Musical Motivation

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.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

9 thoughts on “Musical Motivation

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  3. Mark J D

    This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read. Not least because you’ve taken the Schoenberg quote away from its context and used it to mean something it wasn’t supposed to mean.

    You say:
    ‘Arnold Schoenberg perpetuated this sensational image, calling his music “a subconsciously received gift from the Supreme Commander.”’

    In fact, what Schoenberg is discussing (in the essay ‘Composition with Twelve Tones’ [1941]) is merely *the presence of contrapuntal devices and other operations within and between musical phrases*. He has analysed a passage from Beethoven’s Op. 135 in such terms, and is about to present a discussion of two themes from his own Op. 9 Kammersymphonie which he believes to be related by similar means.

    He says:
    “Whether or not this device was used consciously by Beethoven does not matter at all. From my own experience I know that it can also be a subconsciously received gift from the Supreme Commander.”

    Clearly, by ‘it’, he means ‘this device’: he wants to explain that ‘this device’ may be ‘a subconsciously received gift’. This is *not* equivalent to a statement that ‘his music’ is ‘a subconsciously received gift’.

    Schoenberg’s original article can be seen here:


    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Schenker (1894) cited in Nicholas Cook, “Playing God: Creativity, analysis and aesthetic inclusion,” in Musical Creativity: Multidisciplinary Research in Theory and Practice, eds. I. Deliège and G.A. Wiggins (New York: Psychology Press, 2006), p. 11.

      1. Nicolas Meeùs

        Thanks for the reference, which shows that Schenker’s quotation too was taken out of context. Schenker writes (my translation from the German):
        “There exist in the music literature works which originated so that through the endless chaos of fantasy, 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 received and born at once and in their first seed the whole fortune of the creation was predetermined with certitude, life, growth and end. There came this flash and the creation was there, for sure stark naked, but firmly formed. On the majority of the works of art, there remains some dust of reflection, on the true masterworks so little that even the most understanding hearers hardly perceive it, on the other works on the contrary way too much, way too evident.” He further discusses whether and how the performer should remove the “dust of reflection”, and he compares in this respect Eugen d’Albert with Anton Rubinstein. This is a very specific context, and a rather complex statement.
        Schenker, for sure, believed that the highest level of musical creation was accessible only to the genius. Yet he states here that even the masterworks, born in a flash, are still “stard naked”, and the whole point of his further theoretical work, until Free Composition in 1935, was to show how tonal elaboration could dress the naked work.
        The original German can be found here: Note that d’Albert’s own “Lebenskizze” is on pp. 31-32 of the volume and that Schenker’s paper is titled only “Eugen d’Albert”. The faulty reference is in the “Heinrich Schenker” article on Wikipedia, probably also in Nicholas Cook.

      2. jlfriedmann Post author

        Thanks. Cook got the citation right. I am guilty of copying and pasting it from another source.

        I respect your loyalty to context, but there was a larger Romantic context in which such statements were made, even if they applied to specific situations/works. As you note, the statement reflects a view widespread at the time of the inspired genius.

        Here’s what Cook has to say:,+at+once+illuminating+and+creating+the+entire+work+in+the+most+dazzling+light.+Such+works+were+conceived+and+received+in+one+stroke.%22&source=bl&ots=WdwOMj46HY&sig=oFD2mNkFB7DQXbGvl2BbPmQEKqE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=PuohUqe9BuazigLbwYGoCQ&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22The%20lightning%20flash%20of%20a%20thought%20suddenly%20crashed%20down%2C%20at%20once%20illuminating%20and%20creating%20the%20entire%20work%20in%20the%20most%20dazzling%20light.%20Such%20works%20were%20conceived%20and%20received%20in%20one%20stroke.%22&f=false

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