Write with purpose, compose with style

Everyone can compose. But not everyone can be a composer.

Sounds rather profound, but true. I’ve realized, and thought about it for quite a bit, as usual :) It’s funny to be thinking about such things, but I feel that there is a need for me to, in order to grow not only physically as a teenager, but as a musician who writes.

Writing music — virtually everyone can pick up a pen and start writing on manuscripts, and the result may even turn out to be wonderful, as long as he / she has a strong grasp of music theory knowledge (harmony, cadence, voice-leading, etc) concerned and yeah, a pen and piece of paper.

However, what differentiates composers from one another; or rather, good composers from composers, is the purpose that exists within the music that they compose. Music is a discovery, discovered in the very first place for a purpose. Everyone has different interpretations of this purpose of music. Similarly, when you are constructing your own music, you need to have a purpose in mind that you want to fulfill with your music. Same applies for performance — you need to know what you want to achieve in order for you to work towards it. Sadly, many composers today (especially amateurs) do not realize that their works have an important purpose, or commission, to fulfill. They write blindly. This is bad. I mean it.

Personally I myself also commit the mistake of writing unpurposeful music at times. However, when I’m aware of this flaw, I make sure that I write with purpose in mind. Then you ask, what “purpose” are you referring to? What “purpose” do you have to achieve with your music?

“Purpose” can be anything.

Be it showing certain notes can blend into certain melodies better than in other contexts, or to show the rich warm timbre of the mid-range registers of the cello, or even to show off technical virtuosity of the performer, all these are possible “purposes”.

But note, very carefully, that not all purpose have style.

Yes, “style” is subjective. What is good style / stylish to one may not be of good taste to another. That is in turn what makes music so interesting — the extreme differences in opinions, from one person to another. And this is also what keeps everyone still in the world of music — because there is just so much to do! You do something, others don’t like, you refine, and you come up with a revised something, yet others still don’t like, you continue. Many people are doing this, isn’t it?

I’m not generalising whether this is good or bad. What I just want to say, is that I still believe that as a composer, one needs to incorporate his / her own style into the music, and with discretionary regard for the influence of others. And the very good way to incorporate style, I’m saying, is through the musical purpose.

This also implies that a good composer should recognize his own style (can be inherent, or cultivated) and build upon it, refine it to make it strong and scenty. This in turn becomes a signature for all his works. However, a good composer should also, while developing a strong style, work towards developing a wide range of possible applications for that style, so that his works will have a wide variation of flavours and never fails to wow.

Putting “purpose” and “style” into context, think, what is unique to you, that others don’t have? A good gauge would be to reflect on your personality. Are you jumpy / softspoken / loud / humble / modest / poppy, etc? Search further deep down. What emotions do you relate to well? Sad feelings? Delight and joy? Look even deeper — who are you, really? Search your heart — are you really contented with life? I know it’s hard to fully materialize each of these notions, but by searching your hearts and examining the truest you, you can get a teeny-weeny bit of idea on your personality, and recognise your style. In turn, you can transfer this human element into your music, and your music will burn with lively passion.

People have said that my works show a consistent and strong style that is unique to me. Everytime I hear that, I try to qualify their statements — what exactly is that “style” that they are referring to? I realize that very often, they can’t exactly say out like cos I use certain notes, certain rhythms in my works, and that’s my style. It’s a blurry murky variable. In fact, more often than not, I get an answer along the lines of, “You can just feel it. I don’t know, but it’s just, your style.”

It’s good that I know that a strong signature exists in my works. However, now is also the ripe moment to bring this signature to greater heights, and refine it across various genres of works. Considering my previous example of my purpose to “show the rich warm timbre of the mid-range registers of the cello”. Maybe I’m writing for chamber strings, and I know in particular that I love thick layers of instrumental voices in my writing (strong influence by Bach’s contrapuntal style), but what is a little special for me is that the way I treat the layers is that each of them play “improvisatory” passages and somehow I can just make these passages blend in well altogether. It’s my style, so when I’m writing, I incorporate my style into the purpose — I write with extra careful emphasis for the cello line(s) by making its melody stand out from the already significant rest of the voices.

I’ll work hard. You know I will. Well, hello world, it’s time for purposeful writing and stylish (not stylistic) composition to take centre stage. So composers who write blindfolded, good luck to y’all.


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