I’ve created my fair share of music. I’ve written songs and composed contemporary concert pieces, including some songs.
Now stop and think. Does anything strike you about what I just wrote? I’m sure a few of you noticed that I said I “wrote” some songs but “composed” others. I often use the words “write” and “compose” interchangeably, but they’re really not the same. So, what, besides pretension, is the difference between “writing” and “composing” a song? While there are many arguments over the meaning of these words I tend to use the garage band test. I’ll demonstrate.
Let’s start with “Penny Lane”. It’s a pretty intricate song that helped usher in The Beatle’s psychedelic period. However, if we get rid of the Baroque trumpets and colorful orchestration we are left with a straight forward rock song. It’s pretty standard with verses and a chorus. A garage band could learn the words, melody and chords and make a pretty good go at it. If their keyboardist is any good he can even mimic some of the psychedelics. Of course the band doesn’t need to add the flowery flourishes; “Penny Lane” could sound great even played by a simple four piece guitar band. This rock masterpiece of pure genius was written, not composed.
Now we move on to Schubert’s “Erlkönig”. Although it’s pretty straight forward it wouldn’t be easy to reproduce unless you played it pretty much as written. The driving hoof beats and building tension are needed. The meaning is conveyed even without the voice: if you listen to Liszt’s transcription for solo piano you can make out who is singing, the boy, his father, the elf king or the narrator, just by the inflections of the music. A garage band can’t just learn the chords and bang it out without losing a good portion of the meaning, it has to be played note-for-note as written to be appreciated. Schubert composed this piece.
One thing you should note from the above examples is that a garage band can get the gist of a “written work” and make it sound good while a “composed piece” should be played exactly as notated. Confusingly, a piece that is “composed” is typically written out note for note while a piece that is “written” is not necessarily written out, and if it is written often only the melody and chords are spelled out.
When the great composers created music they planned the whole from beginning to end. The last note of a Beethoven symphony is determined by the first. Every phrase is created from those that came before. Nothing is left to chance. Every element, every note, has a purpose, a reason for existing. A reason, I should say, beyond simply “it sounds good”. The composer plans the whole before he starts. This is true for a classical composer, a composer of jazz and even a composer of rock or pop music.
We can extrapolate this to other arts. It’s not an accident that a photographer “composes a picture”. She spends a lot of time framing it just right, making sure the elements are there, checking the light, choosing an exposure that makes sense for the subject (shallow depth of field or deep?) and then takes a huge amount of time in post processing. Most people, even those who are pretty good with a camera, take “snaps”, off the cuff pictures that look good at the time. Leafing through a good photographer’s portfolio shows the huge difference between a composed shot and a “snap”.
A painter often spends time working with a subject before creating the final work. He might make studies of certain details and sketch out the whole picture to test the composition. This is true even of “plein air” artists and those who work with abstract concepts. Picasso made thousands of quick works but the masterpieces we all remember were studied and worked out in detail before he touched the canvas.
How can we bring this concept into world of writing prose? Obviously it isn’t just by following a known form. Most pop songs follow a form, usually the “song form” that includes intro, verse, chorus, bridge and outro, and yet they are usually “written” as opposed to being “composed”. There is nothing wrong with using a method or form, but that is not enough to call the process “composing a story”.
Like a composer of music, an author needs to have the whole concept before she begins. The author must write the first words with the last words in mind. Everything, every detail and every happening, needs to help drive the story to its conclusion. Word choices should be deliberate to fit the desired mood and further the story. As an extreme example you could write, “It was raining when he walked home, making him wet and cold,” or “The relentless monsoon-like torrents drove a wet coldness into his very fiber, a deadly bone-crunching chill which echoed his mood as he stormed his way home.” OK, that second version was so melodramatic as to be funny, but you should get the picture. I’m sure you could imagine a context for each of those two versions, a context were they would work, but you would have a hard time interchanging them between those contexts.
When we write, every word can contribute to the whole, even if the whole is over 100,000 words long. Every one of those 100,000 words should count just as every one of Beethoven’s notes count. Words make sentences make paragraphs to fill chapters creating books just like notes make phrases which make themes which determine transitions which work into whole movements. The entire structure is determined from a few words or a few notes. Of course you don’t have to try to compose your piece that carefully, at that atomic of a level, to be successful but be aware of it, know if you are “writing” or “composing”.
Be aware and do a “garage band test”. Take a section of the story and paraphrase it. Is the story still as effective or do the actual words and phrases add to it? Try this with smaller and bigger chunks. Listen for it and feel it. The words do not have to sing off of the page, but think of how they should be sung if they were. That being said you mustn’t let the actual words get in the way, as the over melodramatic example I used above most surely would in most stories. The words, though deliberate, should be transparent, creating the story but not the story itself.
There are successful writers who can tell a great story despite their words. That is fine and you may want to model yourself on these lucky few. As for myself, I want the words to flow from my pen with purpose and meaning, supporting structure and contributing to the whole. I wish to be one who composes with words, a composer of prose.
Score at top from the first page of the Hamlet Symphony