How do composers compose??

Do composers always have to be sitting in front of a piano to sketch out ideas, or do some of them just hear all of these melodies and write it down?

Also, how do they write all their notes? if i look at Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, there must be thousands upon thoudands of notes in a single movement. did he actually sit there and write out every single note for every instrument? How did Wagner write out the scores for his massive works, with their complex orchestration and harmony?

they must be having help, right?

Some composers just sit down and the music comes to them, eg Schubert, which explains his output, and Mozart. I read somewhere that since Mozart left behind so little drafts it probably meant that he had worked out everything in his head before writing them down.

On the other hand, some composers like Beethoven rely on sketching out ideas on notebooks. This method allows them to refer and pick out ideas that may suit their composition. They may or may not need to sit in front of an instrument… Bethoven certainly would achieve nothing by sitting in front of his piano.

Other composers, like Handel, just copied (ok, he did have his own compositions) from others or rehashed previous material. After all, he composed for a living, and meeting deadlines was just as important as producing good music.

For writing down what they had… I guess most composers before the computer era wrote down by hand. Some composers had people to do the copying – since instruments may play identical lines, all he had to do was to instruct the copiers to copy so-and-so lines for 3 instruments.

Wagner probably wrote out the scores for his massive works by hand… which explains why he took decades to write an opera cycle that adds up to only around 8 hrs long.

However, looking at modern film composers, we find that many do employ arrangers to help them arrange the melodies. In this case, I guess that the composers just writes down the main melodic line and tells the arranger the kind of sound he is looking for.

I hope this helps.

Since this is about music, I’ll move this thread to our arts forum, Cafe Society.

moderator GQ

“Shhhh. The Maestro is decomposing.”

I watched my friend become a composer before there were computers. He learned to write (by hand, that is) notes quickly.

I compose by finding a tune through fiddling on a keyboard. Sometimes a tunes shows up in my head, and I have to figure out what it looks like on paper if I don’t have a keyboard nearby.

Maybe established composers of old had scribes to help, but I think writing out a score was just a skill they acquired. On the other hand, sometimes (even today) you come up with the basic musical outline and hand it over to someone else to orchestrate it. Some people are really good at knowing whether a section would work if flutes played it, or if the viola section should play it. Other people seem to hate doing orchestration.

Ask a hundred composers and you’ll get a different answer each time.

I am a composer, but I don’t use a piano. I hear the music in my head and write it down. Usually first as a sort of rough sketch. I’ll sometimes use impromptu shorthand so I don’t lose the flow and then flesh out the details later. But many wonderful composers could only write well at the piano.

In general, the famous composers since the classical era did indeed write down every single note. Except for where some type of improvisation was required. Of course, when it came time to publish the work and create parts for the individual performers, this was something usually not done by the composer.

As far as writing out each part ‘classical’ (not really limiting to the classical era here) composers probably wrote out a score. A score is where each part is written out on a single piece. For instance the first line might be for the first violin and the second line for the second violin and the third line for the viola and the fourth line for a cello. Now all the parts of a quartet are on one page. So someone, say a student of the maestro could then copy out each part. Also really good musicians are pretty good at reading scores and transposing on the fly. Suppose you had something written out for one instrument but when you travel to Sluttneburg they don’t have that. Well the sakbutt (early trombone) player may play the cello part or a violin may cover a trumpet part. If you hand the same copy of a piano score to a string quartet today they could probably play from that with each player picking out their part from the score.

thanks for ur answers! the baroque composers astound me in that they cranked out tons of quality music so easily. also, they were working with quills and ink wells, not modern ball-points. i still can’t fathom how they copied all this music out of their head on to paper, with all those rapid fire notes.

would perfect pitch assist a composer in composing? if i had that skill, i wouldn’t need to fool around with sketches or piano. i would know the notes instantaneously, right? could we assume most composers had perfect pitch?

I tried to post at the exact moment the SD went offline the other day. Imagine this is right after “Shhhh. The Maestro is decomposing.”

Actually, Beethoven was reported to have worked at one of his forte-piano until well past his going completely deaf. Although I haven’t given this much thought until now I would assume that (especially if he were composing for the keyboard) the tactile feel of the keys helped him to hear inwardly the piece he was working out. (Not that he had to rely on this method to hear a piece.)

Music is not just composed to suit any fancy a composer has, he has to have some understanding of how the performer will actually play it. This requires a working knowledge of all instruments you compose for, but since Beethoven was a pianist it would have gone beyond theory and into practice. Some of his most demanding pieces (e.g., the Diabelli variations) were composed when he was completely deaf. I am sure he played them before sending them to the publisher even though he couldn’t “hear” them physically.

Beyond this, as noted by xejkh, Beethoven was continually reworking his unfinished works. He was a celebrated improviser of his day and it is not inconceivable that he would have worked out many of his ideas through improvisation at the keyboard, even for works planned for other instruments.

Mozart definately composed all in his head. He had his wife read him the paper so he could write things down since he found physically writing the music boring.

As a composer and someone who sometimes still teaches composition, I would typically compose in my head and then noodle around on various instruments when I got to a sticking point to make sure I was thinking about the melody properly. Most everything I used to write, I would hear in my head first and then write it down.

When I would compose in crunch time (by hand I might add), I would compose with the instrument in mind on any instrument that could transfer over to whatever I needed. Piano or guitar for chordal or melodic music, on drums for drum line music, and sometimes on a wind instrument for simple melodies. It makes it easier to hear what you write immediately.

As for the actual process of composing, the best bet is to compose a melody first as this is the part of the piece that sticks out the most. Depending on the genre that I am working in, everything else can be purely mental (ie, some type of polyphony that follows very strict rules, it matters more how the notes are placed) or physical (having the melody and then force chords or accents into the places where it sounds most pleasing to my ear. Both of those can be done with or without instruments in hand (and I do work both ways).

After playing, reading, and writing music for a long time, one learns how things sound. From the early classical period onward western tonal music has a long history and guidelines (they can be broken) to aid the composer in musical assimilation, mostly in the form of chordal theory. Music from the baroque and the renaissance followed a non-chordal path to making chords through melody.

According to his autobiography “Testimony,” Shostakovich sat at his kitchen table and wrote it all down, oblivious to the noisy household around him. In the movie version, as portrayed by Ben Kinglsey, he disparages Prokofiev for composing at the piano.

Jackie Gleason couldn’t read music, so when a tune occurred to him, he’d hum it to his musicians until they got it right. I imagine that’s what a lot of popular songwriters who can’t read music do (including Paul McCartney, who wrote a politely received traditional symphony a few years ago).

I’m not famous or even necessarily brilliant and gifted, but…

I usually hear the music in my head in a compressed kind of way (without all the details but with some of the riffs); sometimes I “see” the musical architecture of the chord structures and passages as if they were visual things.

I sit down with scratch paper and sketch…

iiA . . Bmcedea** EwithCnat** df#cnat**uptrill

Stuff that makes sense to me later, like shorthand. (also includes graphical shapes of melody lines, something hard to replicate in this post ----_-- stuff like that but with curves etc…

As I play it, I play with it, varying what I did last time, then over time it kind of settles down to a set way of playing it.

If and when I’m feeling sufficiently methodical and workaholic, I translate it into “longhand”, i.e., true musical notation, something difficult for me because I don’t * read* music, and because it’s so damn time-consuming. As the OP says, it can be a hell of a lot of stuff to put down on paper. I just compose for the piano alone and it can still take an hour to get down a single line of 3 measures if there’s a lot of rapid movement and complex syncopation to count out.

Paul McCartney can’t read music??

Supposedly Paul cannot read music. I saw a documentary about his writing the Liverpool Orotorio, and he kept humming parts to his partner, who was sitting at a piano and would take a stab at playing what Paul had hummed. I think he would then make notes about what they had decided on.

I also heard that Edge of U2 can’t read traditional music. Both these prolific and talented guys started out just hacking away until they learned guitar and piano and music composition. I don’t know if either of them ever had much at all in the way of traditional lessons.

Well, a lot of Depression era swing and jazz musicians couldn’t read music, they just had a talent for it. I was only surprised about Paul since he had written so much music, even traditional symphonic pieces, which is tough to do if you can’t read or write music.