Whenever people find out I’m a composer, they first ask, “What kind of music do you write?” for which I have yet to come up with a good answer. “Instrumental” and “classical-ish” are my usual responses. The next comment they make is often “I could never write music.”
From what I can tell, many people are under the impression that music just “happens,” like falling in love Disney-style or catching a cold. Zapped by inspiration or transported by emotion, the composer pours out his soul over the keyboard, and soon a new piece of music is born. Not so. For all you who feel they could never write music, I hope to demystify the process somewhat. And to help you understand this, let’s talk about football.
Next Saturday, BYU will kick off its football season against Washington in what will likely be an emotional rematch, after an excessive celebration call lost Washington the game two years ago. (I’m excited for this year’s game and season!) Now, no one expects that either team will show up on the field without any preparation, physical or strategic. Particularly with strategy, the last thing a football team would dream of doing would be walking onto the field and hoping that winning plays would just “come to them.” So, plays are created and drilled in advance. Their application in the game is flexible, but their existence allows both teams to better meet the demands they’ll face.
Likewise, when I begin a piece, I have dozens of options about how to organize the melodies in the piece—when to present which one, for how long, in what key, and so on. Awareness of all these options means I can’t just plop down at the piano and let the music mystically “flow through me.” Like a football team preparing for a game, I have to make many decisions in advance. Though my compositional “game plans” are often technical (and thus obtuse to most people), there’s nothing mystical about them. After establishing the piece’s rhetorical situation and my performers’ abilities, I identify the technical means suited the situation (the length of the piece, its textures, harmonies, etc.) and choose from among them.
Once made, these decisions—my pre-compositional game plan—give me the tools necessary to fill the needs of the music I write. If I become puzzled about a particular melody or harmony, my game plan will suggest ways to resolve the conundrum. Sometimes it works the other way, too, and melodies suggest ways of enriching the game plan. Again, this is like football. Having planned plays can answer the question of how to get out of tight spots, but observing what the other team is doing—for instance, always throwing to the left or something—can also suggest ways of enriching a team’s strategy.
The moral of the story is, if you understand how the creative process works in football, you understand pretty well by analogy how it works in music. Or at least how it works for me.