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Much has been said about the idea of a musical style. We can group composers of similar places and times together (e.g. the "Classical" style in Vienna), discuss groups of jazz musicians and how they improvised (e.g. bebop players), and even define a composer's individual style, as these SE people have done with Prokofiev.

When it comes to my own writing as a composer, however, I am at a loss. Lately I've been having a sort of composer's mid-life-crisis. I write and share things, and sometimes hear feedback like "this doesn't sound like you," or worse "this sounds like you're trying to compose like xyz composer." But it has all led me to this question.

As a composer, how do I define my own musical style? And, if I do indeed have my own style, how do I grow and develop into a more mature composer without writing in a new style?

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    Seems to me most of the greats have always started by copying others. It was certainly part of the training for pre-modern composers, and even folks like Copland with a very distinct sound had early serialist stuff. Every time you try to copy someone else and find yourself thinking "Except I'd do it like this," you've defined a piece of what makes you different than them. Oct 10, 2023 at 16:16
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    Also nb, many of the greats radically altered their style over time. Late Stravinsky is almost Romantic. Picasso had a "blue period." What about the Beatles—early, mid, late?! Take from the critiques whatever helps you and ignore what doesn't; let yourself explore new paths and if you don't like them, don't stick with them. Oct 10, 2023 at 16:20
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    This feels a bit the wrong way around to me. As a composer you write in the way that you want to write. And perhaps from that something like "your style" develops. You seem to be suggesting that you want to do it the other way by defining your "style" and then trying to ensure that you always write 'within' it.
    – JimM
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:34
  • Why do you need a style? What could be better than every piece you write being totally different?
    – PiedPiper
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:50

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One might say that personal style is a lack of creativity. Personal style is very much a thing of doing what you are used to doing, which is most likely what you are best at, but not necessarily a good thing. A versatile composer will be able to compose in many styles.

I am not saying that adhering to a specific style is a bad thing, but at the very least it is not a bad thing either not to do so — it might just be harder at times. What good is it if all your pieces sound so similar that anyone can say: Ah, yes, this is composed by nuggethead!

If you compose something you most likely have a motivation to compose it the way you do. Who are others to tell you you should not do so? Even if you do not notice it — you most likely do have a certain musical handwriting anyway. It is hard not to!

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  • "What good is it if all your pieces sound so similar that anyone can say: Ah, yes, this is composed by nuggethead!": Seems to work for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, ..., Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Arvo Pärt, Bruce Springsteen, ....
    – Aaron
    Oct 11, 2023 at 6:36
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    @Aaron I’m not claiming that great composers did not have their own style, I’m saying that having your own style is not necessarily something desireable.
    – Lazy
    Oct 11, 2023 at 8:54
  • It doesn’t quite come across that way. “Ah, this is by …” is considered a good thing. Maybe “ugh, more of the same from …”.
    – Aaron
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:31
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    @Aaron Look, I understand your concern, but I am not saying it is bad to be recognizable, but I am trying to say: It shouldn’t be your concern to be recognizable.
    – Lazy
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:17
  • I know what you’re trying to say. I don’t think you’re saying it as effectively as you could.
    – Aaron
    Oct 11, 2023 at 18:06
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Bluntly, you don’t. Personal style emerges over time and may or may not turn out to be unique.

In the meantime, one just keeps composing, experimenting, and studying. A distinctive compositional style or personality then either emerges or doesn’t.

And, of course, when people say something does or doesn’t sound like you, talk with them – maybe go through (listening to) the piece together – and ask them to help identifying what in the music formed their opinion.

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    Ringo Starr has left the chat. "Like few drummers before or at the time, he tailored his playing to each song. If drummers since him have done the same thing, it’s in large part because that’s his legacy as a player: the ultimate example of the drummer as servant to the music." quora.com/How-did-Ringo-Starr-learn-to-play-the-drums
    – Mazura
    Oct 13, 2023 at 17:42
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Although you can't entirely escape sounding like other composers since part of learning involves internalizing other music, by being authentic and truly inspired you can go beyond mere copying. Think of positive things people have said to you about you and your music that you identify with to describe "your own style" and try to keep going in that direction.

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