Composers of Old and New…

Marshall Chasin
February 7, 2017

I was chatting with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart the other day about how music composition may have changed over the years. Technology does seem to get its fingers into all sorts of areas and the arts are no exception.

Unaltered original photograph of Mozart conducting his orchestra. Courtesy of

Now Mozart, like Beethoven (although I have never met Beethoven before), could conceive of a full orchestral score (usually in several voicings) in his head.  He only had to write it down for the instrumental musicians that he was composing for, and presumably so that he could occasionally get paid. Mozart didn’t need a full orchestra in front of him to try things out to see how they sounded.

But there are few such prodigies in the world.

Most of the rest of us mere mortals require either the actual musicians or, in today’s technology, really good music samples with a computer speed that is as fast as the wind.

Most composers of yester-year needed to try their music out in front of an orchestra and make changes as needed. This undoubtedly was quite expensive, both in terms of finances and time. The lucky and/or very talented ones such as Franz Liszt, a 19th century composer, even had the financial stability and foresight to build a working desk that was half desk and half piano.  Even though there was a tuning fork in the picture, I doubt whether Franz Liszt would have ever used it; in Germany, A (440 Hz) was, and is today, tuned to A (445 Hz).  Mr. Liszt had perfect pitch as well which would have obviated the need for a tuning fork, even one that was tuned to be a bit sharp, at least according to our standards.

Franz Liszt’s composing desk

Actually, it is thought that Franz Liszt also had synesthesia and he attributed colors to the sounds of his music, but that belongs to a different blog called “See the Music”.

Needless to say, composing music in the old days was quite difficult, and unless you were VERY talented, VERY rich, or VERY lucky, composing would not be your day job.

With the advent of modern digital technology and essentially no limits on the amount of data storage and access time, the modern composer is ½ musician, ½ technical wiz, and ½ computer programmer.  The modern composer not only needs to know about the various keys and modes, but also his or her way around a music to digital interface (MIDI).  A modern composer also needs to know a lot about compression, attack time, release time, compression ratio, bandwidth, frequency response ….  In short, a modern composer also needs to be ½ audiologist.

There are a number of software/hardware interfaces in the market place and there are many libraries of music samples from which the composer can avail themselves of.  No longer does a composer need a large orchestra to try their music out and make changes- it can all be done in the solitude of their home or office.

My son Shaun in front of his MIDI based software/hardware workspace. Courtesy of

So, if you ever meet a modern day composer (such as my son Shaun), take him out for a drink- he needs to get out of the house more.  And if you want to pick one up in a bar, you need to learn an entire new set of pick-up lines.  No longer will “hi cutey; wanna dance?” work.  One needs to suavely go up to the composer (who is probably too shy to approach you) and say, “I love the compression ratios that you selected for your last piece… would you like to come over and see my sound library?”…

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