There’s a difference between composing and writing notes on paper.

Filed under:Advice and Tips — posted by admin on May 14, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

There IS a difference between composing music and writing music on paper. Composing is the act of creating musical ideas. Writing it down is simply translating the musical ideas into a form that can be read by others. Think of the oral tradition of storytelling. The stories were passed down from generation to generation orally. They weren’t written down, but yet, many of those stories still exist.

Why do I even mention this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to suggest that we eliminate written music. Lord knows there have been many wonderful stories and songs that have died with the storyteller or musician. However, it isn’t necessary to be able to write down music in order to create it. The paper isn’t the music. The music is the living sound. Writing it down simply is an insurance policy that it won’t be forgotten.

I think some people are scared away from composing, because they don’t know how to notate (write down) what’s in their head. Writing down the ideas and composing are two entirely different activities. Allow me to illustrate the point.

I can drive a car, but I can’t fix one. The ability to fix a car, while a valuable skill, is not necessary to use the car to get where I’m going. Granted, the ability to repair a vehicle can have some benefits like saving money and personal convenience, but it isn’t a prerequisite for using the vehicle.

Likewise, being able to notate one’s music has many benefits, most importantly, the ease of communicating one’s ideas to others and, as stated before, the insurance that it won’t be forgotten. Writing it down, however, isn’t absolutely necessary.

In an age when digital recording is easily accessible, many people have the opportunity to record their musical ideas and share them with others. Resourceful, aspiring songwriters, can plunk out ideas on a piano or guitar and record the session.

People can create their own notation system for their own reference. They can sketch out the ideas on regular paper, without using traditional notation, in a form that they alone can understand. It isn’t useful for other people to read, but it is a way of “storing” ideas so they can be remembered at a later date.

I recently met a songwriter who is interested in pursuing composing as a career. I invited him to show me his work and he showed up to our meeting with several CDs he had recorded AND a large book of graph paper on which he had written lyrics to thirty or so songs. In addition to the lyrics, he had written out the music in a shorthand version that, while it made no sense to me, allowed him to perform his music on the piano. The point is that HIS system allowed him to remember what he’d written.

I sometimes wonder how many people in the world have musical ideas floating around in their heads, but have never tried to share the ideas with others simply due to the fact that they assume composing means writing it down. Some really talented songwriters may be out there who may never explore the possibility of letting us hear their songs.

If a person has original music in his/her head, he/she needs to find the means, ANY MEANS, to get the song out of the isolation of their hearts, minds and souls and into a form that can be shared and remembered. Use a tape recorder, computer, sequencer, personal notation system or anything that works for you. Just get the ideas out of your heads and save them.

You can always learn to notate if that is important to you. I would recommend learning how. It does save time and, in the long run, makes it easier on you and your performers. However, don’t let your inability to write it interfere with your ability to create it!



image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace