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Prog composer's instrumental background

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paganinio View Drop Down
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    Posted: February 17 2017 at 09:40
I heard that the majority of composers also know how to play the piano/keyboard. 

This is true in classical music and probably in modern pop music. But in rock music, and prog rock, the guitar is the far more common instrument.

So I'm just wondering, the people who write prog music -- do they usually know how to play a keyboard instrument? Is the guitar playing ability enough for a prog composer? 

Also, let's consider music with flute, violin, mellotron, etc. in them. Is it necessary for the composer to know how to play those instruments, in order to write music that uses those instruments?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote presdoug Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 17 2017 at 11:15
I know that Triumvirat's composer/ keyboardist Juergen Fritz was a classically trained, Honours student at the Cologne Conservatory.
           J. Peter Robinson, composer/keys player with Quatermass was classically trained as well. These two players later went on to compose music for film.
                        Quatermass and T'rat are examples of keys dominant progressive rock, though. Their classical training shows in their prog compositions, definitely.


Edited by presdoug - February 17 2017 at 11:18
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Manuel Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 17 2017 at 16:43
I don't think it is necessary to be a multi-intrumentalist to write music, but it certainly is a big plus.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Thatfabulousalien Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 17 2017 at 17:08
Not at all but you do need to know how to write idiomatically for whatever instruments you're writing for
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dean Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 18 2017 at 02:43
Once you know the limitations of an instrument you can write music for it. This goes beyond just knowing the range of each instrument and understanding which instruments are monophonic and which are polyphonic. (Don't write chords for a flute unless you have three flautists in your band).

Guitars and pianos are oft used for composing because they have a very wide range so can play the parts other instruments would be expected to cover. However, even these have limitations that the composer must be aware of when writing or transposing music with them and for them.

A keyboard player has 88 notes at their disposal and two hands with five fingers each with which to play them so there are limitations of what they can physically do at any moment in time based upon their hand span and the distance between keys - it is no accident that on a full-size keyboard that the average hand-span from pinkie to thumb is one octave on the keys - in principle a pianist can play 10 notes simultaneously (or in quick succession) but they cannot play top-C, bottom-C and middle-C at the same time without using a third appendage. Similarly guitars are made (and thus tuned) so that (at the top of the fretboard) the four fretting fingers can span five frets and cover two octaves - a guitarist takes a finite time to move their hand from one end of the fretboard to the other so jumps of more than two octaves cannot happen instantaneously.


Edited by Dean - February 18 2017 at 03:13
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Atavachron Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 18 2017 at 02:54
^ In fact I'll often notice a phrase or riff consisting of roughly five to ten notes, or within the limits of one to two hands.   No surprise, though one wonders what music would sound like if we had more, or fewer, fingers.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dean Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 18 2017 at 03:11
PS: I was watching the BBC Symphony Orchestra play a Philip Glass piece the other week and from a "composer's" perspective it was interesting to see the near-seemless transition of one of his leitmotifs from violin to viola to cello to double-bass. 

On an electronic keyboard I would compose something like that using a 'violin' preset because while the violin only spans 4Ĺ octaves I can obviously play all the other parts using the same preset because it doesn't have that limitation. The 'problem' there is a 'violin' preset down-sampled to cover a cello and/or double-bass range doesn't sound like either instrument (it actually sounds pretty horrible to my ears).

However, should I decide to record that using real stringed instruments I would have to decide which other stringed instrument players to hire to accompany the violinist (I own a violin but haven't progressed beyond scratching out "London's Burning" on it - I'd also have to employ a violinist). As the picture above shows I could in theory get away with just a violinist and bassist, or combinations thereof... you pays your money and you takes your choice. In reality (being impoverished and only knowing a cellist) I'd actually use a sampler with violin, viola, cello and double-bass samples, and record each section separately.


Edited by Dean - February 18 2017 at 03:15
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote ginodi Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 18 2017 at 18:59
I am primarily a guitar player, but after decades of writing on that instrument I have switched the last couple years to composing on piano (Yamaha DGX 650, which I use as many voicings as needed), and I actually prefer it over guitar. At 57, I am in the final mix of a seven song CD I have been working on since last March. I am not looking for it do anything, nor for anyone to be amazed. The thing I am most proud is...I actually did it. The problem with guitar is I can't tame the metal-type progressions or riffing. I love dynamics, and I prefer the guitars to be heavy in sections instead of dominating the entire composition. The keyboards tame that wild beast.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Lewian Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 19 2017 at 09:03
One good thing about the keyboard is that a big range of notes is not only there but arranged in a rather simple and logical manner that makes it easier to think things through and keep an overview. Not everybody needs this but it helps.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HackettFan Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 19 2017 at 17:50
Originally posted by Lewian Lewian wrote:

One good thing about the keyboard is that a big range of notes is not only there but arranged in a rather simple and logical manner that makes it easier to think things through and keep an overview. Not everybody needs this but it helps.
Actually things are laid out in a superior fashion on guitar. If we discuss just the major scale, and all it's modes by implication, on guitar there are distinct patterns for five different hand positions to remember. Some but not all of the notes are duplicated in some of the other hand positions. This seems difficult to the non-initiated, but that's it. Five. Yes, five and only five patterns. So why would five be so good compared to the piano, which only has one pattern to learn for a major scale that repeats every octave. Well, the piano has one and only one pattern for the major scale until one changes key. When that happens, the asymmetry of white keys and black keys forces a whole new pattern for the same scale in a different key. With twelve potential keys there are twelve different patterns. By comparison, on guitar, if one changes key are there any new patterns to learn? No. Not even one. The same five patterns just move up or down the neck like a conveyor belt. The major scale in one key is the same as another key, just moved. It's the same idea behind a capo and it's the same idea behind a bar chord too.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote ForestFriend Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 24 2017 at 15:31
One thing about composing is that if you're working with great musicians, you don't really need to write down every note that everyone plays. Of course, every band operates differently. In some bands, the composer might have very specific parts for each player - they need a basic understanding of the instruments, but I think a great instrumentalist can overcome parts that are poorly written or awkward to play. Whether or not they composer has the cash to hire a good enough instrumentalist is another story, though. In more extreme examples, someone might have a full idea for a song, but will rely on someone else to translate those ideas into actual notes that make sense to other musicians; if I recall, that's how Captain Beefheart did Trout Mask Replica - I think the drummer would take ideas that Beefheart sang, transcribe them on a piano, and then arrange it into a song and present that to the band. Of course, you'll have to find someone who's really patient and is interested in your ideas (or at least pay them a lot!) for this to work

However, I'm sure there are a lot of bands out there who may have one or multiple composing the main ideas of the song, and then the whole band will work together and add in their own ideas. Maybe somebody has a vocal melody, then someone else can figure out a chord progression, then maybe someone who doesn't play flute says "That would sound great with a flute solo!" and then a flutist can improvise/write a solo or someone can write one for them, etc. Depending on the band, they might just credit the main composer and credit everyone else with "arrangement", or the whole band might be credited as composers. With prog especially, things can get blurred easily since the structure can be more complex; maybe somebody writes the main "song", then someone writes another section, but they use ideas from someone else's section, and then everyone works out their own part for every section of the song.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote floyd4 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 09:19
This sounds bold and controversial but you can improvise a complex song.< id="_npfido" ="applicationpfido" height="0">
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote moshkito Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 09:36
Originally posted by Dean Dean wrote:

...
... but they cannot play top-C, bottom-C and middle-C at the same time without using a third appendage. 
...

PDQ Bach was known to use his foot for the 3rd appendage. AND, on stage, too!

Embarrassed

Nice write up, but I'm not sure it helps clear up how a Beethoven can write 20+ lines of music, or Tchaikovsky, and many other composers, that used numerous lines for so many instruments ... I think, you have to be able to visualize its completeness, or have a very good (probably VERY GOOD) idea how to translate something you hear in your head with 20 instruments to about 20 lines on a score sheet ... !

One would think that it would be easier these days with the kind of software around, and in reality, the only "composition" that we really see done is ... you got it ... rock music ... 4 to 6 lines only! 

I'm already thinking that "composition" is becoming a lost art! If there EVER was one, as I have a tendency to think that what we consider "composition" is actually an IDEA of what was heard before, and probably nowhere near the original, even if we can find scores going back 500 years and such. Of course, these days with this being done automatically, with good professional DAW's, it means that you can sit back and just fiddle on any instrument and then put things together ... and call it ... composition!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Logan Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 11:09
The best composers in progressive rock are often very good arrangers, and I expect that most of the ones in Prog that I think best at arrangement do play the piano. The piano is an excellent instrument for composition partially because of how it's laid out and because of the harmonies you can play on it. Keyboards have many advantages.

Also, having a background in classical music really helps, and someone who learned to play the piano is more likely to have that background than someone who plays, say, the bass guitar.

Edited by Logan - February 25 2017 at 11:14
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Dean Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 11:18
Originally posted by moshkito moshkito wrote:

Originally posted by Dean Dean wrote:

...
... but they cannot play top-C, bottom-C and middle-C at the same time without using a third appendage. 
...

PDQ Bach was known to use his foot for the 3rd appendage. AND, on stage, too!

Embarrassed

Nice write up, but I'm not sure it helps clear up how a Beethoven can write 20+ lines of music, or Tchaikovsky, and many other composers, that used numerous lines for so many instruments ... I think, you have to be able to visualize its completeness, or have a very good (probably VERY GOOD) idea how to translate something you hear in your head with 20 instruments to about 20 lines on a score sheet ... !
That's because you're not a composer. Things that seem complicated and difficult seldom are when you know what you are doing. Sure it's clever and takes skill, dedication, training and practice but it's not a miraculous feat that only truly gifted composers can do, every composer that ever committed pen to manuscript can do this, even the ones you've never heard of and the hundreds whose work has been forgotten. 

It's like any difficult task - once you break it down into individual sections and components it all becomes very manageable - even constructing a 747 jet from millions of component parts can be subdivided into (if memory serves) about 6 easily manageable stages. 
Originally posted by moshkito moshkito wrote:

One would think that it would be easier these days with the kind of software around, and in reality, the only "composition" that we really see done is ... you got it ... rock music ... 4 to 6 lines only!
...and it looks like you've never produced rock music either. LOL

Originally posted by moshkito moshkito wrote:

I'm already thinking that "composition" is becoming a lost art! If there EVER was one, as I have a tendency to think that what we consider "composition" is actually an IDEA of what was heard before, and probably nowhere near the original, even if we can find scores going back 500 years and such. Of course, these days with this being done automatically, with good professional DAW's, it means that you can sit back and just fiddle on any instrument and then put things together ... and call it ... composition!
LOL 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote timothy leary Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 13:09
Originally posted by Dean Dean wrote:

Originally posted by moshkito moshkito wrote:

Originally posted by Dean Dean wrote:

...
... but they cannot play top-C, bottom-C and middle-C at the same time without using a third appendage. 
...

PDQ Bach was known to use his foot for the 3rd appendage. AND, on stage, too!

Embarrassed

Nice write up, but I'm not sure it helps clear up how a Beethoven can write 20+ lines of music, or Tchaikovsky, and many other composers, that used numerous lines for so many instruments ... I think, you have to be able to visualize its completeness, or have a very good (probably VERY GOOD) idea how to translate something you hear in your head with 20 instruments to about 20 lines on a score sheet ... !
That's because you're not a composer. Things that seem complicated and difficult seldom are when you know what you are doing. Sure it's clever and takes skill, dedication, training and practice but it's not a miraculous feat that only truly gifted composers can do, every composer that ever committed pen to manuscript can do this, even the ones you've never heard of and the hundreds whose work has been forgotten. 

It's like any difficult task - once you break it down into individual sections and components it all becomes very manageable - even constructing a 747 jet from millions of component parts can be subdivided into (if memory serves) about 6 easily manageable stages. 
Originally posted by moshkito moshkito wrote:

One would think that it would be easier these days with the kind of software around, and in reality, the only "composition" that we really see done is ... you got it ... rock music ... 4 to 6 lines only!
...and it looks like you've never produced rock music either. LOL

[QUOTE=moshkito]
I'm already thinking that "composition" is becoming a lost art! If there EVER was one, as I have a tendency to think that what we consider "composition" is actually an IDEA of what was heard before, and probably nowhere near the original, even if we can find scores going back 500 years and such. Of course, these days with this being done automatically, with good professional DAW's, it means that you can sit back and just fiddle on any instrument and then put things together ... and call it ... composition!
LOL 
[/QUOTE The plant where Boeing builds the 747s is the largest building ever built(by volume). So it might be trickier than it seems.

Edited by timothy leary - February 25 2017 at 13:17
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HackettFan Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 25 2017 at 17:24
Originally posted by paganinio paganinio wrote:

I heard that the majority of composers also know how to play the piano/keyboard.†

This is true in classical music and probably in modern pop music. But in rock music, and prog rock, the guitar is the far more common instrument.

So I'm just wondering, the people who write prog music -- do they usually know how to play a keyboard instrument? Is the guitar playing ability enough for a prog composer?†

Also, let's consider music with flute, violin, mellotron, etc. in them. Is it necessary for the composer to know how to play those instruments, in order to write music that uses those instruments?
Actually I would have thought that approaching composition in Prog Rock from the standpoint of Keyboards would have been historically far more common. Maybe it depends what genre we're referencing. Anyway, I would think that either keyboards are guitar would be good for composition because of the range of notes available, as Dean said. One also can think holistically about base lines and upper lead lines simultaneously on both piano and guitar since they are both polyphonic.

An advantage keyboardists used to have over guitarists was the buffet of timbres they've had to chose from, given the common use of organs, mellotrons and synthesizers. So, they could try out compositions not just in terms of note selection, but in terms of conveniently hearing a (more) fully fleshed out arrangement of timbres - no need to wait for a flute player to show up, you can preview his part yourself. That advantage has faded quite a bit now, as guitar synthesizers and midi connectivity allows guitarists to do all the same stuff short of playing with ten fingers. Guitar synthesizers don't even need any special pickups anymore (EHX HOG2, Boss SY-300). So, as one who really adores the instrument, I'm actually encouraged that we might get to hear a larger portion of Prog stuff composed by guitarists.
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