Old Fashioned Composing from the Inside Out:
On Sounding Un-Digital on the Compositional Level
by Laurie Spiegel
This is a personal subjective survey of traditional pencil and paper composing
and editing techniques from one traditionally educated composer, to try
to better communicate the freedoms and abilities fostered by these techniques
to authors of music composition software who may have had less experience
with music composition per se. It attempts to describe what a notational
composer is accustomed to being able to do and how and why. This is only
one composer's view, and other composers' experiences should be sought as
well because no single artist's experience can ever be comprehensive.
This description hopes to give authors of compositional software food for
thought in designing extensions and alternatives to both the currently-dominant
sequencer model (which simulates multi-track tape recorders), and the process-oriented
methods of logical algorithmic generation which have finally begun to be
more widely accepted and in which I have specialized in my own software.
Despite my 20 years experience composing primarily in electronic and computer
media, I often still compose on paper the old way because of the freedoms
and depths and kinds of expression the paper and pencil give me which are
still unavailable to me in any computer composition system I know, not excepting
those I've created myself. I usually write music on paper at a keyboard
or other instrument, but not always, since for me the imagination is still
the ultimate unparalleled creative tool, and the processes of envisionment,
focusing, clarification of detail, and external realization of whatever
one holds and elaborates in the imaginative memory is, in my view, an irreplaceable
creative experience of the highest level, providing freedom and expression
well beyond any other technique I've tried.
The "improvise and edit" method of composing is now becoming the
dominant compositional technique of our culture, in large part due to the
tremendous proliferation of recording technology, both tape and computer
based. Though I use both recording and algorithmic generation often in making
my music, I would not want to be limited to them. What follows, therefore,
is an attempt to describe from subjective experience some composing and
editing methods which have worked for centuries so well that we can't afford
to neglect them in our new software tools. Some of these observations describe
simple direct operations, and others just try to give a feel for the compositional
process. Much that they refer to has been somehow left out or misunderstood
in the design of most music composition software currently available.
I know of no commercial software with this function.
Appending to the end is the commonest technique, usually to all voices (what
would be called all "tracks" these days) together. You add small
enough amounts that you can safely hold them in your head without losing
them until you can write them down.
The major skill practised in the formal study of composition in my opinion
is the ability to expand as much as possible the amount of musical material
you can hold clearly in your memory. Music theory, harmony, etc. are in
part mnemonic methods for increasing the amount one can remember. They enhance
this central mental skill. The amount of music you can keep clearly in your
head at a time grows with years of practise.
Nonetheless, you still keep the chunks you append small because they are
concentrated areas of intense decision making activity, multi-dimensional,
and very context dependent.
Non-Sequential Addition of Material
You usually add at the end of the piece or section, but not always. Sometimes
you skip beats or measures and go back to fill them in later when you've
gotten a better idea of the whole context, what something is leading toward.
Sometimes you go back before the beginning of the entire piece and write
introductory material that works up to it.
Scanning for Context when Appending
When adding material at the end, you generally back up in the piece and
take a running start reading or playing through what you've already written
and then continue beyond it creating new material. You stop playing beyond
the written ending point when you've done as much new stuff as you can keep
in your memory, or have accumulated enough indecisiveness in the transition
and the material to require some testing and deciding. Then you write down
or merge in the new stuff, back up and repeat the process again.
If you can't decide on something, you may back up further and do a longer
run through to provide a greater sense of context.
Where to Start Scanning
The point at which you start playing the written stuff that leads up to
the place where you'll start appending is not a single hard and fast place
specifiable by rule. You might go back a phrase or a couple of measures,
or sometimes more. You might start at a simple 8-bar phrase boundary, but
not usually. You may have to chase a lot further back in some voices than
in others to set up the context for where your mind will take the piece
next, for example, getting long-sustained bass notes sounding, setting up
the rhythmic feel, or the experience of a tempo change such as an accelerando.
You might run through the material further back in harmonic reduction (playing
just the chords on the strong beats of the measures), and when you get closer
to what you're working on now, start playing literally everything that's
written before coming up with new stuff to write down at the end.
Not Just a Plain Append Operation
This is not really like having your sequencer automatically punch into record
mode at the current end of a multi-track piece for several reasons.
One is that you are reviewing what you've already written as you run though
it, and you refine it as you go, adding to or changing it, because you've
clarified your ideas in the meantime and also you now have some idea what
it's leading up to. You look at the score, pick a starting point for the
run through and "record" (remember or notate) any differences
between what's already written and what you are playing (or hearing in your
The second reason is that the stuff you come up with to add at the end is
less likely to be added like a splice than via some fairly complex merge,
modify, and filter operation. When you stopped appending the last time,
you didn't know where the piece would go next, and couldn't write in preparation
You hear changes and buffer them mentally, trying variants, before you decide
exactly how and what to commit to paper. It's as though you've recorded
them alongside the score in a separate synchronized sequencer in your head.
After you merge and append the new stuff, the result probably contains the
previous material modified slightly at its end, the new material with it's
beginning modified to make a good transition, and possibly some altogether
new bridge material, created during the actual written appending process
to make a good transition.
A third reason is that you usually try several takes of this "running
start" operation, as exploration, clarification, and experimentation,
and as part of your decision making and refinement processes, and you may
wait a while to decide and want to keep all of them in the meantime.
If you write down several alternatives, you find yourself with a branching
piece to deal with (usually branching to several sheets of paper with different
versions). So you take a break, or else start another scan from further
back to try to decide, or else skip some blank space in the score and go
on, figuring you'll fill in the missing transitional part later.
You may also just decide to use whichever one of your branches turns out
to be easiest to extend. Some material just seems to take off by itself
and other stuff just dies and won't go any further no matter what you try.
Sketching: Shorthands, Symbols, and Speed
Sometimes you jot down just enough to capture the new stuff or changes in
very rough sketch, in order to keep going and not lose the music's flow
and momentum. Then later you'll go back and fill in the details. This means
writing a first pass leaving out notes, voicing, dynamics, phrasing, orchestration,
lacking exact rhythm, maybe marking just single pitches here and there,
or chord symbols for the downbeats, or drawing visual curves for dynamic
contours or for pitch patterns. You may have personal symbols and private
notational shorthand you've invented for new or non-standard things you
Parts may drop out and back in again as you sketch. Some areas will have
more detail filled in that others. You may leave some sections completely
blank, to be filled in later, in order to capture as much of the total concept
of the piece as fast as you can.
On Interdependencies and Top Down Design
Composing can be thought of as a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. There
are hard words you leave blank the first pass through because you know that
after you've filled in context, the words that cross them running the other
way, they'll be a lot easier to get. This rough-it-in-and-refine-later composing
method is also a bit like doing computer pseudo-code first then conforming
it to proper syntax later. It's also to some degree like "top down"
structured programming, except that, once you've started actually writing,
doing an overview just about always gets triggered by specifics on the most
detailed micro-event level of a what's already written down, instead of
the other way around.
Sometimes you design the overall structure of a piece top down and then
fill it in, especially in scoring accompaniments for dramatic material such
as film. But in composing for concerts or records, pre-structuring often
ends up sounding forced or artificial. More commonly, the overall structure
of your work only becomes clear afterwards, in retrospect of the process,
as an accumulation of moments built up intuitively during the your immersion
in moment-to-moment detail.
Multiple Passes and Harmony versus Line
You can't think about all aspects of the section you're working on at once.
Usually harmony, line, shape, pitch, or rhythm, or some combination of these
are first. Voicing (the distribution of the notes among the parts), dynamics,
orchestration, and the specification of articulation and phrasing tend to
be done in later passes, but notes for them may be made in places in the
rough draft at any time.
The technique of doing all aspects of each voice (each instrument) as a
separate pass, as in tape overdubbing or MIDI sequencing, hasn't been used
in European composition since the cantus firmus technique of
the medieval Notre Dame School died out. It's death can be strongly linked
to the evolution of tonal harmony, which gives the relationship between
all pitches sounding at one time (chords) a higher priority than it gives
the integrity of each melodic line which runs through the chord.
Free Movement Between Data Types
The idea that you are making multiple passes through the score working on
different dimensions of the information in it is an oversimplification.
You may be working mainly on pitch-time stuff, or dynamics, or whatever,
but your access to other types of information is unrestricted.
You freely make pencil notes about any other aspect, or add information
of any other type, at any time, without any experience of interruption such
as is created by having to switch modes in a computer based editor. All
information of all types is available random access at all times for all
relevant editing operations. It is also open to you for the attachment of
verbal comments, asterisks to mark inter-connections, or whatever else you
The groupings you work with are not commonly sequential in time or restricted
to one part (one "track"). One moment across all the parts for
some dimension is probably most frequent (harmony, loudness, instrumentation,
...) You might put accents on all the downbeats of the measures in a section.
You might write chords or put rests on the strong beats for all the voices,
and then make melodies and rhythms within the measures later. You might
specify dynamics for the whole orchestra or make all the strings go pizzicato
You often group the material for one of your editing operations non-sequentially
by musical dimension, timbral similarity, or temporal placement. Sequential
grouping for editing is probably just a carry-over from word processors
that was never well thought through for musical use.
You don't always compose the notes in the order in which they'll be played.
If you rough in just the chords on the downbeats first, you may not think
at all about which specific notes will fall in which instrument. You have
no idea how many events you'll break those chords into later when you write
them out and fill in, working out melody, counterpoint, and rhythm from
Filling in Abbreviated Sketches
Aside from voicing between chords, there are other ways of placing events
then interpolating between them later. For example, you might choose a few
pitches that will be high points in a series of successive upward-running
melodic lines, then go back and write the lines that run up to each of these
successive high pitches later. In this case, the last note of each measure
may get composed first for several measures in a row, then the earlier notes
in each bar that lead up to them are composed after. Or you may decide on
a series of musical arrival points, then figure out the best routes by which
to approach them later.
Not Getting Carried Away with Improvisation
Improvisation can be limiting in that it prevents you from working easily
with materials too complex to play, or perhaps wrongly spaced for 2 hands
on any single instrument, or which require several instruments you don't
play at all. Your muscles and nervous system have formed reflexes and habits
which will lead you down paths you've already tried, which is counter-productive.
Improvisation may be an indispensable technique for composing, but it is
only one techniques among others.
Improvisation may also put you at risk of getting carried away, of developing
too large an amount of new material in a singe take to append or integrate
well. For one thing, you may not be able to remember all of it when you
go to write it down. Just as importantly, you can get off on tangents, wander,
get lost, jeopardize the continuity or distend the proportions of your piece.
You can lose the mood or momentum of where you began when improvising extended
takes, and may have to spend a lot of time re-establishing the feeling of
the starting place in your mind before you can decide on what you did or
can try alternatives. You may need to go back to the beginning of the entire
work and read through it all, possibly several times, to put the new stuff
into perspective within the piece, to ensure its continuity, appropriateness,
Often a fair number of changes must be made while appending new material
on both ends of the transition. With music of any complexity, working with
too much new material at once can be disorienting and inefficient. Each
composer knows their own limits on this, and they change considerably with
the type of material being written too. Some things are written one note
at a time. On the other hand, with very simple material, one can sometimes
"append" an entire piece start to finish to a completely blank
page in one pass.
Forest or Trees? Multiple Perspectives
Other reasons to compose bit by bit on paper rather than taking down long
improvisations are to maintain selectivity about material, and to optimize
for qualities that can only be gotten by constantly changing your perspective
on the piece. Qualities such as controlled complexity, consistency of material,
or integrity of form can be kept in adjustment because you can step out
of real time. You can see the overall piece from a vantage point outside
of time. You can jump around freely within time as it is represented on
Composing is the process of designing an experience for others. It requires
a designer's overview perspective as well as a builder's preoccupation with
detail. You're always outside of the work, objectively viewing it, pretending
you're hearing it for the first time, at the same time as being lost and
immersed in the full detail of all the parts and dimensions each moment
contains. You simultaneously maintain and ignore both levels of view.
Outtakes and Separate Starts
Often the new stuff you compose doesn't work where you intended, but it
might belong in the piece somewhere else, so you put it aside and go on
writing other stuff. You keep a little heap of such outtakes - chord sequences,
melodies, rhythmic figurations, counter-melodies, variations, sonorities,
etc. Some get used later and some don't. Some may end up in other pieces
or turn into pieces themselves eventually.
Sometimes you take such an axe to a piece that you virtually start all over
and the whole first draft goes on the scrap (resource) heap as an outtake.
Or there may be several generations of sketching which successively approximate
or refine a vision. Parts of all of these may get reworked into the final
piece, so access to multiple piece (or fragment) files from within a music
editing program would be essential. Sometimes pieces which you start as
totally separate turn out to be part of the same unified work (the subconscious
mind again) but you were completely unaware of their relationship when you
wrote each of them, and are surprised to find that they fit together perfectly
(with a bit of transitional or other editing).
You may need to start over with a clean piece of paper and build the final
piece from scratch while referring to all the other bits and pieces that
somehow are part of it. This can be done in a very premeditated structured
fashion or it can be done spontaneously, intuitively, so that you never
know moment to moment what you're going to try putting where next as you
brainstorm on what to try. There is a lot of comparative looking back and
forth among 2 or more pieces or parts of the same piece in such processes.
(Multiple window displays are optimal if a screen is big enough, but hardcopy
will do, as it has for centuries in the past.)
You may want to try re-using a line, a rhythmic, an articulation pattern,
a sonority, etc. from an outtake scrap or another piece you did last year,
or maybe a line, or a rhythmic ostinato or other material from a different
movement of this same piece or from your stash of out-takes and related
ideas. You want to be able to get at anything you've ever written fast,
with minimal interruption to what you're working on now, and review it or
copy whatever aspects of it you want to reuse, while changing what you need
to about it (key, tempo, meter, timescale, rhythm, ...). It's almost as
though each aspect (pitch, rhythm, articulation, doublings, ornamentation,
etc.) were independently recyclable.
Debugging a Piece
After you've added the latest extension, you realize that the pacing is
wrong. A climax was reached too fast, too early, and you go back and rework
one or two measures into a half dozen to make the climax happen later. Or
a section feels like it's moving too slowly after what was before it, so
you try breaking up the longer notes into shorter ones, or adding rhythmic
density by repeating notes, or find other ways to increase the density of
activity without altering the rate at which the basic pitch content (the
"harmonic rhythm") moves. Or you might delay the problem section
by inserting a repetition of earlier material, changing it to prevent it's
You may try various solutions to a problem on separate pieces of paper instead
of erasing and rewriting. If none of them work, you may get rid of the offending
part altogether and stash it someplace just in case.
Unity and How it Gets There
As you work more and more with material, you sometimes realize that fragments
of the music which you thought were unrelated are actually all variants
on some simple or central theme that you just had not been aware of before.
(The subconscious does a lot in composing.) Then you might go all the way
through the piece looking for other such similarities and do some editing
to clarify them. You might create a section at the beginning or end which
makes the camouflaged commonness more explicit, which plays whatever has
been recurring in a clear and distilled form, making it easier for the listener
to experience unity in the work.
When they analyze scores, musicologists often think that composers have
intentionally made variations on a single theme in places that a composer
would suspect they may have just found or exploited similarities they wrote
without planning to.
Computer and electronic compositional tools have strong biases toward musical
repetition (looping, copying, etc.). Just about all music editing programs,
both scoring and sequencing, support the technique of copying and changing
to create variations. But they universally lack even the most simple support
for finding and grouping similarities (such as pattern-oriented search or
search-and-operate functions), let alone highlighting or increasing similarity.
Unplanned similarities among different parts of a piece also happen consciously
or unconsciously within single dimensions, such as a second melody having
either the pitch line or the rhythmic pattern of an earlier one, but not
both. It's hard to pinpoint the similarity and yet there is a vague familiarity
of feeling in the second one when it's played which somehow enhances the
emotional experience of the piece. You find you've re-used something as
abstract as a melodic shape, maybe even upside down, or in major instead
of minor the second time, or with different harmony or rhythm, or in another
key or sound. I sometimes find things like this which I was unaware of in
my pieces even years after I finish writing them.
Sometimes you realize that what you just wrote leads back to something you
wrote earlier, so you try appending a variant of it. This may be anything
from a literal repetition of the earlier stuff to something which only vaguely
resembles it. Some kind of transformation is usually needed, because the
key, rhythmic structure, position in the bar, density of surrounding material,
meter, or other factors are likely to be different. Even if it fit perfectly,
it would not have the same impact in its new context.
Sometimes something done earlier seems like it might be good in counterpoint
with (simultaneous to) what you've just done, and you copy it there, and
edit pitch and rhythm in both to make them fit each other.
You want to be able to get rid of such attempts at least as easily as you
can try them. You try many many more things than you end up using. You want
to be able to make multiple versions of many of the changes you make to
your score, and quickly and easily try them one after another while deciding.
Paper is not much use for this but is of some help. A well developed musical
memory and visualization technique are vital and there is no technology
outside of the body that I know of which has its properties. This deserves
much more study.
If you're writing polyphonically (in distinct parallel parts each of which
has real coherence) instead of homophonicly (which is what is too often
meant by synthesizer people by "polyphonicly" - "homophonic"
means several sounds at once but not arranged into a fixed number of distinct
parallel voices), sometimes you write one or more voices way ahead of the
others, and then you go back later to fill the others in to catch up. You
need to be able to leave gaps and spaces, and actually just hang bits of
music "in thin air" on the page. You might know that at the end
of 8 bars you're going to be in a certain octave or chord and write a melody
starting on it there, leaving space on the paper to fill in later whatever
will work toward it well.
Sketching in Time
It's sometimes easier to compose a stretch of music if you've left yourself
verbal notes, or hints, or a map of where you're headed further on. Blank
music paper maps the time which lies ahead waiting to be filled with information.
Just as the invention of "zero" as a placeholder for numbers increased
our arithmetic ability, blank time-space on paper facilitates our composing.
The opposite of written music is neither blankness nor silence. It is unfilled
metric (or temporal) structure, and that's what blank music paper shows.
Barred music paper can be written on, vaguely or precisely, at any timepoint,
no matter how discontinuous from anything already written. I can draw large-scale
dynamic curves pages ahead of where I'm composing in orchestral writing.
I can draw this curvature of musical intensity in real time, counting through
the bars as my pencil draws the curve, using no actual musical notation
symbols at all till I fill that curve much later with specifics. I can write
partial notations, symbols, curves, chord names, and patterns across a blank
metric page and have much of the actual composing done before I write a
Polyphony and Imitation in Open Score
If you're writing polyphonically in "open score" (doing the voicing
and orchestration at the same time as composing the notes) you tend to write
one voice till it's longer then the others, then while reading it, you go
back to a shorter one and write it until it's longest then while reading
those, you go back to another shorter one and write it forward until it's
longest, etc. You may copy material from one voice to another, so it's heard
at a time delay and usually at a transposition too, with or without inversion
or some other transformation,. (That's how you build things like fugues.)
But more often you just write freely.
When you're extending one of the shorter voices, it has to fit in with what's
already going on in all the others. You need to be able to see its immediate
past, its present, and also, importantly, its future context - the parts
which have been written ahead of it. If you can't see where you're going
(you can't in tape overdubbing), you have work from the limitations of memory
and can't read ahead. (Notation is an adjunct to memory as much as a communications
The part written farthest out ahead of the others, is free to move wherever
it wants. The others will conform to it when they catch up. But each note
you write limits your choices for the notes after it, and must drag the
other voices along in the directions it goes, so you don't want to write
any voice too far ahead of the others. Though you're writing lines, you
still want to stay fairly close to working beat by beat across all the voices
in the piece at once.
If you're writing an accompanied melody instead of polyphony, you sometimes
make some kind of filler material, such as chords or repeating patterns,
to give your melody harmonic and rhythmic context. Then you go back after
you've written your line against it, and replace or change the filler, perhaps
breaking the pattern into several melodic lines, or otherwise making it
seem to respond to the melody you wrote on top of it. Then you may make
further changes in the main melody. You may work on them alternately or
both at the same time, to make them seem to respond to and rely on each
other. You use and edit all their musical parameters: orchestration, pitch,
rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation.
Integrating Algorithmic Material (An Aside)
This doesn't pertain to normal pencil and piano composing, but sometimes,
when I've composed at a keyboard that links to a computer, instead of standard
musical patterns (arpeggiations, etc.) as filler. I've used computer algorithms
to provide a texture as background to something I'm working on. (Algorithms
can be viewed as a new kind of musical descriptive shorthand.)
I've tried to work rules into these logical processes that let them respond
to what I do live, as a simulation and shortcut of the process described
above. I also use them to generate material which will be used strictly
for background, for example, to a voice-over for a commercial announcement.
I sometimes record or write down a length of such a texture, then go in
and change individual notes, and add lines that stand out and have real
character against them. I may orchestrate from that. Or I may use them as
spring boards for my auditory imagination, fantasizing material from them
which I then write out.
Symbols, Shorthands, and Standard Terms
Standard symbols (chord symbols, old fashioned figured bass, ornaments)
are often used as "shorthand" for groups of notes. Substitutions
of many fast notes for single long ones (trills, tremolos) are done by writing
a symbol for what is to be substituted by the performer when he plays it.
You don't ever have to write out all those little fast notes. Chord names
or other symbols for groups of notes speed up writing, making it closer
to real time or to the mind's creative speed.
I sometimes just write the stems and beams for the rhythmic aspect of a
passage without any pitches at all, and then come back, often much later,
after the rest of the piece has been worked out and the context for the
section is clear, to fill in the actual notes.
You write verbal reminders to yourself on the score about things you're
not bothering to work out now - instruments you might want to use at certain
points, interpretive ideas you might forget later, names of pieces or composers
you're reminded of, qualities of sound you're after. You also often notate
on the fly, while concentrating on something else, articulations, fingering,
tempo changes, dynamics, phrase marks, possible alternative notes or lines
you just can't make up your mind about right now, cross references to other
parts of the piece or to stuff in your heap of outtakes, references to film
action cues, or lyrics. All these kinds of things can easily be marked anywhere
on a paper score with a pencil at any time. It's as though there were "comment
fields" or linking mechanisms available for every aspect of your piece.
Free Movement Between Operations
The particular process you're using while composing changes about as easily
and quickly as the direction of your eyes can change. You find a note by
looking at it and make it an edit point by putting your pencil there. You
can write with one hand while playing notes with the other, or you can hear
all the notes in your head from reading what you wrote even if you can't
play them all or at speed, and as you hear them in your head you try edits,
changes, or additions in your mind without writing. (What you hear in your
head can seem quite real.)
With a pencil, you are always in play, record, insert, delete, merge, and
separate modes all at the same time. Not only can you change between these
modes instantly, but it's as though there's always another sequence being
recorded in your mind, from which you decide what to filter out and how
to integrate new material or changes. What's stored in human short term
memory is always remembered in sync with the piece as written, with whatever
triggered the generation of its contents in the mind. (We night try to simulate
it with a default sequence which is always recording whenever we play back
a MIDI piece in progress)
Movement Within a Piece
You can move with equal ease from one stave to another or along one part,
or in both dimensions at once. Jumping around is as easy as moving continuously.
It helps that full page shows a lot of material.
You refer back and forth throughout the score as you work. You might re-read
and improvise on something early in the piece to make something new which
is related to it, or you might simplify it down. You check on exactly how
you did a similar thing before, such as how you spelled some accidentals,
how 2 voices fit together, how long it's been since a theme recurred, or
to refresh your memory about earlier sections of the piece.
There are by now tens of thousands of people composing, often for the first
time, with MIDI sequencer software which assumes that notes are members
of various "channels" each of which has the same sound for all
it's notes. I am not aware of any sequencers which model the "channel"
as a property of the note though it would be easy to do so. The implication
of notes belonging to channels is that orchestration is both first, before
notes are composed, and fixed for the notes once entered. It's prohibitively
difficult to write material and then freely distribute the notes among various
instruments afterwards as would be easy if a channel were viewed as a property
of a note.
This is an even bigger problem for professional orchestrators and arrangers
I've talked with about MIDI than for composers. Sometimes pitch and timbre
are composed simultaneously instead of the notes being done first and then
orchestrated. This may ultimately be more efficient in some ways because
you conceive the pitch-time stuff already properly fitted to the instruments
which will play it.
But it has always been common practise to write a piece unorchestrated (in
"reduction") and then to orchestrate it in a later compositional
pass. (Much Hollywood film scoring is done this way; the composer credit
is accompanied by an orchestrator's credit.)
If the association of sounds with notes is done after the pitch-time content
is determined, you can concentrate completely on on melody, harmony, and
rhythm, writing your "piano reduction" freely and quickly. You
can think about instrumental ranges, voicing, tessitura, articulation and
orchestral special effects later, when you're clearer on what it is you
want to bring out and how you want to present it.
When you orchestrate, one of the commonest things to do is to move material
up or down an octave, since accoustic instruments have different timbres
in different octaves. Also, melodic lines may be simplified or elaborated
during orchestration, since different instruments have different kinds of
agility and awkwardness and tend toward different kinds of characteristic
figuration. For example, it's hard to trill across register breaks on wind
instruments, so you may need to rewrite a line when you decide to use clarinet
on it. Orchestration as a phase often involves considerable editing and
rewriting, and the filling in of sections still left sketchy.
Doubling one instrument with one or more others is one of the commonest
things to do. The simplest way is to write the names of the additional instruments
into your first-sketch score right near the notes. Later, when all the creative
thinking is done, you'll have time to copy the doublings to the appropriate
staves of the full score (usually at unison, 8va, 3rds, or 10ths). Right
now you're just getting the ideas down while they're rushing through your
You may put extra instruments on a whole line, or on just a few selected
notes of it for emphasis, or break up a line altogether and have it go back
and forth between several instruments. You sometimes move notes or melodic
fragments back and forth between the voices, trying different orchestrations,
switching the staves, octaves, and instruments of notes or passages repeatedly
until you're satisfied.
Effectively, you are assigning, distributing, individual notes and musical
gestures throughout a group of available sounds.
In general, larger media such as orchestra are written for more simply than
smaller media such as string quartets or solo instruments. There may be
only 3 real melodic-harmonic voices in an orchestra piece, but built up
for the 100 or so players through doubling, highlighting of specific notes
in some instrument with other sounds (such as chimes, plucked strings, or
percussion), gradual thickening of orchestration, extensive use of dynamics
("mixing"), and the recurrence of the same material in different
registers or orchestrations.
Converting Orchestration to MIDI
In addition to each instrument having different timbres in different pitch
ranges, each instrument also sounds different at different loudnesses. This
makes the explicit composition of dynamics (loudness) absolutely essential
when you orchestrate. Unless we can compose loudness exactly and unless
our synthesizers are programmed to use these dynamics to modify their timbres
appropriately, it is easier and truer just to imagine the orchestration
in your head than to try to compose while hearing your delicate blends of
sound color completely distorted in timbrally flat electronic simulation.
It's worth noting that a lot of the graphical score symbols for articulation
(different kinds of accent marks, etc) are actually symbols for sonic qualities
that a computer could use as envelope modifiers, mixing instructions, or
in sound selection. The use of such specifiers as "pizzicato",
"col legno", or the standard graphical symbols for brass mutes
and percussion mallets in a computer-based score should imply their translation
to their sonic MIDI equivalents when the computer plays the file. Not to
be able to use existing standard musical symbols and language for timbral
variation misses the boat in terms of trying to provide compositional fluidity
This is no less true for the description of abstract electronic sounds.
Paper based composition makes it easy to invent new symbols and notations
for new sounds and effects. In a medium as conducive to inventiveness as
computers, the absence of provision for users' notations, macros, etc. is
Musical Debugging: Tools and Techniques
There is a lot of problem solving in composing. Often you can ponder over
why a passage isn't effective and try a million changes to it only to discover
much later that something you did several measures back was the culprit
and set up the listener's ear with certain unintended expectations, or that
the material was fine all along but just happened a little too early or
too late or too briefly.
It's not unlike debugging a computer program, and you want the techniques
you use while doing it to be as transparent as the most ideal operating
system and editor would be while programming - simple, direct, customizable,
and with some facility for the grouping of operations into frequently used
combinations. Editing operations should be learnable to the point where
they become reflexes. You need to be able to concentrate on the musical
problem you're solving.
The editing function group should be extensive enough to do everything you
need (and probably a lot you don't need) even if it takes a considerable
period of learning and study to master it. There should always be more techniques
available than any one person can master or use, more left to explore, and
enough that different composers can specialize in the subsets of available
technique which fit each of their musics best and don't all end up having
to work the same way.
Having spent at minimum 10 to 15 years becoming fluent in notation, musical
structure, and instrumental technique, composers as a group are more than
willing to invest time learning in order to increase their ability and power
to create. The idea that no program should take longer than about 20 minutes
to learn seems meant to make computers and software sell quicker by making
them seem easier and "friendlier". As a design philosophy, it
may work against making computers as productive as possible for a specific
task once their ownership is assumed.
Working on a piece for a long time (a symphony can take years), you keep
going back to the piece, and finding that it's not as you remember it. Your
sensativity to and vision of its potential have grown, and your memory of
it has changed with them since you left it. You keep refining and changing
it to bring what is recorded (notated) up to the standard of (into conformity
with) what is now in your memory/imagination as your mind has refined it.
What you've created in the end is a written hypothesis. Your score is a
set of instructions to be read by others who will translate your description
into sound. Hopefully those sounds will be the same as what you think you
wrote, what you imagined.
Copyright ©1988 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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