Good vs. Great


by Nathan Cornelius

In conversations about music, several friends have asked me, “What does it take to be a composer?” This question always gives me pause as I try to answer. In truth, the list of skills required is terrifying; it seems you have to be good at everything to be a successful composer. And yet, we can all think of examples of composers—whether from history or of our own acquaintance—who have produced great work despite being really bad at certain aspects of their work. I’ve come to believe there are two sets of skills required to be a composer, skill sets which are not necessarily correlated with each other. This leads to some surprising conclusions for the aspiring composer.

I divide these qualities into those necessary to be a good composer, and those necessary to be a great composer: (I realize that “great” can be a loaded word in talking about art, but bear with me; I’ll explain how I mean it.)

Needed to be a Good Composer:

  • Work ethic. Writing a piece of music is a lot of work, so a composer must be willing to devote an insane amount of time to crafting it. More often than not, it doesn’t just flow out of you; you have to actively search to find the best music.
  • Dedication. As the process of composition drags on and the deadline nears, the composer must have the mental fortitude to keep working on the project, the belief that it will be worth it, and the commitment to whatever is necessary to make it succeed.
  • Perfectionism. There is no such thing as “good enough” in art, so the composer cannot rest until everything is exactly as desired. With incomplete work in the compositional process, the piece may not fully realize its potential; with incomplete work in notating the score or proofreading it, the piece may not communicate itself clearly to the performers.
  • People skills. Unless you are a proficient composer-performer, you need other people to play or sing your work. The composer must be persuasive and winning enough to convince them it’s worth their time to do this.
  • Administrative skills. Creating a score and parts, arranging rehearsals, booking venues, and communicating with all parties involved—the composer must stay on top of such things to ensure a successful performance.
  • Entrepreneurship. This sums up the previous two qualities. Composers cannot count on finding opportunities waiting for them in the world, so they must have the initiative and drive to create their own.
  • Knowledge of instruments. The ideal composer would be intimately familiar with every instrument, not only for its strict capabilities and limitations, but also for its idiosyncrasies, “sweet spots,” and hidden secrets. The goal is to write music that is not merely playable but strongly idiomatic.
  • Knowledge of orchestration. Having mastered the art of writing for each of the instruments separately, the composer must also study the most advantageous and rewarding ways to combine them.
  • Knowledge of music theory. Except for the few gifted enough to compose entirely by ear, composers must understand music theory to some degree before they can put pen to paper. The more you know about how music of the past was put together, the more aware you will be of how you are constructing your own.

Anyone who possesses all these qualities will undoubtedly have a successful career as a composer. They will consistently finish new works and hear them performed, likely to some degree of acclaim. Their services may even be in enough demand that they can make money from it. However, their music may be completely forgotten or neglected after their lifetime, when they are no longer able to arrange performances for it. There is no guarantee their work will have any influence on the larger culture or on the flow of other artists throughout history. To achieve that, one must be a “great” composer, not just “good”.

The list of requirements to be a “great” composer, however, is quite different:

Needed to be a Great Composer

  • Inspiration. A great composer must be passionate about something, which inevitably drives them to write music. The object of this passion can be internal to the music—a love for the notes themselves—or external—a love for an image, meaning, or story conveyed through the music. But the love must be genuine; no substitutes are accepted.
  • Imagination. A great composer must have a robust, vital, and fertile overflow of new ideas bubbling up and percolating down through their musical imagination. This is the only safeguard against repeating oneself, being forced to borrow from others, or becoming hackneyed or clichéd. Not all of these ideas will become the basis of a great piece, but the sheer abundance of them creates the fervid environment needed to incubate true creativity.
  • Iconoclasm. A great composer must have an ear for catching or inventing new types of musical materials which lie outside of, or even directly defy, existing modes of expression. They cannot rely on the solid, tried-and-true techniques, structures, or emotional affects, but always thirst to seek out the unexplored, the overlooked, and even the apparently impossible. Confronted with parched desert sand, they dig beneath the surface, deeper than anyone has dared dig before, and uncover a new well of water.

Obviously, only a tiny handful of human beings have ever even come close to possessing both sets of talents. The irony is that some lucky composers who were “great” but not “good” still managed to leave an enormous legacy. I think of Beethoven or Stravinsky, both of whom were infamous for their uncouth manners and blatant disregard for the limitations of their performers. Then there is Bach, who, whether through provinciality or humility, never managed to promote his music outside of his own town and was consequently forgotten for two generations after his death. Countless other composers ought, by rights, to have ruined their career through the opposite mistake of excessive self-promotion, and yet are still revered and admired today.

Thus, if you want to be a “great” composer, it seems it is actually not necessary to be “good.” But while all the traits required to be a good composer can be acquired and developed through hard work and practice, I know no way to teach or to learn inspiration, imagination, or iconoclasm. We can’t just throw up our hands and resort to the time-worn “myth of genius,” saying greatness must be inborn. But if it’s not, then how do you get it? Is it grown through exploration and wonder early in one’s childhood? Is it magically granted to you later in life while you’re pursuing something else?

But perhaps you “only” want to be a good composer. In that case, it seems you could still have a perfectly happy career and musical life without ever becoming great. This is some consolation for composers, such as myself, who may work hard to refine their craft and dream of being artistically influential but fear they don’t have the sine qua non to take that last, transcendent leap to greatness. But is it selling out to admit that I will never be great and set my sights on being “merely” good? Is it enough to work to the limits of my own ability, or do I have to go beyond them? I don’t know how to answer this question.

As a wise person once told me, “Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. But sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.”


5 thoughts on “Good vs. Great

  1. Some of your questions about greatness/how greatness is acquired made me think of the story of Elliott Carter’s development – how Boulanger basically saw him as an affable fellow and conscientious student with no talent, and was shocked when she heard his later work. I don’t think it was a case of “unrecognized genius” in Carter’s case, either; I think most listeners would agree that a work like “Pocahontas” is the work of a good composer, while the string quartets are the work of a great composer. So how did Carter make the switch? I think your question “Is it magically granted to you later in life while you’re pursuing something else?” could be pointing toward what really happened in Carter’s case. I’m inclined to think that things can grow very slowly in us over the years, and one day all the right conditions may come together to bring something “inspired,” “imaginative,” and “iconoclastic” to the surface. I also think perhaps we’re most likely to achieve this when we cease to try, or at least when we cease to try in a worried, end-gaining fashion (very difficult when one is in school…hmm, maybe that kind of “trying” was why Carter wasn’t among Boulanger’s “talented” pupils…).

    • Thanks for thinking of such a distinguished counterexample! I agree it’s very unlikely for an active student to achieve this transformation, because school always rewards “good,” but not necessarily “great.” Yet another benefit of finishing all possible levels of education as quickly as possible (oh wait… endgaining…)!

  2. Pingback: Composers: Selfish, Subversive, Socialistic… or Plagiarist? | deformingprisms

  3. Pingback: Composers: Selfish, Subversive, or Socialistic (or Plagiarist) | deformingprisms

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