I am (mostly) a programmer, so I usually understand complex things.

What I find difficult is to understand the work of a (music) composer. He needs to write the exact "songs" of each instrument in the orchestra, the "songs" of each character (in case of an e.g. opera), for each "voice" in the choir...

How can / does the composer manage the complexity?

Sorry if I used the wrong words. If they do not make sense, please ask and I will clarify.

  • Have you tried using the search function on this site? There are a lot of questions on composing which likely already answer your questions - music.stackexchange.com/questions/71619/…, music.stackexchange.com/questions/11601/…, music.stackexchange.com/questions/51633/…, music.stackexchange.com/questions/12180/… – Brian Towers Aug 31 '20 at 6:49
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    I think it starts with memorising music - developing from simple to more complex. Imagining follows. Early versions of say a symphony may be written as if for piano and orchestrated later. At the orchestration stage the composer will write the score, which has all the parts for detailed reference. – Peter Aug 31 '20 at 7:29
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    @Peter: that is the direction which interests me. It actually partially answers my question. Ideally, you could go a bit into the details of the "orchestration" stage. Not really the part with writing the score, but "branching" the piano part into the various parts for the instruments (to use your example). – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 10:07
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    If you compare with programming, you have to keep some in your head, but other parts are written, either finished or awaiting more work. Some composers work at a piano; others write it down and check it later. The genius was Beethoven who wrote so much great music after he was deaf. – Peter Aug 31 '20 at 13:57
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    There is a distinction between composition (simplifying it to melody, harmony and rhythm) and orchestration (aka arranging) which is writing parts for instruments to execute the composition. – No'am Newman Sep 3 '20 at 5:15

I take it that this is a general question about how composing music works. You are not asking for a ready to go method for you to practice it yourself.

I wanted to post this as a comment, but the story is too long.

The question inevitably leads to a discussion or at least a very long list of considerations. I feel that you are mostly interested in an explanation that you personally can imagine. But some composers do seem to work with a strike of genius, something you say you are not interested in. Composers do or did exist who can manage all information at once. But other great composers were probably always struggling, working very hard to get to a satisfying result. Compare it to a painter. One may have a complete picture in his mind and know exactly what materials and colors to use right away. Someone else might just start with an empty canvas and put paint on it and see how it works out. Yes, a symphony can start as a piano piece which is then branched into different instruments. But it could just as well start with the composer thinking about certain instruments and using the piano piece as intermediate.

Then you say you are not interested in technical stuff like notation. Reflect this on your programming experience and see how it sounds. Notation and the accompanying language represent possible building blocks and rules in the creation process. But ok, in art, as far is i know, it is fully legal to ignore them.

So there are many answers to your question, it is up to you which ones you like the most, but in general very different approaches of composing will turn out to be equally valid. Better still: all methods are allowed at the same time, that's the fun of it!

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    +1 Wow! What you wrote is so interesting, that I pretty much would like you to write more, so I can read more :) The parallels to painting and programming were very useful. And the "not interesting" stuff seems to become interesting now. Even though I do not see myself composing anything any time soon. – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 13:49
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    A composer who is not interested in "technical stuff" like notation is like having a programmer who is not interested in "technical stuff" like keywords and syntax. One needs to have a little foundation from where to build a composition, even if it's just a few notes... – slickdeveloper Sep 1 '20 at 18:13
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    @slickdeveloper: you completely misunderstood the question. 1. I am not a composer, and I will not be one in the foreseeable future. 2. I am interested in "technical stuff", but not in the context of this question. – virolino Sep 2 '20 at 5:19

Your question is really too broad. But a few things that might help you understand how the complexity is "managed..."

  • "Classical" style harmony is normally based on three tone triads or 4 tone seventh chords, these 3 or 4 tones may be duplicated at the unison or octaves but the harmony is "managed" abstractly as a reduction to the 3 or 4 unique tones to make a chord.
  • Some music - contrapuntal music like the fugue - isn't strictly chord based, but the number of "voices" used in such music is typically 3 or 4.
  • In chord based music (homophonic) the 3 to 4 tone chords are played from "parts", the parts are bass, melody, and inner voices (tenor/alto.) These parts have unique roles and there is only one bass part.
  • based on the above a large ensemble like a symphonic orchestra can have dozen of players but on a abstract level all of that reduces to a small number of parts to manage.
  • A similar abstract reduction can be done regarding melody. A passage of music many have many, many notes played with fast rhythms, but some of those notes can be regarded as decorative and subordinate to structural harmonic notes.

I have oversimplified a lot of things, but from those few points I think you can understand that music works with levels of abstraction. Composers manage the complexity of music - at least in part - by understanding those abstraction layers.

By analogy you might think about abstraction and software layers. You might have a private function like myGet(url) which uses a built-in like file_get_contents() which eventually uses a socket and at some point might handle ascii/hex/binary date, etc. You understand all that stuff, but you don't think about all of it all the time.

  • Very good explanation. Hierarchical building blocks make absolute sense. And the comparison with programming is great also. Thanks. +1 – virolino Sep 3 '20 at 5:46
  • @virolino, you might read an overview of Schenkerian analysis where something as grand as a symphony movement can be reduced to essentially a cadence! – Michael Curtis Sep 3 '20 at 13:35

Music is art. An artist is supposed to create, not just copy, repeat, or imitate. There is no point in making anything that already exists. Please image-google "graphic score" and behold what can be done without any standard technical stuff whatsoever. I think it's pretty interesting.

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    How is your answer related to my question, please? I do not get your point at all, unfortunately. – virolino Sep 2 '20 at 5:21
  • My answer was first meant to add something to Draakhond's, then took the shape of a comment to slickdeveloper's comment, then was accidentally posted as a separate answer anyway. Sorry about the confusion! --- My point is: when composing you don't need to be correct in every detail from the start. You are free to experiment with the general shape, not worry about mistakes, and play around with the components later. The complexity you mention is not a problem, it is the result of your total freedom! The only law is that you like the result. – Zaaikort Sep 2 '20 at 6:56

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