Composing: Not Just for People With Orchestras

The other day, I had an odd dream in the time between 7:00 AM and 7:10 or so. What most struck me about this dream was that it came with a soundtrack. In particular, there was one scene that featured a striking oboe solo. It wasn't very complex, but when juxtaposed with the action the overall effect was powerful.

Had this dream happened a few years ago, or even six months ago, I would have quickly forgotten the melody and that would have been the end of it. Instead I quickly dashed to my computer, and within ten minutes had input the melodic line into Finale Notepad, a music-notation program that also allows you to listen to the music you write, using low-quality sound samples of orchestral instruments. Did I mention that Notepad is distributed free?

If I wanted to pay money for sample libraries (and I may yet), there are quite a number out there that can sound almost as good as a live orchestra, in the hands of a skilled programmer. (I've taken to lurking at the discussion board for one sample library in particular, Garritan Personal Orchestra. Check out their Audition.)

This phenomenon has really taken off in the last year or two, and has been helped immeasurably by the release of Apple's "Garage Band" software. Now, hundreds of thousands of people are composing their own music who might never have even tried without this type of software.

The trick is being able to listen to the music as you write it. I have never been a good sight-reader, and can't translate sounds in my head into notes on a page very well. Few people can, which is why few people ever composed music, and most of them were geniuses. You had to be able to hold the melodies in your head as you constructed them, which is very hard when you have four or more melodic lines.

But now, the application of technology has opened up the world of composing to a flood of people who had the desire, but lacked the tools. The results are stunning. New pieces are posted on dozens of sites across the Web, and while many are mediocre, I have heard quite a few that were absolutely wonderful.

Similar things are going on in book publishing, with books on demand. Even manufacturing has become accessible to the individual, with CAD-based programs that can capture the dimensions of your project, and many vendors who will churn out the finished product cheaply.

I continue to be amazed by how creative activities once out of reach for the small-timer are now open to anyone with the time and desire to produce art. Excuse me now as I return to my oboe.

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