Does Music Come from the Head or the Heart?


by Nathan Cornelius

I’ll admit, the title of this post might be a trick question, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Before trying to answer it, though, I have to confront a problem which persistently menaces composers’ work: the deadline. It seems we always have a project we’re struggling to finish on time… or at least not too far behind schedule. Many composers think  improving their compositional technique and analytical skills will bring greater speed and fluency of writing along with it.  Others believe a deeper emotional connection to their work will allow their music to pour out of them more freely. But is the connection between head, heart, and pencil really so simple?

A survey of the so-called “great composers” throughout history reveals a wide range in productivity and working speed. On the one hand, J. S. Bach was able to turn out a whole new cantata for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig nearly every week, composing hundreds over the course of his career. Similarly, Mozart famously quipped that the only limit to his compositional speed was how fast he could copy out the manuscript. Nevertheless, his rapidity may have only enabled him to procrastinate, as he was also notorious for finishing Don Giovanni the night before the premiere.

Other composers worked in rapid bursts with long periods of inactivity. Mahler, for example, did not compose at all during his busy concert seasons as a conductor, but every summer, he would retreat to his cabin in the mountains and try to sketch out an hour-long symphony. Rachmaninoff produced some works very quickly, but was interrupted by bouts of depression which stalled his composing for months or years. At one point, his psychiatrist had to repeat over and over to him, “You will start work on your piano concerto soon. You will work with great facility.” Still other composers worked at a slow but steady pace. George Crumb, for example, completed just one piece a year for most of his career, but has slowed down even further since he reached middle age.

Various factors can limit the speed at which a composer creates. The most obvious is simply the amount of time one is able to devote to composition. Having spent periods trying to compose while going to school full-time and working nearly full-time, I can attest that my schedule was often the limiting factor of how much I could write. Other times, even without being Mozart, composers run up against the time required for the physical act of copying out the score. Even computer notation software can only accelerate this process by a certain amount; there are still a fixed number of mouse clicks and keystrokes required to notate the music. Beyond this, there are differences in individuals’ creative processes. Some composers are simply faster at brainstorming ideas than others. Others are faster at developing and working through materials to turn their inspiration into a complete piece. Some choose to follow a more deliberate process, comparing and revising sections again and again, to ensure that their creativity reaches its full potential. As a result, pieces progress at vastly different rates for different composers, even if they are each able to follow their ideal working routine.

All of these factors, however, deal primarily with the intellectual side of the creative process. Clearly, there is an emotional component to it as well. Instead of bogging down in detailed compositional systems, some composers believe in writing what comes naturally, from the heart. They consider this to be the freest, fastest way of creating. However, as I’ve written before, music that flows purely from the composer’s intuition or feeling is vulnerable to falling into well-worn, default modes of expression. Without some sort of structure, however simple, to guide and even challenge the composer’s creativity, the music will meander through diffuse pathways and not actually make the powerful emotional statement desired.

But neither am I suggesting that composition should be a purely intellectual exercise. I do not believe art can be created purely in the abstract realm; it must have some connection to the world, to real life, to things that matter to us personally. I find I do my best work as a composer when inspired by something about which I feel strongly. Any precompositional or compositional structures I create are just tools to help me say, through music, what I feel compelled to say.

What is often overlooked, however, is that just as composers’ minds may work through ideas at different rates, their hearts may also. I, for one, am not an especially emotional person; I may only have three or four experiences a year which move me deeply enough to warrant a response in the form of a piece of music. Few as they are, these moments practically demand that I create something in order to deal with the beauty, sublimity, or frustration I feel in them. But they also require me to mull them over for a period of months or years before I can discover what kind of a piece I need to write to express that feeling. The composer Chaya Czernowin refers to this process as “incubating,” letting the idea of the piece gradually accrete and attract all the musical materials which belong with it. At times, I may have several ideas incubating, ready to be written, or I may have used up my store and be waiting for the next moment of inspiration.

And this gets to the crux of the problem with deadlines. Deadlines urge to the composer to come up with material and start writing now in order to finish on time. But there is no guarantee that the idea or seed of a piece will be emotionally (one might even say spiritually) ready to be written at that moment.  I think it’s significant that most of the pieces I wrote with a purely abstract sense of inspiration, free of any poetic or emotional associations, came near the end of a long year of school, during which a string of deadlines had used up all the ideas I had been ruminating on. And on each of these occasions, I have generally been less satisfied with the final product than when I to express an idea I had long been pondering. Rather than letting deadlines short-circuit this process of inspiration and incubation (thereby, in Alexander terms, end-gaining), each composer has to find a way to fit the rhythm of their work into it.

So the answer to my opening question, then, is “Yes”: Music, like any art, must come from both the heart and the head. The composer’s practice must be both rigorously worked out and deeply felt; one need not cancel out the other. But just as the mind needs time and space to produce an artwork, the heart does too. And just as some composers are faster than others at thinking through the steps to creating a piece, others are faster at feeling out the inspiration for it too. And, whether rapid or deliberate, feverish or contemplative, both sides of the process are necessary in order to generate a true work of art.


One thought on “Does Music Come from the Head or the Heart?

  1. Pingback: Subjective Judgments (Or, Why Do You Like That Sound You Like?) | deformingprisms

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