Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Motivation to compose music is often portrayed in spiritual terms. A flash of inspiration consumes an abnormally gifted individual. A supernaturally selected musician channels a mysterious surge of energy. A person becomes possessed by cosmic sounds, which find their way onto the manuscript page. Melodramatic depictions like these were promulgated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and continue to influence how we think of the music writing process. Composition is viewed as an inaccessible and unlearnable art. It is the endeavor of a chosen few, who have been blessed by fate and deemed worthy by the heavens above.
In case these characterizations seem exaggerated, let us look at a couple of actual examples. Music critic and theoretician Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) wrote this of a compositional moment: “The lightning flash of a thought suddenly crashed down, at once illuminating and creating the entire work in the most dazzling light. Such works were conceived and received in one stroke.” Arnold Schoenberg perpetuated this sensational image, stating that musical inspiration can well up as “a subconsciously received gift from the Supreme Commander.”
Such statements are faulty for at least four reasons. First, they imagine music as materializing out of thin air. Without preparation or hesitation, the composer sits at the piano and lets the opus pour forth. But anyone who has improvised music or jotted down a melody knows that it involves practice, forethought and trial and error. Moreover, most composers write within generative musical systems, which provide structures and formulas to draw upon. Their motivation is exposure and experience, not divine direction.
A second and related issue is the false notion that composition cannot be taught, learned or acquired. Romantics and their ideological inheritors willfully ignore that composition has many prerequisites: listening, studying, performing, reading, etc. Rather than a skill bestowed at birth or received through revelation, music writing is available to anyone who has the desire, discipline and determination to do it.
Third is the elitism implicit in the mystical view. Almost without exception, writings about the inspirational muse involve composers of Western art music. It is their music that cannot be replicated. Classically trained musicians like Schenker and Schoenberg acknowledged that folk music and other popular forms exist in wide variety. But, for them, the homegrown-ness and abundance of such music indicated its worldly origins, and made it less than the rarified creations of “high culture.” The bias of this view is too obvious to warrant comment.
Fourth, most of the world’s music has practical aims. The impulse to compose is more likely to come from necessity than artistic urge. The many functions of music range from instruction and storytelling to work and exercise. These “mundane” motivations have proven strong enough to generate the majority of music ever heard.
And then there’s the revealing statement from Cole Porter. When asked what stimulates him to write, he responded: “My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a producer.”
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