Me again, I have a question.

I have a question that I suspect someone here can answer.
My question is how did someone like Beethoven write his symphonies? I don’t mean him specifically but any composer of that or any other era. Did he write the notation of what he heard in his head or his imagination. Obviously without the benefit of any recording devices or even the possibility of an orchestra to say ‘Let’s see how that sounds’ Was what he was writing the orchestral sounds that he heard in his head? If so, once he’d laid down the basic theme/melody etc, did he then think ‘Lets put the strings/brass/percussion whatever, just here and see how that sounds’ How did he write it so that someone 200 years later could see it and say ‘Oh, This looks interesting, let’s try it with the 100 piece London/Berlin/Vienna symphony.’ So, are we hearing it as he did?
In other words are we hearing what Beethoven heard in his head as he wrote, the full orchestral score or was it just an outline? He was deaf so that was obviously a problem for him, but how about List, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert etc. How did they write their music?
Someone here must have some thoughts on this or at least know of the website or book that has the answers, please respond.

Is this what he was hearing?

29 thoughts on “Me again, I have a question.

  1. Well, if composing ‘on the fly’ (i.e. improvising) is not subject to any element of chance, doing it deliberately certainly won’t be! (Joke.)

    I can’t help feeling that the great composers heard large passages of their music (almost) fully-formed and then wrote them out on manuscript paper. There must also have been times when they tried things out on, say, a piano and altered their original ideas or developed new ones through improvisation. There are, of course, plenty of examples of composers using existing folk tunes and developing orchestral pieces from them; such a process must have involved elements of trial and error, I should think. I’m tempted to say that, until you get near to the twentieth century, there were many musical conventions that would guide acceptable harmonic development, lending the process a set of basic rules that have now been reduced in importance. When playing the ‘devil’s interval’ might get you despatched to Hades, for example, you probably avoid putting it in your music, particularly if you’ve been commissioned by the Pope.
    I have no idea how you compose music when you’re deaf. Vast experience and huge confidence in your own abilities are vital, I would imagine. A touch of genius probably helps.

    • Chris: You’ve basically summarised my thoughts on the subject but I’m overwhelmed by the idea of creating the entire piece in your head with not much other than a piano to guide you. Take Beethoven’s 5th, I’d be impressed were it done today with access to computers, recorders, printers, samplers etc. This thought has long intrigued me and I don’t know enough music theory/history to understand it and I don;t even know how or what questions to ask. Ideally I’d like to talk to a composer/historian and ask about how they do it. What specifically intrigues me is the nuances between violins and violas, the variety of effects possible from the woodwinds, how themes recur and how tempos change etc. That one man can visualise and write all this down for a piece lasting over an hour is mind boggling! You were my first thought and I was initially tempted to ask you directly but then I thought it might trigger some interesting chat if posted at the Spill. So thanks for the input, if you know of any websites that deal with this stuff that would also be appreciated,

      • There’s a chap called Howard Goodall who’s made several music history/analysis TV programmes. I feel vaguely that he’s tried to explain the process etc at some time. His website ( may provide a starting point.

        There is something odd about musical brains. Bach worked it out mathematically, Mozart could famously reproduce any music after one hearing (and then make it better!), Messiaen composed in colours, etc etc. Just because we find their talents incredible doesn’t mean they weren’t real.

      • Oh, I should just point out the folly of taking my word about music theory, gf. I can barely read notation and have no in-depth knowledge of the classical repertoire. I’ve just picked up some ideas in the last 50 years.

  2. It’s somewhat less complex music, but Brian Wilson famously claims to hear the whole song in his head, including all the instruments and every nuance…..of course he sent himself mad trying to re-create these complete compositions, but maybe he didn’t have the training and discipline of the great composers and did have access to far too many drugs!

  3. First off, Beethoven became deaf, he wasn’t always without hearing.

    I think that we need to understand that composition builds upon what has been written before and uses existing structures, like the well-known sonata form, whereby a theme is introduced, goes through what is called the exposition and then developed and finally there is a recapitulation of the theme.

    Also, when you are writing tonal music, in a key, there are rules about which complementary keys can be used, Even in atonal and 12-note music there are rules about how tone rows can be constructed and what you can do in terms of inverting the row etc.

    There are also rules around the use of counterpoint, fugue and other musical devices.

    So, even before you think about inspiration, there are rules to follow and basic forms to utilise.

    Inspiration probably comes from many places, the French 20th century composer Olivier Messaien famously drew inspiration from birdsong.

    I’d suggest that for someone working within the 18th century classical tradition, inspiration would have come from playing around with scales on a piano or harpsichord (in the earlier period).

  4. Chris: I’ve had a quick poke at Howard Goodall and I’ll return there, I always had that feeling about Bach, there seems to be a recurring precision in all his stuff that seems as though there’s an equation running somewhere. I’ll take my chances re. your reading notation etc, I also have little real knowledge about the classical repertoire but there’s quite a few names and pieces that I love; my current obsession is Mahler’s 9th by Simon Rattle, I’ve played that several times in the last couple of weeks.
    Panther: That’s the sort of thing I’d like to know more about, I’ll see if Google/Wiki can help.
    Carole: I understand what you’re saying but my main query is what did all these blokes hear in their imaginations, if that’s the right question. Did the finished product play in their heads? I think it must have but it’s totally beyond me to understand that process.
    Thanks all for the input.

    • I think it is impossible to imagine what they heard, GF. Perhaps they heard a melody alone to start off and then the thing began to unfold in their minds in an orchestrated form?

      I think that when you go back before the period of the First Viennese School (i.e. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) then it is more of a case that the musicians were bound by form and that the melodic ideas were then fitted into the rules. Interestingly though, in the Baroque, although there were rules about things like counterpoint, the basso continuo, what we might think of as the rhythm section, was largely improvised by the players, using their experience and knowledge of scales. In the Baroque you also had a lot of use of dissonances and other things that gradually became part of the musical language, but tied up with strict forms that are almost mathematical in their structures.

      Things really started to loosen up after Beethoven, though, most definitely after about 1850 and up to around 1900, where you start to see people like Liszt, Wagner and Mahler paving the way for the musical revolution of the Second Viennese School and the huge changes of the 20th century.

      I find the evolution of orchestral music fascinating, but I still have no idea how a composer finds ideas and develops them.

  5. I agree with Carole here- composition has generally been an iterative process, not something first fully formed, then set down. There might be a flash of inspiration, but a composer then sits down and works out the filling according to the conventions of the time and the genre.
    For Beethoven’s fifth, Leonard Berstein’s famous analysis is interesting as he looks at sketches which Beethoven explored and cast away. So that implies a process of “Trial and error”.
    Also, analysis of Beethoven’s entire work shows that, as he first started to go deaf, his music became increasingly restricted to the tones he could hear; the upper registers dropped out of his work. That implies he needed the acoustic feedback. Later on when he was completely deaf, the high tones returned- here he was obviously using his “inner ear”, and freed from acoustic dependence. Study by the BMJ here-

    One interesting portrayal of the composer’s art is in Kieslowski’s three colours-blue. Julie experiences small epiphanies which she then works into the parts of her concerto, which reflects the idea of composing being an iterative series of gestures which are then completed through rigour and discipline.

  6. Carole/Nilp: Thanks to both of you for those comments, it’s falling into place and the Bernstein link looks great plus the video. I’d totally forgotten/overlooked ‘Blue’. I need to see that again.
    This morning I realized that I cannot ‘play’ a piece of music in my mind, I can remember it, think about it, vaguely remember how it goes but I can’t listen to it internally which is what I was assuming the composers were doing. As Chris said musicians are odd with their musical brains and a spot of genius comes in handy.

  7. I can recreate most of Kind of Blue, for example, or In a silent way mentally, but I’d never be able to “transpose” them or sing the various parts even if I had the musical aptitude- they are way too vague. So it’s really just my memory recreating the experience of what I’ve heard so many times. The creative impulse seldom, I think, turns out “finished product”- in our design work for example we will establish some guiding principles and then work these into the scheme bit-for-bit, and deal with special cases when we come to them.
    Just as few architects “think” their buildings in entirety, then draw them, I suspect that few conductors internalise fully orchestrated sequences; I think it’s more that they have an idea, a feeling, and work it out on manuscript until they have written something nearest to their imagined vision.
    It seems likely that the deaf Beethoven was able to imagine the effect of complete sequences, though, at least in terms of “quality controlling” what he’d written. But even then I doubt he originally conceived of the sequences fully finished.

  8. Both with this and the improvisation discussion, I’ve been avoiding reference to you-know-who but nilp’ has opened the door…
    I believe that different musicians imagine music in different ways. Garcia & co ‘composed’ Dark Star differently every time but it always started from a few simple ideas. Some classical composers probably work(ed) in a similar way. Phil Lesh was trained as a composer (in classes with Steve Reich) before he ever picked up a bass and his training and extensive analytical listening (to everything from Bach to Coltrane) contributes to his selection of harmonies and rhythms. If you keep playing around with notes, alchemy may occur. I’ll re-assert here the importance of chance, dammit!
    And there’s a Deadlegend about Terrapin Station. Again, not as complex as Beethoven’s 5th by any stretch, but not Wild Thing either. Garcia said: “That whole thing came as a completely orchestrated idea. I got the idea driving my car. I drove home real fast and sat down with the guitar and worked it all out real quick so I wouldn’t forget it, because it was all there.” (The legend bit is that Robert Hunter was at the same time, quite independently, writing the words that would fit Garcia’s music.)

    I have a moderately musical brain, and I can playback many pieces of music in my head, ‘hearing’ several instruments at once. I’m also reasonably competent at improvisation, so can grasp the concept of composition to fit a mood/theme/whatever. I don’t, however, have whatever-it-is that generates original musical ideas. But I can understand how, given that talent, construction of original music is part process, part understanding and part confidence. And part chance 😉

  9. If we’re introducing our “you know who’s..” I happen to be reading Ashley Khan’s excellent study of Kind of blue at the moment and he’s just discussed Miles’ approach to composing the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Up until that point the trumpeter had hardly any composition credits to his name, relying mainly on standards and other jazz musicians’ work, or reworkings of obscure titles.
    For the film soundtrack, freed of the need to play anything in a standardized jazz mode, Miles was able to concentrate entirely on mood. With four musicians, only one of whom he’d played with before, he gave a series of quick instructions, establishing repeated chords or simple sequences over which he then improvised. Working over “modes” in this way he was able to concentrate on the expression of solo melodic lines without the need to “refer” to establish chord changes or some base melody, as had been the case with most of jazz up until then. The result was far “spacier” and atmospheric than bebop and hard bop and it established a working method for the trumpeter whereby an improvised line “became” the melody- this had its most extreme expression in Ssh/Peaceful, where the trumpeter’s looped solo is edited to appear as a “head” statement. Ascenseur’s music was neither pre-conceived nor created “by chance”- it expressed Miles’ ethos of establishing a musical environment into which musicians were dropped without warning, then spontaneously developing a resulting performance as a series of trial- and error attempts; his main goal was to achieve the best possible results with the “first complete take”.
    Kind of blue was recorded this way but achieves such poise and balance that it seems “composed” in parts. (All the tracks were “1st complete takes” but there were a number of false starts and broken-off attempts of each track, as the band tried out different things- I see this as analogue to a composer’s sketches)

    • Do we understand ‘chance’ to mean different things, nilp’? Having personally rejected the idea of a controlling godlike force and the philosophical idea of determinism, I’m left with a belief that chance operates on everything. I don’t mean that everything is therefore random but that there is always the possibility of something unexpected happening. E.g. our planet may have ended up where it is, with the minerals and elements it has, due to the laws of physics (and the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs may have been predictable) but the first signs of life occurred by chance, as did the post-dino evolution that got us here. Pollock may have had a design in mind but he embraced the operation of chance on the way his paint fell. Miles’ establishing a musical environment into which musicians were dropped without warning didn’t inevitably produce what he wanted, and it’s perfectly possible that, on another day, something ‘better’ may have been created.
      I’m not saying it’s all random, rather that it’s all subject to the chance event; and in a creative context, that is both to be expected and welcomed. We need Eureka! moments, don’t we?

  10. Well, I was a mathematician once and for me chance means, all possible outcomes are equally likely. In other words, you completely remove bias. Rolling dice, tossing a coin, are pure chance events. We also label things “chance” which are subject to systems too complex for us to understand- a hurricane uproots a tree and it kills somebody- colloquial chance, to give it a name.

    When musicians enter a studio, even if they don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t see the encounter as involving either kind of chance. Miles always said, play what you don’t know– but what he meant was, forget what you learnt, and use your intuition instead. He is essentially attempting to have musicians express their “inner being”, rather than suppress this through the application of “expected” norms; to tap into these musicians’ hidden strengths and abilities. Many musicians spoke of how Miles somehow “set free” something within them they didn’t know they had. Now, he also had failures- a series of saxophone players who followed Coltrane in his band did not make much of an impression. An early attempt to introduce electric guitar via George Benson did not work; it clicked slightly later with John Mclaughlin. But more often than not he was able to identify musicians who grew enormously when they were in his bands; this “ear” is probably his greatest legacy to the music.

    I think at any particular moment during one of those recordings the players are communing with one another; through their concentration, a few hints and nudges from the leader, who could see more clearly than anyone else where it might be going, and some spontaneous decisions, something is developing which I see as a very conscious effort on the part of all concerned and therefore quite deliberate. I would not describe that as chance other than in the colloquial sense, x caught a cold and couldn’t make the gig so y sat in and was brilliant, so we fired x, etc. But in terms of how the music is unfolding I think it’s fair to say that each player knows where he’s headed; he can be influenced to a degree by the others, depending on his speed of thought; he can let himself drift with the current; but he is nonetheless continually making constant adjustments and consciously steering his own production of sound. The same goes for my assessment of the various GD tracks you’ve posted of late or flagged as your favourites; I would not see chance here either. I would see conscious thought always a half-beat ahead of the actual sound; occasionally behind it.

    • Maybe it is just terminology, as I agree with 99% of what you say. But I still insist chance (and maybe just in the colloquial sense) plays some part. The fact that the sax player responds to the piano for a second there takes the music in a different direction than where it might have gone if he’d followed the bass or drums. There’s film of the last bit of GD jam I posted (my ‘acid jazz’); who follows who, follows who is not predictable. You can see it in their faces!

      • Yes, I think it essentially comes down to the definitions we use. I also venture to suggest from your comments that you may savour music more in a micro fashion- how this moment relates to the next, with the journey experienced being a chain of these little epiphanies- whereas I suspect I view it more from a macro level… what moods or overall impressions am I getting from this piece of music… possibly one reason why I didn’t really gel with your ‘acid jazz’ film… a collection of pleasant moments which nonetheless failed to leave a lasting impression on me… and why you in turn might not rate shh/peaceful very highly.

  11. Nilp; The Bernstein Omnibus video was perfect, he dealt with and answered many of my questions, It was interesting to hear an orchestra play what were early drafts of the Fifth. I just checked my library and they have the entire Omnibus series on DVD so I requested it. I have always liked Lenny, he’s a great teacher, he knows his stuff and he’s enthusiastic, so my thanks for that tip, it opened lots of doors. I remember Omnibus and the host Alistair Cooke, he was a favorite from before I came here, he had a weekly BBC radio program, ‘Letter from America’, which I suspect influenced my later exodus. I’m amazed that you can play Kinda Blue in your head, I’ve also heard it hundreds of times but I can’t do that though I can recognize any cut within a second or so and can then hum/whistle along.
    Carole; thanks again for your input re. form and rules, I had no idea that was the situation. Except for Bach my interest doesn’t include much before Beethoven but I love most of his work plus much of Wagner, Mahler and Brahms.

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