Here goes, the third and final part of my long-winded dissertation on jazz composition,… Part 3: How Helpful IS Music Notation Software?
Back in the day, I started composing music with a pencil, manuscript paper, and a very large eraser; and really, (my songs being pretty simple at the time) this worked just fine for me. Then one day during my undergrad music studies, I found myself enrolled in an arranging class which required assignments to be done on computer. Since computer printed charts looked quite “pro” anyways, I dutifully learned to use Finale music notation software, and unwittingly began down the path of composing on computer (almost exclusively) for the next 12 years.
The allure of composing on computers is simple: instant gratification and the freedom to try anything. You don’t have to think so hard or worry about what direction your piece will take. You can enter any chord changes you like, as fast as you like, with complex ostinato bass lines to your heart’s content, and you don’t have to be a great pianist to hear what it would sound like because the computer plays it back for you! Because you don’t have to deal with the hassle of erasing anything, the issues of balanced form, melodic melodies, logical harmony, playable bass lines, etc become non-issues. There isn’t the commitment of putting pen to paper. When writing music in a notation program, you just GO!,… and that’s, well… pretty fun really. In a way, it feels like you can compose beyond your ability, and this freedom offers surprises too, directions that you hadn’t considered.
The process was so fun, and so easy, that I became hooked to the point where after graduating (too broke to purchase my own copy of the software), I stopped composing, until of course, I was able to get the software from a friend 8 months later. Before long, this playful, puzzle-like nature of “trying things out” (pressing play, trying more things out, pressing play, etc., until eventually putting some of the many fragments together,) became so comfortable that composing any other way felt limiting.
I became so used to it that I hardly noticed the down-side; that songs were taking a LONG time to finish. There were always so many things to adjust, the form wouldn’t seem right so I’d add 4 bars here, press play, noooo, okay, forget that, take away 2 bars from this section, press play, nope, that’s not it either, maybe try changing the this chord, press play, or that one, press play, or this melody note, press play,…
You get the idea. It was painstaking.
Although people seemed to like my songs; secretly, I didn’t feel like a “real composer” as much as I did a “professional guesser.” Each piece that I wrote, although an enjoyable, creative process in some ways, also felt like I was trying to navigate my way through a maze blindfolded. True, I could get started in this maze immediately without having to plan my route, but at each turn I would be feeling my way blindly. Oops, dead end, can I go right? No. What about left? No. Okay then, I’ll go backwards and try turning right instead of left at the last junction.
And then my composition teacher at McGill, Jan Jarczyk, a wonderful teacher and masterful composer, summed it up perfectly during a lesson last semester. I had brought my laptop and played for him the Sibelius file of a song that was half-finished (I forgot to mention that I’ve since switched to the Sibelius notation software, and yes,… it is easier to use.), and like all tunes composed this way, half-finished meant extremely fragmented.
“This song doesn’t make any sense.” said Jan.
“There are ideas here and ideas there but I don’t know where it’s going. You have to trust your inner ear. Stop guessing all the time, and trust your inner ear. Composing is a game of imagination.”
Jan also promised “If you compose like this, you will be a much happier person.” Which sounded pretty damn good to me! So I tried it, and in a nut-shell, this was my experience:
“Trusting your inner ear” looks like this: as opposed to running to your computer when you get an idea for a song, trying to keep humming it in your head while the computer boots up (and then Sibelius plays it’s fucking intro music,… I mean REALLY!? Is there a worse idea for a music notation program than distracting you with a catchy, powerful orchestral excerpt right before you attempt to create your own song,… for Christ’s sake!!), you instead write it down on manuscript paper.
Then, you stay with it. That’s right, you keep going, and use your imagination and intuition to begin writing out where you think the melody should go, or even just how long it should be, what the form would be, and roughly what the key centers are.
I used to think that this way of “hearing the music” was reserved for musicians with far better ears than myself, but,… it’s not. As Jan said, it’s just playing the “game of imagination.” Once I’ve got the structure worked out, I can still take it to the computer to fill in some gaps, and still come up with some surprises. However, going to the notation program after I’ve designed the overall structure is a different experience, one where I’m no longer guessing but feel I have the composer’s authority. I created this from my imagination, I didn’t need ideas fed to me from computer playback. The blindfold’s off, and I’ve already worked out the map for this maze.
Now, I’ve just started composing this way, so we’ll see how it goes. So far though? I think I just might be considerably happier!