From New World Encyclopedia

A composer is a person who writes music. The term has come to be attributed particularly to someone who writes music in some type of musical notation, thus allowing others to perform the music. This distinguishes the composer from a musician who improvises or plays a musical instrument.

Composing can be said to be an activity that allows for human beings to become a co-creator with God as well as to have "dominion over the creation" in the Biblical sense (Genesis 1:28). The ordering of musical components such as pitch, rhythm, structure and orchestration in an artistic fashion is a manifestation of the co-creator paradigm.

The intent and motivation of a composer is also of prime concern in relation to assessing the redeeming value of a composition. This idea has been debated throughout music's long history. The axiological aspect of composing and music speaks to the moral and ethical power of music and art and the importance of creative individuals to use their talents in a principled fashion. This axiological and spiritual dimensions of music have been articulated by notable philosophers and artists throughout the ages including Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Paul Hindemith to name but a few.

Distinctions of the Term

The level of distinction between composers and other musicians also varies, which affects issues such as copyright and the deference given to individual interpretations of a particular piece of music. For example, in the development of classical music in Europe, the function of composing music initially had no greater importance than the function of performing music. The preservation of individual compositions received little attention, and musicians generally had no qualms about modifying compositions for performance. Over time, however, the written notation of the composer has come to be treated as strict instructions, from which performers should not deviate without good reason.

Performers do, however, play the music and interpret it in a way that is all their own. The performers/composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff might interpret their own works in ways different from what they actually designated in the printed score. Recordings by composers/performers in the twentieth century demonstrate this.

More recently, scorewriter computer programs have become available, allowing composers to personally engrave music.

The term "composer" is often used specifically to mean a composer in the Western tradition of classical music. In popular and folk music, the composer is typically called a songwriter (since the music generally takes the form of a song). Still both activities are a form of composing in the most fundamental sense.

Early Historical Development

Historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that the Christian church in Europe was "the chrysalis out of which Western music emerged." Greek philosophy (which came to the early Christian Church via Rome) wrote that music was a medium that had connections to the forces of nature and possessed the power to affect human thought and conduct, was assimilated into early church culture and reiterated in the writings of several Christian philosophers, most notably Boethius (ca. C.E. 480-524) and St. Augustine (C.E. 354-430). Boethius' treatise De Institutione musica stood as an authoritative source of understanding for writers of medieval times with regards to harmonization of the physical world (musica mundana), the mind and body (musica humana) and tones/music (musica instrumentalis).

The evolution of music and its integration into liturgical practice throughout the Middle-Ages gave rise to new attitudes about music, specifically its purpose and function; most notably the idea that music was to be the "servant" of religion. For the Church elders of the Middle-Ages music was deemed good only when it "opens the mind to Christian teachings and disposes the soul to holy thoughts." The church in the Middle-Ages was highly concerned with the "corrupting" elements of music and as a result certain factions within Church hierarchy that felt art in general, and music in particular, was inimical to religion. Still, vocal music became an important aspect of worship and praise.

The tradition of a composed and notated music in the West dates back to the Middle Ages and the development of Gregorian Chant and plainsong. Through the Renaissance and Baroque eras of musical history, notation and a codified systemization musical elements, most notably pitch relations (intervals), harmonic invention (chords) and structure (form) evolved, in much the same way natural languages do. This eventually led to tonality becoming the "common practice" of musical composition in the West for nearly three hundred years.

Early church composers who were important figures in the evolution of composed/notated music include Perotin (c. 1200), Leonin (1150-?1201), and Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377). Notable Renaissance composers include Guilliame Dufay (1397-1474), Giovanni Gabrieli (1510-1586), Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594), Josquin des Prez (1440-1521), Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505), Johanness Ockegham (c. 1410-1497) and Giovani Palestrina (1525-1594).

The Common Practice

Music composed in accordance with what became known as "the common practice" (or tonality) spans roughly the period from 1650 to 1900.

Tonality as a musical syntax evolved from the monophonic music of the early Christian church although this type of tonal centricity can also be found in varying degrees in the folk music of Asia and the Middle East. The scales (or the intervalic division of the octave) that these cultures utilized, which were based on different intervalic structures than the scales that evolved in Europe, became the genesis of the particular modalities of those regions and cultures.

As composers in Europe during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance began to write music with greater linear complexity (polyphony) the natural by-product of this process was a vertical alignment of tones that possessed very definite harmonic textures. The evolution of harmonic syntax though the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, along with the experiments in tuning and interval modification (temperament) led to the development of very specific harmonic theories which in turn gave rise to a codified system of major/minor and sharp/flat key centers. The diatonic major and minor scales, based on a specific sequence of major and minor intervals, along with the use of triads (three pitches sounding simultaneously) became the fundamental properties of tonality, which in turn provided an aural base or "home" key, and was to become known as the tonic.

French composer, theoretician and organist Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764) published his Traité de l'harmonie in 1722 and this theoretical discourse remains one of the most important documents on the subject of tonality. Unlike theoreticians before him, Rameau looked to science, specifically the overtone series, as a way to explain the nature of musical phenomena in relation to the theoretical properties of onal composition. Influenced by the theories of Descartes and Sauveur, Rameau posited that there was a fundamental relationship between the harmonic principles in tonal music and the physics of sound (acoustics). His theories were to influence musical thought for centuries and he became known as "the Newton of music."

He asserted that chords (triads) where the primary elements in music as opposed to melody or themes. His ideas regarding functional harmony, specifically the cadential relationship between the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords within a particular key center, became the underlying principles of what would become known as “the common practice” in musical composition in the Western music for three hundred years. The cadential relationship between tonic and dominant triads (as well as secondary dominants) is elemental to the tonal syntax.

Rameau's theories could not have been postulated had the practice of pitch modification (see Musical Temperament) been implemented since thirds had heretofore been avoided by composers. The evolution of music towards the use of Tertian harmony was a significant factor in establishing tonality.

By the end of the nineteenth century, composers were seeking new ways to expand traditional harmonic language. Richard Wagner's forays into chromaticism pioneered the path that would eventually be taken up Claude Debussy and others who looked to non-traditional syntaxes for creative inspiration.

Developments in Orchestration

As industrialization and technology evolved in Europe, musical instruments also involved in ways that allowed composers to exhibit greater expressiveness in their compositions. As a result composers had to ascertain the capabilities and limitations of instruments in developing their personal style of orchestration.

The orchestral music composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1800 possessed a fairly limited orchestrational palette as compared to that of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler in the later half of the nineteenth century. Where, in one of his symphonies, Beethoven might typically score for four brass players (pairs of horns and trumpets), it was not uncommon for Mahler or Wagner to utilize as many as eighteen or more brass players (eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, euphoniums and four Wagner tubas as Anton Bruckner often did.)

George Antheil, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen utilized items others than conventional instruments to produce sound (sirens, tire springs, helicopter, e.g.)

The evolution of the piano too had profound effects on composers as the instrument gained greater power and nuance in its sonorities. Composers of the twentieth century adopted new and unique ways to produce sounds (the Bartok pizzacato, John Cage's prepared piano, e.g.) and continued to explore novel ways to produce sound.

Avant-garde & Modernism

American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was among the first composers to utilize polytonality (music played in several different key centers simultaneously). With the advance of science and technology composers in the post World War II era often based their compositions on formulaic and serial techniques such as the (twelve tone technique). The compositional aesthetic of the composers of the Second Viennese School, most notably Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg was to have profound effects on composers throughout the twentieth century, Schoenberg's prediction in 1948 that the "emancipation of dissonance" that was a hallmark of the Second Viennese School would eventually become accepted with greater exposure has not materialized.

Another aspect of post-World War II composition was the use of electronic media. With the development of the magnetic tape, the Moog Synthesizer and MIDI technology this became a common occurrence. Mario Davidovsky (b. 1934) was a pioneer in this realm and won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1971 for one of his electronically based compositions. Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), arguably the leading exponent of modernism in the post World War II, has been on the cutting edge of electronic music research as director of Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris and continues to champion the cause of new music.

Composers: Present & Future

For the tonal arts various realities have led to what University of Chicago musicologist Leonard B. Meyer refers to as a "fluctuating stasis" in which a plethora of musical styles would coexist in an increasingly diverse world as a result of technological advances and increased globalization. In 1967 Meyers made this prescient observation regarding the future of composers and their music:

"Our culture—cosmopolitan world culture—is, and will continue to be, diverse and pluralistic. A multiplicity of styles, techniques and movements, ranging from the cautiously conservative to the rampantly experimental, will exist side by side: tonality and serialism, improvised and aleatoric music, as well as jazz with its many idioms, and popular music...Through paraphrase borrowing, style simulation, and modeling, past and present will, modifying one another, come together not only within culture, but within the oeuvre of a single artist and within a single work of art."

The diversity and pluralism in musical composition results in the fact that there remains no "triumphant" style in the realm of "classical" or "serious" art music as had been the case for hundreds of years. Tonality continues to be a viable syntax for composers to express themselves, but there are a multitude of syntaxes and musical "dialects" that influence composers to greater and lesser degrees.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Grout, Daniel J. A History of Western Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1960.
  • Lee, Sang Hun. Explaining Unification Thought. New York: Unification Thought Institute, 1981. ISBN 0-9606480-0-3
  • Meyer, Leonard B. Music, Arts and Ideas-Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth Century Culture. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1967/1994. ISBN 0-226-52143-5
  • Tarsukin, Richard. Music in the Western World-A History in Documents. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 1984.


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