2 Contrasting Methods of Musical Thinking

Is one of these methods more preferable than the other?



I remember once reading about a sculptor who created masterpieces from blocks of marble. One particular day, as the artist was sculpting an eagle, he was approached by an observer. This young man was fascinated by the way in which this sculptor worked.


"How are you able to form an eagle from a single block of marble?" he asked.


The artist answered, "It's quite simple. I take a long look at the block and then I chip away anything that doesn't resemble an eagle."


Behind every work of art, there is a visionary artist.


Certainly, composers are among the many who have been blessed by God with artistic vision. Their vision is realized through one of two modes of thinking:

  1. Top-down thinking

  2. Bottom-up thinking

Let's discuss these in more detail...

Top-Down Thinking

A Top-down thinker can be defined as someone who approaches the more general aspects of things before advancing to the more specific details.


In other words, the top-down thinker sees the entire problem before getting to the array of issues that make up the problem that needs to be solved.


This type of thinking can be seen in a composer who is able to envision the entire composition, or large sections of the composition before composing it.


The sculptor in the above story represents this kind of thinking. He looked at the block of marble, assessed the situation, envisioned the final product, and only then started chipping away.


If we wanted to look at another example, we could reference a construction company that builds houses. The construction company starts with plans for the house they intend to build.


They can see the final picture and have detailed instructions on how to proceed. All of this ground work is done before they start to lay down the foundation and build the house brick by brick.


Some composers see the final product of their music before they start writing. They lay down detailed notes and outlines for their music. They hear the themes, the harmonies, and the purpose of their composition before they compose one note on paper.


Of course, they make adjustments as they start the compositional work, but they essentially have a blueprint before they begin.

Bottom-Up Thinking

Conversely, a bottom-up thinker can be defined as someone who reasons by "taking in details and building up from there".


Bottom-up thinkers tend to be focused on the details of the problem and not the final solution.



If we return for a moment to our construction example, we might imagine a man building a small house on a prairie somewhere. In this instance, he may not have construction plans.


If he knows what he's doing, however, he can build this house one board at a time from the ground up. As he goes along, he will make adjustments and when he's finished, he will see the final results.


In music, this type of thinking translates to the composer constructing their composition one note at a time with less thought put into the final outcome as is placed on smaller details such as individual pitch and motive.


Related: The Disappearance Of Themes In Film Music

While everyone utilizes some aspect of these two modes of thinking, one tends to be more dominant than the other.


Which is better?

There is no definitive answer to this, but there are advantages and disadvantages to both modes of thinking.


Bottom-up thinkers tend to be better problem solvers and outside the box thinkers. This means that creative solutions are more likely to come from bottom-up thinkers.


Because top-down thinking is more goal focused, they are more likely to meet deadlines, stick to schedules, and adhere to budgets.


So, which of these two modes dominates your way of thinking? How does it affect your music? Let me know in the comments...