Music Composition is Like a Jigsaw Puzzle

A couple of weeks ago, my composition student asked me at the beginning of her lesson if it was OK that she didn’t have her ideas formed for the immediate next section of her piece, but skipped ahead and worked on a later section. I, of course, said that was quite alright and a normal part of the compositional process.

One of my composition teachers had the class read an essay by Edgar Allen Poe describing his process of writing The Raven. It did not come to him in a linear fashion, but he worked on different sections, moved them around, and eventually connected them together into the famous poem we now know. The process of creating is different for everyone, but rarely does one start with a complete, detailed, ordered idea from start to finish. Instead of having my student read Poe’s essay, which is rather heady, I had her think of a jigsaw puzzle. I consider this one of the best concrete descriptions of what it is like to compose a piece of music.

Not everyone approaches a puzzle the exact same way, but there are some helpful principles. Most find the edge pieces first and lay them out. Likewise in composition, it is good to set the parameters of the piece. What is the instrumentation? What is the length? What is the larger form? What are the main ideas? Once these are in place, one can begin working on the details.

I like to sort my puzzle pieces by color, and I rarely work from one side of the puzzle all the way to the next. I will work on one section or with one color, then get tired of that and go to another section or color. This approach is not “out of order”, but is rather useful because it gives my eyes and mind a rest.  When I constantly look at the same group of pieces, they begin to “blur” and I no longer see the distinctions as clearly. If I were to force myself to stay in one section, I would actually slow down my progress. Switching to another section is refreshing, like getting a new perspective. I will see a new connection that I failed to see before, and I will have immediate quick success. When I get tired, it is time to switch again.

I use this same approach when composing a piece. When I get stuck in a section of a piece, if I cannot solve the problem very quickly, I move on to another section where I have some solid ideas. I rest from the first section and let those ideas ferment a bit longer; I obviously wasn’t ready to work on it. If I did not allow myself to move on until the first problem was solved, my frustration would increase and my confidence would wain, both of which would impede my progress even further.

Sometimes when I am working on a puzzle, I try one piece at a time, turning it in all directions to see if it fits in a spot. This usually happens when there are no color variations to help and the shapes are too similar to immediately see a proper fit. It is tedious. Sometimes music composition is like that, too.  The notes, like puzzles pieces, can be turned this way or that way, and sometimes I have to try out all the combinations to see which one fits. It is not a revelation so much as a discovery.

Music is very abstract, and the ideas and what I hear in my mind are “out there somewhere.” I often feel like I am downloading music from the universe, taking it from the air and putting it on paper. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes it freezes for a while. It is like doing a puzzle without having the box cover for guidance. I have a general sense of the idea, I know how big it is, I know what colors I am working with, and I get hints along the way of what it will be. But until it is completely finished, I don’t have the whole picture in front of me.

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