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History of my compositions and how I feel about composing a symphony

I have been composing music for years but it was mostly intermittent and studying music theory. Now it is more regular.

I have written pieces for solo piano, which I find easy because I am a pianist and I know my limits when it comes to speed and intervals(16ths at 120 bpm and I feel the burn from the note speed being 4x the tempo, octave is the largest comfortable interval I can play, though I do occasionally stretch to a 9th and I have noticed slow progress with 9th intervals(before, I couldn't play them at all, now I can play them occasionally especially with certain keys, but if a piece is riddled with 9th intervals, instead of stretching for every one(some I can't reach at all and I obviously don't want to injure my hand), I might like stretch for a few and do a pedaled arpeggio for the rest)).

I have written pieces for quartets which again, I find pretty easy because it is 1 family of instruments so I don't have to worry about clashes.

I have tried writing pieces for larger groups and even if it is like all strings, I find it a bit intimidating at first but then I soon realize:

Oh, so like 1 cello has a more melodic role than the other, so I might do alberti bass for the first cello and then longer notes like quarter notes in harmony with the alberti bass for the second cello.

But now I am getting into symphonic writing and I feel the same way I did with my fugue but on another level. Now I feel not only like I am lost within tons of possibilities but like:

Should I have a brass corale? How am I going to deal with the timbres of the instruments I use and avoid clashes unless I want to add drama(as if the key wasn't making it dramatic enough)? Should I have the flute(or whatever instrument) at forte or is that too much? After all, different instruments have different amplitudes at the same dynamic, not just by pitch but also from 1 instrument to another at the same pitch. Will writing for harp be like writing for piano with just a few tweaks?

So, how can I do this, writing my first symphony? I don't have access to orchestral musicians(nearest orchestra is I don't know how far, farther than my college though) and no matter how much research I do on the instruments or how many orchestration books I read and videos I watch, or how many pieces I have composed and how complex they have been, I still feel like I have to climb a huge mountain by myself with no equipment. I know, tons of composers have done this before, some even at young ages(such as Beethoven and Mozart). And Haydn wrote more than 100 symphonies in his lifetime.

But for a solo pianist who has only heard orchestral pieces, never written them, it feels super intimidating. Not only am I dealing with multiple melodies but multiple timbres as well.

How Beethoven fits into this

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When I feel like listening to a symphony, be it for inspiration or just to listen to it, I gravitate towards Beethoven, particularly his 5th symphony. Beethoven like brings me into the zone. Yes I may listen to Bach's fugues to see how Bach used counterpoint. Yes I may listen to Mozart when I am very emotional. Yes I may listen to Chopin when I am bored or to see how much emotion can come out of a single instrument(don't get me wrong, Beethoven also is very emotional in his piano works). But if I want to feel like I am in the zone or in my own world to either help me do my schoolwork faster or do something creative, I listen to Beethoven.

Years ago my inspiring composer was Mozart. I just found it so beautiful and the complexity of the piece being in simplicity unbelievable. It sounds so complex and yet I look at the music and it looks simple. Now my inspiring composer is Beethoven. Beethoven inspired me to compose my first piano sonata and it also made me wonder "What is it about Beethoven that brings me into the zone? What is Beethoven's style? I am thinking of doing sort of a neo-Beethoven, my own style but clearly inspired by Beethoven." I find that Beethoven's middle works are really where most of his pieces(such as his symphonies) blossom but his sonatas blossom early on, even his first sonata sounds just as much like his style as his 8th sonata or his 14th sonata.

I often reference a Beethoven piece when I am writing a sonata or trying to write a symphony. So for my first symphony(first complete one anyway, I did try to write a symphony years ago and felt like maybe I wasn't ready and maybe I should write sonatas first), I would reference for example the rhythm of the Fate motif or the pizzicato strings in bars x-y of z movement or the first entrance of a particular instrument or the grand pause before the second theme of the first movement where no instruments are playing for an entire measure before ending on a chord and the second theme starting.

It is like with Beethoven, he takes the length of a single theme to extreme length and has like sub-themes if you can call it that. I see this but to lesser extent in his sonatas.

So anyway, I have listened to Beethoven's 5th so much that I have a lot of the symphony memorized in my head and can like hum the entire first movement. I can even play the piano transcription, though the full speed is only with hands separate.

But even this still doesn't really help me in this situation. I have a clear goal in mind(a Beethoven-inspired symphony that still sounds like it is my style and not that of Beethoven), a clear set of instruments(Pretty close to what Beethoven used in terms of instrumentation), a clear starting key, lots of music theory knowledge, lots of instrument knowledge, lots of free orchestration resources, but feel like I don't even know where to start despite all this and all my smaller compositions. How can I overcome this huge obstacle and actually write a symphony?

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  • I suggest editing this WAY down and it seems like your question is, “how does one tackle writing an entire large work like a symphony?” There is a clear answer to that question, if that is what the essence of your question is. We definitely don’t need your personal compositional history. Commented May 8 at 0:08
  • 1) Many people find concerti easier to start with than symphonies, because you have the in-built contrast between the soloist and the orchestra. 2) Have you written chamber music for mixed ensembles (e.g. some strings and some winds or piano and other instrument(s))? Commented May 9 at 1:41

4 Answers 4

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Burden of choice. This is a classic problem for creative people. You can’t choose because there are simply too many choices. To fix this, give yourself creative boundaries that you can push against; articulate what the piece isn’t / what you don’t want / impose arbitrary boundaries. You can always change them, but you need to start with them.

3 ways people often write orchestral music: full score, short score, and piano score. For you it might make the most sense to start with a piano score, write the music, and then do your orchestration. Many of your questions / confusion seem to be Orchestration related and not composition related. So, why paralyze yourself before you begin? Create now, refine later.

Hope that helps.

PS Beethoven was a rough orchestrator and may not be the most wonderful model to aspire to.

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One thing that often can help with being lost in possibilities is to try to limit oneself. In fact, this helps in life as well. For example, maybe you want to write an essay about a traumatic experience, but don't know what to say. To limit oneself, maybe start with just one moment of the experience.

Anyway, I suggest starting small: Picking one idea, one motif, or maybe one restriction (a great example is that classical piano piece that only uses chord tones throughout), and developing it until you have a full-length symphony. By artificially narrowing the possibilities, you end up exploring a whole new set of possibilities.

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A few other thoughts to add in here:

You wrote:

Should I have a brass chorale? How am I going to deal with the timbres of the instruments I use and avoid clashes unless I want to add drama(as if the key wasn't making it dramatic enough)? Should I have the flute(or whatever instrument) at forte or is that too much? After all, different instruments have different amplitudes at the same dynamic, not just by pitch but also from 1 instrument to another at the same pitch. Will writing for harp be like writing for piano with just a few tweaks?

To this, I reply...

brass chorale Absolutely a fine choice. Remember that there are many, many possible chorales in the orchestra. You could use the double reeds (2 oboe, 2 bassoon), or the woodwinds, or the brass, or even just the horns or trombones. It's almost too many choices. So assuming you have access to some type of notation software that will let you hear what it might sound like, try this: (1) write a four-part chorale on the piano; (2) enter it into the software and play it back, using different sets of 4 instruments to try it out; and (3) experiment! There will be no one "right" answer and the best choice is the timbre of instruments you think fits the chorale the best.

How am I going to deal with the timbres of the instruments. Put simply, don't yet. As long as you keep each instrument within the middle of its range, decent players will automatically balance and blend to make it work.

avoid clashes Generally, clashes in your music occur when you have a wrong (or unintended note). For beginning writers they are often the result of many revisions. You might have one measure that was going to be a C major chord, but then you changed it to A minor, and then you decided if really sounded better as a F major chord... but one part was still playing an E from the original C major chord and it's now clashing against the F chord. It your piano chorale sounds clean and you've written for the middle of the range of the instruments, there aren't likely to be many clashes.

unless I want to add drama(as if the key wasn't making it dramatic enough)?. I can't think of a time where the key adds drama on purpose. With inexperienced players it will add a certain degree of wrong-noted-ness. But experienced players aren't likely to care much unless you get ridiculous (like writing something with 9 sharps...)

Should I have the flute(or whatever instrument) at forte or is that too much?. You might be overthinking dynamics. If you wrote NO dynamic markings a decent orchestra would make it sound decent. Even if you wrote a "loud" instrument (trombone) and a "quiet" instrument (flute, down low) at the same time, decent players would adjust. The bone player would perceive the flute and play a little under to let it come through. With large numbers of instruments playing, you can safely give everyone "f" dynamic and expect to have it turn out all right. Again, it helps to put everyone in the middle of their range for this to work. Are there particular details about certain instruments that are important to learn? Certainly. But for now you can let that part go. *After all, different instruments have different amplitudes at the same dynamic, not just by pitch but also from 1 instrument to another at the same pitch. *. Yes, but these are rather subtle differences that you don't need to worry about just yet.

Will writing for harp be like writing for piano with just a few tweaks?. No, not really. Harp is a very different animal than piano. Given that only a rather large orchestra is likely to have a harpist I would set this notion aside for when you have mastered a little more orchestration. Big things to learn about harp are how the pedals work, how the reach of the hand is different than the piano, and how quiet it really is. An hour spent with a patient harpist to show you and explain would be very well-spent, or many such hours with an orchestration text!

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I'm sorry to say but I'm pretty sure you are not as ready to write a symphony as you might think you are.

First off, regarding all this:

Should I have a brass corale[sic]? How am I going to deal with the timbres of the instruments I use and avoid clashes unless I want to add drama(as if the key wasn't making it dramatic enough)?

...

Will writing for harp be like writing for piano with just a few tweaks?

All these questions are about orchestration, which is part of composing, but also in many ways a separate art. Not having a grasp of orchestration is one piece of the pie that makes me think you might not be ready.

But let's get to the real question:

[I] feel like I don't even know where to start despite all this and all my smaller compositions. How can I overcome this huge obstacle and actually write a symphony?

I would say that if you were ready, you would know the answer to this question. I understand you know a lot of theory, and I'm wondering if you know forms (a part of theory). Once you fully understand classical forms, composing a symphony is much less intimidating.

One solid plan for a symphony:

  • 5-10 minute fast piece in sonata form
  • 5-10 minute slow piece in minuet and trio form
  • 5-10 minute piece in rondo form <- have fun with this one
  • 5-10 minute fast piece in either rondo or sonata form, or even better, rondo sonata form

And make all those short pieces either in the same key or in closely related keys, starting and ending in the same key.

If you've never written anything in sonata form, that's your next step. If you've never written anything in rondo form, that's another step on the path to a symphony. Do all symphonies use these forms in that order? Heck no, but that's one recipe for making something that anyone who knows classical music would say is a symphony.

Here's a recipe for a sonata form movement:

  1. Compose a 1-2 bar melodic motive.
  2. Turn the motive into a sentence.
  3. Use two copies of the sentence to make a parallel period and fill in the harmony. You are finished writing your P material.
  4. Fragment your motive and use sequence to modulate to the dominant key of the P period.
  5. Compose another 1-4 bar motive in the dominant key (if you like Beethoven, you might want to give this one a slower harmonic rhythm).
  6. Take the second motive directly to a parallel period and harmonize. This is the core S material.
  7. Repeat the S material but in a varied form, as if you're writing a theme and variations with only one variation.
  8. Write a transition (fragmentation, sequence, etc.) back to the P theme and repeat everything you just wrote (use repeat symbols for this if you don't want any chances). You've finished your exposition (and most of your recapitulation).
  9. Fragment both P and S and go wild with writing more material. Write diatonic and chromatic sequences from fragments. Move through several close and distant keys freely. Use the full suite of chromatic chords to explore the full potential of the P and S fragments.
  10. Modulate back to the original key and prolong the dominant chord for 2-8 measures before landing back on the beginning of P. You've finished your development and started the recap.
  11. Basically copy/paste your exposition (one repeat, not both) to your recap.
  12. Transpose S down to the tonic key.
  13. Rewrite the P to S transition to "modulate" from tonic back to tonic.
  14. Pick your favorite bit from everything before, transition to a bit of that centered on the dominant and stand on the dominant for 2-8 measures.
  15. PAC on the tonic.
  16. Optional coda.

If any of the terms I put into that recipe are new to you, then IMHO, you're not ready to write a symphony. If you can see yourself going through those steps without too much trouble, then IMHO you are ready.

Also, notice one thing about writing a sonata form:

You're only creating two original themes (P and S) - everything else is just "work".

To be clear, there's no reason why you couldn't do all that writing with a piano and then orchestrate from there. This is where you'd need to understand how to make orchestration decisions, but if you've listened to a lot of classical symphonies, you probably will find those decisions easier than you might think.

Regarding orchestration, you're definitely not ready to write for harp - it's one of the hardest instruments to write for. I'd suggest sticking with the exact forces Beethoven used in most of his symphonies. 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings. It's an ensemble that can sound big without being super difficult to orchestrate for.

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