There are two distinct kinds of imagination employed in composing music.
There is the imagination that comes up with original ideas — or, perhaps more accurately, new perspectives on old ideas. This is the form of imagination that starts us on our way, the “what if” imagination that causes us to try something new.
Then there is the sensory imagination, the imagination that is able to call to mind specific sound combinations – notes and timbres – and combine them in fresh ways, all while hearing, in precise detail, every aspect of the result.
I’ve never heard the distinction between these two kinds of imagination discussed by composers, but they are very different. Many composers place particular emphasis on one or the other, but I don’t see why either one should be of greater importance or interest. They certainly aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to have a fresh compositional idea, then flesh it out in gorgeous, imaginative detail. In fact, combining the two kinds of imagination would seem to be ideal.
Like reading, writing and “˜rithmetic, both of these imaginations can be improved with steady practice. The many exercises musicians undertake to train their ears are well known, but the ones that can be used to practice coming up with ideas are less common. Nonetheless, they do exist.
In the post-Beethoven era, composers who emphasize the ideating imagination have often been held up as superior to those who have highly refined tactile imaginations. Having original ideas, to the degree that such a thing is possible, is often seen as more important than being sensual or musical. I don’t know why that should be so, but that’s the trend I’ve seen from both critics and academics, and I have come to expect it.
Can one compose without either kind of imagination? Well, yes, in fact, it happens all the time. One doesn’t need even the semblance of an original idea to write music, and it’s fairly common these days for composers to abdicate their sensory imaginations, letting their software tell them everything they know about how their music will sound.
It’s certainly much easier that way. And it seems fewer and fewer people can tell the difference.
Is that a good thing? Is it inevitable? Is it ignorable?
Is imagination necessary?