As part of my PhD studies, I’ve wanted to develop professional work habits. I needed a composing system that would eliminate my excuses for not working and would cushion me against life’s curveballs. After devising a variety of ineffective systems over the last few years, I’ve finally found one that works: “Compose 8 bars of performable music every work day and file a report about what I did.”
Devising the Plan
It took me a while to settle on a metric. Bars don’t represent equal time. A single bar could last from half a second to 5 or 6 seconds, so 30 bars one day probably doesn’t represent the same duration of music as written a another day. While “30 seconds of music” isn’t variable, still I know if I write 8 bars, I’ve written 1-2 phrases. I don’t really know how much music 30 seconds is.[1. Although we measure and sell music in clock time, our perception of clock time in music is weak. When we listen to music, we more strongly latch onto its internal repetitions. These cycles are our aural clues that time has elapsed. (Tangent no. 2: That last sentence is a good demonstration that written English is a different language than spoken English. “Are our aural” would be really hard to say, let alone to understand someone else say, whereas it’s straightforward written down.)]
Neither option is perfect but I decided to track bars, since I have a better sense of what that metric entails. I settled on “performable music,” because I didn’t want to feel hamstrung to make everything perfect from the get go. I usually don’t know what I’m writing till I’m a ways into it. That said, I still wanted to differentiate it from stray notes on a page.
“Performable music” might not be polished and primped and dressed to the nines, but it’s presentable. The texture is complete, and it has all the necessary performance markings. The unfinished details consist usually of ordering it among the other phrases, often of getting the timing right, and perhaps of polishing the counterpoint.
When I enacted this plan on January 11, I wasn’t sure how long 8 bars would take to write and whether such a daily goal would be reasonable.
Now that it’s over, here are the numbers for January:
- Active projects: 1
- Bars of performable music composed: 120
- Additional sketch pages written: 18
- Bars of music revised: 17
- Hours spent composing: 13
- Days I composed/potential work days:[2. Excludes weekends and holidays] 12/19
- Potential bars composed (@8 bars/day): 152
January was a good time to experiment with this project, since my sole active project — a septet for bass clarinet, bassoon, harp, 2 percussionists, viola and double bass — doesn’t have it’s premiere till May 8, giving me until early April to finish the work.
Although I missed a bunch of days, I established that, in principle, the system is a resounding success. Though I missed my potential output by 20%, on the days I worked, I averaged of 10 bars per working day — higher than my goal. From an hourly perspective, it turns out I can write about 8 bars in an hour.
Behind the Numbers
By working toward a quantitative measure, I was surprised to learn several useful aspects of my process that I captured in my qualitative measures.
- For me, composing 8 bars often involves first playing around with sketching chords, gestures, melodic fragments. Usually only after permuting these basic materials do I imagine complete musical ideas.
- It’s really easy for me to devise fragments. Connecting these fragments — that is, combining them and ordering their varied repetitions — is a lot harder.
- Although working from permutations of pitch class sets is a useful starting point to generate related material, when it comes time to connect fragments, this harmonic unity gets in my way. That’s when I should begin to vary the colors as the changes demand and trust voice leading to smooth the connection.
For February I want to remain in the “gathering data so I can set expectations” phase. Composing 5 hours per week won’t be nearly enough as a professional composer, but right now I’m more concerned about establishing a daily habit than amping my stats. Over the coming year, I will start introducing 16- and maybe 24-bar days.
As my project progresses, the relevant stat may shift. I learned this from talking with one of my writer friends about how she sets goals. In musical terms, her insight was that during the creative phase, bars per day is the more useful metric. However, during the revision phase, hours per day might be more relevant.
This difference suggests how I could get from working an insufficient 1-2 hours a day to the more necessary 6-7 hours per day. It’s cyclic. When creating material and composing the first draft, a lot of energy is spent on making connections and getting to know the work: 8 bars and a pile of sketched ideas would be a good day. It’s a more subconscious-intensive work.
In contrast, revising and proofreading are conscious-intensive work. Unless I put in the hours, I will miss my deadline. Thankfully, this work takes less emotional energy, so it’s possible to cram more of it into a single day.
We’ll find out soon enough if these speculations hold. I look forward to continuing this work process.
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