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Examples: Masses/Requiems (Bach, Mozart, Schumann), Scriabin's Mysterium etc.

When I had to write simple four-voice chorales for music theory, I struggled to keep track of all the voices - how is it even possible to know what you are writing sounds like? This is under the assumption that 1) no perfect pitch 2) not at a piano to test chords as you write.

Of course, you write down the chords at the bottom of the staves in roman numerals, but still, it makes my head hurt. Did these composers write down chords in roman numerals as well? Especially for polyphonic works (Bach) - how do you know if the "clash" from suspensions etc are correct? In "Gloria" from Bach's b minor mass, I noticed how when the woodwinds play the opening theme, all four voices are playing distinct "accompaniment". How? That's half a dozen independent voices to keep track off.

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  • If you analyze orchestral music you’ll find in many cases that there are usually at most four distinct notes being played, discounting separate octaves. Especially in the classical period a lot of four part voice leading is pretty much how a symphony is composed, merely with the different voices doubled on different instruments to create the sounds and textures. Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 3:52
  • For what it's worth, give yourself a fair chance - those are some high-falootin' composers. Stiff competition for the likes of us SE plebs!
    – user45266
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 5:52

2 Answers 2

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Short answer - genius. It takes amazing skill to know when you have too little or too much going on at one time. Some rare geniuses, like Mozart, appeared to just spill it out more or less in its finished perfect form. I believe Bach was like that too. Others had/have to work harder and longer on perfection.

When it comes to hearing what you intend and knowing how to write it, a wonderful example is Britten. He forbade his composition students to 'try things out' on the piano. He insisted they know what they are trying for and accomplish it without use of the piano. That's certainly how he composed.

No one was better at writing multiple voices that miraculously come together to form something even greater than JS Bach. There are examples of incredible clashes in his writing that look terrible on paper but that are all the more amazing when heard. He broke the rules with unique and wonderful results.

Stravinsky wrote for huge forces but his genius enabled him to create extraordinary soundscapes with just the right amount of activity on the score. His scores can look terrifying, but the result speaks for itself. It takes genius to control and mould these huge forces.

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The brain mirrors sounds it knows well. If I lose my voice, I won't have trouble reading and imagining how words sound.

In my own experience, when I'm really composing a lot, I find that I can really hear the sounds in my imagination, like that famous scene in Amadeus. Some people are like that all the time-- for me it's only when I've been working hard, and probably about 20 cups of coffee into the process. :D

Me when my composition homework was due:

This is literally the movie moment that made me go into music school. I had to practice piano 8 hours a day to get in, and in the end they made me a theory major anyway. Best failure of my life!

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  • Wait, what? People write stuff they don't hear in their head? How does that work? For sure you start out with something in your head, no?
    – Creynders
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 9:38
  • There's a difference between having ideas about musical relationships, and hearing them as instrumental sounds. Some people can always do this-- for me, it's the hint of an idea of sound most of the time.-- and actual, full audio only very rarely. Truth be told, it mainly happens when I'm half asleep, and a few times younger when I was drugged, especially with LSD. If any of us-- anyone at all, in my opinion-- could achieve the status of a lucid dream but while conscious, we would at that moment understand what real genius is. Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 9:49
  • So, if I understand it correctly then, it's rare that someone hears (original) music in his head, specific instruments and all? I mean I do. All the time. I just don't have the knowledge to get it on paper. But I think I misunderstand you.
    – Creynders
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 10:11
  • It depends what you mean by hear. By "hear," I mean actually hear, as though by your ear-- exactly like Mozart in the video clip I linked. That's very rare for me. If it's something that you can do all the time, then you're potentially a few months of theory study away from being the world's next musical genius. How I normally work is a kind of half-hearing abstraction of musical ideas-- enough to figure out what parts I want to write, but not enough to know for sure that the instrumentation is going to come out right before I run through it. Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 10:59
  • Well, genius ... I never said I heard GOOD music! :-) Kidding aside, I'm definitely not a genius. But yes, exactly like in the video clip. E.g. I "think" about a melody line and I hear it on the violin for instance or then I drop it an octave and hear it on the cello. Next I start hearing the double bass, going in staccato strides. Or just smoothly rumbling underneath. Then suddenly a high, clear trumpet note comes through, accentuates that high note in the melody. The problem is: I can't really find structure in it. Sometimes patterns arise.
    – Creynders
    Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 12:40

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