I see many composers argue that one of the best ways to compose is with pencil and paper, without using an instrument.

What is the process for composing this way? Does one have to imagine a fairly solid fragment of a melody, a motif etc and write that down? Or, you just write one or two notes at a time and experiment as you go, akin to writing a body of text?

My questions are probably a bit abstract. I just find the idea of composing with no instruments, using only your imagination a great idea, but I fail miserably in it! The ideas in my head are hazy, and need insane amounts of concentration to come out. Also transferring anything to paper seems very hard, although I have trained my ears for years.

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    I would just like to point out that I'm not sure who the composers are that are arguing that pencil and paper is one of the best ways, but to me, that's entirely a matter of personal preference -- what works best for you. Some may hear best without the noise of an instrument. Others, like myself, prefer to play my ideas out loud as soon as possible. I don't know how to answer your question about what manual composition looks like, because I've never done it that way. I think the best way to compose is the one that works for you. – Kevin H Aug 28 '18 at 20:01
  • Given my experiences essentially composing with pencil and paper by inputting notes into Musescore (OK, fine, I also have Musescore playback and my singing voice), I don't think you'll get a firm answer to this. Close to any compositional process that uses an instrument can be done with pencil and paper instead. Being inspired by noodling around on an instrument? You can also be inspired by noodling around with the pencil and/or your voice. And figuring out the form and structure of a piece requires no instrument or pencil at all--just your mind. – Dekkadeci Aug 28 '18 at 23:53
  • De gustibus non disputandum. End of story. – Carl Witthoft Aug 29 '18 at 11:54
  • @CarlWitthoft - get out the atlas - I guess he's Greek, not Roman... – Tim Aug 30 '18 at 13:54
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    @tim :-) :-) . ok, then, Δεν αμφισβήτηση για τα γούστα – Carl Witthoft Aug 30 '18 at 16:03

Most of the people I know who write with just paper and pencil are old and have been composing for decades, starting before computer notation software for PCs existed. I do believe one can grow into it as one gets used to composing, but I don't think that a beginner is necessarily able to jump right in. Knowing the rules of counterpoint helps, and knowing how certain intervalic movement sounds helps (eg. if someone wants to use parallel fifths instead of following counterpoint rules).

I do a mix of both working at the piano and working without the piano. Sometimes, when I am trying to flesh out ideas and some harmonic movement, I still need the piano. When I am orchestrating or working on rhythm-related things, I don't. Whether or not I use the piano really depends on what part of the process of composition I am in. I currently cannot write completely away from the piano. Who cares? I only have time to be concerned about getting my own ideas down.

If I hear about a method someone else uses, I may try it. If it helps, it is useful. If not, I put it aside. There is no right or wrong way to compose, and each person has to figure out what works best. I personally find it extremely difficult to compose directly into computer software, so I am a pencil-and-paper (with piano and eraser, of course) until it is time to make the notation look pretty.

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    Spot on! Yeah, everybody must know for themselves what works best, but IMO one should definitely give everything a try before deciding. Far too many people can only compose on software nowadays, and in most cases this doesn't lead to great results – you get lost in orchestration details too early on (not even in a useful way, because the built-in synth anyway reacts different from a real ensemble), and it encourages copy&paste too much. There's nothing wrong with using piano or guitar for testing out harmonies however, the more experience one gathers the less it'll be needed anyway. – leftaroundabout Aug 29 '18 at 9:52
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    @leftaroundabout, what you say about orchestration is true, but no matter how one orchestrates that part has to be imagined in one's mind. The piano or the guitar will not react the same way as a real ensemble, either. The best we can do is imagine the attack and timbres of the instruments. The more real knowledge we have about the instruments, the better. Either way, our imagination should be able to override the effect we get from piano, guitar, or software. – Heather S. Aug 29 '18 at 10:17

First of all the composer needs to be able to hear music in their head, and know SMN well enough to know how to write their musical thoughts down. This isn't natural for most people but does come with practice.

But I interpret your question as one of why not use an instrument when composing rather than how can one compose without an instrument. One reason, in my opinion, is that when we go to our instrument we may restrict our ideas to only what we can play and not what we want to hear played. By composing on paper (if you can) you are unlimited. You can paint the landscape of our composition from a high level and fill in the details later. Whereas using an instrument can lead to noodling around and compromising on phrases that are manageable on the instrument. It's not just about the motif but also the supporting elements.

I think modern software can help with the process but it can also hold you back. In my experience managing the idiosyncrasies of s/w, especially w/r to timing, can make the process harder rather than easier. Hand written is quicker but the s/w will let you hear what you're doing right away. As Heather states, I also use a variety of methods. I'm not sure it is fair to defend the statement that pencil and paper is the "best method".

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  • I agree. These discussions over "what is the best way to compose" seem to me like mommy wars. Beethoven used a piano (not exclusively), even after he started to go deaf. He took the legs off and put the soundboard directly on the floor so he could feel the vibrations more. If he used a piano, so can I. Much of this discussion comes from 1) less tonal music and music more based on mathematical and motific or row manipulation, and 2) the rise in software. In centuries prior to the 20th C, I imagine this was not a real question. Today, it mostly means "pencil and paper" vs. "computer." – Heather S. Aug 29 '18 at 16:20

You don't have to be VERY old to have been working when pencil and paper was all there was, and the first time you heard an arrangement was at the recording session!

We had pianos, of course. And although some composers worked completely 'in their head', many more worked at the piano. This is a typical picture of a composer (Michael Fine) composing.

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What we're really talking about, whether the notes are pencilled onto paper or displayed on a screen, is the balance between writing what you hear and pure experimentation. I expect all of us who use notation at all could score 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' straight onto the page/screen without needing any trial and error. Could we all add a bass line? A counter-melody? Write an alternative harmonisation? If ALL of this has to be done 'trial and error', your musical skills could do with some work!

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Music is an art form, and no composer works in the same way: Some composers rely on an instrument and others do not while writing music. If we look at the composers who work without an instrument some (like e.g. Beethoven) works with a sound understanding of the rules of tonal music combined with clear imagination of how "this would sound". Other, more modern composers, compose using various "mathematical" principles, in some way disconnected from the notion on how it "sounds", but still producing magnificat works of art. I would argue that the most important part of composing it the ability to write parts for each instrument, not the way in which these parts have been comprended.

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