So many aspects of our life have an objective standard of completion. We know when we are done cooking, we know when we have finished cleaning, we know when we’ve arrived at a travel destination. Even many creative projects have an objective ending. When I follow a pattern to sew a piece of clothing or make a cross-stitch hanging for my wall, I know when it is done. The question then is not whether it is finished, but whether or not I did it well with proper technique.
Even performing music is like this. Usually, a composer already decided what the piece would be and what part each individual instrument would play. All the dynamics, articulations. and phrasing is predetermined. As a performer, I don’t have to think about that. I must concern myself with executing the required notes well. (There is some music where performers are invited into the composition process and put their own fingerprint on the piece. Jazz improvisation is just one example.) But, most of the time, especially for classical musicians, the requirements are to play the notes as written.
Music composition is completely different. The pieces stem from the composer’s own mind and there is no pattern to follow. I don’t discover directions from the universe that say “plug these dots onto these lines in this order and you will get a piece of music.” Even though there are musical forms that can guide a composer when writing a piece, composers still must choose which one will best fit the music they hear in their heads. Besides, form alone cannot tell the composer how long the piece should be.
So, how does a composer know when a piece is done? Perhaps every composer has a different method of figuring this out, but I will explain mine.
First, I decide roughly how long I would like the piece to be, in minutes. This length is often determined by outside circumstances. It may need to conform to a certain length for a competition or for where it will be used in a program. It may be limited by the number of lines in a text. If I took commissions, the desires of the person commissioning the piece would also be a factor. I then determine how fast the piece should go. After that, I multiply the metronome marking by the number of minutes I want the piece to be to get a ballpark figure for the total number of beats that I should have in my piece. That number is somewhat flexible as the piece may be slightly longer or shorter, but it helps me to assess my progress toward the goal. I also decide how many sections I want my piece to have and roughly how long each section should be (and consequently the number of beats I need in each section.) However, since this post is about knowing when something is done, I need to save discussion about choosing form for another post.
Even when I have completed a piece to the length I want, that doesn’t mean I am done. I work mostly with paper and pencil, usually at the piano, sometimes at a table. I have a computer software program (Finale) that I use to enter my notes to make my scores look nice, but I don’t do that until my rough draft is completed. I can only play so many notes at one time on the piano, but the computer can play back everything I wrote out simultaneously. Sometimes that rough draft is quite rough. I am grateful to be able to listen back to my pieces in the privacy of my own headphones.
After listening back to the rough draft, the editing and polishing process begins. Sometimes I realize that I entered a wrong note or rhythm – that’s an easy fix. Sometimes, I decide that I need more (fill in the blank) here or less (fill in the blank) there. Sometimes I need to cut out entire sections and rewrite them.
I get a good idea of what my music will sound like live by listening to the computer playback. There are some significant differences, but my imagination can fill in the gaps between what the computer is capable of doing and what live performers would do. So, as I listen, I ask “does this sound how I imagined it?” That may seem like a simple question, but it isn’t. That question is the ONLY question and guides my decisions about what to do next. If the answer is “no”, I need to rewrite and tweak. If I get stuck during this process and don’t know how to fix a spot, I may need to ask for help from a teacher or a colleague. I may find help in studying musical literature. This can be a very long process.
When I finally come to the point where I feel satisfied with the piece, when it sounds how I imagined it, and when I can no longer think of a way to improve it, it is finished.
That doesn’t mean it is “perfect”. I suppose that someone could go through my score with a fine-tooth comb and find a technical mistake here or there, or disagree with my choices. I leave that to the critics, though I have not yet had enough public attention to get a critic.
Technique helps me to get what I imagined out of my head and down onto paper. It helps me choose notes. It helps me work faster. Theoretical knowledge and familiarity with a wide variety of musical pieces helps me come up with ideas and explore new musical territory. In all these ways I am constantly looking to improve and grow as a composer. But none of these things help me to know when a piece is done.
Only I can say when a piece is finished.