It is not uncommon to see images of composers of the past sitting proudly beside their harpsichords, organs or pianos with manuscript paper littered around the instruments. Certainly, this is the image I have clearly of Beethoven who amongst many composers wrote his compositions often with the piano.
This is not to suggest for a moment that Beethoven or any other composer necessarily needed an instrument to compose, but that the perception of a composer is a little like this. Having a piano, keyboard or an instrument on hand that you are composing for is useful but not essential. Consider the fact that many composers write pieces for instruments they do not play and often in combinations or groupings that they could not possibly perform on alone.
Composing Music Without Instruments
For the less experienced composer, the development of what is often referred to as the ‘inner ear’ is vital to be able to write music without having to refer to an instrument. This can be achieved in a variety of ways including singing, especially in a choir where you learn to sing in ‘parts’, or by means of progressive aural training. What this works towards accomplishing is a sense of pitch, tonality, and organization of sound that helps immensely when composing straight to the manuscript.
In addition, by developing a secure understanding of harmony (assuming you wish to write tonally), is key to being able to ensure your composition makes harmonic sense. If you have a clear understanding of how the key system functions, cadences work, and melody fits around chordal patterns, you are well underway to being able to compose without the need for an instrument.
Developing an acute sense of pulse and rhythm is an essential tool in the composer’s armoury. Even if you are working with an instrument, if you are not accurately feeling the pulse of the music what you write is unlikely to be correct. It is a tough challenge when trying to combine this with all the other skills that need to be in operation as a working composer.
Understanding the ranges of instruments and voices is also paramount. Writing a flute part in the bass clef would clearly be an oversight; or composing a melody for soprano that only uses top A, B and C would not be met with approval from the singer. Using and combining instrumental timbres is a vital skill.
Many notable books on orchestration can help with this element of composition and working on arranging existing compositions can be a positive way into this area of study. Like many rules that govern music, it is quite often the breaking of those rules that can create the most inspirational textures.
Stravinsky and Ravel are both wonderful examples of incredible orchestrators whose scores should be studied if you are ambitious to compose without an instrument.
Another invaluable element of composing without an instrument is to have the option of actually hearing your work played or rehearsed. If you have scored anything from a solo piano piece right through to a piece for full orchestra, actually hearing musicians play what you have composed is enlightening. What you often find especially regarding larger ensembles, is that the ‘balance’ of the instruments may not be as you imagined it ‘in your head’.
This situation will change as the experience of writing for ensembles increases but if your pieces are more complex and ambitious, texturally, then this fine-tuning can be a lifetime of work. It can also depend greatly on the musicians you are writing for. If you are working with less experienced players, then always take this into account with the way you score the music.
Their timing, tuning, and phrasing may vary greatly from a professional rendition of your piece. This is not in any way taking away the credit for some extraordinary amateur performances that you hear very frequently, but caution to know what to anticipate during a performance.
Interestingly, in the world of film music, it is not uncommon for composers to employ orchestrators and arrangers to make ‘mock-ups’ of their ideas using synthesized sounds. These days the quality of these sound sample libraries is remarkable and as you might expect, the results of present-day ‘mock-ups’ are almost as good as the acoustic version with live players.
In some cases, it can be better in the hands of a truly gifted arranger/orchestrator. Often the reason for these mock-ups is so that the film composer can double-check that what they have heard in their heads actually works in reality. Some film composers have the most extraordinary imaginative concepts in mind but do not have the skills to realize their musical ambitions and need a team of arrangers to bring their work to life.
In reality, a huge number of films do not use ‘live’ musicians at all and instead, composers rely on the variety and quality of sound sample libraries. This is in a very real sense is not composing with an instrument in the sense that Chopin would understand. Working directly with computer sounds does give you the option to hear what you have written immediately and with almost any instrumental combination you can imagine but is not the same as composing at the piano. What it does not supply is either the imagination required to generate musical ideas and concepts nor the skill to orchestrate or arrange them.
In some cases, the technology can take over and lead composers into writing unplayable music. This, in turn, can create vibrant and beautiful pieces that can only be performed by a computer rather than with live musicians. If done well then, the combination of electronic and acoustic instruments can yield breath-taking results but requires a keen ear in the first instance for it to be successful.
Working without the aid of an instrument to compose is often a liberating experience as your own playing capacity can limit your compositions and dull your imagination. If the sound(s) you want are ringing in your head first, and you are able to fine-tune your ideas before coming to the keyboard or computer, then I believe you are more likely to feel that your work is a success.
Ultimately each composer works in the way that they feel achieves the best results for them and sometimes there simply is not enough time to ponder every option, you just have to present a finished score to the film director.