Mindful Composition

As a composer (and, I’m sure, in any creative endeavor), it’s extremely, deceptively easy to fall into a rhythm and habit and just write without thinking too much about it. We simply write what we think sounds like it should come next in that moment alone; where the melody “wants” to go. Often, this leads to a very natural, effortless style of music that flows out of the composer as if it just had to. But sometimes, before too long, this begins to make the music stale, repetitious, generic. Like we’ve heard it before. Lifeless. Almost too easy. Lacking in energy. The audience can sense that there’s just something missing from the music, and the composer might feel conflicted—they felt so good composing it, and yet now that they’re hearing it in this context, something just isn’t working.

So how can a composer overcome this tendency to fall into habit?

The answer, I think, is mindfulness.

With every note a composer writes, they need to approach it with a sense of adventure, playfulness, openness. “Should this melody really descend now? Should it descend by this much? Should this note last for this long? Perhaps this needs to be a fermata? Perhaps this needs to be a measure of 7/16? Perhaps the harmony needs to begin a 12-tone row? Maybe this instrument needs to just sit out, and the accompaniment needs to just hold its note for a few more seconds while the drums pound out that ostinato?”

Certain paths can probably be discounted more quickly than others, but don’t rule anything out immediately. Give it a chance if you haven’t considered it before. And even if you have, maybe that idea in that other piece that you thought was absolute trash might bring the piece to life in this context. Maybe you don’t need to repeat this chord progression or this melody. Maybe your song doesn’t need a chorus. Maybe your piano sonata doesn’t need to recap the primary theme after the retransition.

Remember that section that just flowed out of you without a care in the world last week? Revisit it. Make sure it’s really what you want it to be. Maybe some of those arpeggios can be changed around? Maybe they don’t need to be arpeggios? Maybe the melody should leap up an octave right there? Maybe it’s perfect as it is, and it really was a magical fluke of a moment where you just spewed out this fantastic creation after weeks of tormented overthinking.

The point is, be aware of your creative tendencies. Allow them to be, but be aware of when they might not be actually helping you. Try pushing them in unexpected directions. This is how we grow as creative individuals—by allowing ourselves to leave our creative comfort zones and give some wild ideas a try. Even if they remain wild (or even outright horrendous), you never know when you’ll find something amazing in a pile of garbage.

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