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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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3 Answers 3

up vote 19 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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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. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Music_Theory/Counterpoint/Species_Counterpoint/In_Two_Voices 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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