The release last month of Richard Taruskin’s new Oxford History of Western Music has many discussing the concept of musical literacy, weighing in on his view that literacy is on the wane. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s a provocative topic, and a great example of a “report” that can actually end up affecting the news. The Literacy Issue will likely be part of the discussion when people talk about art music for some time to come. Some will welcome what they perceive as the inevitable; others will take up the fight to defend what they love.

In any case, the whole notion got me thinking about how we learn to compose. In an interview shortly before his death, Ernst Toch described his first connection to the world of composing, finding a copy of ten string quartets by Mozart in a shop window: “I bought it. I was carried away when reading this score. Perhaps in order to prolong my exaltation, I started to copy it, which gave me deeper insight. By and by, I bought and copied all the ten scores. But I did not stop at that. After having copied three or four I became aware of the structure of the single movements. And when I started to copy the fifth, I decided I would only continue with my copying up to the repeat sign, and then try my hand at making that part myself which leads back to the original key (called “development” as I was later informed). Then I compared with the original. I felt crushed. Was I a flea, a mouse, a little nothing when I compared what I did with what Mozart did; but still I did not give up and continued my strange method to grope along in this way and to force Mozart to correct me.”

When I was in my early teens, I decided that the world needed me to arrange the fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet. My efforts failed to draw headlines, but I learned so much from the process. Copying out by hand, I learned intuitive lessons about texture, balance, imitation and development in ways that practically made formal fugue study irrelevant.

Which brings me to my question: Does anyone do this anymore? With the technological means to notate music or even create sound directly, surely the learning process of copying by hand is a thing of the past. I’m not lamenting its passing, but I’m wondering what the contemporary equivalent is for a young composer, before s/he encounters formal study. I have some ideas of my own, but I’m curious what others think. How do young composers immerse themselves in the music they admire? What is the current equivalent to following the compositional process with pencil and paper?

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