Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Behind a Composition – Technology Conversation Continues

I was pleased as punch by the discussion generated by my last post regarding digital technology, digital-shortcuts, the piano and composers.

A number of correspondents argued that digital notational programs like Finale and Sibelius are simply “the next thing”, and that the limits placed on one’s creativity by actually composing on one of these programs is little different from the limits imposed by composing at a piano.

I would pick up the ball right there, because these assertions are incorrect for a number of reasons.

Reason one. Keyboard instruments began consistently employing a full chromatic keyboard (using the same layout as the modern piano) by the late fifteenth century. This was in response to growing pitch resources of the evolving tonal system, a system based on the primacy of the triad and the concept of harmonic consonance and dissonance. The invention of the harpsichord in the late fourteenth century was due in no small part to the growing demand for a portable yet more resonant keyboard instrument capable of clearly articulating and “broadcasting” the new harmonic vocabulary. The point: the emergence and development of keyboard instruments was not merely a technological event but an ORGANIC EVENT, one tied inextricably to the emergence and development of tonal harmony, new pitch resources, new tuning systems, and new expressive demands.

Working at a keyboard should no more be considered a compositional crutch than the lungs should be considered a respiratory crutch. Like humans and dogs, the vocabulary of Western music and keyboard instruments have co-evolved over the last 600 or so. With all due respect to the lute and the guitar, keyboard instruments are the only ones that allow someone to easily play and experience the harmonic language of Western music as it has evolved over the last 600 years. A keyboard is not just “a” tool; it is the indispensable device for hearing and manipulating harmony, both tonal or non-tonal.

Reason two. The assumption that the piano somehow hinders compositional imagination and limits understanding of other instruments is entirely untrue. The evidence of this is overwhelming. Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest keyboard player of his time. Did the keyboard limit his imagination and hinder his ability to compose for other instruments? Of course not. In fact, the contrary is true: Bach’s preternatural harmonic virtuosity – a direct outgrowth of his activities as a keyboard player – allowed his vocal and orchestral music to soar to places aesthetic and spiritual beyond anything that had existed to his time. And Bach is not the isolated case. No indeed, the list of great composers who learned to hear and understand music through the keyboard reads like a who’s who of some of the greatest composers AND pianists who ever lived: Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Camille Saint-Saëns, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Charles Ives, Isaac Albéniz, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Alberto Ginastera, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Rzewski, Terry Riley, TO NAME JUST A FEW.

Three. Digital is different. Our new technology is not simply the next cycle, the next swing of the pendulum. Oh no; it is the techno-revolution in action, the most important technological event since the invention of the printing press and the subsequent explosion of literacy. For better or for worse, nothing (except, perhaps, the physical act of reproduction) will remain the same.

With the understanding that this techno-revolution is still in its infancy, let’s bring the conversation back to music. Twenty-five years ago, a songwriter had to be able to conceptualize and notate the harmonies – the chords – that supported her melodies. But that’s not necessary today. For $39 she can buy a program called “Harmony Builder 2.2” ( that will do it for her. Oh, the song might sound like crap, but who cares? Our songwriter found a $39 SHORTCUT, one that allowed her to avoid having to acquire those difficult and time-consuming things called taste and technique.

Twenty-five years ago, if a singer wanted to sing in tune, he had to take the time to learn how to sing in tune. Today, that singer’s voice can be piped through a digital device called Auto-Tune and it will emerge, at the speed of light, flawlessly in tune. Would Ella Fitzgerald or Luciano Pavarotti ever have consented (or needed) to use such a thing? Of course not. But Madonna and Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg (among many others) have no such qualms, and an Auto-Tune rig is now standard equipment in almost every recording studio. Is it, as many believe, merely Photoshop for the human voice, or does it represent – as some claim – a new and more intimate relationship between the human voice and technology? Or really, is it just a digital shortcut for the technique impaired?

Twenty-five years ago there were only three ways for composers to “hear” their music. The first was to have the skill to hear it in their heads using their “inner ears”. The second way was to have the skill to actually play it themselves on a musical instrument. The third way was to have it rehearsed and performed by living, breathing musicians. Today, there is a fourth way: we can press a button and our notation programs will play it back for us. A useful tool, yes? In the right hands, yes. But not if such digital playback replaces – as it now often does – the development of a would-be composer’s inner ear, instrumental competence, and the necessity of dealing with LIVE MUSICIANS WHO CAN ALWAYS TEACH US A THING OR TWO. In such cases, all the program does is encourage ignorance and incompetence.

As far as I’m concerned, amateur songwriters and performers like Madge and Britney and the Snoopster can do whatever they please; we don’t expect a lot from them. But if someone aspires to be a composer of art music in the Western tradition, that person must be ready and willing to pay the price in blood, sweat, tears and TIME.

‘Cause here’s the scoop: all the digi-toys and apps in the world notwithstanding, there are no shortcuts to becoming a competent composer. That’s both the bad news and the goods news. “Bad news” because the prerequisites to writing a technically polished, even vaguely personal musical composition take years – decades – to acquire. One must learn to sing and/or play an instrument at least passably well, because only someone who can make music can write music. One must study and know the repertoire from at least around 1600 to yesterday; the repertoire – our magnificent musical canon – has everything to teach us. One must acquire chops because there is no substitute or shortcut for technique. Ear training, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and analysis: it’s galley-slave stuff, and there’s no way around it. One must find a teacher – a mentor – and then write and write and write and write, imitating everyone and stealing constantly while being critiqued mercilessly in order to develop fluency and build a vocabulary. One must hear one’s works performed and listen carefully to what the players themselves have to say, because they can teach us more about their instruments and how they are really played than any book (or computer program) ever can. (Here’s some advice I used to give my composition students: don’t worry about making your audience happy. Rather, make your players happy. If the players like a piece, they will communicate their happiness to the audience, which will consequently be happy as well. See how simple?)

The next step is often the toughest, as early-career composers must then blow off much (if not most) of what they were told by their teachers as they seeks to find a mature musical voice and language of their own.

Having accomplished all of this one can look forward to a lifetime of monk-like poverty and hermit-like obscurity, unless one’s father is, like, John Adams.

The good news is that if you can legitimately call yourself a composer, you will have accomplished something glorious and you will have managed to master an aspect of the art of music to a rare degree.

For which there are no shortcuts.


  1. That was a fantastic article. It sums up perfectly the moment in history where we are, when many people might call themselves musicians or even composers even if very few deserve that title.

  2. That was a fantastic article. It sums up perfectly the moment in history where we are, when many people might call themselves musicians or even composers even if very few deserve that title..