Is music written or discovered?

I know that whenever I have ever tried to write music it definitely feels more like trying to discover music that is already there rather than conciously composing it such that, say, the melody flows from point A to point B by some logical plan which I have made up..., rather whatever logic is there is external to me.

And even if I do set out with some logical plan, it is only in an attempt to impose some arbitrary rule that will force my mind and my fingers to explore realms to which they would not ordinarily venture in the hopes of discovering something new. It's not as if I know what it's going to sound like in advance.

Sometimes, (very very rarely) I can imagine some tune, or melody or just some little riff in advance and then try to figure out how the hell to play it, but even this seems a matter of just stumbling upon it. For me at least, trying to write music is nothing at all like trying to write a series of sentences in English.

But, I wonder, my musical education consists only of what I've been willing to teach myself, which means all the fun parts and none of the difficult boring stuff. (So, that means I bang around on a loud guitar a lot, and is an activity I highly recommend, BTW)). Perhaps if I knew more about what I was doing, all that music theory stuff. Still, from what I've read of interviews with other musicians and how they write, (and these are people who should know what they're doing) yet they talk of waiting around for inspiration to strike..., I think there's a lot of people groping around searching to discover music that already exists.

It seems more like trying to find the proof for some mathematical theorem. You're not quite sure how to get from point A to B, so you thrash around a lot trying different things until you discover the proof, or the melody. I listen to some Bach pieces, and some of them seem so logical, they couldn't have been played out any other way. Yet there is no way that I could have ever found them.

Once a long time ago, I wrote a computer program that had a set of rules of grammar for what constituted a legal English sentence, and a set of words and what part of speech each word belonged to, and various other rules. It was nothing really fancy, but served as amusement as I loaded it up with all sorts of goofy words. It would produce perfectly valid but random English sentences by the thousands. Occasionally it would spit out something weirdly profound. This is much closer to how I have to go about trying to write music. Stochasticly thrashing around listening for something profoundly weird and cool to pop out. The problem with this approach to writing music is this: I don't know what the hell the rules are. But what's worse (or better?) is I don't think anyone really really knows what the rules are. Well, I haven't seen them expressed in any kind of concise and usable way...and there seem to be so many exceptions and weird cases.

There seems to be no musical analogue to my simple English sentence generator that would randomly spew only "musical" passages from which one could manually cull the best, luckiest, ones. Or maybe there is, and I just haven't heard of it.

(Of course I'm only talking here about the melody and harmony, the notes themselves, and not the arrangement...not about what instruments play what notes and how each insturment is used to perform each note, there seems to be far more direct control in that area.)

In any case, music is a wonder.


Update: Aug 15, 2000 9:15pm CDT

About those who hear music in their heads and then write it down. I've noticed that sometimes as I'm falling asleep I can hear music, usually piano, pipe organ, or for some reason, harpsichord music being played, it's almost like listening to the radio. I can concentrate on it and even remember it sometimes, but sometimes it kind of wakes me up and then it disappears. Also, sometimes the music I hear in this state is nothing but remembered music, e.g. "Hotel California" gets played back sometimes for some reason...just the music, not the lyrics. Weird. Sometimes I wonder if you could put me in an MRI and monitor some specific part of my brain and manage to reconstruct an audio signal from that...Wouldn't that be cool. I've often wished I had a mini headphone jack in the side of my head so I could plug in a cable and just record all that stuff directly.

As for everything being discovered, well, of course, the set of all melodies of some fixed length(go there) is certainly finite, and thus searchable by brute force or by a troop of infinite monkeys. However, the number of possible melodies is very large. The interesting part is the algorithm (and whether there is one) to distinguish the musical melodies from those which are not.

My composer friend, who did take all those music theory classes, describes his process thusly:

"I hear the music, and I write it down."

I think the music theory comes into play after the initial idea has taken hold in the artist's brain, when it's time to flesh out the main idea with a counterpoint/bridge/chorus/melody/etc.

Some trivia for wharfinger: In instances of extreme talent, music still played and popular today has been written by composers that never actually heard what they wrote played. Mozart wrote his own requiem on his deathbed, and at the end of his life, Beethoven was too deaf to hear what his compositions actually sounded like.

In his short story Melancholy Elephants, Spider Robinson advanced the theory that as there are a limited number of songs, thanks to the number of discrete notes that exist, and only a small fraction of these are pleasant songs, extending things like copyright beyond a certain point can actually be harmful as humanity becomes like elephants. Nothing will be ever forgotten, all that can be done will be done, and we will have our noses rubbed in this fact. Enforcing forgetfulness helps.

In short, everything is discovered, not just music.

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