Once in a while I like to see what I can find out about how famous composers of classical music actually composed. I find myself wondering: Is there anything today’s songwriters can learn from their process?
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In the songwriting world, we tend to use the word process to mainly mean the order in which musical ideas were created. But there’s another important way to look at the word process, which is to use it as a term that indicates the way a composer might actually generate ideas, quite apart from sequence.
To discover Mozart’s compositional process, for example, we have to look at letters that he wrote, as well as letters that others wrote about him. In doing that, we learn the following:
- Mozart was a very fast composer. Most of the time his compositions came together quickly.
- Mozart often composed a melody line and a bass line in draft format, and then considered the piece to be finished. (The filling in of the middle harmony parts was just “busy work” that he was able to do probably as easily as he breathed air. So the entire instrumentation was created on the spot has he wrote out a final copy.)
- Mozart used improvisation as perhaps his most powerful compositional tool.
You really get the feeling that little if anything to do with composition was difficult for Mozart. I often think that he likely was a true genius, and that if he hadn’t gone into the world of music, but became a physicist instead, we’d be talking about Mozart the genius-level physicist.
Mozart the Improviser
I want to point out Mozart’s use of improvisation, because I think the stereotypical notion of the classical composer is that of someone hunched over a blank musical score, their keyboard in front of them, scribbling furiously, scratching some things out, trying out a few notes on the keyboard, writing and scratching some more, until the symphony is finally finished.
But it appears that Mozart often preceded the compositional process by improvising ideas at the keyboard, without necessarily having pen and paper at the ready. Those improvising sessions, according to historians, were meant as ways to generate musical ideas that he’d use later on when in the act of composing.
At a time separate from improvising, he’d then take up pen and paper and start to notate a new work, with no need to consult with a keyboard or any other instrument, such was his ability to hear in his head and remember the music he created in those improvising sessions. And in fact his wife Constanza once wrote that he’d only go to the keyboard once a piece was finished, simply to try it out.
So this 18th century composer’s process and the process of many of today’s songwriters, is quite similar. But if there is a difference at all, it would be the fact that Mozart often separated his improvising sessions from his writing sessions.
Perhaps he found writing to be a clunky experience that interfered with the flow of ideas he was generating during an improvising session. In any case, for those who write music in today’s pop genres, I find myself wondering:
Do we do enough casual improvisation, noodling just for the sake of spontaneously creating music?
We have the advantage of being able to record our ideas with a smartphone as we create them, it’s true, but I wonder if we should adopt a process more like Mozart’s, where we have some sessions devoted simply to the creation of music and musical ideas, and other sessions where we endeavour to get those ideas down in some kind of “final” version, rather than trying to do everything at the same time?
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