Beginning, middle, end

Normally when we compose a piece of music, we are working on it in a non-linear fashion. That means we can work a little on the start, then work on the end, then maybe add a new section in the middle, whatever. Also, our perception of the piece is non-linear – being so intimately involved with the piece (and its construction), we usually know the entire piece by memory. That gives us (the composers) the ability to compose parts of a piece in the context of the rest of the piece.

Your listener, however, will have a very different experience of the music. As an artform, music is particularly interesting because it exists in time. You listener will listen to your piece by starting at the start, listening through each moment once, and stopping at the end.

Consider that the listener will also have no (or at least, very little) knowledge of the piece before listening. S/he will begin the listening experience knowing nothing, and gradually (and linearly) learn more about they piece as it is experienced. I like to think of this as an “unravelling” or “unfolding” of music – as the listener experiences the piece, it is being revealed, opened up.

This observation has interesting implications for different sections of a piece.

The beginning is significant because it “introduces” the language of the music to the listener. When you listen to a piece of music, the beginning is the first thing you hear – and thus, it is what influences the expectations that you have for the rest of the piece. It is what sets the context for the remainder of the listening session. When composing the beginning of a piece, consider that this is the first thing your listener will hear.

The ending is (in this respect) the complete opposite – the listener hears it in the context of the entire piece. By the time the listener gets near the end of a piece, s/he has travelled through the “journey” of the music, and (hopefully) understands the language[1] of the music. When composing the ending, consider that the listener hears this after hearing the entire piece through once.

The middle of a piece is also interesting, because this is (usually) where the “scene has been set” – the listener has some idea about what the laguage of the music is, and what to expect for the rest of the piece. Most well-written pieces use a/the middle section to develop and enrich the listeners understanding and experience of the world you (as the composer) have created.

All this, of course, doesn’t mean that this is the way it has to be, or that this is the (only) way to compose “good music”. As the composer, you are free to subvert the rules or discard them completely. However, understanding how a listener listens to a piece will (hopefully) help you make better informed decisions during the composition process.

-Kim.

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