The composer’s voice? Can you speak up for me?

As so often happens when you are undertaking something simple and mindless like showering or walking or cleaning, a space opens up for new thought to flow through. The wonderful thing is that the new thoughts you have are often answers to questions you didn’t know you had asked; they are insights that change in ways both small and not so small, how we move forwards as living & thinking beings. I had a few small insights while walking home from grocery shopping this afternoon, nothing stupendous, but a few things that question how life and learning works. If I had to summarise these insights I’d probably say the following:

  •  Expertise is at worst a myth and at best, a barrier, and unfortunately, not transferrable.
  • Originality is a myth and trying to be original is a very limiting pursuit
  • The idea of a ‘composers voice’ may be true but is a wholely unhelpful idea

In this post, I’ll focus on the latter two points and save expertise for another post.


At some point, the idea of having an ‘original voice’ or saying something ‘unique’ musically buried itself into my mind. I think it was something mostly absorbed through environmental cues and the way composition is looked at in a university learning context, but there were also direct verbal reinforcements.

A situation that happens all to often is that you wrote something (unintentionally) that sounds like another composer, and someone pointed it out saying ‘This sounds like x’. As a composer, that happens all the time. I’ve had people tell me I sound like everything from Benjamin Britten to Holst to Debussy to Prokofiev to Stravinsky. Quite a mixed bag that one. However, the problem is that hearing that, there has always, for me, been an implication that you aren’t being original when that happens, that you are copying, stealing, imitating etc. For me, it got to a point at one stage that I felt almost every piece had to be substantially different stylistically or I was self-plagiarising, which is just another form of being ‘unoriginal’. It was liking trying to run away from your own shadow.

Through all this was this was the idea of having to have a ‘unique sound’ or voice and that if you weren’t writing truly original music you were just a hack, stealing ideas from those truly original composers. For some reason, it never occurred to me that people almost certainly told today’s pedestalled composer (from Bach to Bartok and beyond) that they sounded like other composers. We idolise these composers and talk of them as ‘great’ because, it seems to me, they are considered so unique and different and original. It implicitly seemed that unless you were writing really ‘original’ music, you were eligible to be considered at best a great orchestrator or an inventive arranger, but only a mediocre composer.

This idea of the importance of originality effected me in a lot of ways, all, I’d probably say, somewhat harmful. I even found it hard to enjoy new music that sounded too similar to some other composer, because they weren’t being original.

Like I said, I don’t really know where this idea came from, except through a sort of environmental osmosis.

This emphasis on originality really bothered me for a while. I remember talking to one of my older composer friends during this time and him telling me very sagely that you find your voice through writing, not through thinking about it or trying to find it. It was great advice, but I could never make any use of it because as so often happens with great advice, when you’re not connected to your deeper wisdom, you can’t use it, and when you are, you don’t need it. I also couldn’t see at the time that this was a finger pointing inwards, not pointing forwards. It seemed to me that it meant just keep writing and over time, you’ll stumble upon something unqiue combination of elements (who decides this I’m not sure) and then you can continue forwards from there. Really, it was saying keep connecting with your inner musical instinct, and let it lead you.

I can see why I would think this, because when we talk about composers and their writing, we talk about the unique aspects of their music and the way we talk about those make them seem like external attributes, things the composers consciously and deliberately used as foundations for their uniqueness. When we talk about Steve Reich, we talk about minimalism and phasing, looping, rhythmic cells etc as though they began life as conscious conceptual constructs and then became music.

And this is the age old question – and lie in my opinion – that arises in every music theory class at some point.

Student: “This is all great, but was Beethoven really thinking about all this when he wrote or did he just write?”

Teacher: “Of course he was thinking about it.”

The theory teacher, of course, wants to make musical theory sound important, and at the same time, to narrow the (rather large, in my opinion) gap between the world of music theory and composition. This is a lie as far as I’m concerned, or at least, a misrepresentation. Did Beethoven know all of the ‘theory’ used in his music? Of course, I’m not suggesting that he wouldn’t be able to tell you what a secondary dominant is or where they lead etc. The lie, in my opinion, is which comes first in the mind, the music or the theory? I would bet my sadly small bank balance that for the majority of composers that are not employing a system in their writing, that the music comes first, and the theory links it to notation.

So while the music theory student is probably trying to express their frustration at the boredom of the class, they’re also quite innocently correct too. The theory is not the music. The theory is an expedited way of understanding the music arising in the mind and distilling it into a transmittable form. In honesty, I would say composing is much more closely linked to Aural skills than to theory skills.

Anyway, I was recently listening to some of Carl Vine’s music. I had heard parts of the First Piano Concerto several years ago and at the time, somewhat dismissed it (and probably the rest of Vine’s music too) as unoriginal and therefore not ‘worthy’. However, when I listened again to it recently, I came to quite a different conclusion. While I can still very clearly hear a connection to Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and Bartok and a whole host of other composers, my take away from the work was quite different. Then, I dismissed the work as lack originality, but this time I found myself thinking “If those composers were alive, Carl would be giving them a run for their money.” And on the heals of this thought, I realised something that only this afternoon really crystallised in my mind:

In seeking originality we set limits on ourselves. Enormous limits. We can no longer write things we’d love to write because perhaps it’ll have similarities to something else and people will think we’re just a hack stealing from the greats.

Honestly, putting any weight on the idea that having a unique ‘voice’ is important is a bit stupid. It leaves only two possibilities:

1. The voice is an inherent part of who we are, which means it is natural and will change as we do, over time. It also means it’s not worth thinking about, just as there isn’t any point thinking about the colour of your eyes. You can wear coloured lenses if you want, but underneath your eyes are still the colour they are.

2. The voice is a developed attribute and something you have to ‘find’ or create. But if it’s outside of you, if it’s manufactured, is it your voice or just something you’ve picked up or strapped together with duct-tape?

In fact, the problem with even talking about a compositional voice is that, fundamentally, the implication is that what you are isn’t enough. There’s a great quote I heard that seems relevant but can’t remember properly so I’ll try and paraphrase it: When you first start making art, it always seems bad, because your ability isn’t the equal to your taste. The problem isn’t with your inherent artistic ability, but with the transient state of not yet being able to realise your art.

And I think the idea is totally relevant and applicable to composing. If we discourage or allow students to be discouraged from sounding too similar to music they love, we stop that love from being part of the music they make. I think a lot of this stems from a teacher’s earnest desire to help speed a student’s progress (or the student’s similar desire to reach musical maturity) but perhaps the time spent in ‘immaturity’ or in ‘unoriginality’ is just as important as the final destination.

Better yet, perhaps we all think it’s way more important than it actually is. Are we perhaps better off inspiring a fun, free and joyful relationship to music and forgetting about the destination?

The criteria we invent to determine what makes a successful composer are bogus.  If you’re writing music you love, then you’re a supremely successful composer, so cut yourself a break  break and share your love with the world!

“There is nothing you need to do, be, have, get, change, practice or learn in order to be happy, loving, and whole.” ~ Michael Neill

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