Sunday, February 27, 2011

Obsessing Over Originality

It is hard to imagine Mozart, looking at the flow of harmonies in a piece he has just completed and saying, Crap, that sounds just like Haydn!  Or Beethoven writing a major scale in the middle of a piece and thinking, I can't do that; it's been done before!  Looking back, we know that every Western composer writing during the same era as Mozart and Haydn had the same harmonic aesthetic, and it even persists today in a ton of music.  The same goes for major scales, and yet it isn't inaccurate to say that Mozart and Beethoven were both innovative composers in their own ways.

George Crumb's Makrokosmos II, Mvt. 12

Originality seems to have a high place of honor in our thinking (mine at least), and yet our society doesn't respond with much enthusiasm for completely original thoughts.  Off-the-wall solutions that no one else has conceived are often met with ridicule and judgment.  One has to think almost like everyone else with just enough originality to captivate and inspire.  Too much innovation and people's minds rebel.

So why, when I am composing a piece of music, do I have this running criteria that it must be "original," that is must have completely new ideas that no other musician has ever considered?  Some composers manage to do that some of the time.  A century ago, the Impressionist movement (the most prominent figures of which were Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi) turned traditional harmony on its head.  Debussy took it a step further and slipped out of traditional musical forms as well.  But this didn't revolutionize the way people listened to music.  We still hear the traditional harmonies and forms every time we turn on the radio.  The influence of that innovation from a hundred years ago may be threaded into our 21st century musical expectations, but it didn't completely override the previous 200 years of musical development.

Harry Partch's quadrangularis reversum
Other composers have done very innovative things as well, and many of these people are the composers I most admire.  Yet even they used musical elements in common with other composers.  My mental criteria that what I write must be completely unique is not only unreasonable, but literally impossible.  It focuses my attention away from the actual music I am composing and onto some strange value for originality that doesn't even play out in practical reality.  Even the most compelling piece of music I can write will have some common elements with other music, and I would go so far as to say that the common ground is what makes new music accessible to people's ears.

So, I am releasing myself from the requirement that I must be an innovator.  At the same time, I recognize that if I am simply true to my own creativity, the music I compose will convey my unique voice.  Which is to say that I don't have to evaluate the originality of each discrete element in a piece in order to look at the completed product and see something of value.  Perhaps this idea extends beyond the realm of composing as well.  Perhaps there will be a time when we all set aside the obsession with originality and evaluate each idea on its own merit.


  1. hello, this sounds exactly like what I'm going through, everyday I seem to over analyze about everything especially orignality when I listen to music I study it obsessively what instruments are playing, what tempo it's played at everything, and even when I'm in the process of composing my own music I ask myself what comes first Instruments or percussion?, I've been told there's no right or wrong answer but sometimes it just nags at me when I listen to One of my favourite songs what was layed down first? I even tried messing with a metronome then came to the conclusion it seems to limit your creativity, & makes it sound too generic, & that's where it all comes back to genre, making everything sound the same, I sometimes even think For as long as music has existed how long can it last until it all sounds stagnate? how many different combination of notes can there be until it all ends up sounding the same anyway, That's one thing I fear for the future of music how far can we push it? it's like scrubbing and repolishing something old to make it new again and that may sound biased or cynical But just look at movies today remakes remakes remakes, any way I hope some of what I said made sence & may the magic that is music live on in everyone. Thank you

  2. Yeah, I've decided that the focus on originality is my internal critic's way of trying to shield me from external criticism or rejection. It's sweet, but it isn't really helpful.

    On the other hand, I do get messages from other sources than my internal critic. Recently, several people have suggested that I record some more music like my solo piano CD, which has a contemplative, new-agey feel throughout. When I hear the other relaxation music out there, I think, "There's enough of this kind of thing in the world already." But other peoples' reaction has consistently been, "Sure, but yours is better." It's the kind of feedback that leaves my internal critic speechless for a moment or two.