In 2003 I began a track of music theory classes in college. Like my dad, I’ve spent much of my life feeling frustrated that I can like music so much, but not be able to create it. So for a few years I dove into the intellectual study of music, hoping to unravel its secrets and somehow open up a door of understanding that would allow me to compose even a fairly basic piece.
But music is hard.
I loved what I learned, but like language and mathematics, it requires a sort of mental juggling in my head that I just can’t seem to manage anymore without enormous effort. There’s all these pieces: timing, rhythm, shape, layers, rules. And I’m pretty sure most musicians, and composers especially, are able to quite naturally think linearly and spatially simultaneously, which maybe I could do more easily when I was younger, but now I want to work only spatially. I want to hold the entire framework in my hands. Maybe it’s because of what I learned in school that I crave the underlying framework.
One of the most exciting things I learned in music theory class is how you can take an entire movement of a symphony, and distill it down to an ascending/descending scale of basically five notes. 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1. That’s an entire movement, right there. C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C. Or even three notes: 1 2 3 2 1, C-D-E-D-C. Then stick all the other notes of the symphony, in orderly fashion, in between those foundation notes. The bridge upon which everything else is built.
I’m simplifying it, I know, and describing it in entirely wrong words I’m sure. I last touched this stuff five years ago and haven’t used it since. But I remember the concept, and have craved the ability to use this concept to compose music. I see myself laying out my foundation notes, then inserting a motive in between the notes, then expanding the motive by inserting between the inserted notes, and on and on, growing my piece from within like a balloon.
This seems to me like a completely logical way to write music, and it makes sense to me except for the fact that I can’t figure out a way to do what I want to do. They just don’t make music notation software, or paper for that matter, that will let me write this way. You can’t expand between notes on paper unless you’re writing on bubble gum. You could conceivably do it in software, except they don’t make software that lets you. Whenever you leave a measure incomplete, the software inserts rests for you, which completely messes me up.
But that’s beside the point, really. Because when it comes to music composition, I really don’t know what I’m doing, because music is so hard and I never managed to open that door of understanding I had really hoped to find within myself. And so, I crave, and remain unsatisfied.
It occurred to me, as I wrestle with trying to adapt a centuries-old story into a modern-day play, that I think I can apply that musical concept to building my story. I take the story, the “symphony”, and deconstruct it down to its motives, and finally down to that basic 1 2 3 2 1 bridge. And once I’ve finally found that most basic structure (plot), then I can figure out a new motive (story), and start building from within (outline). And then, finally, fill in the outline, linearly.
I know, I know, this is just another way of talking about the story structure that everyone knows about: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. But what I’m saying is that I never realized that literary writing could satisfy my musical craving.
And maybe I’ve just written my way into figuring out what I’ve been missing in my musical composition craving: how to work linearly while still holding on to the framework.