Music Composition: Handwritten vs. Software

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Contemporary composers sometimes use modern technology to compose music, but should they?



I recently wrote this article about one of my favorite film composers Ennio Morricone. My commentary concerned a statement he made about true composers being able to orchestrate.


In addition to those statements, according to Soundtrack Magazine, Morricone made the following comments in a 1995 interview with Alejandro Ryker:


The people who write a score playing on the piano, these are not serious musicians. I compose directly onto the paper and sometimes, after writing, I go to the piano to try out some things. But I use this method very sparingly, because the orchestra [touching his head) is here above.”

What exactly does he mean? According to the article, Morricone composes with pencil and paper only. There are many composers today that don't compose this way.


Consequently, when referring to "people who write a score playing on the piano", I can imagine that he was speaking of one the the following:

  1. People who use the piano in any way during the compositional process.

  2. People who compose music by playing piano directly into a digital audio workstation (DAW), notation program, or any other type of software.

Let's look at these one at a time...


People who use the piano in any way during the compositional process

The literal, but least likely explanation for what Morricone was talking about is the process of using the piano as a compositional aid.


The issue with this interpretation is that using the piano as a reference point with relation to pitch and harmony is the more traditional way to compose music.


Consequently, I will put this explanation to the side for now and look at the second possibility.


People who compose music by playing piano directly into a DAW

This is the most likely meaning behind Morricone's statement.


Today's technology provides the opportunity for composers to "write" their music by playing it into some sort of computer program, whether it be a notation program or a DAW or some other program that can capture the notes that are played on the piano.


There are two schools of thought concerning this.


Many traditional composers tend to compose by hand. They grab their blank score sheets, and they pencil in each note, one at a time.


In the case of Morricone, he doesn't use the piano at all, except occasionally.


Many contemporary composers, however, enjoy the luxury of being able to sit at the piano and play the music they want to write into a DAW, which records the notes on the computer.


Once everything is edited, the the score can be printed out.


So, is there a problem with this???

Is there actually a problem with composing music this way? Further, are you a serious composer if you compose in this manner?


*Full disclosure: I'm more of a traditional composer. I'm much more comfortable composing one note at a time. I can relate to Morricone in this regard. The music is in my head, I just need to write it down.


However, regardless of my personal methods, isn't every composer allowed to have their own compositional process?


From my point of view, every composer should be proficient in three things:

  1. Music Theory

  2. Music Notation

  3. Instrumentation/Orchestration

If a composer is skilled in these basic areas, shouldn't he/she be allowed to take advantage of modern technology?


Or does the maestro have a point? Is the traditional way, the only way?


Coda

Music composition is a highly personal process. Every composer has their own method; each has their own individual preference.


With that being said, everyone has their own opinion as well. Maestro Morricone certainly has a right to his.


But what do you think? Is Morricone correct? Are composers who compose primarily using advancements in technology true composers? Let me know in the comments section...