How do you know your compositions are improving?

As a composer, I am always looking for ways to improve my work. But how do I know my newest composition is better than the last one? Could I measure such a thing a ‘progress’ of my work?

Jon Brantingham tries a new approach to make the quality of a composition quantifiable to help us judge our compositions and design better music. (Original post: ‘The science of becoming a better composer.’) He suggests to:

  1. Write a piece of music in small ternary form.
  2. That follows the traditional rules of voice leading, harmony, and melody.
  3. For a specific instrument.
  4. Based on a specific style (read: the tendencies of a specific group of composers).
  5. That incorporates harmonic progressions that use specific harmonic devices (functionality, modulation, applied dominants, modal borrowing, standard schemas) and melodic devices (following tendencies, ornamentation, motives, specific kinds of repetition, tropes, etc.).
  6. Will cause others to recognize that piece as good.

It is interesting to see that Jon limits his choices for the composition, which is a really good thing. He points out what craftmanship you need to have to start writing a piece, which comes in handy but might also burden you when you want to discover new music.

The questionay does not really challenge us to create something new, because it refers to everything we have done until now. So, yes, you will probably end up with a nice new composition, but it will probably end up ‘mainstream’. Will it be groundbreaking? Will people like the sound of new music immediately? Probably not, becauses people like what they know.

The big question that remains here is: Will you stand on the shoulders of giants searching the sky for new music or wil je stand just on the floor next to them facing the same direction?

Another weak point is, that it suggests you cannot recognize the quality of your own work. I disagree with that:

First, you will recognize the (lack of) craftmenship because of the sound you hear when the piece is being played. You can trust your ears on that and improve your work until the piece works for your ears. “Remember, there is no right or wrong, just sound” (P. Habraken)

Second, you can recognize that you are writing a great piece because it will moves you while you are writing it. When you feel the music while you sing the melody or play it on your instrument, the piece will end up just fine.

By Anneloes Wolters


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