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I am starting to learn about music theory and today it hit me how do classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven are able to write music for instruments they don't play, such as (for example purpose) timpani or trumpet.

Is it all music theory or just that they where such genius they could intuitive compose for any instrument?

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Many composers these days trained with the orchestration textbooks by Samuel Adler (himself an accomplished composer) or Alfred Blatter (among others); two classic texts on orchestration by famous composers of the past are those by Hector Berlioz and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. An important earlier source on writing for different instruments was the "Syntagma Musicum" of early 17th-century composer Michael Praetorius. – Andrew Cashner Jul 17 at 16:23
In his memoirs Berlioz gives the impression that he wrote music in some kind of ecstatic trance of inspiration; but the Symphonie fantastique, for example, features two harp parts, and writing well for harp requires you to know the harp's elaborate pedal mechanism. If you get a sheet of big orchestral staff paper you'll find that even just drawing in all the bar lines takes some time, and then there are all the transpositions for brass and wind instruments in different keys. This takes practice and depends on disciplined study of music by other composers. – Andrew Cashner Jul 17 at 16:31

5 Answers 5

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Why the past tense? How do classical (or rather, orchestral) composers write music? How does any composer write music for instruments they don't themselves play?

Although a composer doesn't necessarily need to be able to play an instrument to a high standard, they do need to understand the mechanics of the instrument, its limitations and capabilities. This isn't really a matter of genius, just of study and knowledge.

It's certainly not "intuitive" - it's learned.

Composers tend to collaborate with musicians and make changes based on their input. So, for example, they might give a score to a soloist, have them spend some time with it, then come back with feedback - "this part is impossible to play, how about we change it like this."

Haydn consulting with a musician

Nowadays composers can, if they wish, try multi-instrument arrangements out on a sequencer. It's still useful to be able to imagine how an arrangement would sound, and of course in the past that was the only way.

The archetypal composer sits at their piano; a very useful tool for trying out harmonies etc.

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It would also make a great deal of sense to write mini-arrangements before expanding them to full orchestral arrangements. For example, score a segment of your symphony for a string quartet, and have a string quartet play it for you, as a prototype for the final work.

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There are some studies which refute that - there are some naturally gifted individuals, but it seems that the "big ones" just worked incredibly hard! – Dr Mayhem Jan 26 '12 at 18:24
@DrMayhem I don't know why, but I can't believe that they were not gifted. IMHO they were gifted AND worked really hard, and that's why they're who they're. – Victor Jan 26 '12 at 20:18
Sorry - my wording was wrong. Yes I agree with you - I just separate gifted from genius level. Terminology difference. – Dr Mayhem Jan 26 '12 at 20:19
I think the archetypal composer does not sit at a piano. I think an archetypal composer sits at an empty desk with a piece of paper and a pen. There have always been composers that don't play piano. – Wheat Williams Jan 27 '12 at 6:08
@DrMayhem it's been said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration... – slim Jan 27 '12 at 10:50

One point I would make in addition to slim's excellent answer is that theory is more to explain composition, not dictate it. In other words, talented composers write the music they do because they are translating what they 'hear' internally, not because the rules of music theory tell them that this is 'right'.

Although understanding theory is certainly a short-cut to being able to perform this translation, having a masterful understanding of theory will not make a good composer.

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I am a composer and I agree with tpburch.

I am familiar with music theory but never studied it detail. Any good composer with a good ear will do a lot of those things naturally.

As a musician, I can figure out just about anything that makes sound and translate it accordingly.

Music theory or engineering won't teach you how to write good music. That all comes internally and we are just the translator or the vessel.

I believe many composers to have been gifted 1. The ability to hear a melody in their head and 2. Having a great ear to translate into existence.

Reading a book won't teach you to write great music. Listening to what's inside will.

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Music theory is very key here. By understanding how notes together create consonance and dissonance, it's possible to compose some music without even playing, but to do this effectively most composers trained their ears to hear pitches, or at least to hear intervals( examples hearing a C note or a major third in a song).To do this an understanding of counterpoint helps.Counterpoint serves as the origin for modern harmony, so it can be very helpful. Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner all studied Counterpoint from the same book, but that book is in latin and very expensive. While I could list a bunch of information here,Instead I'll give you some sources. look up counterpoint on amazon for books, or google 'Fux's counterpoint' (The book used by the said composers has been abbreviated some places) lastly, there is a youtube channel called 'artofcounterpoint' with some more information.

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Anyone can compose classical music the difference is what becomes a master piece and what not. There are plenty of boring/mediocre 'classical' composers & music even though the composers/critics may think it's not, yet when you ask someone who is the best composer the same names usually come out. Why? This is because they knew much about music in general including how to write it, how each instrument sounds like, keys & theory, etc... then you add a whole life time of experience and feeling it! and boom! you come out with a decent piece of music...

Think if you knew how to play guitar (or another instrument) you could come up with a small piece for 2 guitars or 4 guitars. If you are comfy in how they sound and each piece you could almost 'imagine' how 2 guitars would sound together although, many old composers had people that would come over (pupils even) that would play a piece just for a demo run. most composers like Mozart whom have a great imagination (which is one of the primordial keys) would write songs in piano or just writing the notes down, closing their eyes and 'hear' everything.

For the most part, the longest time in writing music for gifted composers is writing down what they already heard in their heads and its hard to do but not impossible. Think of a song you really like and close your eyes and attempt to hear it. Can you hear all of it or most? Well, same thing. Classical composers are just extraordinaire especially from centuries back because of the technology they had to work with and also because some symphonies have dozens of different instrument in different keys and voices!

It is rather insane when you think about it, but obviously doable. Also, music was a career. Hence you studied and worked your booty off daily and with so many musicians, you really had to be great in order to make it. Even the great ones struggled constantly, but they had music within their head constantly. Together with practice and theory and the drive to compose something great, you will hear symphonies. You can also build from templates in your head.


  • violin plays the key A (whole note), 4 bars: A......A.......A......./etc
  • now a couple trumpets play quarter notes in C: C-C-C-C,C-C-C-C,C-C-C-C/etc
  • now bring a viola and play E in half notes: E...E...E...E...E...E../etc

That probably sounds good enough and many would be able to 'hear' that in their heads. Now multiply that by a 100 if you are a decent musician and by 1000 if you were Mozart :D

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