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How strong is the correlation between being able to compose/play an instrument?

Intuitively, one would assume that being able to play an instrument necessitates the ability to compose as both require creativity but, this isn't what I see. I am an apt pianist but weak composer like some. Equally, I have seen others who are the converse of this - a lot of people on this forum for example. Musical ability must therefore manifest in different forms. What assets does musical ability engender? Creativity is one of them but which one is the unifying constant, binding the two practices together, or is the relationship more complex than simply 'X means you are good at Y'?

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This is an debate that has been recently plaguing the academic world as well, and it really comes down to the question "what do I learn as a musician and is it valuable to me as a composer?"

I know where I went to do my undergrad it was required that all composition majors audition for the school of music on an instrument or voice. Additionally, all composition majors had to take private lessons in said instrument for two years. I auditioned on voice and took two years of voice lessons afterwards. The voice lessons really didn't help my compositional process directly and after a while, my professor came to the same conclusion and thus pushed through a policy that didn't require composition majors to audition on anything else other than their composition portfolios. This debate is changing many universities policies when it comes to music composition majors.

I personally think that not only learning an instrument but playing in an ensemble are invaluable lessons for any composer. Many performing aspects of making music are not taught in classrooms or in textbooks because they are taught in private lessons and in ensemble rehearsals. I see this lack of knowledge when I taught composition to students who didn't have any musical performing background. Things I took for granted because I was taught them in band and choir all my musical life (like dynamics, breathing for wind players, and the temperament of live performance) are things my students know little about because they had not experienced this first hand. Not to say these are things that are completely lost if you haven't performed before. You can certainly observe performers and learn this, or pick up an orchestration book and get a general idea of these practices, and you can certainly just ask performers, but it doesnt stick as well as if you were performer the music yourself. 

But this is just my opinion. 

I think one can still benefit from what playing music, especially in an ensemble, without being limited by ones own musical ability. I know that is the case for me. I'm not the best singer or pianist but I have written music that is considered virtuosic in nature. My performing limitation were not a hinderance but an advantage since I know what it takes to learn said music. I can think as a musician more and not just a composer.

I don't think you can be a good composer without being a good musician. And by musician I mean actually being able to physically play an instrument.

I have to agree. Although I am a mediocre guitarist and pitiful pianist (I can also play a little recorder, or could at one time), I have had some of my best ideas while improvising. I actually composed and orchestrated symphonic works with only a guitar and recorder. Now I use a midi keyboard. There are exceptions. I have had ideas during dreams, for example, or driving on long trips. Now, generalizations are always dangerous. It is certainly possible to compose without having any proficiency on an instrument. But this would be the exception. And why limit yourself? Give yourself every chance of success. Learn an instrument. Guitar is fine, in fact after piano the best, because it is a harmonic as well as melodic instrument, and is easy to learn.
Kristofer P.D.Q. Emerig said:

Another question which might lend insight into the first:

What percentage of "great, recognized" composers were also virtuoso pianists or organists as well? According to my reckoning, the majority.


     I think composers are basically frustrated musicians.  If any of us had a voice like Pavarotti, or a lip like Wynton Marsalis we wouldn't be composing.  Composers have to be proficient at more than one instrument but not too good.


Bob, I actually have 3 recorders. My favorite is the tenor, as I seem to favor lower pitched inst. As for hooking up a midi keyboard, you might find that you gain proficieny over time with it. I can form any chord very quickly, do some arpeggios, etc. My problem with keyboards has always been putting both hands together at once. I did learn the first movement of the Moonlight sonata, but that of course is not very challenging. But it's great to be  able to play something Beethoven wrote! I have a good baby grand that I acquired during my piano-tuning years, but i'm afraid it sits neglected. I use to use it all the time, right up until I got my first computer.

Bob Porter said:


I've been looking for someone like you. You play a little recorder. I have a little recorder.

Anyway, it might be possible to compose on a computer without being able to play any instrument at all. I use a mouse on my computer. I could hook up a keyboard, but then I would be hampered by my enability to play keyboard. Plus  I might limit myself to keyboard like patterns.

Great reply, Lawrence! However, Mozart certainly wasn't a frustrated musician. Or any number of others I could name. Which brings us back to square one, I'm afraid.
Lawrence Aurich said:


     I think composers are basically frustrated musicians.  If any of us had a voice like Pavarotti, or a lip like Wynton Marsalis we wouldn't be composing.  Composers have to be proficient at more than one instrument but not too good.



     If I try to figure this out my head will explode.


Kristofer P.D.Q. Emerig said:

This is wisdom Ray.

Not to misconfoundulate your piscine analogy, but this truth applies to machining as well, where a bobber is like an indicator, a steelhead is no harder than a copper rockfish, and a flycutter won't catch any fish.
Raymond Kemp said:


Everyday I strive to do some part of any and every process a little better than I did yesterday.

Is this not a universal truth for fulfilment in life?

I want to expand on Michael and Kristofer’s points.  It is important that perspective composers play a chord instrument like guitar, keyboard, or accordion in addition to a melody instrument preferably in a group.  This provides a background for both aspects of composition, melody and accompaniment/orchestration.   My cello teacher who also wrote songs on guitar always argued that chords were the most important part of composing.  I argued that melody was pre-eminent . 

     Consider Bach.  He played organ, harpsichord, violin and sang, two chord instruments and two melody instruments.  His music is balanced between melody and accompaniment.  The same case can be made for G.F. Handel who began as an organist and singer.  Two of the best orchestrators are Beethoven and Ravel.   They were both, first and foremost, pianists.  Though they both have written beautiful melodies, their forte is in orchestration.   In contrast we have Paganini a life- long violinist whose compositions are lacking in orchestration.   Two modern examples:  John Williams, a jazz pianist, is strongly biased towards orchestration, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote pop songs and musicals is biased toward melodies.  Frankly his orchestrations are weak.   In essence not only is there a correlation, but the instruments a composer plays is the basis for his compositions.

     I think Fredrick hated what I did with Beethoven because I purposely edited out sections that sounded a-melodic to me.  Similarly, looking at Aaron Copland, he has long sections of slightly dissonant chords and no melody.  It is intended to evoke nostalgic melancholy.  I get it, but I probably won’t use it.  We study the masters, not to mimic them, but to gain ideas that fit our own unique style.



     Your composing style may be weird, but you are making my point.  You play trumpet, so you have a good idea of what a good melody sounds like.  You play guitar so you can fit chords to melody.  If you didn't have those skills composing would be much more difficult and your music would be boring or nonsensical.  I once said that if I have a melody, the accompaniment writes itself.  That of course is an oversimplification.  The accompaniment comes naturally from some 50 years of playing piano. 

     Your background is in musicals.  Musicals and opera are both melody biased.  So I don't believe that you don't write melodies.


Bob Porter said:


I don't play keyboard, though I know how to construct a chord. I play guitar, but I use neither to compose. I sit at my computer and enter notes one at a time with a mouse on virtual staff paper. A slow process indeed. But it makes me think about every note. Does this note fit? Where is it going? Every note. There are no throw-aways, no notes that are more important than another. And I get instant feedback with good enough playback. I think most composers play keyboard and that's how they compose, both on paper and computer. As long one knows some theory and has  the desire(most importantly), one can compose. I think it has less to do with instrumental talent, though a nice plus, than with creative musical talent. I think we all know excellent musicians who have no desire to compose.

As to the melody/harmony issue? I don't write melodies. But I think most composers do. I write awful melodies, so I write both together. That way each component feeds off of the other as they grow into a piece of music. The accompaniment is not a slave to the melody, and the melody blends with the rest of the structure. Every once in a while, it works.  Malarky? Maybe. Just my excuse for the reason my stuff turns out the way it does.

Does a midi keyboard count as an instrument? If so, anyone using one is playing an instrument. It may be in slow-motion, but it is a keyboard and it will teach you much about making music, including writing melodies and creating harmonies. It doesn't matter if you can't dazzle someone with your technique, only that it helps you compose, and develop latent abilities. Some people are motorically gifted, some are not. But both types can compose. Now, what about a computer mouse? I think Bob would say it is not an instrument, just a device. I would agree. But I would encourage Bob to get a midi keyboard. You can use it just like the mouse, that is, to enter in the notes, but over time it will help you alot more than the mouse. so don't be afraid of keyboards. They are your best friend. In the post Debussy era, harmony is more important than melody. Debussy, who is the seminal figure in Western music after Beethoven, composed with harmony in mind moreso than melody. Not that he couldn't write a good tune if he wanted to. The popular music of the early 20th century was peppered with his melodies: Clarie De Lune, Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Reverie, Le Plus Que Lent etc. But his grand works for orchestra are built on harmony, especially La Mer, one of the greatest orchestral compositions of all time, and the showcase piece of musical impressionism.


     I don't think our preference for melody or chords, or for a certain instrument is developed.  It's hard wired by genetics, which is why one kid at an early age will choose to play drums and another will choose piccolo, because they like the way it sounds.   Shrinkologists, when confronted with the wide spectrum in human preferences will say we should learn to be well rounded.  Baloney.  I say, be yourself.  I may never write a piece for percussion ensemble, but I can appreciate those people who do. Instead I will write what sounds good to me, which after all is the best music there is.
Fredrick zinos said:

Its really pretty simple. Great music is what I LIKE. Bad music is what other people like.

As with so much on this forum preference derived from nature/ nurture and maybe with a dose of epigenetics thrown in, is possibly what causes us to have preferences. Put  another way, possibly we develop intellectual and physiological receptor sites for certain sounds. Without the appropriate receptor sites certain sounds don't adhere as well.

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