Classical composers who sang instead of played instruments?
December 14, 2009 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Are there well-known classical composers who aren't trained on a particular instrument? An acquaintance is a young singer who's interested in composition (mostly for voice), but in talking to him I get the sense that he feels a little inadequate compared to his fellow students who are accomplished on at least one instrument like piano or violin. Can you give me examples of classical composers whose work is respected but who weren't primarily instrumental players? Modern or otherwise. Thanks!
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If he takes musicianship/composition classes, they will make him take a basic keyboarding lab. I don't know that being accomplished is necessarily required, rather, I think a basic familiarity with many different instruments would be better for a composer. Then, delving into the mysteries of each instrument's character would inform the compositions a little more, and maybe serve as a good source of inspiration. I have no evidence to back that up, however. Anecdotally, I know in my musicianship classes (I was a music theory major once upon a time,) there were about an even number of pro-level performers and minimum-competence players. Not that that proves anything about who was successful or not.
posted by ctmf at 7:37 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: A number of prominent twentieth century composers weren't nearly capable of performing their own work in public: Peter Mennin (practical experience limited to the accordion), Arnold Schoenberg (delegated demonstrations to an assistant), William Schuman (banjo player in his youth; preferred baseball), Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt.

In a less classical genre: Joe Meek was musically illiterate, absolutely tone deaf, and violently depressive, but managed to become one of the most influential producers of all time.
posted by Iridic at 8:04 PM on December 14, 2009

I'm not exactly clear on what you mean by "not primarily instrumental players" and "not trained." I think the word "primarily" is confusing me. When I tell people that I'm a composer the first question I normally get from non-musicians is to ask what instrument I play. I often get strange reactions when I tell people that I don't play anymore, so entwined are composition and performance in our culture. I did, however, study several instruments for a long time. Still, there's no way I can play any of my music. Some colleagues are virtuoso pianists, some aren't but almost every composer that I know has at least very basic keyboard skills. I can think of a couple of exceptions but they are virtuoso guitarists, and the two are equivalent when it's all said and done. So, in short, there are plenty of composers who are not virtuoso players but I do not know of one who did not play an instrument at some point. As I've never come across it, I have no idea whether or not voice would be equivalent. Ultimately composition is its own skill so, with talent, if it is a handicap it might be a handicap that can be overcome.
posted by ob at 8:12 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: British composer Judith Bingham is a professional singer and has written a lot of interesting choral music. Definitely worth a listen!
posted by aquafortis at 8:12 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: Hector Berlioz was a brilliant composer and arranger who started late and never played any instrument in public. At home, he might play a little bit of guitar.
posted by ovvl at 8:24 PM on December 14, 2009

Response by poster: I have no idea whether or not voice would be equivalent.

I think that's really the core of the question here. Is extensive voice training analogous to instrumental training with regard to benefits provided for later study in composition? Are there musicians whose training was primarily in voice who went on to successful composition careers?
posted by mediareport at 8:42 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: Meredith Monk began as a dancer, and developed a unique compositional style with emphasis on vocals.
posted by ovvl at 8:45 PM on December 14, 2009

Well, I think voice is just as valid an instrument as any (or more so) and I can't see how that would set your friend behind "instrument" players (as long as he can read and write music, of course.) The reasoning behind basic keyboarding though is so you can communicate your ideas to someone else easily, even multi-part harmonic phrases or not-exactly-strict rhythm. It's annoying for the musicians to have to hear things like, "I want it like bah-bah-bah, while the altos are going AHHHHahhhh" or scribble something on paper when it would be so much more clear to just bang it on the piano in a second.
posted by ctmf at 9:05 PM on December 14, 2009

I think it depends on how deep a grounding in theory your friend got. With most traditional instruments you get a pretty good understanding of how music works as well as performance skills. If your friend has a good understanding of the theory behind music I think she'll be fine. I think basic keyboarding is necessary though to communicate ideas.
posted by kylej at 9:43 PM on December 14, 2009

Bobby McFerrin is primarily a vocalist, but is also a composer and an orchestral conductor.
posted by ericc at 10:46 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: I'll throw some generalizations at you from my experience in music school. This is mostly regarding the technical side of composition; that is, the ability to get your ideas out of your mind and into a form that others can experience.

The hierarchy of incoming music students' preparedness to study music theory/composition:
1. Piano players--
1a. Of the pianists, the ones who could read music very fluently tended to be very much "tuned in" to the theory side of things. These people tended to be able to put musical ideas onto paper pretty easily, but this alone couldn't guarantee that what they put on paper would be of any real musical value, but at least they could get music to exist outside of their own heads. Certainly, not all of these great readers were good at getting ideas into ink, but the ones who were there for composition tended to be.
1b. Those who could fairly accurately reproduce music they had heard (from an outside source or from within their own heads. i.e. "playing by ear") tend to be able to get ideas "into the air" pretty fluently. This doesn't necessarily mean they could get these ideas onto paper. Also, like 1a, fluency of ideas didn't guarantee that these ideas were any good. Incidentally, some of these people were mostly "self-trained" pianists. They got into music school by auditioning on their primary instruments or voice.
2. Vocalists--High school choir teachers seemed to teach a lot more theory than the band directors, so they seemed pretty fluent in theory. Solfege and ear training tended to come pretty easily to vocalists, and "Dooooo Soooooool Miiiiiiiiiii Faaaaaaaa" is a lot more useful for getting ideas to paper than "DAAAAAA BAAAAAAA DAAAAAAA DURRRRRRRRR."
3. Bandos/string players.--We had the reading part down, but, since we tended to only play one note at a time, we understood melody far better than harmony. Theory was shaky sometimes, but since we had to test into the theory classes (like anyone else) we had at least some grounding going into it.

Most composition majors I knew had experience in more than one of these three areas. 1a and 1b often came in a single person (which, technically, is enviable. Again, though, it says nothing for the quality of music they fluently put on paper).

But in the end, no matter what the background, we all took and had to pass the same theory, ear training and composition classes/lessons/recitals, so it evened out a good deal. The pianists had a big leg up technique wise, and they were always the first ones to get a lot of dense music onto paper, I've stressed above, technique doesn't always equal quality.
posted by The Potate at 11:16 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: Richard Wagner played piano somewhat, but he had a limited amount of instruction on the instrument and was largely self-taught. He focused on composition and conducting starting already in his teens.
posted by drlith at 4:22 AM on December 15, 2009

Best answer: I think that's really the core of the question here. Is extensive voice training analogous to instrumental training with regard to benefits provided for later study in composition? Are there musicians whose training was primarily in voice who went on to successful composition careers?

The vast majority of singers at music colleges are bad at music theory. By bad I mean way below the average across the board. That is something borne out in my experience both as a student and a teacher: singers taking foundation music theory classes over and over again is not uncommon. Music theory is important to composers, so judging by my experience with singers, I would say that your friend should make sure that he has a rock-solid grounding in theory. As I said above, there are very few composers who do not possess basic keyboard skills. I would imagine that even composer-vocalists like Meredith Monk would have that.

I can imagine that writing for instruments might also be a problem for someone who has never played one. Writing for voice and writing for instruments is quite different. All voices have basically the same issues, but each instrument has its own physicality. That doesn't mean that a composer has to play every instrument, far from it, but not having a physical understanding of the motor-skills involved might be an issue. As I said above, if your friend is very talented, then this can all be overcome.

It also depends on where your friend studies. There aren't too many schools that would allow a student to write solely for voice but I can imagine this being less of a problem in Westminster Choir College as opposed to Juilliard to give to East Coast US examples.
posted by ob at 7:18 AM on December 15, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, y'all. These were very helpful answers in a number of ways; you've given me some interesting points to bring up the next time we chat. FWIW, he is taking theory courses (the last time we talked he showed me his 12-tone settings for some very cool 20th-century poetry), has a sharp ear for unusual music and is all about learning new things. Thanks again for the information and suggestions.
posted by mediareport at 9:25 PM on December 15, 2009

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