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Jeanne, I feel that we don't need an acceptable "definition of what is/is not acceptable practice when it comes to "composing away from the piano"."

To quote John Lennon - not something I'm known for - but here goes:

"Whatever gets you through the night
It's all right, it's all right"

Some composers do because they can, some don't. Work with what suits you, what gives you results, what inspires you.

But reading your post made me remember something I did as a "young composer'. I won a travel award type of thing, and found myself in Sydney. We were set an exercise to write a bit of music to accompany a short, silly fragment of film. It was only about a minute long, so not very long, but long enough. I had the weekend to do it. It would be played by a full orchestra. I remember having to do this without a piano, as I was staying in a small hotel. My music had a hectic, frantic, discordant section, contrasting with an uplifting, slower-moving bit designed to fit the film.

I remember it worked out ok and sounded more or less like it was supposed to. The result was not a surprise but fairly predictable, and in no way was I working "in the dark". Not brilliant writing and with a lot of cliches. I'm sure that if I had access to a piano, I could have tried it out and fixed up little details that needed improving or correcting.

We can't all be like Mozart who, at the age of 14, transcribed Allegri's "Miserere" note for note after hearing it once. So the story goes anyway.

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Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Does "composing away from the piano" mean you are expected to imagine music in your head with your "mind's ear" and also in addition to notate your work with no outside aid of any kind to assist you in identifying the notes?

You’ve put it wonderfully. That’s what it means for me.


Originally Posted by Jeanne W
If so, is it assumed this method of composing music is limited to those of us who have the ability to imagine in our mind's ear not only the notes of a melody, but in addition, the harmonies?

I think everyone can imagine music. Can listen to music “inside his/her head”. Another matter is to be able to write it down. For that you’d need to recognize the notes. Maybe it could be called “internal absolute ear”. I think at least some of the grater composers have had this ability. I remember having read about Haendel. When writing “The Messiah” (and maybe this is an urban legend) he’d be in a kind of rapture, and wrote the notes on paper with one hand while reducing to crumbs the bread he was being served with the other.
Now, how many notes you can hear inside your mind at the same time is obviously a matter of speculation. We are entering here the field of neurology. How many things can your mind focus on at the same time? I guess you can have an approximate idea, or the “feeling” of how the music will sound. But I also guess also that here a thorough knowledge of the tools of the trade is of importance.

Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Do some who "compose away from the piano" not really know how their work is going to sound until it is performed? They work more or less "in the dark"; instead rely on mathematics or other aids such as modeling their scores after those of other composers to guide their work? The results of their efforts are ultimately a surprise?

I think they do know, or have a very approximate idea. At least with some types of music. But I also recall having read interviews with contemporary composers where they spoke about their uncertainty on how the thing would sound when performed. They talked about “experimentation”.


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Ted, CharlesXX, mydp:

Your comments have me thinking…

Ted:

Your comparison of imagining music with the "mind's ear" to what can be imagined visually - and comments as to whether this may pertain to seeing it "as a hallucination or eidetic fact" - reminds me of something I once tried.

I'm retired now, but when I was still working, I drove to and from my place of work by car. The streets I traveled along were pleasant enough, but not overly picturesque. One morning I got the idea to "beautify my travel" by attempting to imagine with my "mind's eye" a line of breathtakingly beautiful trees towering over each side of the street I was driving along.

I tried it. It seemed to work too well. I felt somewhat in danger of slipping over the edge to some degree from reality, immediately stopped and abandoned the idea. The somewhat unnerving, unsettled feeling this caused is not something I'm keen on experiencing again.

As you say, similar experiences only with music could be "frightfully confusing not to mention dangerous." Tchaikovsky as a child is said to have had music running through his head to the point of distraction. He couldn't sleep and begged his parents to "Make it stop!"

Charles:

I like your thought that "we don't need an acceptable definition of what is/is not acceptable practice when it comes to composing away from the piano" and also of working "with what suits you, what gives you results, what inspires you."

The "young composer" travel award you won and wrote music for as an exercise and hearing your music played by a full orchestra, what an experience that must have been. Hopefully, quite a thrilling one! 😊

mydp:

It sounds as though you are one of the lucky ones with the innate ability to notate music without external aids of any kind. How cool is that? (Very. An enviable talent for sure. )

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by mydp:

I think everyone can imagine music. Can listen to music “inside his/her head”. Another matter is to be able to write it down. For that you’d need to recognize the notes. Maybe it could be called “internal absolute ear”.


I like the term you came up with - "internal absolute ear."

Quote
by mydp:

Now, how many notes you can hear inside your mind at the same time is obviously a matter of speculation. We are entering here the field of neurology.

You are right.

The way music is created, how it all works and how different composers go about it is a fascinating subject.

Jeanne W

Last edited by Jeanne W; 02/04/22 07:31 PM.

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Originally Posted by Jeanne W
It sounds as though you are one of the lucky ones with the innate ability to notate music without external aids of any kind. How cool is that? (Very. An enviable talent for sure. )

But I am not!... I wish that would be the case, though


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Quote
Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Does "composing away from the piano" mean you are expected to imagine music in your head with your "mind's ear" and also in addition to notate your work with no outside aid of any kind to assist you in identifying the notes?

Quote
mydp's response to the above
You’ve put it wonderfully. That’s what it means for me.

mydp:

I misunderstood what you meant when you said "That's what it means for me."

I mistakenly thought you meant that's how you work, without any outside aid to assist in identifying the notes.

Sorry about that!

Jeanne W


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Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Does "composing away from the piano" mean you are expected to imagine music in your head with your "mind's ear" and also in addition to notate your work with no outside aid of any kind to assist you in identifying the notes?
Not for me. I try to imagine in my head but when I'm at the piano I hear things differently and sometimes I need the piano (or other instrument) to help me find exactly what I want.
Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Do some who "compose away from the piano" not really know how their work is going to sound until it is performed? They work more or less "in the dark"; instead rely on mathematics or other aids such as modeling their scores after those of other composers to guide their work? The results of their efforts are ultimately a surprise?
I believe you're talking about what I said about serial composers who use a twelve tone row. I have to admit I was being a bit tongue in cheek. I'm sure such composers have a pretty good idea of how their music sounds. It just always astonished me what passed for music back in the 1960s and 70s.
Originally Posted by Jeanne W
Is there a specific definition of what is/is not acceptable practice when it comes to "composing away from the piano" that has been adopted by authorities in music world? Does it mean a very specific thing or involve "variations on a theme"? Ooh, bad pun.
What authorities in the music world? There are no such authorities and therefore no "acceptable practices." What you put out into the world is entirely up to you and how you get it there is entirely on you. Does that mean that something that was entirely improvised won't be obvious by its musical themes and structure (or more accurately lack thereof)? I can usually tell when something is improvised, but to most people the distinction is unimportant.


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Quote
Originally Posted by Steve Chandler - - with reference to "authorities in the music world and "acceptable practices" when composing at - or away - from the piano:

There are no such authorities and therefore no "acceptable practices." What you put out into the world is entirely up to you and how you get it there is entirely on you.

Hi, Steve, What you said bears repeating!

But, there really are not individuals who are considered "authorities"?

When I referred to "authorities" I was thinking of the books I've read written by individuals with university degrees and similarly impressive titles who have not a very complimentary viewpoint is those of us who compose at the piano. And various and sundry other sources, probably some of it on originating on the internet.

Those types of viewpoints has led me to believe, perhaps wrongly, that the prevailing notion is to look down upon those of us who compose this way and that we are inferior in some way, or at the very least that our work is necessarily inferior.

Noted composers have also made disparaging remarks about those of us who work this way:

Hector Berlioz:

"When I consider the appalling number of miserable platitudes to which the piano has given birth, which would never have seen the light [of day] had their authors been limited to pen and paper, I feel grateful to the happy chance that forced me to compose freely and in silence, and this has delivered me from the tyranny of the fingrs, so dangerous to thought, and from the fascination which the ordinary sonorities always exercise on a composer."

Carl Maria von Weber:

"The tone poet who derives his working material from it (the piano) is almost always born poor or on the way to surrender his soul to the common and the ordinary. For these very hands, these damned pianist's fingers, which finally take on a kind of independence and peculiar intelligence through perpetual practice and work for mastery, are stupid tyrants and bullies of the creative impulse. How differently does he work whose inner ear at once discovers and criticizes."

Thankfully, not everyone, including composers, are of the same opinion. Stravinsky, as MH9777 pointed out earlier in this discussion, had an opposing view:

Stravinsky:

"What fascinated me most of all in the work of composing (of composing Petrouchka) was that the different rhythmic episodes were dictated by fingers themselves… Fingers are not to be despised; they are great inspirers and in contact with a musical instrument, often give birth to unconscious ideas which might otherwise never come to life."

Stravinski reportedly also said that it was a bad thing to compose without a piano, that the composer must hear what he is writing.

Stravinski's thoughts about giving "birth to unconscious ideas" mirrors what I was attempting to say earlier in this discussion about what I think is happening when I compose at the piano. (Piano solo compositions.)

The initial idea, which is typically just a phrase or short motif, starts the process. This typically comes from noodling around on the piano until I hear something of interest. This usually doesn't take much effort. There are so many interesting beginnings I'd like to pursue!

Everything that occurs after the initial starting point is the result of one of the following two things occurring, I'm either:

1) Hearing intuitively in my mind's ear where I want the music to go.

When this is occuring, my fingers usually immediately land on the correct corresponding keys, except when complex or unusual harmonies are part of the mix, then I may need to search a bit before finding the correct keys/notes. Both melody and accompaniment/harmony, right and left hands, is developed simultaneously. I read somewhere developing both melody and harmony together is called "holistic" composition.

2) as I explained earlier, my fingers seem to take on a life of their own:

Quote
Original Quotation from Jeanne W:

Yesterday…I came to the realization about how I compose at the piano...

The part of the process when fingers take on a life of their own seems NOT to be happening in a random or haphazard manner; is instead being directed by some intelligent creative effort. At least it seems that way to me. Perhaps some creative action is happening at some lower level of consciousness that is not able to make its workings known to the waking self?


I guess what it all comes down to is there is no "right" or "wrong" or "better" way to compose music. There are many ways to go about it.

Each method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, may require a different subset of talents and abilities and each of us has the opportunity (hopefully) to choose the method that best suits us.

The end result, as others here have said, is what's important, not the means by which we get there.

Jeanne W

Last edited by Jeanne W; 02/13/22 04:40 PM.

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FWIW, I compose from a mood, always. It’s totally an emotional urge, and I when I feel it, I go to the piano to play that sound which becomes the theme, and then I leave it - which then I can’t get out of my head…it’s an ear worm that just keeps going through the night or day, until the emotion is satisfied. Oddly, I usually know how I want the piece to end, and have to fill in the blanks between that and the opening theme. I have no idea what key it will be in either…whatever matches what I hear in my mind. Then I hum it, sing it (try to, anyway), and work on drawing out, squeezing out the whole mood until I feel it’s done. Since I don’t have absolute pitch, it’s hard to do that away from the piano. And since I can’t play other instruments….well what choice do I have?

HOWEVER…the digital piano, and the computer…there’s where you can hear the orchestral instrument(s) that are in your head…like when my son passed away in ‘08…I immediately came up with a beautiful elegy using the string ensembles readily available, and I was able to grieve through that…so there is quite a difference when you question composing at an acoustic versus digital…


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H91777:

First, may I offer sincere condolences to you on the loss of your son. The elegy you created is surely a beautiful thing. A lasting tribute in memory of his life and time here on this earth.

Regarding your comments about your methods of composing music..

You say you get those pesky "ear worms". Hmmm, a blessing? Hopefully!

Also, that you usually have the beginning and end of a piece worked out, just need to fill in the blanks between and the opening theme. That's pretty cool. It sounds like you have a pretty firm grasp on the form you'd like the music to take.

You also say you always compose from "a mood". Do you mean your music rarely brings to mind pictures?

My husband has frequently spoken about the "pictures" certain pieces of music, including my own, conjures up for him. When he says this I am always mostly baffled and thinking "Huh?" and sometimes find this even a little irritating.

Music rarely, if ever, conjures up pictures in my mind.

To me music is all about emotion.

Jeanne W


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Thank you Jeane for the kind remarks regarding my son.

As for mood versus seeing pictures when composing…like you, I rarely see images, or think of pictures. However, a story (or program if you will), that goes with the mood does come to mind right away. Hence my pieces are “Short Stories”. Like the first piece I submitted, “Clown Car”….the intro and program that came to mind were immediate….the car not starting for a couple tries, then it backfires, THEN the image of clowns piling into the car (more like a mini-video) started showing up. Or in “Decision”, the mood that hit me came from my daughter’s phone call regarding a decision she was struggling with. After the call I just had to put that to music, and it wasn’t hard to do because of the emotional connection I have with my daughter and how bad I felt for her struggle with indecisiveness.

As an aside, my favorite emotion-packed composition is Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata…have you ever heard it?


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Originally Posted by Jeanne W
My husband has frequently spoken about the "pictures" certain pieces of music, including my own, conjures up for him. When he says this I am always mostly baffled and thinking "Huh?" and sometimes find this even a little irritating.

Music rarely, if ever, conjures up pictures in my mind.

To me music is all about emotion.

Jeanne W

We differ there, I see all sorts of images, memories and associations when I listen to music, although they are usually mundane and certainly not dramatic in the traditional sense. Also, I encounter different images for the same music at different times. Some stay with me for years, others come and go by the day. With very few exceptions, one of which you know about by now, images, emotions and so on do not occur before the act of creation or in any way provoke it. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is closer to what happens but isn't the whole story by a long way. What is almost always present is a deep immersion in the abstract beauty of the moment. I can't put it into words better than that because it is hard to describe mystical experience without resorting to trite language. It's as if music wraps up my whole psyche, in all its beauty and horror into a ball which I can hold in my hand and observe with detachment.


"We shall always love the music of the masters, but they are all dead and now it's our turn." - Llewelyn Jones, my piano teacher
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