On Composing:

What's it like to compose?

Very intense. Since childhood, I've had this very physical reaction to music (more on that in another post). In my early attempts to write, I chased this feeling. But just after I turned eighteen, I discovered the blessing of a specific place I could call to for inspiration. It changed my life. Since then, I've composed frequently without food, without sleep, and without any recognition in service of this magical bond. 

But what does composing look like, in 2020, for someone like me?

You may think of (predominantly) men in wigs with quill pens, when you think of “composing”. Or, if you're up with the times, you may think of PhD students programming aleatoric music on laptops. But what does it look like for a young composer writing beautiful music outside the confines of academia and film? You know, beautiful music that's just... beautiful music?

For starters, it looks as lonely as it sounds. Composing has found me on sandy beaches at sunset, cliffs under the moon, amid quiet trees, and overlooking cities from high windows. There are no co-writers when music is this long and complicated. If you were there somehow, you'd see a man staring into space, or conducting a feeling in his head. And it happens in silence: there is no guitar to whip out and "hum a few bars." 

Why does it work like this? Well, because you have to see the whole picture to write great music consistently. The whole picture includes the feeling, the timbre, and the musical contours and rhythms that define how our brains perceive a piece, even when we don't know every note. And the vast majority of listeners do NOT know every note. This means the process must be mental; there is no tool, whether it be piano, paper, desk or laptop, that takes into account all of the vital elements of a piece.

Every tool has a price. In the case of a piano, the price of playing one harmonic moment is all the other moments we cannot hear equally at the same time; the price of playing with no more than ten fingers is that what you hear will be limited to what you can play; etc. Novice composers often do create music that sounds as if it were composed on a piano, precisely because they leaned on such a tool! The only place where everything converges (short of the concert hall) is your mind. 

So then, if great composition is mental, what happens in the mind as it composes? 

First, I find a feeling. For me, this feeling will be accompanied by shivers, whereupon I know I should put it to music. It may be far more complex and specific than "anger" or "joy", but still more abstract than a thought. Once the fire is sparked, it must then be fed and kept alive. This is accomplished by going to interesting places, sitting or standing in bizarre positions, and occasionally wearing a very special blue bathrobe!

Why do I go to such lengths to preserve a feeling? Feelings are a shorthand for thoughts; they happen in vague shapes, contours, and patterns. But feelings are also shorthand for music! If a feeling is a general pattern of thoughts, which doesn’t depend on the details of those thoughts, then those thoughts could very well be musical in nature. Therefore, two different people can both experience anger from completely different life experiences — as long as the experiences share a common pattern of thinking that we call anger. On the flipside, what I call “great” music can cause the same emotional reaction in people who share little in common — because great music has components that fit together to form a strongly human pattern, a pattern humans recognize as a feeling*. All that's required is that the crucial elements of the music are perceived by the listener. 

Tending to this fire, this feeling-that-could-be-music, is my favorite part of composing. To this end, I've found the carbohydrates at Trader Joe's to produce especially vibrant-yet-refined masterpieces. I must be in a mindset to feel strongly, and the feeling must be the same on Day 1 and Day 90. So don your masks and hit Trader Joe's, people. 

After calling forth a feeling, and working to keep it stable and recallable, I engage in the last step of composing. 

In this step, I hold the feeling in my mind and view it as the result of music -- a piece of music not yet written. It is at this point that my musical knowledge comes into play. How do I create the sounds that I have the impression of hearing? This is the practical knowledge that a composer spends her life accumulating. It encompasses physics, psychology, digital audio, economics, music theory of course, and more. It is in this pursuit that academia and production studios obsess, as they lose sight of the equally-significant skill of becoming inspired. They occupy themselves with sounding "new", and let the rest of the industry turn "new" into "good". Come back to the light my friends. It's on Aisle 2. 

I'll get into the specific skills of a composer in another post, but suffice to say that to juggle them with emotional self-management takes absolute fluency! I didn't know what I would do with music lessons at 4 years old, when I started, but I'm sure glad I signed up.

Happy composing, everyone!


*The greater the music, the more of the emotional pattern is contained in the music, and the less must be produced by the listener. As an analogy, we can imagine a square to be a "pattern" that represents an emotion. Let's say that when we feel love, our neurons fire in a square pattern in our brain. For us to love an apple pie, we must supply many of the conditions ourself: we must be in the mood to eat, we must like apple pies in the first place, etc. Let's say this apple pie supplies one corner of the square, and we supply the other three corners. Now compare this to loving your mom as an infant. A mother supplies many of the things we need in order to feel love; we as infants need only to perceive her as "mom" to connect all the dots and feel love for her. Let's say she supplies three corners of the square, and we supply one. Because a Mom supplies more of the square pattern that we were calling love, and an apple pie supplies less, I would say that moms are easier to love than apple pies. Transferring this back to music, I would likewise say that great music is easier to resonate with, requiring only that we listen, in the ideal scenario. Sure, some songs we love because they have the name of a loved one, or played on a first date, but in these cases, we must bring more to the table as listeners: a pre-disposition to that person's name, or a meaningful memory. (It is the work of modern marketing teams to supply the "corners" that may be lacking in a song itself; thus lesser songs require more marketing.)