Who Needs Compositional Structures? or, Escaping the Sea Monster


by Nathan Cornelius

In listening to composers talk about their work, I’m often struck by the amount of importance and meaning they attach to form or structure in their music. By “structure,” I mean any schematic or systematic element of a piece, from rules for what chord progressions it may use, to an overarching design in the order of the sections, to a complex algorithm generating non-retrogradable rhythms. On the other hand, a so-called “intuitive” approach to composition, relying on what “sounds right” to the composer’s ear, is often looked down upon as naïve.

The problem I see is that the structures are often so deeply submerged beneath the surface of the music as to be virtually unperceivable to someone without inside knowledge of the composer’s intentions. Someone has quipped that Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia, which has strict rules governing the exact placement of every note in the piece, sounds more random than the music of Iannis Xenakis, who used statistical distributions to simulate randomness, or of John Cage, who literally rolled dice to determine the notes. To be sure, Boulez’s rules succeed in preventing any note or rhythm from taking precedence over the others. But if a composer can create the intended effect of the rules serendipitously, without working through an elaborate system, can you say that the rules play any role in making the music “good music”? I would answer that they actually do, but before I offer a theory as to why, I want to consider two imaginary composers.

Composer A had no interest in classical music until her early twenties, when she attended a memorable new music concert and immediately decided to become a composer. Such a composer would begin her compositional career as a musical tabula rasa, without developed tastes for or allegiances toward certain styles from the tradition of Western art music. Were Composer A to compose according to her intuitions, the results would be unpredictable, since she would have no reservoir of experience to guide her intuitions. Yet, once she began composing in any given style, she would begin to develop intuitions within it. In this way, her initial choice of direction for her style could become a self-reinforcing cycle: experience with a style begets familiarity with it, and familiarity facilitates further experience in the same style.

While few composers begin their careers as suddenly as Composer A, the narrative of Composer B is perhaps more common. Growing up in a musical household, he played piano from a very young age and developed a passionate affinity for the music of Brahms. Like Composer A, he did not become a composer until early adulthood, but unlike Composer A, he brings pre-existing musical preferences to his work. What “sounds right” to Composer B would, to some extent, be what sounds like Brahms. Were he to write a piece in the style of Brahms, Composer B’s preferences could become even more self-reinforcing than Composer A’s, as he would now be familiar with that style as listener, performer, and composer.

Is composer B then doomed to become a Brahms imitator, with the only question the quality of his forgeries? History shows that this is clearly not the case, as many 20th- and 21st-century composers nurtured a love of classical music from a young age, yet found ways to move beyond their influences and create new and distinctive styles. We have been assuming all along that both composers A and B were writing music purely based on instinct, following whatever ideas their imagination, conditioned by their experience, suggested. But what if they were aware of this and constructed a system of rules to keep themselves from falling into the well-worn patterns of the familiar? By forcing themselves to write according to an unfamiliar set of rules, even awkward or constraining ones, composers can begin to realize possibilities beyond those suggested by blind instinct.

If they reject their musical instincts as a guide, composers still need some point of access into the terrifying blank space on the map marked Terra Incognita Musicalis (guarded by the menacing sea monster Writer’s Block). I would suggest that this is, in fact, the main role of musical structures—not as a well-marked path to escort listeners on a tour through the music, but as a compass to orient the composers themselves on their explorations into it. Or, to use another metaphor, composers who resist the temptation to build solely on the old foundation of their experiences still need some sort of scaffolding to hang their musical thoughts on until they can construct a new building of their own. It is not important whether the scaffolding is still visible once the building has been built; as long as it enables the composer to structure his or her ideas in a coherent yet innovative way, it has served its purpose.


3 thoughts on “Who Needs Compositional Structures? or, Escaping the Sea Monster

  1. Thank you for drawing my attention to the difference between “the building” and “the scaffolding.” I’ve actually been bothered lately by the feeling that no one will be able to really hear a clever structure in a piece I’m currently working on. Your post gave me some new ways to think about this.

  2. Pingback: Does Music Come from the Head or the Heart? | deformingprisms

  3. Pingback: The Long Way Round | deformingprisms

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