I wrote recently about what I (rather accidentally) did right when I taught myself to compose music in my early 40s. This was a particularly instructive time in my life. Unlike writing, which I had been immersed in since I was a teenager, I had merely dabbled with music writing in my 20s. Thus I was coming to it relatively fresh, and as an adult. As a result, I observed things about the experience of composing music that I often overlooked in writing. First, there is a technical aspect to music that doesn’t apply to writing. That is, every child in America (hopefully) is taught to read and write English, but not every child is taught to read and write music. I knew how to read music from my years of playing the flute, and I had a rudimentary knowledge of music theory, but knowing what an eighth note and an F major chord are is not the same as knowing how to write music.
Still, even with all my experience writing in English, I believed my primary obstacle was technical. The music was in my head, I only needed to learn how to get it onto the (digital) page. This was true, and it was not. What was fascinating at the time, and what remains mysterious to me still, is that in learning how to write music, I simultaneously learned what music could be.
I have known this about writing also, but because the music was happening so quickly I saw it more clearly. It is as if the potential for music, or for stories, sits like an untapped well within me. Every new technique I learned – and by technique I mean how certain combinations of sounds could create unique emotional experiences – revealed still new musical potential.
It was as if music was gradually revealing itself to me. All my life I had listened closely and devotedly to music, but listening and writing are not the same. The act of creation requires that we remove art’s first mysterious veil so that we can observe some of the gears and wheels driving the engine. In this way art can appear mechanical. Yet nothing could be less true. The more of the mechanics I learned, the more technical facility I acquired, the more deliciously mysterious music became. I wasn’t an architect, I was an explorer, and all my technique merely allowed me to travel further into a vast cave where I might unlock some door and release what already existed.
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