How Do Composers Know When a Musical Work is Finished?

2011Symposium_1_2I read an interesting question on social media the other day. A composer asked, “When do you know that a composition is finished?” Several answers were offered, ranging from “when the composer has expressed everything he or she wanted,” to “when the parts are passed out to the musicians.” The first of these has potential. Like a good conversationalist, a good composer says things of interest, but never over stays his welcome. A good composer knows how to make every note count, never stopping too soon, or writing too many.  As a listener, I have had the experience of listening to a musical work that ended abruptly and in an unsatisfying manner, and I have also had the experience of thinking the music was ending, only to discover that it was not, and enduring a meandering affair until at last it concluded.

Leonard Bernstein finished his Omnibus broadcast by stating that the composer “leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.” There is an organizational completeness at the end of a great musical work that has been preceded by cycles of tension and relaxations that reveal expressiveness, craftsmanship, logic, and adherence to musical grammar that satisfies our expectation and desire for order and to be moved emotionally. Bernstein, in the same broadcast, in discussing the famous opening theme of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, remarked that, “the real meaning lies in all the notes that follow it. …Not only the right notes, but the right rhythms, the right climaxes, the right harmonies, the right instrumentation,” and to that we might add, the right ending.

There is a sense that every note impresses the listener as the only note that could have followed the one preceding. This sense of inevitability must carry through to the very end of the work, leaving the listener with the feeling that the music ended at just the right spot; that the music had to end when it did and how it did.

So what do students of composition need to learn in order to write music successfully? They need to be able to generate musical ideas between which listeners can find grammatical and emotional relationships, and that form cycles of tension and relaxation through harmony, rhythm, pitch, and melodic contour. They need to know what they want to express, and how best to express it within the context of the performance for which it will be composed. This requires a sensitivity to, and ability to think in, sound an interest in the content and context and an understanding and mastery of musical structure, including meter, phrasing, hierarchical structure, and harmonic relationships creating tension and relaxation.

All of these musical abilities necessary for composing music must begin to be developed early in life, even during early childhood, through frequent listening, singing, exploring, playing and improvising. A person who can tell you how they feel by improvising a tune, or playing a musical work or excerpt is an example of a person who is learning to think in sound. Composing then becomes what it ought to be—an outlet for preserving and communicating personal creative experience with others who, through the composed work, are invited to share in that experience.


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