Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

Some of us use only DAWs, others prefer to write the score, with a pencil or with the computer...

Sometimes we compose on an instrument, other times we use only our head...

Knowing that the graphical representation is not the same on a piano-roll or on a score, knowing also that on a computer you hear immediately what you compose, and finally knowing that you play in a certain way on your instrument : Do you think that the way of composing has a big influence on your music?

 

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In Swedish there are two words for composing: komponera and tonsätta. The latter would be "tone setting", like putting tones. They are not used differently, but one could think of "tone setting" as the phase  where you create melodies, while composing would be the phase where you construct bigger things out of your melodies, chord sequences and rhythmic patterns.

I use computer software for creating the sheet music. I hardly ever use pencil and paper. But the "tone setting" part I like to do without anything, just in my mind, not even with an instrument. Of course the composing part usually requires a lot of "tone setting", too, but at that point I'm already confident with doing it on a computer screen. At home I use Encore, which I bought ages ago but I guess I won't update it anymore. I also use MuseScore, which I recommend highly. It's free and really very good. I know it has its limits, but I haven't reached them yet. And then I use Sibelius on one computer at work. Though Sibelius is probably the best software, at least among the ones I'm able to use, I'm not confident with it. I feel I should learn really a lot more of it before I would feel that the software wouldn't be an obstacle for my free composing mindflow. MuseScore never caused the mindflow obstacles, though MuseScore seems to have copied a lot of the Sibelius interface.

So what I feel I need is a somewhat simple sheet music editor, because sheet music for me is the central idea holder, at least when it comes to "art music". Sheet music was there, when I learned to play piano, sheet music was there, when I learned music theory. Every once in a while I also use a very old application called Logic Fun. It has a score edit function, but I use more the piano roll function. I use it when I teach high school students the basic concepts in music. The piano roll in Logic Fun doesn't show very clearly which tones are black keys and which are white keys. Compared to the sheet music, the piano roll is therefore free from the diatonic scale, it's more atonal to its structure.

Another thing Logic Fun gives you is a tool for handling melodic phrases as building blocks. You create one sequence, which could be one, two or three bars long. You fill the sequence with tones, either using the piano roll or score editor, either a simple melody, some chords, some polyphony, whatever. Then you can use this sequence as a building block, copying it around in your composition, dragging it from one instrument track to another, changing the pitch on different copies. It's very obvious that this way of working will very much affect the music. Logic Fun has no way of remaining the diatonic scale, when transposing a sequence (I've seen the diatonic transposition function in some software), so the result will sound either free tonal or atonal at its best. Anyway, it's a tool that lets you think more on structure in music, using unaltered repeatings of phrases etc.

Once I tried Garageband on my Mac. It was a terrifying experience! In some 10 minutes I had made a song, or an instrumental composition that could be turned into a song. But when it was ready, I didn't recognise it as my own. I had used loops and rhythm patterns and whatnot from the Garageband library, just put them in a row, or two or three rows, don't remember. I felt that I was the one who did it. I was the one who decided which loop could follow the previous one. No one would have done what I did. But still I didn't recognise anything of it as something of my own.

I would say that my compositional method has had a significant influence on my music, in both positive and negative ways. I used to write my music out by hand, but lately I've found that I much prefer to compose directly onto my computer. I've always had an ongoing debate with myself whether or not I want to continue composing this way, fearing that my music would lack "purity" without the intimacy of painstakingly writing it all out with a pencil. However, lately I've adopted the attitude that the real question I should ask myself is what leads me to write better music, and from my experience, I can access my creative powers with marked ease thanks to the aid of modern technology.

 

I tend to compose rather fast. When I am composing, I find that I am flooded with ideas, and often it is difficult for me to pick between all of them. This process of deciding which direction to go can often lead to forgetting what my ideas were in the first place. With a computer, however, I can very quickly get my ideas on the page -- all of them. Having a clear, type-set version of all of my sketches makes it much easier to compare them effectively. And of course, having the luxury to actually be able to hear a note-perfect performance of the score is certainly a plus. Finally, when I'm done, I already have a complete score and parts, ready to print for my performers, as well as a midi recording so my players can have some sort of reference. This proved to be extremely useful when I finished my song cycle for mezzo soprano; due to the chromaticism of the vocal parts, the girls who sang the scores benefited immensely from being able to hear their own vocal line and practice with the piano part at their own convenience.

 

The drawbacks are obvious, but I'll state them anyway. The first one that I've noticed is that it's much easier to get lazy and leave out details in the score if I am composing as fast as I usually do on a computer. The tendency is to want to get the notes out so quickly, often neglecting dynamics/articulations/etc. This hasn't really been an issue for me, however, because I always know what the shape of the music is dynamically before I write it, so filling in these details at the end of my composing session is usually not a problem. The second (and most important) problem is that because it is possible to listen back to what you composed, it will often give a false impression as to what the music will actually sound like in performance. Now generally, if you know what you're doing, a live performance will of course sound 100x better than the computer rendition. However, for composers without a sufficient theoretical understanding, a live performance may be quite disappointing, because the music (though it sounded perfectly fine over the computer's playback) simply isn't written in a way that is idiomatic.

 

Though I struggled with these negative aspects of computer composition before I had much of an education, I found that I've overcome them throughout the years. I am a huge advocate for utilization of whatever technology is available. However, I would like to say one thing -- the best sections of music I've written on the computer I wrote entirely without using the playback feature. Seriously, turn it off entirely, and only use it once you've completed a section. I have found that this not only helps train my ear, but it also causes me to put a lot more thought into what I'm writing. I think that a good composer should be able to write their music knowing that it will sound right before they actually ever listen to it.

John Galt Carey said:

 

I think that a good composer should be able to write their music knowing that it will sound right before they actually ever listen to it.

 

I've experienced that, too. But sometimes my inner hearing is just not enough. I have to listen to the software playing the score. Usually I find typos that way, but sometimes I notice something I thought would have sounded differently. I would say you don't have to be able to write music without hearing it, but if you're able to do it, it only shows that you are talented.

OK, perhaps I should rephrase that by saying that I think a "great" composer should possess such an ability. And I don't think it's simply a matter of relying on one's inner ear. When one has reached the level of composition where they can be referred to as "great" (whatever that may be), one's knowledge of music is so advanced that one doesn't need to second guess oneself. Not that every composer should want to strive for greatness, but for those that do, I think that having enough pure skill to be able to compose with nothing other than the aid of an instrument is pretty much a necessity.

 

But you are right, there are undoubtedly plenty of good composers who use computer playback extensively.

Johan Halmén said:

John Galt Carey said:

 

I think that a good composer should be able to write their music knowing that it will sound right before they actually ever listen to it.

 

I've experienced that, too. But sometimes my inner hearing is just not enough. I have to listen to the software playing the score. Usually I find typos that way, but sometimes I notice something I thought would have sounded differently. I would say you don't have to be able to write music without hearing it, but if you're able to do it, it only shows that you are talented.

It certainly does! If one is creating certain kinds of electronic music, it almost impossible to write a score.
Fine post. I have always loved using Allegro!

John Galt Carey said:

I would say that my compositional method has had a significant influence on my music, in both positive and negative ways. I used to write my music out by hand, but lately I've found that I much prefer to compose directly onto my computer. I've always had an ongoing debate with myself whether or not I want to continue composing this way, fearing that my music would lack "purity" without the intimacy of painstakingly writing it all out with a pencil. However, lately I've adopted the attitude that the real question I should ask myself is what leads me to write better music, and from my experience, I can access my creative powers with marked ease thanks to the aid of modern technology.

 

I tend to compose rather fast. When I am composing, I find that I am flooded with ideas, and often it is difficult for me to pick between all of them. This process of deciding which direction to go can often lead to forgetting what my ideas were in the first place. With a computer, however, I can very quickly get my ideas on the page -- all of them. Having a clear, type-set version of all of my sketches makes it much easier to compare them effectively. And of course, having the luxury to actually be able to hear a note-perfect performance of the score is certainly a plus. Finally, when I'm done, I already have a complete score and parts, ready to print for my performers, as well as a midi recording so my players can have some sort of reference. This proved to be extremely useful when I finished my song cycle for mezzo soprano; due to the chromaticism of the vocal parts, the girls who sang the scores benefited immensely from being able to hear their own vocal line and practice with the piano part at their own convenience.

 

The drawbacks are obvious, but I'll state them anyway. The first one that I've noticed is that it's much easier to get lazy and leave out details in the score if I am composing as fast as I usually do on a computer. The tendency is to want to get the notes out so quickly, often neglecting dynamics/articulations/etc. This hasn't really been an issue for me, however, because I always know what the shape of the music is dynamically before I write it, so filling in these details at the end of my composing session is usually not a problem. The second (and most important) problem is that because it is possible to listen back to what you composed, it will often give a false impression as to what the music will actually sound like in performance. Now generally, if you know what you're doing, a live performance will of course sound 100x better than the computer rendition. However, for composers without a sufficient theoretical understanding, a live performance may be quite disappointing, because the music (though it sounded perfectly fine over the computer's playback) simply isn't written in a way that is idiomatic.

 

Though I struggled with these negative aspects of computer composition before I had much of an education, I found that I've overcome them throughout the years. I am a huge advocate for utilization of whatever technology is available. However, I would like to say one thing -- the best sections of music I've written on the computer I wrote entirely without using the playback feature. Seriously, turn it off entirely, and only use it once you've completed a section. I have found that this not only helps train my ear, but it also causes me to put a lot more thought into what I'm writing. I think that a good composer should be able to write their music knowing that it will sound right before they actually ever listen to it.

I would say that my how I compose really has had a great effect on my writing.

Because I consider myself a concert composers, I tend to focus on sheet music preparation over sound production. While writing I am limited by what the instrument can do and what the performer is capable of doing, as opposed to if I was to write completely using DAWs. Because I use notation software I am given a very rough idea of what it will sound like, I have to use my knowledge of musical instruments to fill the blanks in as to what it will really sound like.

Because I am notating the music, I feel I can be a lot more experimental with my harmonic language, the timbre of the instruments, use extended techniques how I want to use them, and a whole list of things I would miss if I where to use only DAWs. However I am limited by what is available to me, so large ensemble things are usually out of my range of possible things to write.

 

Since I write mainly through notation software (Finale) I can prepare scores pretty fast, which can be a double edge sword. Though I do still sketch out works on staff paper using a pencil, I find myself more and more relying on Finale to do all my notation work. With speed comes a lack of quality and things I would have caught if I were to write using pencil and paper litter my music and I find myself spending hours fixing mistakes. Im getting better about that but it is still a problem.

Absolutely. I hate writing music and only improvise/record/post-edit it in MIDI form using available sounds. Not only this way of composing has influence on the music: my just-in-time emotions and thoughts influence it still more. What remains relatively stable is only the performance technique I acquired long ago. Of course this method has positive and negative sides.

I work mainly in Garageband, since I've not been able to put money aside for Logic Studio yet, and compared to my old Cubase (very old cubase!) it's a great app! But I never, never, ever use any of the loops. If I should use loops I always make them myself But then there's not much point in using them. I like Garageband beacuse it's a very direct way of working. Dial up a sound, hit record and start playing. No messy setups.

 

Before I tended to noodle along at the keyboard until I found something interesting, but that always led to my hand landing in the old familiar places all the time. Now days I sing the melodies into my cell phone and then pick them out by ear, which can be hard work since I tend to sing in between the keys! But those two ways of composing yields very different results for me. I think the less you have to involve technology and mechanical devices, such as instruments, the more of a direct connection to the music there is.


Johan Halmén said:

Once I tried Garageband on my Mac. It was a terrifying experience! In some 10 minutes I had made a song, or an instrumental composition that could be turned into a song. But when it was ready, I didn't recognise it as my own. I had used loops and rhythm patterns and whatnot from the Garageband library, just put them in a row, or two or three rows, don't remember. I felt that I was the one who did it. I was the one who decided which loop could follow the previous one. No one would have done what I did. But still I didn't recognise anything of it as something of my own.

Ditto!!!

Andrew Gleibman said:
Absolutely. I hate writing music and only improvise/record/post-edit it in MIDI form using available sounds. Not only this way of composing has influence on the music: my just-in-time emotions and thoughts influence it still more. What remains relatively stable is only the performance technique I acquired long ago. Of course this method has positive and negative sides.

I like to do a play around on a piano until i get something that i like. then record the stuff i came up with in a sequencer. then i go to piano roll and do the string parts and what not on top of the recorded track (this way i have a greater ability to decide the different melody lines and voice leading than just doing all live on a keyboard). then ether play in some additional features or draw them in the piano roll manually. after that is done i usually record my dynamics on top of the the lot with mod wheel on every single track.
and yes, i work in a sequencer with samplers.

i think this has some influence, one because i always tend to be composing in cminor or dmajor or any other familiar scales that seem to fit well in my hand. and also for the reason that i have a tendency to end up in familiar places over and over again.

(a demo here: http://soundcloud.com/socq/king-of-the-skies

and here: http://soundcloud.com/socq/mind-of-genious )

 

then i also compose on just solely on a piano roll.

, just doodling. and i tend to end up in a completely different place when working like this.

(demo here: http://soundcloud.com/socq/string-arrangement-practice

and here: http://soundcloud.com/socq/some-day )

 

the difference is a very big one imho.

But I still often write things out!

Norbert Oldani said:
Ditto!!!

Andrew Gleibman said:
Absolutely. I hate writing music and only improvise/record/post-edit it in MIDI form using available sounds. Not only this way of composing has influence on the music: my just-in-time emotions and thoughts influence it still more. What remains relatively stable is only the performance technique I acquired long ago. Of course this method has positive and negative sides.

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