Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Music Composition

Brain Pickings had an interesting article on some of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for great writing. It made me wonder if the rules would map to music composition.

So a summary of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules are:

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Do Not Ramble, Though
  3. Keep It Simple – Simple words and construction rather than elaborate ones.
  4. Have the Guts to Cut – “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
  5. Sound like Yourself – “echo the speech you heard when a child.”
  6. Say What You Mean to Say – “selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.” In other words: be understood.
  7. Pity the Readers – “Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify”
  8. For Really Detailed Advice – See Strunk and White.

Now for the application to music composition. Most of the rules apply fairly directly.

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Do Not Ramble, Though
  3. Keep It Simple – technically difficult to play is not the same as better.
  4. Have the Guts to Cut – “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” This rule actually makes perfect sense with the musical meanings of all these words.
  5. Sound like Yourself – if anything, this is more applicable to music than words, but harder to put into words.
  6. Say What You Mean to Say – selecting the most effective notes, and relating the notes to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.” In other words: be understood. It also implies that a fairly rigid musical structure should be used.
  7. Pity the Listeners – Don’t make it too hard for the listeners to work out what is going on. Unless your audience is a professor of music and is bored with all that mundane music that mere mortals can comprehend.
  8. For Really Detailed Advice – Perhaps see The Fundamentals of Musical Composition by Arnold Schoenberg.

A lot of writing about the writing and creative process is quite applicable to musical composition. This one seems to map across pretty well.