Widgets Magazine


The Campus Beat: Play Music? Compose Too

Imitation is the finest form of flattery, so the saying goes. In western music, imitation is an incredibly dominant part of the culture. Even though the arts are a creative endeavor, musicians are usually taught to copy other musicians. When you take instrument lessons, they don’t start by asking you to make something up. Instead it’s, “Here’s some sheet music—learn this piece that someone else wrote.”

Contrast that with writing. The entire discipline is based on you expressing your own thoughts. You might borrow a quote or an idea, but you’re encouraged to say it in your own way. Or think about art—sure you might see someone practicing a technique by copying a painting in a museum, but an artist’s portfolio is entirely his or her own work. In all expressive mediums, we learn the technique so that we can join the fun, and we learn the repertoire so we can progress from what came before. But for some reason, new musicians aren’t asked to write their own music as a core of the training philosophy.

Part of it is because music has historically relied on live performance. We’ve only been able to record sounds for the last century or so. Instrumentalists were needed to communicate the music that composers wrote, so most often the training focused on being a jukebox.

Perhaps more importantly, though, people love music they recognize. Take a local example: the LSJUMB. Even though creativity and spontaneity is practically the mission, they only ever play cover songs. Band members arrange the charts, but that’s a very particular type of creativity, and not everyone in the band does it.

I’m not suggesting that the music world is devoid of composers, just that invention is not part of the standard musical toolkit. The jazz tradition encourages people to build a melody on the spot, and there are an overwhelming number of songwriters and bands. But in formal instrumental training, the emphasis is heavy on technique and repertoire.

Which is too bad, because I think it institutionally discourages many people from writing music. Composition can seem like a talent that only a select few Beethovens possess, so a lot of instrumentalists shy away from it. Either that or it’s only for those in the “complex” realm of jazz.

How exactly might we shift toward encouraging every musician to compose? You create an environment where it’s omnipresent. Put up white boards with staves in practice rooms; have a variety of facilities where different kinds of ensembles can organically form and devise their own sound; make the technology for recording and transcribing widely available to everyone; create more ways to showcase compositions; etc, etc.

I’m imagining some violin player, after practicing for a half hour, fiddling around until she comes up with something cool, which she jots down on a nearby white board before going back to practicing. Later she comes back to it and extends it into an entire piece. Or three people who play some bizarre combination of instruments want to try out the sound of their ensemble. So they set up a month’s worth of jam sessions in some room and put out a little set of recordings at the end. For anyone, it’s easy to take a class on sound recording or composition, and every music lesson includes a few minutes of improv work. Rather than one CD of 20 student compositions per year, there are several released at dozens of concerts.

Because, though performing is a rush, there’s such a satisfaction in creation. It’s the “Wow! I made that!” feeling from producing all types of outputs, like computer programs, short stories, small feats of mechanical engineering or published original research. We create exciting environments of innovation in technical disciplines to improve the material aspects of life, so why can’t we build similar settings for musical innovation?

It’s not like there would be a lack of demand for the music people would come up with. The culture of music listening involves finding new songs all the time: you like what’s on your iPod, but discovering another good artist is always refreshing. And at college, people are pretty enthusiastic about their friends’ creative work, so composers could find audiences.

Fortunately, recording equipment has become cheap enough in recent years that a lot more people are able to make music. But the paradigm of music lessons hasn’t caught up with the technology. Musicians will still learn cover songs, orchestras will still put Tchaikovsky on their programs, and that’s awesome. But if every musician were a composer, perhaps a few more would feel the flattery of imitation and the rest of us could enjoy an even wider world of music.

Direct creative comments to Lucas at lucaswj@stanford.edu.