Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rinse and Repeat

The use of repetition is, in one form or another, a key concept at the core of most music composition.  On the small scale, musical motives and themes are repeated with variation to develop new material.  This can be seen both in classical compositions, such as in the canons and fugues of Bach, to contemporary film scores and the liberal use of leitmotif in the representation of characters and themes.  On the large scale, whole sections of music are often repeated to create a stable sense of form, as well as a coherent musical rhetoric.  Music form is used as a way for the composer to create an abstract sense of communication to the listener, particularly when no programmatic elements exist.

So, it is only natural then that composers more often than not find themselves using two simple commands embedded in all music notation software to assist them in their use of musical repetition - copy and paste.

Many of you just cringed at the mention of these two commands, and with good reason.  Copy and paste is often abused.  It is one thing to repeat music, but an entirely different thing to repeat the same musical phrase, note-for-note, complete with the same dynamic markings (often placed in the wrong location!), incomplete articulations, awkward phrasing - well, you get the idea.  Copy and paste has been often accused as a tool for the lazy - for the composer who wishes to double their music output in a matter of seconds, rather than try to come up with something "new."

It is this last statement that I intend to address at this moment.  Ironically, I have seen a secondary problem arrive as a result of the misuse of copy and paste that, in some ways, is even worse than the use of copy and paste itself.  In an effort to not appear to use copy and paste (or worse, to be accused of being lazy), the composer eschews repetition altogether!  While repetition without variation can be considered sloppy, the lack of repetition of any sort results in the composition sounding incoherent - a jumbled mess of ideas, many of which don't even belong in the same piece.  (I may be a bit on the conservative side of the composition spectrum here, but I still believe that a good composition will begin with ONE good idea, with all other ideas growing out of that initial seed.)

That is not to say the solution for the composition is to rely on strict repetition only.  Musical motives need to be developed, and part of that development INCLUDES the use of repetition.  Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg's technique of "developing variation," a concept key to the output of many composers in the 20th and 21st centuries, relies upon the creation of musical variation through development.  Developmental processes such as augmentation, diminution, and inversion, all have repetition "built-in" to the technique itself.  Transposing an idea involves the need to repeat it first.  Fragmentation involves the process of repeating a portion of that same idea.  These are all tried and true techniques - nothing revolutionary here.  

The same can be said about the use of large-scale repetition to highlight musical form.  Whole phrases and sections of music are often repeated, albeit often with some amount of variation and editing.  Repeat bars came into use long before copy and paste ever existed.  Finally, let us not forget that contrapuntal forms - canons and fugues - are completely based in the use of structured repetition in multiple voices.  

So, here is my advice.  Let us insert a third item to our phrase of "copy and paste," instead calling it "copy, paste, and edit."  Fundamentally, there really is nothing wrong with using the copy and paste function as long as the composer remembers to edit what they just pasted.  This editing step can take on multiple roles, such as:

• developing the newly pasted material into an extension of the original idea.
• editing out dynamic markings that are redundant, or better yet - changing dynamic markings for musical effect.
• double-checking that all elements that are to be repeated are repeated CORRECTLY (there is nothing more embarrassing than repeating a mistake multiple times through copy-paste).
• checking any newly created counterpoint for dissonance treatment.
• checking that any pasted material is appropriate for the new voice, should that new voice be a different instrument than the original.
• creating substantial changes to material as part of a sectional repetition (in other words, creating an "A-prime" section rather than a strict "A" section in your form).

Of course, this list above is not exhaustive, but is simply a reminder of the many ways that copy and paste can be used effectively, when matched with proper editing afterwards.  

I should mention here that, while I do believe that copy and paste can be a great tool for the composer, I do shy away from "composer tools" plug-ins that perform complete musical processes - augmentation, diminution, transposition, etc. - for the composer.  Using these plug-ins robs the composer of their own creative control, relegating the technique to the machine.  Besides - a composer should know how to perform these techniques on their own, and frankly should WANT to.  These plug-ins are, in my mind, cheats - pure and simple.

I'll conclude with a single thought.  In my lessons, I often compare the creative process of composing as a creative process very similar to that of speech writing.  Both processes rely upon the use of repetition and rhetoric to convey a message - one abstract, the other direct.  Consider this:  if a speech writer were to be asked if it was OK to use copy and paste, I think his or her response might possibly be "Yes we can.  Yes we can.  Yes we can."


  1. I think you've made excellent points here. Do you think perhaps composers need to learn to compose both by hand and in their chosen notation program so they realise the difference in themselves and their choices in each approach? I think it would be easier to work out when they're being 'lazy' in the software if they know they wouldn't do the same with the pencil.

    I would be interested, in a future blog, if you expanded your thoughts on why Copy + Paste (+ Edit) is not necessarily lazy but "composing tools" plug-ins are. For a young musician who is IT literate, isn't toggling an inversion with a simple keystroke an incredibly useful illustration (nay animation?!) of what is going on? Isn't the fact that they can apply a transposition, inversion and retrograde and hear the result instantly a great experimental learning tool? And if not, why not?

    I'm not suggesting that students shouldn't learn to do these things by hand. In fact, like repetition, I think they'll learn best if they do both. But I think that if concepts can be learned by exploring in this highly responsive and musical environment, perhaps some students will understand these quite difficult concepts who wouldn't have otherwise (and I do serial composition with year 7 at my school, and yes we learn it by hand first of all!).

    I look forward to reading much more!

    - James Humberstone, co-ordinator of composition stages 1-5, MLC School Sydney Australia

  2. In my post, I wasn't considering how "composing tools" could function as a pedagogical tool, but rather as a tool to create music through the creative process. I can definitely see your point as to how they can assist in teaching a student HOW to create an inversion, transposition, or retrograde.

    I simply feel that, once the student does know how to use these techniques, that it is in their best interest to do it "the old fashioned way" - particularly since they may approach the technique in a new way that the plug-in won't. Composing tools are restricted by how they are programmed - the composer's mind, on the other hand, can allow for all sorts of creative interpretations.

    For instance, what if during the process of producing the inversion, they *accidentally* (or perhaps serendipitously???) create the wrong interval at one point? This new music might actually be preferable to the "correct" one. This wouldn't happen using composing tools, as the computer would simply do it for them.

    Your points are very good! Please continue to respond, as it keeps me on my toes!

  3. As I continue to think about what you posted, I believe I have a somewhat better reply as to why "Copy+Paste+Edit" is preferred, in my mind at least, over composers tools. Let me add on to what I just posted.

    The main issue for me is that the composer should remain conscious over what her or she is composing. Copy+Paste+Edit, while mildly passive, is still using notes that the composer created in one form or another - the computer has not done any processing for him or her, but merely replicated what has already been done.

    With composers tools, the computer becomes the active developer, and the composer becomes a more passive participant. New notes, developed notes, based upon the original idea are created by the computer. Sure - the composer told the computer to perform the process, but in the end this seems that a certain degree of developmental control has been relinquished by the composer on the conscious level (at least to me!).

    While accidents can occur when manually composing out (sometimes leading to surprisingly good results!), the composer is still in control. The composer remains the active participant in the development process.

    Of course, that is simply my opinion! :)

  4. I think I agree with you! Well put, sir! I'm going to do some investigation into teaching the kinds of techniques these plug-ins can replicate with high school students, and how successful the music they create is (or isn't).

    Have you noticed how the untrained young Sibelius user works? I notice lots of right-clicking to perform copy, paste, delete, and so on. They expect context sensitive menus to do more for them, I think. I'm not sure what that tells us, but's it's probably more about how they word process than how they compose...