Getting beyond the comparison

When studying music (or any art), a part of the process is to study the music of other greats. This is a necessary part of learning as past masters can show us how good music is done (at least in their style of music). The danger is this study can frustrate the novice composer into thinking they can never compete with the masters. Kenneth LaFave wrote an excellent post on his blog - "How to Fail" which prompted my own post.

Composing music, like painting, is comprised of combining a series of elements together to create pleasing (or not so pleasing) sounds. These elements are really nothing more than techniques. By learning the techniques of Mozart or Hayden it becomes possible to write music like them. This is called pastiche.

The point of pastiche writing is to learn the techniques of other composers. Learn enough different techniques and you start to create your own unique blend of them. By learning what's been done, you have a better idea as to where you can go. If we didn't study the previous greats and their techniques, we'd have no idea if what we're writing is new and unique or just something that already been done.

A car manufacturer doesn't start from scratch every time they want to design a new car. They take what they already know from previous designs and try to improve on them. Composing music is the same way - taking what we learn from past masters and seeing if we can meld the various pieces, changing what's been done into something new.

While you may not write as well as the past masters in the style of the past masters - you have an advantage. You can learn from their music and lots of other master composers as well. Hayden taught Beethoven. Beethoven influenced Berlioz. Ravel studied Berlio and so on. You can study all of these composers as well as Reich, Adams, Ferneyhough, Glass....

- Things I marvel at from previous composers (by no means complete):

  • Bach: Master at counterpoint
  • Mozart: Subtle use of middle line movement
  • Beethoven: Development of the motive in every level of the music.
  • Mahler: Extension of the motive into massive works that are cohesive
  • Ravel: Orchestration that works
  • Stravinsky: Knowing the limits of the instruments and pushing them beyond
  • Debussy: Harmonic movement like no one else
  • Ives: Bi-tonality and subtle referencing of other works
  • Shostakovich: interdevelopment of themes
  • Copeland: Simple melodies, open harmonies
  • Bernstein: Sense of rhythm that feel melodic
  • Britten: Word painting
  • Reich: interplay of rhythm
  • Ferneyhough: Extending what's possible in music performance
  • Williams: An understanding of the narrative in film music
Again, this list isn't exhausting in either the composers who have influenced me or in what qualities I most admire in them. I am curious as to what additions you might add to this list... (TAG - you're it).


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