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I'm having thoughts - (post doing some composing coaching) - about composing technique. Keeping in mind of course my first rule of music - there is always an exception to the rule (even this rule!). So to try and ratify the elements of composing technique; (off the top of my head in no particular order)

- Practical (instrument ranges, idioms, impossibilities etc)

- Architectural  (form)

-  Aesthetic (melody, harmony, texture) 

- Consistency (of style/language within a work)

- Transference (of ideas into music)

- Developmental

- Adaptive (the ability to 'go with' a tangent possibly creating a successful piece different to that intended)

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Mike, I would just round this out with my own experience, which is a bit different from most folks. 

Growing up, I did not study (or have access to, really) an instrument, so I had little to no hands-on practical experience with real music-making.  I'd always listened exclusively to classical music (despite having parents who were not into it whatsoever), so when I was 12 or 13 and decided I wanted to start writing music, I turned to books.  I don't think my parents got me a keyboard until I was 15 or so and I didn't take any real music theory/composition classes until my last year of high school (although I did take some voice lessons earlier in high scool).  By the time I got to college and wanted to major in music, I was at a disadvantage in many ways (though not all--as my knowledge of theory at the time was ahead of most of my colleagues).

Throughout all this, I was using notation software (although I did use paper, too), both for actual notation, but most importantly "realization" of what I was writing.  Now, while one could argue the terrible MIDI may have hindered my ability to learn orchestration, I did supplement it with lots of other materials (I was always trying to write *well* for the instruments, regardless of whether or not that was reflected in the MIDI output). 

However, if I had stuck to paper at a young age without any electronic "realization" (crude though it was) I might well have given up on the whole enterprise.  I may be somewhat of a unique case, but I do think there are clear benefits of technology to the young composer, especially those without access to instruments or fellow student performers (though I do agree it needs to be supplemented significantly with other education).

I would add, too, that I think the lack of *decent* MIDI realizations actually causes many composers to focus too much sometimes on the abstract elements of composition, instead of the practical elements of real-life performance.  You are always harping (rightfully) on lack of bowing in scores, but often that's because those marks really don't impact the sound of a basic MIDI performance.  But there is actually VST technology today that approximates different bowings for you on your home computer!  If folks were more adept at using that technology, they would probably understand a lot better why/how bowing impacts the final sound...  And wouldn't having it played back to you in real-time be a better educational tool than reading books, watching bowing videos on YouTube and trying to imagine in your head how certain bowing might impact your music? 

Of course, having access to real musicians is the absolute best way to learn, but it is just not available to everyone and I think technology, especially as it becomes cheaper, has the potential to fill that gap.



Mike Hewer said:

"Seriously, though, too much dependency on technology can really affect creativity.  I ask my kids to compose in their heads, designing and dreaming and hearing it first.  That's the art.  Writing it down is the craft."

Aint this the truth. Playback from DAW or Notation software can be completely misleading especially when it comes to orchestral balance and more importantly, if the composer only has a scant knowledge of scoring, there is a danger they will be misguided in what they are writing. I am specifically referring to serious art music here only.

My other issue with a technological approach is that at present, even the best samples (and particularly strings) cannot replicate all the techniques available in the real world and as a result, some will end up writing for what sounds good with what they have, rather than learning,then imagining and exploiting the possibilities. The mind is free to imagine what it wants and that kind of introspection is essential for more profound utterances in my view. Nice to see education is in good hands.

Hello John-

I'm sure Mike will have his own opinions about this, but let me clarify what I meant when I said that I didn't want my students to be too dependent on technology.

We all use the notation programs like Finale, Sibelius, Noteflight, MuseScore, etc.  Some have decent sounds, some have terrible sounds, but all teach notation which is really the same as pencil and paper as far as putting notes into staff lines, once they learn the idiosyncrasies of the specific package. I hardly even think of these programs as technology.  I've been using Finale since the first day it came out, almost 30 years ago, and it's just like pencil and paper to me.  I didn't use to listen to the playback at all, but now with the Garritan samples it's pretty bearable for finding wrong notes or bad tempos or other basic things.

Everyone in my studio gets a printout of their latest notation score and they often make their corrections and additions directly with pencil, then later put them into Finale for a clean score for the performers and to double check notes and speeds.  The main thing is not to confuse the playback sound with what the piece will sound like with real performers.  No computer playback will ever even come close to a good musician.  The good musician can also give excellent feedback on notation, phrasing, bowing, articulation, even the composition itself.  No notation program or DAW will ever do that. 

I don't let my kids use DAWs because they need to learn notation.  Some of the kids use the playback in the notation software and some don't, but those that do also practice hearing the sounds in their heads, and balance their listening with excellent recordings of performances.   Hearing a real oboe more often than hearing a Finale oboe allows the listener to superimpose a "real" oboe sound in their heads, even while listening to a less than perfect sound.  Following scores while listening to performances also helps with future orchestration, articulation, voice leading and all those practical skills.

Working with performers is indeed the best, but on a day to day basis none of us have performers at our beck and call.  My kids get to work with their performers two or three times in the cycle of writing one piece - which may be a period of several weeks or months.

So I personally am all in favor of Finale or Sibelius, especially for score creation and limited playback.  When I say "technology" I guess I'm thinking more about all the sound design and sound manipulation that DAW users seem engrossed with.  The real performers take the place of all that, and allow the community aspect of music to grow and thrive.  By the way, most of my performers never want a "mock-up".  They want the score to tell them everything they need to know.

In closing, not everyone has access to live performers but everyone has access to "live" performances via the Internet.  Watching, listening and following along on a full score is invaluable - noticing the relationship between the score, the physical movements of the performers and conductor, and the resulting sound is better than all the text books.  The text books are great too, and I use them a lot.  But I'd much rather listen with a score than read a text book!

Hi John, Julie,

My god, your tale is almost identical to mine, except there was no NS in my day.

I agree with most of what you say and would like to make clear that I am not actually against composing with technology. I just try to make some realise that it is not the best way to write and that there are pitfalls. 

I still contend that some are led by the sound of their playback with all the inherent limitations that holds. Your point about playback in real time being better than books is flawed to my way of thinking. We all know midi will play anything pretty much and although I think, yes, a playback has its good points, there is no easy way to learn and the best way is to study texts and the literature, absorb and master the techniques that resonate with you, then use them in your own way. Btw,  I am only talking about art music here.

Picking up on Julies’ point about Daw fiddling, I do a lot of that and in the absence of live performance, when done well, a mock up can be of enormous benefit to either listen to or to present to performers or organisations. Admittedly though, to do it well also needs a lot of study and practice but fiddling with quality samples and getting a musical result can be rewarding and educational in itself.

I'm by no means advocating for DAWs replacing notation, but I do think they could be incorporated thoughtfully into lesson plans.  The first step of course is learning basic notation, but once a student can write a melody and you start to teach them about writing for a particular instrument, why not load up a good VST in the DAW and show them all the different ways their melody could be articulated by a particular instrument?  It won't be the same as a human player, but it is a lot more realistic than Finale playback and I think it's a heck of a lot more informative when you're young than just reading a book or listening to a recording and trying to imagine in your mind how your own music *might* sound when played using a similar technique...

I also think of Finale as "pencil and paper" now, but I still know people who insisted that *real* composing could only be done on paper, people who insisted that notation programs like Finale would never be able to match writing on paper...  I'm not sure anyone insists on that anymore because 1) the notation programs got much better and 2) it is now so obvious what the benefits are of using a computer program vs writing out everything by hand.



Julie Harris said:

Hello John-

I'm sure Mike will have his own opinions about this, but let me clarify what I meant when I said that I didn't want my students to be too dependent on technology.

We all use the notation programs like Finale, Sibelius, Noteflight, MuseScore, etc.  Some have decent sounds, some have terrible sounds, but all teach notation which is really the same as pencil and paper as far as putting notes into staff lines, once they learn the idiosyncrasies of the specific package. I hardly even think of these programs as technology.  I've been using Finale since the first day it came out, almost 30 years ago, and it's just like pencil and paper to me.  I didn't use to listen to the playback at all, but now with the Garritan samples it's pretty bearable for finding wrong notes or bad tempos or other basic things.

Everyone in my studio gets a printout of their latest notation score and they often make their corrections and additions directly with pencil, then later put them into Finale for a clean score for the performers and to double check notes and speeds.  The main thing is not to confuse the playback sound with what the piece will sound like with real performers.  No computer playback will ever even come close to a good musician.  The good musician can also give excellent feedback on notation, phrasing, bowing, articulation, even the composition itself.  No notation program or DAW will ever do that. 

I don't let my kids use DAWs because they need to learn notation.  Some of the kids use the playback in the notation software and some don't, but those that do also practice hearing the sounds in their heads, and balance their listening with excellent recordings of performances.   Hearing a real oboe more often than hearing a Finale oboe allows the listener to superimpose a "real" oboe sound in their heads, even while listening to a less than perfect sound.  Following scores while listening to performances also helps with future orchestration, articulation, voice leading and all those practical skills.

Working with performers is indeed the best, but on a day to day basis none of us have performers at our beck and call.  My kids get to work with their performers two or three times in the cycle of writing one piece - which may be a period of several weeks or months.

So I personally am all in favor of Finale or Sibelius, especially for score creation and limited playback.  When I say "technology" I guess I'm thinking more about all the sound design and sound manipulation that DAW users seem engrossed with.  The real performers take the place of all that, and allow the community aspect of music to grow and thrive.  By the way, most of my performers never want a "mock-up".  They want the score to tell them everything they need to know.

In closing, not everyone has access to live performers but everyone has access to "live" performances via the Internet.  Watching, listening and following along on a full score is invaluable - noticing the relationship between the score, the physical movements of the performers and conductor, and the resulting sound is better than all the text books.  The text books are great too, and I use them a lot.  But I'd much rather listen with a score than read a text book!

I feel we may be talking about Music education more than composing technique - Another subject close to my heart however. On the one hand I'm a pencil/paper/piano ('The 3 P's' !) guy - and I do find any 'composing' done at the computer isn't the same thing in a way. Being part of finding the sound, finding the rhythm, finding the whatever, adjusting on the fly  instantaneously, is being part of the creative process in a way you can't with computer, which I find is another barrier in the head to sound chain. Of course there must be exceptions to the rule - maybe the level of clarity in your mind is such that, that immediacy takes place there. Having said that - absolutely the programs and playback are invaluable - and I have had musicians asking for a rough sib version to 'give them a clue'. Then you have John Adams Hoodoo Zephyr for midi instruments.... My take for educating is 3 P's first, use the technology, but ideally write for people around you. If someone is creating beautiful music another way however - well good for them! And maybe whatever limitations and tangents that method takes you on have been overcome through adaptive skills, or maybe the limitations themselves are a disruptive factor that result in creation - just not what you might recommend as a first step perhaps. Going back to original skills list - computer vs pencil is simply a different blend of skills under practical. I think technology does have the potential to fill a lot of gaps, but also create detachment from creation. Ultimately its a tool, and a powerful one - used well can be great, used badly....well I think Einstein's been there.....  perhaps the question is; are you in control of the tool or is the tool in control of you?

Mike, don't you think "fiddling with quality samples and getting a musical result" is much like what a conductor does when she "fiddles around with the orchestra and gets a musical result"?  I don't object to DAW, but it really feels more like conducting than composing.  A wonderful skill, and I can imagine greatly rewarding.  I always wanted to be a conductor, but in the end I chose a different path.  There are only so many hours per day and per lifetime, so hopefully we are each going deeper into what is richest for us!  For me, I just want to make sure I never ever have an "absence of live performance"!  ;-)

Composing technique? Perhaps that is the thing that can never be defined. Technique for me will always come from ones study and use of the tools needed to record the composition whether pencil and paper or DAW. Personally, I have no idea where the direction I ever take my music comes from. Yes, reference comes into play but most times the direction I take a piece in sort of gets decided for me from somewhere in my head. I’m not sure how much control I have of it.

sounds like you are weighted toward using adaptive skills? (think I am too...) I see where you are coming from and feel that intangibility myself - however, faced with the prospect of tutoring some A level students I feel some sort of guide at least might be helpful, and possibly interesting to explore. the question of consistency was always popping up in my own education and that has been very helpful. 
Ray Kemp said:

Composing technique? Perhaps that is the thing that can never be defined. Technique for me will always come from ones study and use of the tools needed to record the composition whether pencil and paper or DAW. Personally, I have no idea where the direction I ever take my music comes from. Yes, reference comes into play but most times the direction I take a piece in sort of gets decided for me from somewhere in my head. I’m not sure how much control I have of it.

@John,

I think that is a great way to use a DAW and let's remember, samples are only going to get better as computer power keeps adhering to Moores' law and when that reaches its end, whatever comes next will probably continue the trend. Budgets are tight in the UK and the emphasis in education is not on the arts, so getting schools to purchase high end samples and getting the teachers to master DAW technique is a big ask at present. still, it is a great way to educate, so long as the teacher can spot the pitfalls.

I've mentioned this before and will again now. Staffpad is a fantastic composing tool if you like to hand write your music and want an instant playback - great for sketching anywhere.

https://www.staffpad.net

@Rob,

Yes indeed, the tool if not mastered in the same way as actually composing, will limit what you can do. In media of course it is very different and DAWs and N/S are essential pieces of kit - you can't work without them. More importantly, I think one should be aware of what technology can't do and if it was utilised in curriculums, one would hope that it would be used as a back-up to the main thrust of what you and Julie have written above in order to keep the emphasis on the best way to learn.

@Julie,

As I write, I am re-programming my Clarinet concerto in preparation for a live soloist recording. Oh boy, there is a lot of fiddling and I have to say that you are spot on. It is like a detailed rehearsal with an orchestra comprised of players with performing accuracy down to the quantum level and none of them will lift a bloody finger to help -it's all down to me and Mac.

I can see how daunting it must be for composers who have taken many years to grasp how to do actually write, to then be faced with a massive slab of technological learning curve. I was lucky I suppose in that I had to learn it or not work.

I did conduct a few times, it was terrifying but I got through it ok. I too would have like to do more, but in my environment the job was better served with me in a control room with the clients.

And finally , as we are talking about conductors...

"Already too loud!" - Bruno Walter at his first rehearsal with an American orchestra, as the players reached for their instruments

As a DAW writer, I can confirm I am. I try not to be, and I'm happy with my results, but I know it's hard to take on trust that something unorthodox the midi fails to interpret will sound great irl. I need, or certainly am cushioned by, the feedback of samples. I keep intending to write with a much more basic sample library that will oblige me not to prioritise a realistic mockup over the music itself.

Mike Hewer said:

I still contend that some are led by the sound of their playback with all the inherent limitations that holds. 

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