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Creative Principles


1. Getting Started
2. Motivation / Dry Spells
3. Creative Principles
4. Helping Factors
5. Miscellaneous Concerns

FAQ Contents


How can I achieve more unity?

Resist the tendency to always create new material. Look back to what you have written previously and try to integrate and connect. In other words, draw your ideas from what you've already done.

I just added a new section to my work as dictated by my overall plan. Why doesn't it sound as if it belongs?

It could be that the new material does not follow what you previously composed. (This is a matter of judgment and experience.) However, this is usually due to sticking too closely to a preconceived idea or plan. Remember, your overall plan should be fl exible and responsive to the musical material itself. Your concept of the overall structure may change as your ideas develop. Furthermore, try not to get too attached to what you write. You should have no regrets about trashing two weeks of work if it doesn't come up to your highest standard. We should try to reach a balance between thinking everything we write is the "greatest" and being overly self-critical.

What is the "elements approach" to composition?

It's a very simple way of analyzing your own music as you compose. You take each element individually (pitch / register, rhythm / meter, timbre / instrumentation, texture, dynamics, etc.) and see how you've handled or controlled it.

How do you achieve a contrast between sections?

The individual movements and sections of a work should be clearly defined. When you finish a section and are preparing to start the next, consider each element of music separately and think about how (and if) you will make a contrast using that element. Consider delineating sections with some element other than pitch or rhythm. For example, a change of register produces an excellent contrast. A change in dynamics and tempo is always a reliable procedure. Consider the deep contrasts between the moveme nts of the Bartok Piano Sonata. The prevailing dynamic level of the outer movements is forte and the respective tempos are very energetic. The middle movement is very slow in tempo and mostly pianissimo. If you get a chance, listen to the piece. It works!

What about mixing musical styles in one composition?

Whether you mix styles or maintain a consistent one is a matter of personal choice, but you should do one or the other exclusively. If your work proceeds in the same style for 2-3 minutes, and then a new one appears for no reason, it will not be convinci ng. The context for the change is important. There are always any number of stylistic influences in a composer's work. However, in order to maintain integrity, it is better to establish limitations which will result in a unified style.

When do I stop revising and let a work stand?

This is a matter of judgment and maturity. Some do not revise enough. Others continue re-working the same piece for years. There is a point where nothing further can be learned from revising, and it is better to move on to a new challenge.

Bruckner revised his Ninth symphony, but today the original version is preferred. Brahms, on the other hand, knew exactly what to alter and what to let stand. Late in his life, he re-worked his youthful Trio in B Major, Op. 8. The changes to the first movement, particularly giving the cello the melody at the beginning, were an inspired improvement. However, he had the good sense not to touch a note of the Scherzo.

What are some general principals that I can follow?

You might want to keep the following in mind when composing:

How do I develop a personal style?

Don't place too much emphasis on being "original." A personal style develops after you have written much music. Seek and find the sounds your ear hears, but try for those which are fresh. Avoid cliches. Sometimes avoidance, which is another way of set ting limitations, will help you find a new approach. In the early 20th century, Schoenberg avoided the two most prominent musical characteristics of the previous era: reference to a tonic and a steady pulse. The Beatles took a similar route when creati ng their Sargent Peppers album. They avoided most of the then current trends in popular music. The result was an album with a variety of styles and genres instead of a single one.


- James Fry
- April 17, 1996

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