the original idea. My ear starts to hear the software sound as a replacement for the original audiation, and sometimes I end up with a damaged product that is difficult to fix.

Though I cannot provide specific answers to these three questions, I hope this post gives you a new perspective. Perhaps moderation in all three areas is the best way to go? Please comment your thoughts below!