So where does music really come from?

Is inspiration just chance, a gift from God or the fruit of persistence and training? Bayan Northcott examines what happens when someone sits down to compose
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The Independent Culture

SO, YOU have been teaching more or less willing children the piano over the last few years, and composing the odd piece on the side - piano studies, bits of incidental music for school plays, nothing ambitious. But now a college chum has asked for an item or two to include in a piano album for Grade 5 he's compiling. You strum the keyboard a bit in search of an idea and, nothing much emerging, lapse almost absent-mindedly into a long-familiar Bach prelude. Then suddenly a mistake, and the way the fingers follow it through, jerks at your attention. You play it over again. Just a handful of notes, but with a shape, a charge, an attractiveness of their own. Start there.

SO, YOU have been teaching more or less willing children the piano over the last few years, and composing the odd piece on the side - piano studies, bits of incidental music for school plays, nothing ambitious. But now a college chum has asked for an item or two to include in a piano album for Grade 5 he's compiling. You strum the keyboard a bit in search of an idea and, nothing much emerging, lapse almost absent-mindedly into a long-familiar Bach prelude. Then suddenly a mistake, and the way the fingers follow it through, jerks at your attention. You play it over again. Just a handful of notes, but with a shape, a charge, an attractiveness of their own. Start there.

Instantly, the old music-college training snaps into action. Adding a little rhythmic kick to the note-shapes, you try this chord and that by way of accompaniment, selecting a couple that work and spreading them in figuration to add movement. In no time, there's a complete two-bar chunk. What next? Repeat for another two bars with a twist at the end to lead onwards? Or balance it with an "answering" two-bar phrase - the same shape sort of reversed? Fiddling with the initial shape, you find it goes quite nicely with itself in canon at the fifth - but that this leads the harmony away from the home key too quickly to come so early in the piece. Save till later.

At which point you realise, with a sinking heart, that your starting idea bears a suspicious resemblance to a woodwind phrase in your favourite Sibelius symphony. No more than a suppressed memory, then? But it's not quite the same; two of your pitches are in reverse order to Sibelius, and, of course, the two contexts are quite different. Would anyone else notice? And aren't the classics full of moments that remind us of other classics, anyway? So, keep going. How about two bars plus answering two bars, then repeat the four-bar unit with the odd harmonic change and a new twist at the end, leading to...?

Well, after an opening paragraph, all good classical pieces are supposed to move from the tonic to the dominant - C major to G, say. But how about making it the dominant minor - much less usual in a major- key piece? By the end of a couple of hours, you've drafted 16 plausible bars - halfway there! And if the little canon is used to open the second half, it will simply be a matter of finding your way back to the home key and restating your opening material to finish it off.

Tomorrow, though; for now, some urgent shopping. Before closing the piano, you repeat over that unexpected initial idea. Yes, it still has its specialness. So was its emergence an accident or a discovery, a gift or even, in its utterly modest way, a bit of an inspiration?

Diving into the local bookshop 20 minutes later, you notice in the tiny music section a newly published Faber paperback entitled - talk about synchronicity - Music and Inspiration by Jonathan Harvey (presumably the rather modernistic composer you've occasionally heard on Radio 3, though there was that striking electronic piece with bells...). Accordingly you purchase and bear the book home, opening its introduction to read: "Most composers would readily admit that inspiration, at some stage of the compositional process, is a necessary component of a fully satisfying work... It is the persistence of a particular experience of inspiration - transcending differences of period, nationality, social class, gender, religious and philosophical beliefs, and musical style - that I am concerned above all to show in this book."

Rather flattered by the implication that the beginning of your own little piece was the same kind of experience as the inspirations of Beethoven, Wagner et al , you continue sampling the book for some time; noting that the first three of its four chapters are entitled "The Composer and the Unconscious", "The Composer and Experience", and "The Composer and the Audience". Evidently the idea is to work from inspiration as an innate mental experience "outwards" to its stimulation by the composer's personal experience and training, and beyond these to the input of his, or her listeners - which seems an obvious enough way of going about it. But then there's that final chapter "The Composer and the Ideal", plus the author's personal Postscript about Buddhist meditation and spiritual "liberation from the fear of death", which suggest that a book you took to be an enquiry has somehow turned more into a religious tract.

Has this bias affected the choice of composer-testimonies that comprise the book's "evidence" you wonder? Some of the quotes chime nicely enough with your own simple experience: Aaron Copland, for instance, writing: "These germinal ideas... seem to be begging for their life, asking their creator, the composer, to find the ideal envelope, to evolve a shape and colour and content that will most fully exploit their creative potential." But what exactly does Harvey think the atheistic Brahms really meant when he remarked: "A good theme is a gift from God"? And why doesn't the book include that other Brahms statement that "without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken by the wind", suggesting that inspiration is only what you make of it, and what you make of it can be learned or acquired by experience?

For that matter, wasn't the donnée of your little piano piece itself largely preordained by the kind of thing you were aiming at, by your keyboard training, and by the Bach prelude - not to mention the Sibelius memory? So was your pleasure in its discovery any different, say, from a lucky throw in darts, or suddenly finding the solution of a problem?

Just then, your eyes light on a college textbook you've kept on your shelf ever since: The Musical Mind: the cognitive psychology of music by John A Sloboda. Turning to its long chapter on "Composition and Improvisation" with its careful distinctions between the conscious and unconscious elements in play, and the author's blow-by-blow commentary upon composing his own little choral piece, you're reminded this is still the most convincing account of the experience you've come across (or, at any rate, the closest to your own). If only Harvey had been as comparably rigorous in defining the aspects of inspiration that are actually closer to skill, luck, problem-solving and so on, his contention that there remains a common core of numinosity might convince a bit more, you conclude as you lay his book aside.

Only then do you realise that the provisional ideas for the 16-bar second half of your piece have been working themselves out at the back of your mind all along, and that you can now virtually write it straight out - which means tomorrow morning you can have a go at another one. After all, didn't Brahms and Stravinsky swear by routine as the fount of inspiration? And didn't Tchaikovsky, of all people, write: "I sit down to the piano regularly at nine o'clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for the rendezvous"? Muses at nine tomorrow would be a sprightly prospect.

'Music and Inspiration' by Jonathan Harvey, Faber, £12.99

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