Composition, Musical

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The term composition (from the Latin com, together, and ponere, to put) is commonly applied in Western music to a notated work, and in non-Western systems to a consistently united progression or organization of sounds. Although Western music compositions have been defined by their narrative structure (i.e., progression toward a climax, etc.) a more accurate definition, encompassing modern Western experimental music and much non-Western music, is that of music composition as an alteration of a listener's "normal" acoustic environment through the creation of an artificially created acoustic environment by the joint activities of a composer and performermovement through time rather than specifically narrative. In the field of music perception, composition is described scientifically, as a combination of linguistic elements (grammar, syntax, communication), the brain's bias toward finding pattern and regularity, and psychoacoustic factors (the physical limitations of the human senses). The details of this article on music composition will largely focus on Western classical music, but as necessary with such a wide-ranging term, other countries and styles are included in a limited form as well.

Cultural Roles

Music compositions are not constructed in a vacuum, but fill a cultural role in society. Composers provide music for many activities, including entertainment, social ritual, religious enlightenment, educational study, accompaniment to drama, and healing, both emotional and physical. These artificial social divisions are of course not inflexible, as music written for entertainment can be used in a learning environment and religious music has entered the concert hall. Entertainment music includes the immense diversity of Western art music composed for the concert performance, from Gustav Mahler's (18601911) Symphony of a Thousand to John Cage's short silent work 4'33", and also incorporates the many uses of background music. Music compositions used for religious purposes are diverse, including chant from all religions (most without attribution), hymns, spirituals (also without attribution), complex polyphony for Christian services, both Catholic and Protestant, and the mbira compositions improvised upon by Shona performers to aid in spirit possession ceremonies, or bira. Educational music is seldom attributed to specific composers, despite its universal nature and scopefrom nursery chants and simple teaching songs to the extensive historical sagas found in eastern Europe consisting of thousands of stanzas. Music for drama is subsidiary to text and plot, and includes incidental music for plays, Broadway show tunes, opera, and Japanese Noh theater. Composition is often altered through improvisation during performances of folk music, jazz, many types of non-Western music, and Western art music of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Composers have a societal function as well. In many eras and cultures, composers have a well-defined jobproviding music to those who can pay within the limitations set by the occasion. The importance of a composer's work, however, is directly dependent on the distinction between composer and performer, so in cultures that focus on improvisation, composers have little to no place. For example, in religious chant and much folk music, composers are unspecified and therefore receive no recognition. In the twenty-first century, however, composers have a clear and important place in Western societyBeethoven's name makes the comic pages in Peanuts, and Mozart is the subject of the award-winning movie and musical Amadeus.

Despite the common perception that musical skill or talent is the major factor in their success, composers have attained high positions as artists because of social factors such as rank, race, political connections, heredity, and gender. Until the twentieth century, for example, women were not accepted as major composers of Western art music. In south India, the Brahman caste is traditionally associated with music. Composers' financial status in the West is determined by payments from performers and organizations for new works, sales of music of existing works and fees from concert performances, and royalties from recordings and broadcasts on radio. Composers also teach and perform musicpassing on the ability to compose and perform their works to the next generation.

Changing Definitions

The transformation of the definition of composition can be seen through a study of changes in music over time. Although musical composition was obviously a part of earlier Greek, Egyptian, and Roman society, based on evidence from the visual arts and literature, the lack of musical notation makes it impossible to reconstruct the works, as only texts survive to earlier compositions. The earliest pitch notation in Western compositions is found in the eighth century, in notation for Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant, however, did not have composer attribution; Pope Gregory I (r. 590604) received it from heaven, according to legend. As the medieval period drew to a close, composer's names became attached to works and compositions became more elaborate, incorporating greater rhythmic complexity (syncopation, hocket, meter changes) and harmonic subtlety (use of modes, polyphony, use of cantus firmus, greater use of triads, thirds, and dissonance).

In late-medieval and Renaissance music (15001650) compositional rules and techniques became codified. The enormous outpouring of musical composition based on these rules included lively dance works, simple songs, and complex vocal works organized by strict pitch rules (counterpoint). Renaissance composers such as Josquin des Prez (c. 14401521) and Giovanni da Palestrina (c. 15251594) were respected members of the art world of the Renaissance just as their counterparts Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Leonardo da Vinci were. As a reaction to the complexity of music from the high Renaissance, works in the Baroque period (16001750), such as Claudio Monteverdi's (15671643) Orfeo (1607), focused on the relative simplicity of solo lines accompanied by clearly stated harmonic progressions. These harmonies were delineated by realizations of a "figured bass" by two instruments, one low melodic instrument (cello, trombone, bassoon) playing the bass line, and the other chordal instrument (harpsichord, guitar, lute, harp, organ) presenting harmonic realizations. This method of compositionopen for improvisation in the harmony part and closely linked to the emotions of a specific textwas so controversial it became known as the "second practice." Balancing the freedom and textual expression of the early Baroque with tightly structured counterpoint was an achievement of late Baroque (17001750) composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750) and George Frideric Handel (16851759).

In the Classical period (17501820), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791) and Franz Joseph Haydn (17321809) explored abstraction and the expression of Enlightenment ideals in music through a combination of carefully balanced structures with graceful expression. Ludwig van Beethoven's (17701827) early works are in the simpler, balanced style of the Classical period, but the power, intensity, emotionalism, and unconstrained attitude toward Classical-era forms place much of his work closer to the Romantic style. Extramusical inspirations from such sources as patriotic fervor, literature, and the visual arts became tools for Romantic period (18201900) composers to use in mining emotional depths. They sought extremes in emotions expressed through extended dissonances, and unique structures such as the tone poem.

Tonality was still used in a large part of music in the Modern epoch; as the basis of pop, rock, film, and jazz music as well as many works of Western art music by composers such as Aaron Copland (19001990), Leonard Bernstein (19181990), Dmitry Shostakovich (19061975), Sergey Prokofiev (18911953), and Igor Stravinsky (18821971). Those composers using tonality in the twentieth century, however, did so with a strong awareness of historical precedent. In the late Romanticearly Modern environment, tonality had become so extended as to seem, to Arnold Schoenberg (18741951) and his students Alban Berg (18851935) and Anton Webern (18831945), irrelevant as an organizational system, especially in the explorations of atonality. In Schoenberg's alternative to tonality, serialism, each piece begins with a seriesa group of equally important tones. This system, dependent on mathematics and democracy instead of tonality's traditions and hierarchy, was a complete break with part pitch organization and musical traditions. Serialism became one of the predominant compositional forces of the twentieth century, expanded after World War II to include the organization of rhythms, dynamics, and note length as well and as reviled by audiences as it was embraced in academic environments. The twentieth century also fostered a strong community of compositional rebels, including Charles Ives (18741954) and John Cage (19121992), as composers experimented with unusual combinations of sounds, extended silences, and chance procedures as compositional tools.

Throughout the twentieth century and continuing in the twenty-first century, the music world has splintered into factions with contradictory compositional outlooks. Although Western music focuses largely on pitch distinctions, as seen above, distinguishing features of compositions can vary. In other cultures, folk, pop, and jazz, text changes, phrase alterations, or changes in usage also can be seen as defining features for distinguishing individual compositions.


Musical compositions all have a common foundationthe acoustic and physiological realities of the human body. Composers combine these physical realities with an awareness of the sociocultural context and the emotional and aesthetic ramifications of patterns, acoustics, and language. The inability of defining such a complex process, a delicate balancing act between the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual is at the heart of Frederic Rzewski's description of composition as seen by a composer: "Composition is a constant search for reproducible patterns in the sound-universe and for rational symbols to describe them. It is a mystery how deep unconscious processes can somehow be expressed in a symbolic form, which makes them comprehensible to other minds" (Lecture at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, 21 June 1994).

See also Absolute Music ; Music, Anthropology of ; Musical Performance and Audiences ; Musicology .


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Berry, Wallace. Structural Functions in Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

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Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Kunst, Jos. Making Sense in Music: An Enquiry into the Formal Pragmatics of Art. Ghent, Belgium: Communication and Cognition XVI, 1978.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman, ed. Ethnomusicology: History, Definition, and Scope. Garland, 1992.

Kathryn Pisaro