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Matthew Dallman is a composer, philosopher, & blogger. He has released three albums of original compositions, and published many essays that deal with integral art. His website is

Composition of Music

Theory and Practice of Two Flows

Matthew Dallman

Music as we know it in our everyday language is only a miniature: that which our intelligence has grasped from that music or harmony of the whole universe which is working behind us. The music of the universe is the background of the little picture which we call music. [1]
—Hazrat Inayat Khan

From my experiences as a composer, there are two main approaches to composing music. That a composer will use both in some combination is a given. To paraphrase Aurobindo, composing music is not a "set method." The Creative Spirit of the Universe manifests through each composer in ways beyond our everyday understanding. Seeking an explanation by means of the intellect solely reduces the Divine Stream to mere symbols and arbitrary rules. Therefore we must realize the limits of the intellect as we seek to socially discuss the musical ineffable.

The two main approaches can playfully be called the Mozart Approach and the Haydn Approach. Quite aware that these two composers were contemporaries and both of the European musical tradition, I nonetheless use their approaches to music composition as illustrative metaphors. There is evidence that even they did not hold exclusively to that which I will ascribe to them. The point is not to get too caught up in the historical accuracy of the approaches through each and every one of their musical works.

Rather, the point is to have an awareness of two main musical flows, and to understand, through the actual words of Mozart and Haydn, how two of the greatest composers in the Western tradition consciously operated. Their personal accounts of musical composition provide basic practices, or injunctions, that the composer can use in their ongoing realization of music.

The Haydn Approach

"I would sit down [at the piano] and begin to improvise, whether my spirit were sad or happy, serious or playful. Once I had captured an idea, I strove with all my might to develop and sustain it in conformity with the rules of art." [2]

We see that Haydn found ideas through his piano improvisations. We can imagine he reached a creative state where ideas flowed through him. We can imagine he discarded more ideas than he kept. And we can imagine that the ideas he did keep agreed with his own personal musical sensibility and taste.

To organize this analysis, we can loosely use terms "subjective" and "objective", as well as "improvisation" and "composition". As such, Haydn, with a piano, engaged his creative subjective in improvisational, raw creative state. The "ideas" he decided to capture became objective material. With that material, he then began more formal composition. We distinguish between improvisation and composition at the very moment he decided to crystallize an improvised idea into a longer work. He framed the idea, even as a small motif, onto the score. Then he began a process of re-internalizing this now objective idea. He composed according to his own taste, for sure, but also according to rationally formed "rules of art."

Haydn was an active music teacher and was well aware of music pedagogy of his time. For example, the book, Gradus ad Parnassum, by J.J. Fux, was teaching text he often used with his students, as well as studied himself. We can see through his scores that he knew the "rules" of music-making to the point where he actively bent, broke, and burned rules. Like any composer of his day (and many of our day), Haydn's musical sensibility was informed and trained through rigorous knowledge and practice of music theory. His subjective, therefore, was in part objectively informed.

So let's review. Through improvisation, Hadyn engaged his artistic subjective to create an objective musical idea. To transform that idea into a larger work, he proceeded back to his subjective through (at the very least) rational means of musical construction. Using a pen and paper, he sought to objectify the musical vision of larger architecture back into an objective state, namely a score.

The entire process is summarized as inside out, then outside in, and again inside out. Inside out to create the raw idea, outside in to conceive and create the larger composition, and inside out again to transfer that composition onto a score.

What is the most important sequence in this musical flow, I believe, and that which defines the Haydn Approach, is the sequence of construction from idea to larger work. By focusing here, we set aside the process by which Haydn arrived at his ideas. This is okay--we will do the same when we understand the Mozart Approach. This may seem arbitrary, but in reality the question of "where does this come from?" is difficult to fathom. Composers are inspired by all sorts of means, states of consciousness, and each composer is unique in the source of their inspiration. We are examining the approaches to composition, and in doing so, we can see something interesting in the Haydn Approach.

When we examine from the frame of idea into larger work, we see that Hadyn took an external idea and went inward with it. From the moment improvisation ended to the moment there was a created work of music, Haydn proceeded outside in. This is a smaller frame of the larger process, as I have described above. But as we will see when we examine the Mozart approach, outside in stands as a subtle directional of one main approach to musical flow in composition. That it is a legitimate and worthy approach to composition is, obviously, beyond doubt. Hadyn, and other composers whose compositional (not inspirational) flow proceeds outside in, composed some of most starkly beautiful works of music that the human race has manifested.

The Mozart Approach

There are two personal accounts of the musical flow of Mozart's composition:

"My subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statute, at a glance."
"Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, I hear them all at once. What a delight this is! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream."[3]

We see that Mozart's approach stands in contrast to Haydn's. Mozart's imagination, he tells us, is filled with musical ideas but also fully formed pieces of music. Simply put, Mozart found ideas not through improvisation, but through access to and awareness of his own musical consciousness.

It is not that Mozart was incapable of improvisation. To the contrary, he was known, for example, to improvising the cadenzas in public performances of his Concertos. His skills of playing piano were immense, and he would impress his colleagues and audience with improvised pieces of music that many thought were thought-out compositions. And this is not to say that Mozart never improvised and used an idea from that flow in a later composition. He very well may have, as Haydn very well may have visualized music as a priori sound in his composition.

So what do we understand as the Mozart Approach? The approach means having the ability to hear music without means of any instrument or voice. It means having the ability to hear music while in a contemplative consciousness. It means having a cultivation of inward awareness of pure subjective perception.

And after having a musical vision, the flow in the Mozart Approach proceeds inside out. Mozart arranges notes on the score to represent the music in his subjective awareness. He writes, he works, he labors to represent objectively that which was first dreamt.

The question of where Mozart's music originates we will leave open. It's a question of little intellectual concern, because we could never truly answer it with any authority. It appears that composers cannot say with certainly where ideas originate. Ideas found through improvisation seem still to not originate there, and ideas found inwardly seem to have often been first heard through objective means of recorded music or a live performance of another artist. Our source material is a flowing mesh. Inspiration is distinct from composition.

As Hazrat Inayat Khan says, the music we call music is but a miniature of the music of the universe. That music is as a large sea. We stand on the shore and glimpse but a limited part of its vastness. We as composers must trust the ideas given to us by the sea, through whatever means we receive them. As we trust the sea, we enter into its vastness, move with its waves, and manifest these movements through our little musical pictures.[4]

The Injunctions of the Mozart and Haydn Approaches

When we talk of injunctions, which are also known as practices, exemplars, or paradigms, we aim to talk of practical actions one can take in order to receive sought-for data. For example, one injunction of meditation is to sit and ask "Who am I?" countless times. The sought-for data is a subjective and personal understanding of larger, deeper, and wider consciousness beyond the intellect. The combination of the sit and the interior question forms one meditation injunction that involves easily understood, practical action: sit and ask the question. A different sort of injunction would be to sit on a couch and read about car engines. You sit and read, you will receive data about car engines. The injunctions you choose to perform depend upon the questions you ask.

In that vein we look for the injunctions implicit in the two approaches to music composition described here. We look for a simple activity that can be performed with an open-ended goal of mastery, given enough repetition.

So, how do we compose music? What injunctions can we engage in order to follow one of the two approaches?

The injunction of the Haydn Approach is to be inspired by improvisation, and then proceed inward to compose according to one's subjective understanding of theory, aesthetics, and architecture. The composer might continue to compose with an instrument, or might use a pencil and paper, or a combination thereof. We play or sing until we come upon an idea that arrests us; with that idea, we compose according to our own Muse. Stated even more brief, the Haydn injunction is: we brainstorm, then we build.

An associated sub-injunction would be to learn music theory, history, and classical form so you have frameworks to bend and break, but to ultimately nest your ideas. Most theory books and lessons are geared so that the student experientially composes according to a graduated program of increasing theoretical complexity. Any education will inform how you re-internalize the ideas you want to further develop.

The injunction of the Mozart Approach is to visualize music in subjective consciousness first, then replicate that vision onto the score or an instrument. That is a large injunction, and difficult, but that's what it is. (The truth is, creating beautiful music is difficult no matter what approach you choose.) So allow inspiration to originate in your own consciousness, then replicate it on paper, or some other record. Briefly stated, the Mozart injunction is: visualize, then record.

A sub-injunction, to reach the larger injunction, is to perform a smaller version of transcribing from your own consciousness. You replicate on paper any musical idea you hear. It could be a simple rhythm, a short melody, or a combination. A common music school class is Dictation, which is often grouped with Sight-Singing. In Dictation, the teacher performs a melody or rhythm several times, and the students write down what they hear, without any aid but their own musical sensibility. For this injunction, I suggest you become the teacher, and use your own musical intuitions as the material to transcribe. If you have four notes in your interior awareness, then sit down with paper and record those four notes on paper. This is called self-dictation.[5]

Sit at a table with pencil and staff paper, close your eyes (or whatever you do) and enter a contemplative state. Visualize whatever short bit of music you can, and hold it in your awareness without losing it. Sit with it until you feel strong enough with it that you can start to transcribe it on the paper, one note at a time. If you have to consult a piano or other instrument for context, you can, but do so cautiously so as to not lose the original vision. The more you cultivate this practice, you may find over time that you can visualize larger and larger streams of music. And you can do so without having to consult an instrument. Again, don't be afraid to start small and simple. Any idea that comes to you is a gift from the sea.

In Conclusion

The Haydn Approach to composition is outside-in, and the Mozart Approach is inside-out. That is easy enough stated, but of course the trick comes in the discipline of practicing the injunctions. Whether one approach is better for you than the other is for you to determine. For my own composition, I use both, sometimes in the same piece. For example, I'll visualize a long melody and transcribe it. Then I will proceed to improvise with it, say over chords for a thicker texture, and experiment with sonorities that sound right. I have written entire pieces using just one approach exclusively. There is no set method. Both approaches require consistent effort and focused clarity. The sea rewards you for that. It rewards you for your trust and the creative risk you take in offering that trust. Our little musical pictures are windows to greater and greater depth the more we are open and hollow to musical flow. To the musical ineffable. And to the consciousness that knows neither objective nor subjective, singular nor plural. We swim in the Divine and report back through our aural wave-pictures.


1: The Mysticism of Sound and Music, by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Shambhala Publications; Revised edition, 1996

2: Composers on Music, Eight Centuries of Writings, Josiah Fisk, ed., Northeastern University Press; 1956

3: Talks with Great Composers, by A. Abell, Replica Books; 2000

4: The metaphor of the sea, and the creative risk you take in offering trust in it, was given to me by Dr. Philip Rubinov-Jacobson,, in a personal conversation in Feb. 2003, in Boulder, CO. Philip is an artist, writer, teacher and visionary in several fields. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Studio Arts, Psychology, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. His work has been exhibited internationally in more than 80 exhibitions and his writings have been read world-wide.

5: From a personal conversation in March 2003 with Kyle Adams, pianist, teacher, and music theory scholar who teaches at several music schools in New York City, including Queens College, Hunter College, and Mannes College of Music. He is currently a PhD Candidate through the Graduate Center of CUNY . [email protected]

©2003 Electric Goose Productions

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