How Much Detail is Enough? How much is too much?

I visited/attended a composition seminar down at Yale in New Haven, CT this past Thursday, and the guest lecturer for that day was Matthias Pintscher, a well-reputed composer and conductor from Europe who spends a lot of time in the U.S.  It was a fascinating discussion of his music and artistic views, which incorporated some of his influences ranging from resonance to the visual arts.

He is in the lineage of mostly European classical composers and musicians before him, one of his idols being Boulez (with whom he has worked), and as I glanced at his scores and listened to both his lecture and music I began to wonder about detail.  His scores are very detailed, and he admits that he strives to put in a nearly anal-retentive amount of precision in the score, which helps to yield good results.  I began to wonder, though: How much detail is enough?  How much is too much?

There are many pieces that leave details up to the player or situation, and they are in genres by themselves in the “indeterminate” category.  But, for most “normally”-notated pieces, I am at first inclined to respond that it depends on the player.  Some players prefer more artistic license than others, and some demand more detail in the score.  Mr. Pintscher says that he finds that players find high detail liberating; that is, players take command and explore ways to artistically execute detail, when faced with a lot of detail.  I see some truth in this, but I think that he made another good balancing point in his lecture when he acknowledged that although composers may like to have complete control in all music-making aspects of performance (in rehearsals, readings, recordings, performances, etc.), the amount of input we have as composers is generally limited to the score.  The actual process of realizing the score is something we have to let go of, and leave up to the performers and conductor.

So, to answer the questions: Detail is important, and the more detail, the more input you have in creating the piece that you want to hear.  But, you have to allow freedom to the performers and conductor.  I feel that too much detail can constrict performers, and they might ignore it anyways (isn’t it hard to count how often string players re-bow their parts despite our indications?).  Too much detail may include:

  • Excessive rhythmic value specification
  • Calling for too many techniques that must be executed exactly as written
  • Not allowing flexibility in phrasing
  • Too many textual/prose instructions
  • Calling for too many simultaneous techniques

Too little detail can lead to a loss of sense of direction for a piece, so a balance needs to be made.  This balance may depend on the piece and ensemble playing it, but it still has to be a balance.  Too little detail can depict a lack of interest by the composer, and too much detail can “turn off” a player by not giving them room to breathe.

Being conscious of one’s level of detail is a hard ability for some of us composers (like myself) who see the whole picture before details emerge, but it is a skill we have to use.  What are your thoughts–how much detail is sufficient?  When is it overkill, or when is its presence too little?  Feel free to tweet me your thoughts–@danlismusic on Twitter.

Thanks for reading,


8 thoughts on “How Much Detail is Enough? How much is too much?

  1. It’s funny, I was having this conversation with Frank Wallace, a guitarist/composer from New Hampshire last week. He performed with his wife, and after the concert we were talking about how he now is adding more detail in his score about how he wants things played musically. Within the past year, he has been adding more directions for the performer to follow.

    I think it is a double edged sword. When we look at early music (Renaissance/Baroque) there are little to no directions given to the performer. It was assumed that the performer/group knew how to interpret music through their personal knowledge and experiences.

    I think may people now need to have their “hands held” when it comes to how to interpret music. Simple shaping and contouring of music lines and phrases seems to be lost with many and we need the composer to tell us when to get “louder or softer” when it’s clear within the music to do so. I went into great detail how I go about interpreting a musical score and what effects my decision making in a post back in May:

    1. Yeah, it’s an interesting topic–and referring to your post, I especially like the closing sentence: Remember to ask yourself, “What does the music want me to do?” Good music should give the performer indications and help about its ultimate direction, but shouldn’t smother the performer.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. Recently, I performed two unaccompanied viola solos by Raul Kottler, a composer from Ojai, CA. I have been emailing him since September not only to let him know I was performing the piece, but also with questions about performing it–the expressive details in the music are quite open-ended, which is perfectly fine. I wasn’t originally sure if he was aiming for that though. Although he gave me suggestions, he finally told me that he wanted a wide variety of interpretation in the piece, and after that, I was quite relieved.

    What I’ve noticed is that with older music, like Bach’s Cello Suites for example, musicians generally have agreed that open interpretation is okay, but with more recent music, there isn’t enough hindsight to be able to pinpoint the general styles of the time period, so performers can’t simply superimpose their knowledge of music history over the performance as they can with Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Also, since modern notation has been invented, such as specific dynamics or other symbols and articulations, performers expect it to be there to make their lives easier. I agree with Nick that newer performers need their hands held, at least a little bit. You must also consider that many younger performers, like myself, often depend on instructors/coaches/directors/etc. for a lot of their stylistic advice, and there are times when even that mentor has no idea how to execute the work accurately.

    One solution I’ve found in writing my compositions is to put as much detail as possible if you envision certain parts of the piece to be played in a specific manner, and then write performance notes telling them whether the specifications are merely suggestions left to open interpretation or should be followed meticulously instead. Fortunately, I was able to receive that advice in communicating with Kottler, but of course, that is not always the case.

    Another possibility, which I recently thought of but have never tried, is to publish two editions of your composition: one that’s very open-ended, and another with suggestions for performance written in it. When I was performing the Telemann Viola Concerto, for example, William Primrose, the editor, filled the viola part with numerous ornaments and other suggestions that I was glad to have, but in the score, the original, unaltered solo was written. It turned out to be a useful reference.

    Sakar Dixon

    1. Those are great points and solutions! Like you and Nick said, there’s definitely a sense of time period that needs to be taken into account, which is something I should have included in the original post. The differences in performance practice and history between time periods makes detailing compositions and interpreting them on the side of the performer even more complicated. I hope more performers ask questions to living composers (as both of you have done) so that we can write and perform music more accurately and completely.

    2. I don’t think performers need their hands held, I think composers feel they need to due to their music being performed poorly in their minds. Professional musicians should be able to interpret and understand new music, just as they are able to interpret Bach or Mozart. Good music speaks for itself, and the expressive qualities of the music are present without the need of directions from the composer. But there are many possibilities, and I think that performers are afraid to offend the composer.

      Things like harmonic tension, melodic movement, rhythmical motives, note direction, phrasing, etc… should be things that educated performers should be able to determine and create solutions for. You should not need to have a composer lay those things out for you. The difficultly with interpreting a new piece of music is the pressure the performer is under. They feel pressure from the composer not to do injustice to the piece, they feel pressure from the performance to make sure the piece goes over smoothly, and the feel pressure because there is no historical road map (of either a performance or of music history to guide them). However, if you are looking for the above points, there shouldn’t be any issue with interpreting a piece. I also choose to work closely with the composers of the music I’m playing (if I can) to give be better insight into the piece. However, I go into those meetings with ideas of how the piece works for me, and I bounce the ideas off the composers. Working on a new composition is truly a collaboration, unlike working on a piece by a dead composer where you do not have this communication with the person. You only have their music to go by.

      1. That is true–a lot of times when I am on the performing side of things, I get nervous because I feel like I might offend the composer or misrepresent their piece lol.

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