Why do we plan as composers?  Why do we even bother to make plans, in their multitudinous varieties of detail and scope?  In this post I’d like to examine 1.) Why we make plans, 2.) What makes a good plan, and 3.) What happens to a plan after it’s created.  Let’s get started.

1.) Why do we make plans?

Many composers don’t plan.  Some just write, and that may be fine for them, for that particular piece, or just the circumstances around the piece.  But, there are still very good reasons to make plans:

  1. To make the writing process easier.  If one has a good and detailed plan, then not only are certain elements of the work already preformed, but the amount of work is less than if one sits down and simply writes from nothing.
  2. To make the writing process faster.  The more detailed and predetermined a plan is, the more information is already input, and the less time is needed to devote to those aspects of the piece.  With fewer things left to be determined, writing can progress faster.
  3. To make the writing process go smoother and more predictably.  Like the first two reasons, the more information that is in one’s plan, the more that is secured and the less is up to chance and uncertainty.
  4. To make the piece better in concept.  This is especially important in programmatic pieces, where a story or set of ideas have to be adhered to.  A program for a piece is a good reason to plan, as things such as mood, proportion of sections, key events, etc. make more sense if one considers them carefully before writing.
  5. To make the the piece better musically.  For both programmatic and non-programmatic pieces, predetermining themes, harmonies, structure, etc. can lead to a more cohesive and self-related piece (if development and self-relation are important to the piece).  If development and self-relation are not important in the piece, then planning may become even more important, because that means that a lot of disparate material will have to be created, which may require much more time and effort and hence may be expedited through planning.

2.) What makes a good plan?

There are a few key qualities I feel a plan must have, as outlined below:

  1. A good plan is appropriate for the piece.  If a piece is short, whimsical, and for a small number of players, then a good plan may only need to outline key ideas, maybe outline briefly a structure, or assign a general mood for different sections.  For a piece for full orchestra with doublings galore, and in a few long movements, it may require more planning.
  2. A good plan is appropriate for the compositional process involved.  Even in a large ensemble piece, if one is in a flow and the piece is being written in a stream-of-consciousness process, less planning may be needed than a string quartet written with intricate motives, painstaking care given to each note, and if it is for a specific ensemble or players who want specific techniques employed.
  3. A good plan takes into account extramusical constraints.  If there are deadlines for drafts or movements, one might plan out in which order one writes the different sections or movement, or set dates for completing sections to meet deadlines for the whole piece.
  4. A good plan is adaptable and able to be ignored.  There are so many possible obstacles that can surface at any second while writing a piece, and many times the plan may not yield the result one wants.  A plan has to be able to adapt and be ignored, if only partially, especially when things don’t go or sound as planned or as good as one wants.

3.) So what next?  What happens post-planning?

This is probably the simplest part: one follows, adapts, and ignores the plan simultaneously.  Composition is a fluid process, and if a plan is made well, it can adapt to this fluid process.  Even if one is using mathematical tables, charts, data, or something else very fixed and rigid in the planning and writing of a piece, the very nature of composition neccesitates constant revision of the piece and the plan.  The plan is not the end-all of a piece; the piece is the end-all, and it is therefore very important that the plan play a subordinate role to the final product, and not a strict closet in which to board up the piece.

I hope this wordy account can shed insight on this intricate process we call “planning”.

Thanks for reading!

-Dan