The Space Between My Ears

The other day my friend Peter asked how I go about composing a score for an orchestra when I can’t play any of the instruments involved. (My latest piece doesn’t include piano or ukulele.) He wanted to know how I can tell what it will sound like.

The truth is, I don’t know. Every new piece of music is an experiment.

Finale, my music notation software, will play back what I tell it to, but isn’t a reliable measure of how good something will sound live. Orchestration requires balance between parts, taking into account ranges, dynamics, timbres, and human interaction. Until it is performed, most of this music lives only in my imagination.

Sometimes it takes up a lot of space there.

Sometimes it looks like this:

Abstract Sketch

This image represents my imagination going “splat” onto the page for the first time. It’s one of the first sketches I did for Prayer Without Words, crudely drawn using the Adobe Ideas iPhone app while I was flying home for Christmas. Often my musical ideas start with a melodic theme or another small idea that I can quickly write down on manuscript paper. Then I’ll improvise a bit at the piano and try to think of where that fragment will go. Sometimes I’ll hear ideas that take too long to work out on paper right away. The sketch above was useful to capture moods and form until I could write down more of the bits of music I was hearing. It provided a structure for the scraps to stick to.

Sketching an idea also forces you to commit to it, either to accept or reject it. And it frees up space between your ears for more music.

If you’re in the business of creating things, whether in music, art, or business, how do you record your ideas? I’d love to hear your comments.

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