In Limitations are Your Freedoms


When I was an undergraduate composition student, I remember reading a book by one of my favorite composers, Igor Stravinsky.  The book, entitled The Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, had a profound effect on me.  It is my belief that anyone aspiring to be a composer should read this book.  It is concise with valuable insight into the composition process.  It also touches on other topics: musical types, musical execution and even musical snobbery.  Originally written in 1942, it is still relevant today.

In the area of composition, one concept in particular stood out to me from the rest:  “in limitations are your freedoms.” 

Stravinsky wrote:


Igor Stravinsky

"In limitations are your freedoms."

….my freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings.  I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…..The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Every time we hear, play or analyze a Mozart Piano Sonata, a Bach Fugue or a Chopin Ballade, we are aware of the economy of material in the form of structure, rhythmic patterns, melodies, etc.  The magic and genius is the way these and other great composers expand and develop the material.  This, of course is done within the constraints of form and balance.  It is not surprising that the beautifully designed Sonata Form (ABA’), used by composers in most of the first movements of sonatas, symphonies and other styles, lasted throughout the Classical period and into the Romantic period as well.  In contemporary music, tonality, harmonic vocabulary, melody, rhythm, meter and form are not prescribed in the way they were a hundred years ago.  It is up to the composer to chart his/her own limitations.

Having too much material leads to confusion and lack of cohesion in a piece of music.  So often, one of my students at Diablo Valley College will show me a composition that he/she had written.  This work will include four different melodies, each one providing enough material for entire the length of the piece.  All of these melodies ramble on without any inherent form.

There are so many different ways to be inventive in composing without continuously creating new material!    From the beginning, the student needs to be aware of the structure of the piece.  There should be balance and logic in the organization of the material.  This should be explored before any notes go on the page. Immediately, I tell the student to restrict!  Within the overall structure of the piece, choose a melody or concept that works. Play with this melody/concept and develop it: turning it upside down, using a different register, changing the rhythms and meter, giving the melody to another instrument. Write down these ideas, possibly on scraps of page.  Then, look at them in the context of the whole before you actually write the piece.  When putting ideas together, really use your ear and ask yourself, “Does this hold together? Do I have good voice leading?  Is this section too short, too long?  Am I creating balance?  There, of course, are so many other important issues to address. These are only a few of the many considerations when writing a piece of music.  However, with a little planning and economy of material, the chances of success are heightened dramatically.