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A composer is a person who writes music. The term is especially used to indicate composers of Western classical music, or those who are composers by occupation. Many composers are, or were, also skilled performers of music.
Etymology and definition
The term is descended from Latin, compōnō; literally "one who puts together". The earliest use of the term in a musical context given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from Thomas Morley's 1597 A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music, where he says "Some wil [sic] be good descanters [...] and yet wil be but bad composers".
'Composer' is a loose term that generally refers to any person who writes music.
Across cultures and traditions composers may write and transmit music in a variety of ways. In much popular music, the composer writes a composition, and it is then transmitted via oral tradition. Conversely, in some Western classical traditions music may be composed aurally—i.e. "in the mind of the musician—and subsequently written and passed through written documents.
Role in the Western world
Relationship with performers
In the development of European classical music, the function of composing music initially did not have much greater importance than that of performing it. The preservation of individual compositions did not receive enormous attention and musicians generally had no qualms about modifying compositions for performance.
Even in a conventional Western piece of instrumental music, in which all of the melodies, chords, and basslines are written out in musical notation, the performer has a degree of latitude to add artistic interpretation to the work, by such means as by varying his or her articulation and phrasing, choosing how long to make fermatas (held notes) or pauses, and — in the case of bowed string instruments, woodwinds or brass instruments — deciding whether to use expressive effects such as vibrato or portamento. For a singer or instrumental performer, the process of deciding how to perform music that has been previously composed and notated is termed "interpretation". Different performers' interpretations of the same work of music can vary widely, in terms of the tempos that are chosen and the playing or singing style or phrasing of the melodies. Composers and songwriters who present their music are interpreting, just as much as those who perform the music of others. The standard body of choices and techniques present at a given time and a given place is referred to as performance practice, whereas interpretation is generally used to mean the individual choices of a performer.
Although a musical composition often has a single author, this is not always the case. A work of music can have multiple composers, which often occurs in popular music when a band collaborates to write a song, or in musical theatre, where the songs may be written by one person, the orchestration of the accompaniment parts and writing of the overture is done by an orchestrator, and the words may be written by a third person.
A piece of music can also be composed with words, images, or, in the 20th and 21st century, computer programs that explain or notate how the singer or musician should create musical sounds. Examples of this range from
The nature and means of individual variation of the music are varied, depending on the musical culture in the country and time period it was written. For instance, music composed in the
The historically informed performance movement has revived to some extent the possibility of the performer elaborating seriously the music as given in the score, particularly for Baroque music and music from the early Classical period. The movement might be considered a way of creating greater faithfulness to the original in works composed at a time that expected performers to improvise. In genres other than classical music, the performer generally has more freedom; thus for instance when a performer of Western popular music creates a "cover" of an earlier song, there is little expectation of exact rendition of the original; nor is exact faithfulness necessarily highly valued (with the possible exception of "note-for-note" transcriptions of famous guitar solos).
In Western art music, the composer typically
History of employment
During the Middle Ages, most composers worked for the
Role of women
In 1993, American
According to Abbey Philips, "women musicians have had a very difficult time breaking through and getting the credit they deserve."
Women today are being taken more seriously in the realm of concert music, though the statistics of recognition, prizes, employment, and overall opportunities are still biased toward men.
Famous composers have a tendency to cluster in specific cities throughout history. Based on over 12,000 prominent composers listed in
Paris has been the main hub for western classical music in all periods. It was ranked fifth in the 15th and 16th centuries but first in the 17th to 20th centuries inclusive. London was the second most meaningful city: eighth in the 15th century, seventh in the 16th, fifth in the 17th, second in the 18th and 19th centuries, and fourth in the 20th century. Rome topped the rankings in the 15th century, dropped to second in the 16th and 17th centuries, eighth in the 18th century, ninth in the 19th century but back at sixth in the 20th century. Berlin appears in the top ten rankings only in the 18th century and was ranked third most important city in both the 19th and 20th centuries. New York City entered the rankings in the 19th century (at fifth place) and stood at second rank in the 20th century. The patterns are very similar for a sample of 522 top composers.
Professional classical composers often have a background in performing classical music during their childhood and teens, either as a
Bachelor's degrees in composition (referred to as
Master of Music degrees (M.mus.) in composition consists of private lessons with a composition professor, ensemble experience, and graduate courses in music history and music theory, along with one or two concerts featuring the composition student's pieces. A Master's degree in music (referred to as an M.Mus. or M.M.) is often a required minimum credential for people who wish to teach composition at a university or conservatory. A composer with an M.Mus. could be an adjunct professor or instructor at a university, but it would be difficult in the 2010s to obtain a
To become a tenure track professor, many universities require a
Doctor of Musical Arts (referred to as D.M.A., DMA, D.Mus.A. or A.Mus.D) degrees in composition provide an opportunity for advanced study at the highest artistic and pedagogical level, requiring usually an additional 54+ credit hours beyond a master's degree (which is about 30+ credits beyond a bachelor's degree). For this reason, admission is highly selective. Students must submit examples of their compositions. If available, some schools will also accept video or audio recordings of performances of the student's pieces. Examinations in music history, music theory, ear training/dictation, and an entrance examination are required.
Students must prepare significant compositions under the guidance of faculty composition professors. Some schools require DMA composition students to present concerts of their works, which are typically performed by singers or musicians from the school. The completion of advanced coursework and a minimum B average are other typical requirements of a D.M.A program. During a D.M.A. program, a composition student may get experience teaching undergraduate music students.
Some composers did not complete composition programs, but focused their studies on the performance of voice or an instrument or on music theory, and developed their compositional skills over the course of a career in another musical occupation.
- OED: composer, 3..
- "Composer". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
- "compose (v.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
- OED: composer, 2..
- OED: composer, 1..
- Nettl 1983, p. 192.
- Everist 2011, p. 2.
- Philips, Abbey (1 September 2011). "The history of women and gender roles in music". Rvanews.com. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
- Alex Ambrose (21 August 2014). "Her Music: Today's Emerging Female Composer". WQXR. Retrieved 13 April 2020.
- Borowiecki, Karol; O'Hagan, John (2012). "Historical Patterns Based on Automatically Extracted Data: The Case of Classical Composers". Historical Social Research (Section 'Cliometrics'). Association Française de Cliométrie. 37 (2): 298–314. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
General and cited sources
- ISBN 978-0-19-316303-4.
- ISBN 978-0-252-01039-2.
- "composer, n". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
- JSTOR 10.3138/j.ctt15jjfcx.
- Mugmon, Matthew (November 2013). "Beyond the Composer-Conductor Dichotomy: Bernstein's Copland-Inspired Mahler Advocacy". JSTOR 24547378.
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- ISBN 978-0-226-52144-2.
- Piotrowska, Anna G. (December 2007). "Modernist Composers and the Concept of Genius / Skladatelji Moderne i pojam genija". JSTOR 25487527.
- Wegman, Rob C. (Autumn 1996). "From Maker to Composer: Improvisation and Musical Authorship in the Low Countries, 1450-1500". JSTOR 831769.
- Williams, Justin A.; Williams, Katherine, eds. (2016). The Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter. Cambridge: ISBN 978-1-107-06364-8.
- JSTOR j.ctv8d5t5s.
- Composers at Curlie