The Composers’ Dilemma

Some questions but no firm answers

With apologies to Gauguin:

Why are we writing music? For whom are we writing it? Where will [most of] it go when we have gone?

Most of my working life has been spent teaching, but throughout my other life as a composer I have been dogged by the above questions that arise from the thought that there seems to be no [or very little] demand for what I produce as a “serious/ semi-serious” contemporary composer. It is true that the means of propagating one’s work now are better [via the internet] than even 2-3 decades ago and certainly much  better than when I started to compose and had to rely on publishers, working at less than a snail’s pace, to get my works out to some sort of public. But this ease and rapidity of self-publication comes at a price: that there is an enormous amount of music already available out there. So how can one individual, maybe not already much known, be noticed in the deluge of recordings, scores and other information churned out daily? I do not know. When I first decided that I wanted to be a composer, it seemed to be something rather special- as if there were not that many around. Now however there appear to be hundreds, if not thousands of composers all clamouring for attention- probably every street in Britain has one or more!

But…. the names of even the most well-established and most written-about “serious” composers working today   would be unrecognised by the average “man/woman in the street”  So, why and for whom do we produce works? It seems that the urge to create outstrips by far the actual demand for what we offer.

Therapy  - write for oneself and hope that others just might be interested in it

In answer to the first of my questions, I can only say that I have always written primarily for myself- in response to a kind of urge that has been present within me for 40+ years and shows no signs of diminishing yet. I write to assuage this urge- but I am, of course, pleased when others appreciate what I do and even more pleased when performances follow.

 In answer to the 2nd question, sometimes I write in response to what performers want- particular works or for certain instruments [e.g. the flute choir piece Neptune] but mostly it’s just for an ideal performer who might or might not exist.

In response to question 3:  I hope my work will survive me- but probably it will only survive as heaps of increasingly dusty and crumpled papers rather than performances.

But as Edmund Rubbra said of his output- the work is there, take it or leave it.

A new age of democracy –no more great names as in 19th- early 20th music- the appeal of Jazz

I note the large number of Competitions/Calls for Scores advertised each month. Are they wrong? Do they make us compete instead of collaborate? 

John Cage expressed the view that a composer is someone who tells other people what to do. This is, by and large,  true in classical/serious contemporary music – but not in jazz, which is why I am so much attracted to jazz because, on the whole the jazz  composer allows free treatment of his/her “ideas”  and does not usually expect a faithful rendition of every aspect of a work. This is collaboration rather than egoism- and democracy, not dictatorship.

I note also the decline in the number of towering figures in the realm of serious/classical music composers. Since the departure of Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter etc. there do not seem to be any left [Birtwistle excepted] whom anyone would consider great masters in the same way as Brahms, Dvorak, Wagner, and Debussy were considered 100 years ago. Instead we have a whole array of what can only be termed “interesting” but not outstandingly communicative composers working in disparate styles from ultra-minimalist [e.g. Crane] to “new complexity” , but maybe not so new now, [ e.g. Barrett and Ferneyhough] and none really well-known [on the level of Andrew Lloyd Webber for example] to the average intelligent person.

The age of the internet has made it possible for anyone who considers him or her-self to be a composer to put out musical works in written or audio form, together with any amount of biographical and other information accessible worldwide. The problem is: there is just too much of it and who can judge the quality or otherwise of such a vast amount of work? Does quality matter anymore?

Time will tell

But will it?  It does not always happen that, given time, work of value will be appreciated. It has to be discovered first, re-assessed [or just assessed] and published. There were many fine [but not first rate] composers working in earlier centuries whose work is now forgotten because, although it may have been technically proficient, it was overshadowed by work that said the same things with more clarity and by better known composers. For example Stephen Heller was, in my opinion a fine composer and his piano studies are still valued by teachers, but his concert works have all but disappeared from the repertory having been eclipsed by the work of the “great masters” of the time.  But, Heller had ideas that are distinctive- personal to himself, and not found in the work of other more famous composers writing at the same period in musical history. I have found this to be true in all aspects of art, literature and music- that the so-called “minor” figures often produce work that contains ideas that the great masters overlook or do not think worth bothering about.[1]

This work of rediscovery can take a considerable time and much dedication. I am convinced that many fine musical works have been lost through neglect, and regrettably, will continue to be so in the future.


MJR 04/18







[1] E.g. Herman Sali [pictures of the poor districts of Sydney]; Mana-Zucca [ a piano solo: “The Zouaves Drill”]

Howard Pease [author of “Border Ghost Stories”] and many more.


As a composer I have throughout my working life been aware of “taboos” [A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice…OED] relating to what composers must not do if they are going to be taken seriously.

 This is by no means a new situation: every age in music history has had its own “rules” concerning what is acceptable, i.e. would be deemed “good craftsmanship” and what is not.  When I taught 16th century counterpoint on a B.Mus. course   I usually had to start by listing a number of things that were not done: e.g. no consecutive 5ths or 8ves, no notes tied to longer notes, no melodic diminished or augmented intervals etc., etc. The number of things that could be done seemed to be far smaller.

That rule about 5ths & 8ves was more or less obeyed right up to the end of the 19th century, although all the great composers broke it at times, but by 1900 or so it was being deliberately defied by the generation of composers born around 1860-80, as for example Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, Vaughan Williams and many others.  Indeed the use of these parallel intervals was so over-done that they again became relegated to the list of unacceptable harmonic devices!

By the time I began to study composition [at the old Guildhall School of Music - first as an under- graduate with Buxton Orr and later with Patric Standford] a whole new set of taboos was in place:  Out was tonality, sing-able melody, consonant harmony, easily assimilated structures [assimilated by the listener that is]. In were the use of serial technique, disjointed melody, totally dissonant harmony, rhythms that were difficult, if not impossible,  to perform and structural methods that were not easily “heard”. Anything that audiences actually enjoyed was suspect.

Now the whole point about taboos is that they are essentially illogical. If they were not then they would not be needed.  Rather they tend to be reactionary in nature: the accepted norms in one period become the taboos in another, as for example that restriction on consecutives mentioned above. To the medieval ear they were perfectly normal and enjoyable- but no doubt over-used. But by the 16th century they were deemed to militate against the independent movement of voices and so were “forbidden”.

So, what of today’s taboos? As I write [2017] there do not seem to be many. Almost anything is accepted in today’s contemporary music that freely draws on stylistic references to every past idiom from the medieval up to 1960s-70s minimalism. If there is one very widespread idea- and most critical writing endorses it strongly-it is a condemnation against what I can only term “anonymity”. Today every composer must be original- even to the point of idiosyncrasy. The result of this is that old fashioned technical adroitness is so often discarded in favour of a desperate search for being different from anyone else. We begin to see this trend as far back as the 19th century with a divergence in style between composers such as Brahms and Wagner, Saint-Saens and Debussy, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky etc. This search for individuality accelerated through the 20th century until today it often seems like the only thing that matters when the worth of a composer’s output is assessed. In recent times composers have been expected to have private and individual musical “languages”. Characteristic examples are: Messiaen, Varese, Stravinsky, Webern and Stockhausen among many others.  Of course composers do influence each other [and always have done so] but any sense of belonging to a wider stylistic “school” such as the 18th century Classical, the Stile moderno and Stile antico of the Baroque and Renaissance eras and the Ars Nova of the 14th century has not been encouraged- the focus mostly being on the unique personal voices of these and other figures.

My own humble position is that of phases in my work that can be seen as reactions against earlier trends. For example, from about 2009 or so, I began to make use of good old 12- tone serial technique. I just thought I’d give it a try, and first results were not satisfactory. But with perseverance  I began to be more adept at its use- albeit in my own way, using the series more as a springboard for ideas rather than strictly. However, probably as a reaction to all this, I have recently very much simplified my style. As a result of finding a lot of music that could not be regarded as contemporary, but not commercially popular either, and that made free use of tonal material, I realised that there were other ways of making viable and [hopefully] interesting music without a constant search for personal originality and without using any kind of “system” as a prop.

Another factor that has led to this process of simplification is the frequent inability of performers to give really good accounts of new works- either through technical limitations and/or limited time for rehearsals or just disinterestedness.  And even when first performances are good, subsequent performances seldom happen, most likely because there are always many other works waiting “in the wings” for an airing.

Hence my present desire to keep every aspect of a piece as simple and accessible as possible but still [I hope] making something of interest to performers and listeners. 

MJR 08/17



[These notes were originally published on in 2012]

“When you begin to work with musical systems that have come about through various means, then, depending on who you are, you may become more and more loyal to that system, as it becomes more refined and articulated. And so then it becomes less and less true to nature, a bit more against nature.”

This quotation by Pauline Oliveros sums up my own experience as a composer working mainly within the Western classical tradition, but at times trying to escape from it and return to a more primitive “natural” type of music – even, at times of exhaustion with the whole business of composing, trying to avoid real music altogether and escape into the realm of concepts and imagination.

Therefore, if anyone cares to look at my work as a whole, they will see that I have chosen to write in a number of disparate styles ranging from an almost light-music idiom, through minimalism, classicism and  jazz , to works in which there is no standard notation but only written instructions as to how  sounds can be  produced. These opposed tendencies are the result of conflicting interests which have come to the fore at certain times over the last 40 years of my life as a composer.

Early on I wrote a number of large-scale works in traditional genres (a piano concerto, violin concerto – given one performance- chamber-music works, piano pieces and songs). These are now mostly lost or destroyed. They were all conventional in style and only moderately fluent in technique. My models at this stage were Debussy, Stravinsky, Britten and Tippett.

From about 1980 to 2000 I wrote a lot for amateur and semi-professional performers. Many of these pieces were in a jazz-inspired idiom and some were published, although none were “big sellers”. At the end of this phase I became interested in minimalism and began a collection of short piano pieces, Impressions and Reflections, some of which are minimalist in style, and  usually of the type that permutates a few simple ideas rather than the repetitive “American” variety.  I also began a series of works inspired by aspects of the Far East (first visited by me in 1988).

Since 2000 the interest in both the Orient and minimalism has continued to hold my attention on and off- but in 2004 I became tired of composing short pieces and wanted to write bigger and more traditionally “classical” works. This resulted in the production, over the next five years, of four symphonies, two concertos, five string quartets and several other, mainly instrumental pieces. This phase is now over; I feel that I have said all that I am able to in what could be termed the “mainstream” style, and feel the urge to “go primitive” again. A strong interest in jazz took hold in 2010, leading to works such as A Paul Klee Suite for jazz trio and Homage to Gerry Mulligan for jazz quartet. The fascination with jazz has been mainly to do with its freedom in interpreting written notation- leaving much more to the performers than is the case in classical music in which every note is sacrosanct. I was trying to give performers more freedom as far back as some of the piano pieces in Impressions, in which note values are sometimes free and left to the discretion of the player, and instructions are cut to the bare minimum- dynamic markings like “very quiet throughout”, for example.

My forays into conceptual music began in the 1990s with a few works in which the production of sounds is suggested by written instructions. There is no traditional notation in them and hence they may be considered as not being “compositions” in the normal sense of the word, but rather as sonic experiences inhabiting a realm where sounds, the possibility of sounds and silence meet. The emphasis in these pieces is on the poetic idea behind each one. Any actual sounds- if anyone were to “perform” them might be interesting or not, depending very much on the inventiveness and imagination of the executants. These works are my way of escaping from the overpowering feeling that I get from time to time that the traditional materials of music- such as the 12 semitone scale and conventional mass-produced instruments- are incapable of producing anything new, anything that has not been said countless times before. Also I became convinced- under the influence of theorists like Murray Schafer- of the inherent beauty and interest pertaining to all the sounds (not just musical ones) in the environment 

Some recurring influences and themes in my work

The Orient

Looking through my most recent list of works I note that sixteen of them are directly inspired by oriental music, scenes or poetry including Symphony No. 1 based on Malay folksongs and Symphony No. 4 which uses Chinese themes. There is also a Chinese Suite for solo flute and some very early piano pieces entitled Chinese Acrobats.  Japanese influence can be felt in Imayo for violin and piano, and the first movement of my Piano Trio is based on Indonesian scales.

I cannot say precisely why I have composed so many oriental-inspired works- suffice to say that the Eastern influence  has been a recurring feature- possibly initiated by an early admiration for the music of Debussy which at times draws on oriental scales and textures. My later interest was no doubt reinforced by many trips to the East and the fact of my having married a Malaysian Chinese.

The archaic

I have always been more drawn to the old than to the new- even as a child at school I remember writing an essay in a mock- 18th century style, complete with outdated spellings. As a teenager I collected antiques for a few years, and I have long had a fascination for old books and second-hand book shops. In my music the archaic comes through in two ways: in a conscious use of earlier idioms, like my borrowings from classical and earlier styles in several string quartets, including the early Baroque -sounding opening theme of number four and the use of fugue in number three; and in my previously stated desire to return to a musical “state of nature”.  A recent interest in “early” music has resulted in several arrangements, e.g. of madrigals and pieces by Purcell for small ensembles. The Purcell arrangements actually blend the Baroque style with jazz. In the arrangement of Dowland’s Time Stands Still for solo celesta (or piano) I have retained the original melody and bass parts but rewritten the harmonies. The 2nd part of this piece is a much freer variation of the themes.

The vernacular

The Western classical and modern traditions have long drawn on popular musical styles and themes- one thinks of those many parody masses based on folk and popular songs of the late -Mediaeval and Renaissance eras, the dance-forms common in music of the Baroque period, and the various national influences at work in the 19th century in Russia, Spain, Bohemia and later, England and the United States.

In my own work popular music influences can be seen in my use of folk material as inspiration for the 2nd and 3rd movements in my Piano Trio of 2003 which are based on Australian folksong and Ragtime respectively. The wind quintet Western Winds uses three well-known American “cowboy” songs as its inspiration, and the piano pieces Saudades and Venezuelan Waltzes have a decidedly Latin American flavour.




The most recent (post 2010) phase in my work  is what I term my “cool” period in which I have largely turned away from the concept of music as expressing extra-musical ideas or emotions towards a  more “impersonal” objectivity in regard to both the material and form of my pieces. I am now drawn towards an acceptance of sounds presented just “as sounds” in patterns and not as “expressing” anything outside of themselves. In order to create this less emotionally charged and more detached sound, I have used anonymous, even banal, material such as scales and modes, and forms determined by permutations of a few notes or chords (as in Final Pieces) or by mathematical processes, e.g the Fibonacci series in the first of the Two Studies for cello, piano and percussion.

MJR 10/12


The artist Sol Le Witt has defined Conceptual Art as:

“(Art in) which the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work”#

Thus in conceptual music the idea or concept is more important than the sounds, which may or may not actually happen. Conceptual works are more like “scenarios” outlining actions or situations in which sounds could occur if the instructions are followed. On the other hand, the sounds may exist only in the imagination of the creator or recipient of the work.

It could be said that, in its first stage, all composed music begins as conceptual music: the composer starts with an idea of something needing expression, an emotion or mood, or the need to depict in sound a verbal or pictorial image. However, in the act of composition the original concept is soon overtaken by the notes as they are put on paper, and finally by the performance. Except in works using improvisation, there is a “fixedness” about composed work: the specified pitches must be played in the order and with the durations and dynamics requested by the composer. The slight differences in tempo, timbre and expression which inevitably occur between each performance of a work are called “interpretation” . In traditionally composed works the only permitted differences are those which do not go against the composer’s instructions: shades of dynamic intensity or personal choices as to tempo where a specific tempo is not indicated (as in Bach, for example)

By 1960 some younger composers were reacting against this traditional type of composed work. Improvisation, which had been dormant in Western classical music for 200 years, but which was very much alive in jazz and other non-European music, began to be seriously considered, along with such liberating devices as open-form- in which sections of a work may be played in any order, aleatoric music- in which the order of events is determined by chance, and graphic scores- in which notes are not written but the performers react to symbols and diagrams presented by the composer.

Conceptual music shares with many other forms of musical experimentation the desire to involve the performer more in the creative process, and to undermine the perceived role of the composer as a “commander” whose function is to give orders to those lesser mortals-instrumentalists and singers, in the creation of (hopefully successful) “works of art”. But it goes further along the road of effacing the traditional role of the composer as “note-writer” to one of “sound imaginer”. Indeed one does not have to have any training in composition to create conceptual works.

Nevertheless, the reason why conceptual music should be taken seriously lies in the tendency for the anticipation and memory of actual events to be often more pleasurable than the events themselves. As an example, let me refer to a visit I made with my family to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. This visit was eagerly anticipated and I have nothing but enjoyable memories of approaching the great medieval fortress standing like some grey phantom castle in its lake, and slowly circling it to reach the gatehouse along a wooden bridge. However, the actual event was not without some minor irritations: we were too late to go inside, our two children were constantly running and jumping too near the edge of what seemed to be a deep lake, and there was a chilly wind blowing (although it was July ).

A parallel to conceptualisation can be encountered in dreams, in which very much heightened forms of actual possible events may occur. I once had a vivid dream of part of Brahms’ 2nd symphony. But it was a dream of a performance “out of this world” in intensity and beauty. The reality of a performance by a few dozen well-trained musicians and a conductor with all their human limitations and imperfections could never match the perfection dreamed of.

In the offerings appended to this brief essay it will be seen at once that they are not “compositions” or even music at all in the accepted sense of the word. Rather they seek to focus on what I term “Ur-sounds”, that is those sounds which are timeless and not subject to changes of fashion or style, namely:

The human voice Stones Shells Wood Water Wind

Of those instruments which have such a long history as to be classed as “timeless” I would include:
Flutes and pipes Harps and zithers Drums and claves Gongs and bells

There are few commands in these fragments, but rather suggestions of actions which, if carried out, would result in sounds being produced, and possibly musically satisfying sounds, depending on the aural imaginations of the participants. There is also a deliberate vagueness as to detail. In the event of any of the pieces being performed, choices regarding structure, timing, rhythm and duration would have to be made either by myself or the participants.


In Conch-erto (1996) a shell found on a deserted tropical beach becomes a musical instrument. There is no notation, just a description of the finding, fashioning and possibility of sounds. The “music” is in the whole poetic idea of the events, which may or may not actually take place.

In Sounding Stones and Forest Music the idea is to make some sort of musical (i.e. organised) sounds with natural objects- pebbles and wooden sticks, the most primitive “instruments” and therefore timeless.

Mountain music does use man made instruments of metal, and small enough to be transported by hand. The main point in this piece is the specified location of the performance: on a mountain top (i.e. above 1000 feet up).

The two Overtone Studies come nearer to being traditionally composed works, except that there is no notation, but only verbal instructions. In Study 1 the form and dynamics of the work are given in some detail but, as will be seen, actual notes are limited to those occurring as harmonics over a chosen fundamental, and their durations are suggested rather than notated.

At present the final two pieces Eclogue and Commagene are still in the conceptual stage.
However, these are preliminary sketches for works which would need to be realised electronically, and were this to happen, they would no longer be conceptual but actual works.


On a deserted tropical beach find a conch, clean and fashion it into a musical instrument and make music with it in praise of the oneness of all things.


Take a handful of small pebbles

Music may be made by

Shaking a few of them in closed fist(s)

Tapping two of them together

Pouring them at varying speeds- quick, moderate, slow-
onto various surfaces


Pouring them into water

Dropping them one by one onto various surfaces

Grinding a few of them together in closed fists.

In other ways not specified above.

From a wood or forest collect sticks, dead branches with leaves intact, pebbles, seed pods, cones.
In the studio one or more performers make music with them.
Employ simple rhythmic patterns.

Each performer may either repeat one pattern or may switch to other patterns during the course of the piece. Entries should be overlapped.

For any number of performers on hand-held metal percussion instruments.

The performer(s) should climb to a high place 1000 or more feet above sea level.

Begin with very quiet, widely spaced sounds, un-damped. Gradually decrease the time between successive sounds while increasing the dynamic level . Attain a climax of dynamics and activity and stop suddenly. All performers should endeavour to stop at the same moment. Allow sounds to vibrate until they die away.
(Duration c7 minutes)
(August 1994)


For voices (any number)

A fundamental note (e.g. D) to be played very quietly throughout . e.g. on organ pedal.

Voices enter in any order
1st voice: find any overtone in the harmonic series* and sustain it for as long as possible on one breath, to “mm” , closed lips, pp. Repeat a few times.

Other voices each find a different overtone and sustain as long as possible on one breath, to “mm” ,closed lips, pp. Repeat several times. There should be some overlapping of notes throughout.
(3-5 mins.)

Voices keep the same notes but sing to “ah” short groups of fairly rapid repeated notes. Pauses of about 1-2 seconds may be made between groups. There should be some overlapping of entries. Dynamics: pp ------------- mp.
(2-4 mins.)

Each voice alternates their chosen harmonic with the next one in the series (above or below) in quick notes to “oh”. Overlap entries and gradually increase the number of notes taken in one breath as the dynamic increases.
Dynamics: p ------ mf

Each voice runs up and down a section of the overtone series within their registers, in rapid notes slurred , to “ah”. Overlap entries.
Dynamics: f---------p
(1-2 mins.)
the voice that started the piece prolongs a note:

All voices return to long overlapping notes which will be one of the two sung by each voice during the piece.


(1-2 mins.)

* E.g. for the low D, the overtones (harmonics) will be :

D a d’ f#’ a’ c’ d’’ e’’ f#’’ g#’’ a’’

One or more guitars

Any melodies or fragments of melodies remembered by the performer(s) played slowly and entirely in harmonics.
(2-4 minutes)


A work using recorded sound. An evocation of the sound world of Virgil’s Eclogues.

Wind in trees - cicadas, birdcalls, sheep, goats
Foreground: occasional vocal cries (as of shepherds to their sheep), fragments of song, flute music (very simple and modal), spoken Latin (indistinct) from the text of the eclogues.

Duration: c 5 minutes.


The image of Yeats’ “Lost Kingdom” (in his play “The Dreaming of the Bones” ) was the starting point for “Commagene” named after an Armenian kingdom which flourished briefly 2000 years ago but is now almost forgotten. Commagene stands for any lost realm; I used it because I like the name and am fascinated by the eerie giant stone heads which remain on the sanctuary of Mount Nemrut in Eastern Anatolia (but which I have only seen in photographs).

The sounds of Comagene are the wind, howling over an immense expanse of barren land, cries of birds of prey, fragments of human speech in Greek & Armenian, a few notes on flute and harp (very indistinct). The notes gradually form into a high pitched and sinuous melody (using microtones). An indistinct vocal chanting is heard, but no words are clearly audible. All very reverberant and distant sounding (as if dreamed).

Duration 2-4 minutes.

M J Regan copyright 2009



The inexorable rise of instrumental music

“…music grew too proud to be the garment of words.”

W.B. Yeats[1]                                                          

This, by a poet who was, allegedly, tone deaf, is nevertheless a concise but very astute summing up of what has happened to music since about the end of the 16th century.  Yeats’ definition of music as “the garment” of words suggests admirably an earlier  relationship of  music to text- both adorning it and taking its form from it, as we can observe in the mass, motet, madrigal and other Medieval and Renaissance  vocal forms in which the musical structures are largely determined by the words set.  But after about 1600 music began to dissociate itself from words in earnest and go its own way, and the main cause of this was the rise in popularity of music purely for instruments. Of course there was instrumental music before 1600- lute and keyboard pieces for example, but it had been subsidiary and had never taken the chief place in the output of composers as it was increasingly to do in later times. Also it was very much bound up with the dances of the period- pavanes, galliards and so on- and therefore not so much music for listening to as for directing and co-ordinating bodily movements. What was new in the history of Western music after 1600 was the rapid rise of what another profound thinker about music, Ernst Krenek[2] refers to as “autonomous music”- symphonies, concertos, string quartets, sonatas and fantasies etc., expressly written to be listened to and appreciated as things of beauty and value in their own right, and serving no extra- musical purpose.

This autonomous body of instrumental works, although highly regarded by musicians, composers and those who have both the inclination and time for its appreciation, has never been very much accepted by the mass of the population- for whom music-when not designed as an accompaniment to the dance- must retain its old association with words. Thus the great bulk of popular music is- and has always been- vocal. It is the vocalists that capture the public imagination and, in general, teen-aged girls do not become hysterical over guitarists or drummers but over singers with “personality” and sexual attractiveness thrown in.  In the popular imagination music is still, as it was to the ancients and up to the end of the Renaissance, very much bound to words in all current forms of popular song. The “man in the street” usually finds it easier to listen to the latest chart-toppers than to a Beethoven symphony which, bereft of lyrics and consisting merely of abstract patterns of sound, is more demanding fare.

The earliest pieces of instrumental ensemble music- for what were termed “consorts”, usually of viols, or of the wind instruments of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, imitated both the style and forms of contemporary vocal music. In effect they were “madrigals without words”. Indeed we find the designation “apt for voices or viols” at the beginning of collections of works such as Monteverdi’s 3rd Book of Madrigals (published in 1592).

Very soon, however, a more defined instrumental style arose. Thus in keyboard pieces from the late 16th century onwards we see an increasing display of rapid runs and figuration more suited to the agility of fingers rather than that of voices. With the rise of the violin in the 17th century instrumental music finally breaks from vocal not just in style but in form, with the introduction of purely instrumental forms such as sonata and concerto. Without the guidance of words, composers were obliged to think in terms of abstract musical designs, hence began the use of formal devices such as sequential repetition, binary and ternary structures and, eventually, modulation within what quite rapidly became a more prevalent major and minor key system. By the late 17th century an autonomous instrumental music, in the form of sonatas, suites, concertos and symphonies was well established.

But despite this, instrumental music has never quite severed its early association, by imitation, with vocal music. We can observe, in many an orchestral or chamber work, that the principal themes are song-like and the developments of those themes presented in a more instrumental manner. The general public, which has never lost its love of the voice as the transmitter, par excellence, of musical expression, will always be more attracted to these song-like themes, as found in the  symphonies of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff for example, and will tolerate developments only when such themes are present in,  and recurring throughout, a work. Otherwise, for most people the very term “classical music” most likely conjures up an image of a few score ladies and gentlemen in evening dress blowing, scraping and banging on various sound-producing items of technology while a mainly elderly and middle class audience listens appreciatively- obviously in–the–know, and enjoying some sort of aesthetic experience denied to those less fortunate beings who are unable, or have never made the effort, to understand what the sounds signify.

It is in making clear “what the sounds signify” that instrumental music can not compete with vocal, in which the words (provided they are clearly audible) give some help to the listener in determining the intended meaning. Unless the composer resorts to obviously onomatopoeic devices such as cuckoo calls or conventional “storm” music, for example, then it is by no means so easy for the listener to identify emotionally and cognitively with purely instrumental sounds. Two distinct branches of instrumental music developed from the 18th century: the absolute and the programmatic. In the former, the music is not meant to express anything outside of itself; it is not descriptive of a scene, mood, event or personality. It is meant to be appreciated on its own merit as patterns of sounds giving aesthetic pleasure. Typical examples are Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues (the “48”) and the Beethoven string quartets, what the average person would term serious or intellectual music.

With programmatic music, on the other hand, the composer gives the listener some help in relating to the work by saying, in more or less detail, what the work depicts. This aid may be simply a title, “The 1812 Overture” or “From the New World”. Or it may be a quite detailed set of notes, such as those which introduce Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, explaining what each section of the work is about. Note the irony here in that, to refer back to our opening quotation, music dissociated itself from words but then composers began to need words in the form of titles and descriptive notes to give meaning to their purely instrumental music. There is, however, a certain type of instrumental music, which may be absolute or programmatic, which does attract more general attention, namely that which is written for virtuosos- those gifted   performers who can play very difficult pieces to perfection. Regardless of the musical quality of these works- and this varies considerably from the sublime (Chopin studies for example) to the merely showy-   audiences will usually respond positively to the excitement of hearing and seeing apparently incredible feats of dexterity.

Meanwhile, what has happened to vocal music since 1600? We may note two inter-related things: Music for unaccompanied voices has declined in importance, and instruments have become increasingly prominent in vocal genres such as the mass, oratorio and opera. Regarding the last-named it might not be impertinent to say that from about 1750 to the present day it has changed from being a vocal form with instrumental accompaniment to an instrumental form with additional parts for voices! A look at scores by Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and Berg will I think verify this statement. In the works of these composers we notice progressively more dependence on instruments to depict dramatic situations, together with an increase in the number of instruments used, until the potential volume of orchestral sound- if not kept firmly under control by the conductor- can easily overwhelm even the most powerful solo voices.

And yet despite the marginalisation of unaccompanied vocal music there exists an enormous repertoire of works for this medium, and such works are still being written and performed. The voice has one great quality lacking in any other type of musical sound – it is living. Instruments are dead things- mere sound-producing objects- from which we try to coax meaningful and expressive music. And are not their days numbered? As I have mentioned elsewhere, composers always use the latest technology available to them, which today means an increasing employment of electronically generated sounds in both music and sonic art.  It appears that the rise of instrumental music after 1600 is being replicated today by the rise of sounds produced by the new technology.  In one hundred years from now it is more than likely that instrumental music as we know it  will have been long since relegated to the status of a comparatively rare form of music-making, and that synthetic sounds will dominate the musical world.


[1] From: “Dust hath Closed Helen’s Eye” quoted in Larrissy, E. ed. (1997) W.B. Yeats. The Oxford Authors. OUP

[2] Krenek, E.(1966) Exploring Music, Essays. London: Calder & Boyars.