How to think like a physicist to become a better composer

Let me speak for myself: living with a composer being ‘in the zone’, is not very enjoyable. For me, it is very difficult to break out of ‘the zone’, because my brain keeps pursuing this goal, repeating this train of thought until I know what to write or do. For the people around me I seem distracted, forgetful, distant, chaotic.

In november 2019 I spend a week at my sister’s place to visit the puppet-theatre festival and noticed that my brother in law, who is a theoretical physicist, has more in common with me, a composer, than I thought.

We both are ‘in the zone’ when we are working: We work until late, forget appointments, need an alarm-clock to get to appointments in time. We need time and quiet to wrap our minds around this IDEA, and that takes so much brain-space, that there is not room for much else.

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This inspired me to use his scientific system of improving his IDEA with the help of hypotheses and experiments. I think that scientists, already invented this great work-flow improving IDEAs. The system of hypotheses and experiments doesn’t confine creativity and improves insights into what might work and what not. Improvements become more than just educated guesses: hypothesis, experiment and discussion set a direction for further thought. 

Both composers and scientists think of something new: an IDEA that doesn’t exist, yet. They use current insights, to pursue new ones. Scientists pursue a new IDEA on a rational level. They think of a FORM to put their new IDEA in: The logical analyses, using maths and physics helps understand and formulate the IDEA. Experiments help prove their hypothesis ‘working or not working’ in a constructive way, with each experiment being a building-block constructing the new IDEA.

Experiments are part of the road towards new insights and ideas that might be mind blowing GREAT.

BUT you need to know the science to write the new IDEA.

You need to know how to think analytically. Scientists who lived before you can show you how to do that. Only when you stand on the shoulders of giants, you can come up with the new IDEA.

You have to know the history of physics to know how to think of a new IDEA.

You have to know about the history of music to know how to think of a new IDEA.

Yesterday, I wrote about the New Kitsch movement: figurative painters who study the old masters to learn their techniques. They can stand on the shoulders of their giants and improve their art from there. I think that all great arts, sciences, philosophies have this in common: first you learn from the masters: technique, form, analyses. You learn the elegant solution within your art or science. Then you take it from there and develop the new IDEA.

Physicists experiment with FORM+ … +… to understand the natural world better. They predict outcomes of experiments and run the experiment. Composers do the same: We think of a FORM + … + … and predict an emotional outcome: the energy curves, the emotional roller coaster, drops, climaxes, catharsis. Each composition is an experiment that teaches us what does work and what doesn’t.

Composers experiment with FORM + ORCHESTRATION + … + … to understand and predict how music makes the emotion.

Though REAL music always displays the HONEST STRUGGLE of the composer, the composer needs to know the craft to be able to do the experiments and improve her art. then take it from there and develop the new IDEA.

The scientific system sets me free to find, experience and test my own music without getting stuck within some musical, philosophical or educational system. Visions, philosophies, educating systems, can help people set goals and find paths, but they can also become an incarcerating dogmas that limit creative freedom. The scientific system prevents me falling into that pitfall.

I find it very satisfying, because I can now set the experiment and let the music flow, creating the sound of my honest struggle, without the risk of forgetting what I wanted to learn from writing the composition. Working on something is always meaningful when there is room for improvement and in art there always is.

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This is what the workflow will look like:

Experiment 1: Summersparkles

New music: Summer-sparkles. First time I write for strings (6 viola’s).

Hypothesis A: a DNA with too many notes in a traditional 4-bar system cannot be developed easily into a whole composition.

Hypothesis B: Changing the 4-bar system into a fibonacci numbering system will help set the long DNA free.

Experiment: Trying to set a 4 bar phrase free into a Fibonacci numbering system to find out if this numbering system can ‘free’ a long DNA.

Conclusion:  The whole phrase kept hitting me like a boomerang. Too long a DNA didn’t provide much freedom for development within a traditional 4 bar form. It is hard to develop a long DNA (4 notes of more) in a fibonacci numbering system. A long DNA is harder to develop then a 4-bar system.

Unexpected lessons learned: 

  1. I found out I write very different music for strings than for brass, because I remember unconsciously a lot of classical music written for it. TO DO: Listen to music for trumpets and horns.
  2. It helps knowing the instrument so well, because I can play it very well. I know it’s possibilities, limitations, colors, articulation etc. TO DO: Get lessons for concert harp.

Discussion and questions: The traditional 4 bar phrase is difficult to develop when you use a long DNA. Maybe it is better to use a melody that consists of 3 short DNA’s? The composition can be constructed in 3 parts and a part where the melody is connecting the parts. Will this end up in less disruptive changes between the parts?

Experiment 2: Voor Welmoet

New music: Voor Welmoet.

Hypothesis A: Using a 4 bar phrase gives music a block-like structure, the use of short phrases DNA of 3 notes doesn’t. 

Hypothesis B: Too long DNA stagnates the flow of music and will make a block-form disruptive composition. 

New experiment: Understanding how short DNA can work within a melody. Compose music based upon a melody that comprises of 3 DNA’s of 3 notes. Try to write different parts for each DNA and bond them together with the melody.

Unexpected lessons learned:

  1. By adding silences the compositions improves.
  2. Adding silences afterwards makes the composition less dense, but also strange.
  3. Writing Take 1,2,3.. helps understand better what needs to be improved. But it doesn’t solve the problem of too few silences.
  4. You can feel the added time being unnatural by conducting Take 1 and Take 2.


It is possible to develop a 3 part composition with 3 DNA’s that form a melody. But still the parts sound more like separate pieces.

It is possible to improve a composition by adding more silences, but you have to add them in de FORM, before writing the music.

Experiment 3: I paint music

Hypothesis A: Adding time for silences in the composition makes it better.

Hypothesis B: A 34-Matrix FORM will help construct a pattern for the brain to hold onto key-changes.

Hypothesis C: Layering energy-curve on top of the FORM improves the catharsis of the climax.

Hypothesis D: A composition should be developed from 1 3-note long DNA, but the longer the composition, the more room there is for other DNA’s from the defining song within the composition (this piece started differently with a poem and a song)

Hypothesis E: It is possible to test multiple variables (A+B+C+D) in one composition.

Experiment: is currently running



Unexpected lessons learned: (TO DO)

Questions for future research:

What I need to study before writing the new experiment: (TO DO + conclusions)

Experiment 4:


etc. etc.

By Anneloes Wolters


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