Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sketch Art

Earlier this week, one of my private composition students managed to completely surprise me. Instead of bringing a print-out of a Finale score, as he normally does, he brought me a completely hand written graphic sketch of a new work. The sketch had no notes or notated rhythms - only general descriptions of each individual part as they occurred over time. He was very proud of this sketch, and commented to me how liberating an experience it was to sketch the piece in this manner.

I was surprised NOT by the fact that he brought me this sketch, but that this particular student - a very tech savvy, computer geek in his own right - chose to sketch this work by hand.

Much of what this blog is about is on how to compose within the parameters of notation software. However, that doesn't mean that every task is best suited in the computer, and that pen and paper should be completely abandoned. Pre-composition - the creative process that each composer engages to help discover and organize their musical ideas PRIOR to the actual writing of notes - I believe is one of those tasks.

Now, before I receive 20 comments on how it is completely practical and legitimate to "pre-compose" on the computer, I want to stress that while I believe that pre-composition is best suited away from the computer, I also recognize that this is a very personal process. Each and every composer will approach this from a different perspective. Also, I should also stress that I have tried to sketch my pieces in Finale and Sibelius in the past, but in the end I always seem to eventually need pencil and paper to get my basic ideas down in a satisfactory manner.

So, why do I believe that pre-composition should be done on paper? For me, it comes down to immediacy and convenience. There may be hundreds of ways that I might choose to jot my ideas down - from simple words, to graphic imagery, use of a timeline, notated ideas, literary reference - the list goes on. While there are likely ways to incorporate all of these approaches into notation software, these programs really aren't meant to handle tasks like these efficiently. Similarly, I might be able to use other programs to assist in this process (such as typing ideas into a word processing program, or creating graphics in Photoshop or Freehand) but in the end this is a cumbersome and limiting approach for me, not to mention considerably slower than simply writing words and images on paper.

Still, despite this, there is part of me that WANTS to use my computer for pre-composition. Despite many failed attempts, I often will still turn to the computer at the beginning of my creative process. I understand that, for me, writing down my initial ideas by hand is my preferred method TODAY, but I would love to be able to discover a process that is just as immediate and convenient on my computer. I want to be able to have the same liberating feeling that my student had just this past week, only when sketching with a mouse and keyboard. I simply haven't discovered what this is - yet.

So, I am opening this discussion up to all of you who are reading this. How do you approach pre-composition? Do you sketch by hand, or have you found a method that works for you on the computer? Let me know, and I will likely try it out myself when I start my next piece.


  1. Hi Ken,

    Just an observation from your old coffee house buddy....computerized notation lends itself to things that are repeated...notes, rests, etc...the same way a computer keyboard lends itself to things that use letters. If your process involves "non-repetion" or if the composition is based more on timbre/growth than rhythm/melody/harmony...non computerized methods may be more desireable.

    Cheers, Armand Frigon

  2. I have banned anything finale or sibelius from my lessons; my students has to show up with music made by pencil and paper, otherwise they can go back home again. I'm just so tired of all the bad music that comes out of inexperienced composers writing straight into the computer. It's the biggest pitfall for a young composer there is. That and basing everything on 16th notes... oh, and Schostakowitsch-rhythms... /Mika

  3. I agree Mika that music notation software is a huge hurdle for young composers to deal with - that is why I've made this blog in the first place. It is my feeling that, rather than simply tell students that they can't use music notation software, we as their teachers need to instruct them on how to compose *properly* in the software. Some students, particularly those who use the program completely as a crutch, need to be given the paper and pencil treatment for a while. Others, though, I do allow to use notation software as long as they don't fall into the common traps that often occur.

    See some of my other entries - in particular "The Big Picture" and "Baby Got Playback" - as I go pretty extensively into some of those pitfalls. And, if you know of more that I should cover in this blog, please let me know! I'm always looking for more topics to cover.

  4. A large part of my "pre composition" has to do with hearing things. I consider my ears to be "pretty good" in regards to composition (I joined the "notation software" game after I'd learned using paper and pencil). Notation software (in my case Notion) allows me the ability to "play" with harmony and melody so that I end up with the idea "in my head."

    Thus "pre-composition" is far more effective for me on the computer. Granted I'm sure a large part of the "pre-composition" actually occurs in my head....but acutalizing it occurs best on the computer. I find Notion is far more suited to serve as a "pre-composition" tool because it is easier to get the notes in and hear them.

    I do like the idea of the abstract "pre-composition" that your student used though! I'll have to give it a shot sometime:)