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“How to Write a Symphony” ???

April 15, 2013

“How to Write a Symphony” ???

I suppose a handy guide as to how a symphony is written could be useful, but this article is really exasperating. I’ll take it point by point:

  1. “Before you consider this, you must know a lot of music theory, harmony or even counterpoint for the structure and analysis of music. And you must know how to transpose.” In a couple of words, well, duh! There’s a reason why Brahms waited so long before he felt confident enough to write his first symphony. Writing any sort of large-scale work is a massive undertaking, and no matter how talented you are, no matter how great your sense of what makes music tick, it just isn’t going to work unless you have certain knowledge and practical experience under your belt.
  2. “Be inspired. Take some time, relax, bring some sheet music with you out in nature and get inspired…. Try to make your music connect to people on an emotional level. Use a piano to get these pitches down if you have to.” I’ve said this before, but if I (or any other composer for that matter) really had to wait for inspiration to strike no music would ever get written. Better would be to work until you come up with something that sounds inspired.
  3. You’re going to need a lot of sheet music or a music-writing software….. Set up your orchestration like the example from Beethoven’s 5th. The base of the symphony is really the orchestra, light percussion section, and winds. Unless you’re writing heavy music like Mahler, you shouldn’t need too many winds and strings. It’s all up to you on how you want your sound to be.” Not a lot of “sheet music” — can’t the writer even use the proper terminology? — but rather manuscript paper. And pencils. And erasers, BIG erasers or LOTS of erasers (or both). The music notation software — again with the incorrect terminology! — is a very useful tool, sure, but it tends to 1) give a false sense of everything working when it might not in real life, and 2) limits you to what it can do, not what you can compose.
  4. After your instrumentation is selected, refer back to your “themes” you came up with. Expand these themes; put them in the middle of a phrase, and think of how you will introduce them, and how you will digress from the melody. Which one would sound best near the beginning of the piece? Which one would sound best at the middle as the climax? Which one would be the best to end with? Slowly add onto these themes and interlink them. Make sure to stay in the boundaries, watching for errors like parallel fifths and octaves or bad skips in the chord progressions, as well as watching for cadences that don’t really make sense. That is of course unless you really feel you want some of these. Many composers throughout history have sought out theoretical guidelines but if you encounter an oppurtunity to do something which breaks these rules but really feels right to you in the context of the piece, you might want to leave it in.” (Must. Stop. Brain. From. Hurting.) For every thing right in this bit there are three dubious/wrong things. How about examining existing symphonies, learning how they are structured, learning what types of themes or other musical ideas actually fit the instruments for which you’re writing? Break the “rules” (make that “traditions”) to be sure, but learn what they are first.
  5. Eventually you will start to have a number of different themes and variations going on.” Uh, okay. But without training or experience how will one know when something is a variation on an idea or a brand new idea? And maybe coming up with all the ideas at once is not always the best way to work. What happens if the ideas have nothing in common? Or too much in common? Or there are one or two good ideas and the rest is shlock?
  6. “Eventually each theme will become a decently long movement.” Any comment on structure here? Anything? Hello, is anyone there?
  7. The creative music process may take a while, but by this step you will have your first draft of an entire symphony, so to speak.” I love that “so to speak” part. “Take it to a local group you know closely, or a high school orchestra (depending on the difficulty of the work) and ask them to try it out. Listen to them rehearse it. Is it how you wanted it to sound? Make sure you have a copy of the score to make any on-site edits you decide to make after hearing the instruments in real time.” I think someone forgot a step or three here, like proofreading the score to make sure the harmonies works, that the writing is idiomatic and within the ranges and other technical abilities of the individual instruments, and then extracting the individual parts!
  8. “Go back to your music mess (by now I’m sure if you’re gotten this far your music room will look like Beethoven’s house, ha ha) and make a second draft with your edits. Repeat the above step of the rehearsal process until you are satisfied with your symphony.” I would say make a second draft BEFORE going to an ensemble with score and parts in hand — if at all.
  9. “Take it to a music publisher, like G. Schirmer, Hal Leonard, ect. You can google the Music Publisher’s Association and find your publishing needs there.” Yeah, because somewhere out there is a music publisher who wants to spend several thousand dollars to prepare a full set of score and parts for publication (which is not the same as what you’ve handed the Joe Schmoe Orchestra), advertising, warehouse space, and more on a generally-unheard work by a complete unknown composer without a track record of any sort. Especially the big-gun publishers like Schirmer and Hal Leonard, which are essentially the same thing these days (Hal Leonard has all print rights to Schirmer’s catalog).
  10. “After the publishing process, voila! You’re done. Now go spread your music and enjoy your masterpiece.” That sound you hear is my head alternating between shaking side to side and banging on my computer keyboard. Folks, what it comes down to is: This “You can do this too, and it’s easy!” approach has little if any basis in reality.

Is the writer correct in any of this? Surprisingly, yes:

  1. You must know a lot of music theory, harmony AND counterpoint, as well as the structure and analysis of music, instrumentation AND orchestration to write a symphony. The genre is just too big, too complex, to be written without more than a fair amount of knowledge of all of these.
  2. You should know other symphonies, and not just one or two by a single composer or from a single time period. Well, the writer didn’t say that, but I am and sticking to it.
  3. You are going to need a lot of manuscript paper, pencils, and erasers. But if you use a music notation program, save each new incarnation as a different file (like “symph 1a”, “symph 1b, etc. for the first draft of the first movement, the second draft of the first movement, and so on). You’ll want this for several reasons, but mostly because invariably you’ll need something that came up in an earlier version.
  4. This is going to take a while, and several drafts. Unless you’re Mozart, which is highly unlikely.
  5. Get the music played — by anyone. This is the hardest part, but if you can get an orchestra, or just a small group of representative musicians (string quartet? wind quintet? both?) to read things down, you will learn: What works musically; what doesn’t work musically; what works well for the individual instruments and in combination; and what doesn’t work technically. And don’t worry if it sounds like, well, crap. You will learn from it at the very least.

Additional points:

  1. Try to compose with the sound of the orchestra in mind. Writing a theme and then assigning it to instruments can work but your music will sound better if you can write the music as if those instruments are playing it in the first place.
  2. My snarky comments aside, publishers are not waiting for you to drop the next Big American Symphony on their desks so they can publish it. There has to be a compelling reason to publish a new work — 1) it will make money, 2) it’s an important work (as judged by others, not you), 3) it will make money, 4) you are judged (by others) to be an important composer, or 3) it will make money. See a trend there? Symphonies and other large-scale works are the least likely pieces of music to be published these days.
  3. With the previous comment in mind, consider writing large-scale works for smaller forces — sonatas instead of symphonies. Writing for one or two or even four instruments has more of a chance to be performed (and therefore published) than a full-out symphony.
  4. Or you could go the self-publishing route, but do your homework on what that entails first. Some aspects are easy enough, but others are formidable.

Forewarned is forearmed.

One Comment
  1. nas noco permalink

    great article

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