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Composing at or away from an Instrument


There has always been some debate over whether it works better to compose music at one’s instrument, or to compose in one’s head away from the instrument.  Some composers such as Beethoven






and Stravinsky famously preferred writing at the piano.  Meanwhile, other great composers have found writing in their head to lead to higher quality composition.  There are benefits and drawbacks to each method, and each composer should weigh which one suits his or her own writing style.


Composing at an Instrument


Writing at an instrument such as the piano provides direct contact with the sound.  This has several benefits.  First, it can help to bring out or shape certain sounds or styles.  For example, trying ideas on a saxophone might inspire the composer towards more melodic writing.  Or writing at the piano could help organize or structure the music, before orchestrating the idea and writing for other instruments.  Second, playing at the instrument allows the composer to make use of his improvisational skills, which in turn provide usable material for pieces.  Third, writing at an instrument can sometimes be necessary especially in modern music, due to the complex harmonies.  However, one downside is that if the composer does not have proficiency at the instrument, he might still not be able to play and hear his ideas.


Composing away from an Instrument


Many composers and instructors recommend the approach of composing away from the piano or any instrument.  For example, Shostakovich and Prokofiev often felt that composing away from the piano led to higher quality themes and ideas.  Other composers such as Bach and Mozart would often compose music completely in their head, arranging and organizing the works on paper.  Many jazz musicians as well have found that writing in the mind can take their music to a different level.


What are the benefits of this approach?  It allows the composer to focus solely on the music, without being influenced by habitual patterns on a piano, guitar, or other instrument.  The composer can develop a strong impression of a musical idea all by itself, not covered up by instrumental technique or patterns.  Instead of directing energy towards the performance aspect, he or she can pursue inspiration and creativity from the world at large.  The composer can take a walk in the hills, sit in a café, or watch people on the street—and these could lead to ideas of melodies and emotions to express which are completely different from what might arise at the piano.


In the end, each individual composer will want to experiment in general and for specific pieces as to what method works best for him or her.  Many composers find a combination of the two works well.  The will consider an idea in their mind and form a strong impression, and then go to the piano to hear how it sounds and for refinement.




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