Today I wrote music . . . while listening to other music. Though a first for me, this isn’t too unusual. One of my friends routinely writes music at concerts; my teacher admitted to writing one of his best pieces will at a friend’s recital; and I’ve even heard rumors that Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs while watching TV.
Yet up until now, the idea of writing while listening to something else seemed weird to me, like simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your stomach. How could you write music and listen to different music at the same time? Writers certainly can’t do it. Imagine trying to write an essay while simultaneously reading Dickens. Though artists look at external objects all the time while they’re painting and drawing, they usually look at their subject, not, say, at a Jackson Pollack while painting a landscape. Why then does composition allow this unique multitasking?
I think it has something to do with the way our minds process music. Everyone is familiar with what it’s like to get songs stuck in their head. To non-musicians, it seems natural that composing an extension of this process. Composers simply listen to the music inside their heads and write it down. While many composers do say they write that way, if taking dictation from their earworms were all they were doing, it would seem to be as difficult for a composer to write music while listening to it as it would be for a writer to write while reading.
Instead, as I was composing today, I noticed that I was using multiple facilities. With one part of my brain and with my body I was processing the music I was listening to, and with another part of my brain, I was composing. The part that was composing wasn’t imagining sounds aurally but by feel. It was paying attention to what the harmonic and rhythmic relationships felt like rather than what they sounded like. After this experience, I happened to run into my aforementioned friend who confirmed that he experienced simultaneous listening and writing the same way.
What does this all mean? I’m not quite sure yet, only that composing is now more mysterious tonight than it was when I woke up this morning.