There Is No Formula For Good Music


“Every great inspiration is but an experiment.” ~ Charles Ives

I like this quote because I’ve often thought of writing music as experimentation with sound, structure, melody, feeling. Every piece and every performance is different, which is exciting and unpredictable. But experiments also make me think of science fair projects. What would happen if you used the steps of the scientific method to write music? Probably chaos… but let’s find out.

STEP 1 – Ask a Question

Possible questions are, “What do I want to say?”, “What if I set these words to music?”, “What would this ensemble love to sing?”, “What do these people need to hear?”

You’ve already failed as a scientist by using the words “I want”. So long, objectivity.

STEP 2 – Do Background Research

Okay, it’s easy to get comfortable here because you can answer concrete questions like, “What instruments or voices will I need?”, “What limitations of range do they have?”, “Has something like this been attempted before?”, “What worked or didn’t work that time?”, “How long should this music be?”, “Can I write out an outline or a form?”

Reading and listening is great, but eventually it’s time to take action and move on to…

STEP 3 – Construct a Hypothesis

Assuming you can make your ideal musical statement within the strict and well-researched parameters you set out, the result will be… What, exactly? A happy audience? A challenged audience? A few enjoyable minutes of listening? A simple sense of relief at having finished writing? Intense feelings of inadequacy? Unjustified ego boosting?

Pick one and keep going…

STEP 4 – Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment

Write the music, already. You’re behind schedule.

STEP 5 – Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Your data consists of a score, probably still flawed despite hours of proof reading. The only conclusion to draw is “Can someone attempt to perform this?” Yes? Good.

STEP 6 – Communicate Your Results

Good news, finally. We musicians have the best ways of communicating the results. The concert!

“Hi everyone, I started with this question/idea/thing that bothered me so I spent some time trying to tell you about it (by myself at first, and now with the help of all these other people) and now I’m ready to show you so here goes, turn off your cell phones please and don’t cough!”

(music plays)



Like a good science project, good music often leads to more unanswered questions, and more experiments.

BUT a musician’s preferred method of experimentation likely has little to do with science:

STEP 1 – “Let’s jam!”

The rest will take care of itself.

PS – Last Friday, Compassio received its US premiere in Chicago! Dr. Julia Davids led North Park University’s Chamber Singers in a performance of this piece as part of their fall concert. Julia also directs the Canadian Chamber Choir. I wasn’t able to attend, but this was a pretty big thrill for me!

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