Last Tuesday, Monica keystricken invited a bunch of folks out for coffee and dessert. A few minutes after I sat down, she looked up from what she was writing and said, "Lindsey, we'd like your help with this." She showed me some notes on a staff. "We're composing a melody in F-sharp minor."
I made a rude noise.
She said, "Oh, it's not so bad; it's just the relative minor of A major."
I got flustered. "No, no, that's not the problem. It's...I don't know, never mind. What do you need help with?"
"I need an idea."
And then I just got more flustered, and couldn't explain why, and ended up just saying, "No, no, I'm sorry, I can't do this, I'm sorry, I don't know how."
I've been trying to figure out why this was all so frustrating. At the time, I think I made up some easy-to-explain excuse about how I couldn't write music in a place where it was noisy and crowded and music was already playing, and that let me off the hook. But the real reason is a little more complicated.
I can't write music starting with paper. A good translation from what it sounds like in my head to what it sounds like in the world is hard enough for me! I write music in the shower, or waking up, or falling asleep, or on the bus, or barreling down the Alameda hill on my bike, or sometimes, maybe when I'm actually sitting at the piano. From there to paper is a whole 'nother translation, one which I can't really start until the first one is done -- if ever. And the first one can take months, especially since it's not a one-way deal. Once I hear how the translation comes out, the result affects the original, feedbackily. I just finished a song I started in January.
It is my understanding that some people can do straight brain-to-paper. I'm not one of those people.
I usually never bother writing down anything but lyrics, anyway. I like writing down lyrics at early stages because it's interesting to me to see how they evolve; besides, maybe someday I might want to pick up some of the bits that got thrown out and use them for something else. I've got a notebook for that. (I'm still on that notebook, by the way. Probably about 100 pages in, now. I don't know, I left it at home.) But I think there's a common misconception that "writing music" means, like, physically writing it down. There exists a lot of great music that's never been written down by anyone. There's a lot more that was only written down later, by someone other than the original writer, and I can understand why: translation 2 is an entirely different kind of thinking than translation 1. It would be nice to be good at both, but I'm fine with not being good at both. Let the people who are actually good at translation 2 handle it. I feel the same about recording, or arranging, or any of the other dozen steps that I suck at. I'm fine with sucking at them. I would be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life working on getting better at translation 1.
But, even more important than the paper thing: I can't write music without an idea. That's why it made me uncomfortable, Monica, that you had a key picked out but you still needed help with an idea. To me, that's like saying, "I am going to write a computer program! I shall write it in Ruby!" Okay, fine: a computer program to do what? It's choosing the tool before you know what job you're doing with it. At Rimsky's that night, I think I ended up "helping" anyway, sort of -- but I was only able to do it once I decided that I wasn't going to attempt to actually write music. Writing music is to what I was doing as programming is to as typing code. It was a dumb parlor trick and I'm not even that good at it.
None of this is to say that there's no value in learning how to use a tool even when you don't have a specific purpose in mind. I think there's a huge amount of value in learning what the tools are, what their names are, how to hold them, what some other people have done with them, how that worked out. Maybe that's what school is for. I also think that a lot of art and learning can result from using the tools the "wrong" way, which of course you can't consciously do until you learn the "right" way. But you gotta be careful with that. Anyway, that's another can o' worms.
Also, someone asked me what kind of music I wrote, and I said, "I hate that question." He looked offended, as well he had a right to be. I gotta figure out a better answer to that one.