We are all familiar with the struggles that composers face in finding artistic and professional success. The difficulties are enormous and the external rewards are few.

Given the challenges, it’s easy to lose sight of a few broader benefits of composing.  Here is my list of the reasons why composers’ work is valuable:

  • There are so many people who devote their lives to destroying things, it’s important to have just as many people devoted to creation, in order to balance out the human ledger.  In our own lives, we often destroy things — intentionally and unintentionally — composing is a way of balancing out our personal ledgers.
  • Composers create a unique record of what it means to be alive at this moment. Their record is different from poetry or prose, it’s different from visual representations. Without that record, we, as a civilization, know ourselves a little less, and the future understands us a little less, which is to our detriment.
  • Composers teach the world to listen more closely. We will never reach a point where people listen too closely to themselves, or to one another. Our presence, our work, can serve as a reminder that listening brings greater wisdom and awareness.
  • Composers make a unique connection to the past and the future. The musical ideas that get passed on and transformed from the beginning of time to the end are a tangible demonstration of the consistency and variance of life itself.
  • New music surprises us, and rewards us for our willingness to be surprised. Developing the ability to accept and grow from surprise is a crucial survival skill.
  • Living composers, forging music from their best and worst thoughts, demonstrate that the joys and indignities we all experience in our daily lives should never be wasted.

And finally:

  • It feels good. Never underestimate the importance of doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Those good feelings feed one another, feed our relationships with others, and in turn are passed on to people we never meet.

If, as individual composers, we are ignored in our own lifetimes or forgotten when we die, that is beyond our control and, to a certain extent, irrelevant to our purpose. The truth is, most people are ignored and forgotten by society at large, and each one of us has come from a long line of ignored and forgotten people, what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation. For adolescents, this is a tragedy. For adults, it should be an inspiration.

- originally posted June 2005

One Response to “Why Compose?”
  1. mclaren says:

    Superb essay. Highlights and reaffirms the positive aspects of making music too often ignored in the various lamentations about the alleged death of contemporary music.

    We should also add the social aspect of composing as a reason to create new music. New compositions often represent a form of conversation in which one composer adds to or comments on the work of another. This process builds on itself in a socially organized way to generate a collective elaboration of a particular musical style or contemporary music trend.

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