"Composing is Composing": Interdisciplinary Heuristics for Composition Teachers and Researchers


Robert Boury and Michael Kleine

One of us writing this article teaches English composition, mainly to freshmen; the other teaches music composition to junior and senior music majors. Over a cup of coffee, we wondered why our courses were both called "composition." Our wondering led to a series of conversations: we discovered we had a great deal to discuss with one another beyond our shared course title. At the outset, the question of how we lead our students into and through a creative encounter with their own chosen language provided focus for our discussion. We discovered that inexperienced composers face the same central problem - finding something to say in writing - and that we both use " heuristics" to help them along. But we had trouble staying focused; our conversations drifted toward composing in general. We found that we were both interested not only in problems of invention, but arrangement, style - even rhetoric as well. We both were interested in concepts like audience and intention, and wanted our students to develop fluency and control of language. We shared a vocabulary - "drafting," "revising," and "editing" - and agreed that we were concerned, theoretically and practically, with cognitive processes and the translation of those processes, through composing processes, into written texts, into scores. We differentiated between context and text, competence and performance, convention and use; we were concerned with the advantages and disadvantages of literacy; our theories of production were similar; our teaching approaches were similar.

During our divergent, drifting conversations, we agreed that too often our students "talked away" their ideas, avoided writing. At some point, we paused. We recognized that we were doing the same thing - that we were lost and needed to write, but that we were talking everything away. We decided to write this article. But, like our students, we became stuck. What to say in writing? We were back to invention again. We muttered a few last, confused comments about "heuristics," our first topic, and decided to start there. We abandoned the coffee and conversation, isolated ourselves, and began a correspondence, really an interchange of short notes, a kind of written conversation.

We believe that through our correspondence we learned a great deal - and that our divergent conversational exploration, with the help of writing, gained focus and coalesced. The notes we sent back and forth took us to a clearer understanding of what we mean by

heuristic," and, strangely, helped us develop an entirely fresh heuristic. We could write abstractly about our interchange, but to write about it without providing at least part of it seems, now, to be a sort of lie. In other words, our article resides in the interchange itself: it was the process of writing back and forth, from slightly different perspectives, that actually gave us something to say in writing.

A Sampling of Notes

The following notes represent only part of our written interchange. There are some gaps between the notes, and they often read like rush-writes, but they reflect the nature of our discourse - dyadic, one written turn eliciting another, a dialogue. "Mike" is the teacher of English composition; "Bob" is the teacher of music composition.


Dear Mike:

Both of us are probably staring at blank pages now, wondering how to begin. We probably need to use heuristics ourselves - " heuristics aimed at heuristics." Let me give you a little writing assignment. Assume the perspective of an inexperienced writing student; tell me what the inexperienced writer faces when encountering the blank page.


Dear Bob:

Here goes. The inexperienced writer who faces the whiteness of a blank page feels what any writer feels before there is a text: emptiness, anxiety. terror - and most certainly a sense that the darkening of the page will not come easy, will not accomplish what she wants to accomplish (or is supposed to accomplish), will not, perhaps even happen.

But composing research in writing shows differences between experienced and inexperienced writers who face blank pages. The experienced writer knows that the darkening need not be static - that text can be manipulated, revised, extended, abandoned, etc. The inexperienced writer in front of a blank page lacks consciousness of what it is she's facing, of the context that surrounds the whiteness and the evolving text, of what it is she's supposed to do, of what she might do if the darkness doesn't come or if she gets overwhelmed by it, lost in it. Because she begins with a sense of nothingness, she has trouble imagining that the physical text she produces can be transformed into something of value - to her or to another.

The experienced writer has learned tricks - strategies and heuristics - and has a kind of meta-knowledge of herself as a writer, her own writing process, the needs of her audience, etc. If she has nothing to say, she has the ability to tap memory and experience, and prior texts, as she actively constructs meaning with language. By anticipating the needs of her audience, and consciously or unconsciously using heuristics, she gains access to her perceptions, reading, knowledge, needs, feelings, beliefs, values, and language resources.

What is an experienced writer? She is a person who uses writing, instrumentally, not only to communicate, but to discover what she is trying to say and learn how to write.

As I write this to you, Bob, I feel what my freshman writers feel - but I am at an advantage because you have asked me to write and because you provide me with an authentic audience. At first, I had nothing to say and felt inexperienced; now, upon re-reading this note, I discover that I have said something - and I feel more experienced. Each time I begin to write I am, in a sense, an inexperienced writer; the writing itself brings me experience; reading helps me discover the nature of my experience.




Dear Mike:

For the musician, the writing experience is, many times, equally intimidating. Musical literacy in the twentieth century has become one-sided, musical skills so specialized that "trained musicians" learn to read, but not to write. The equivalent in English might be called "functional literacy." This is the normal state of the art in music: most songwriters and classical music composers create their music unequipped to notate it. The very name "songwriter" is an anomaly since popular composers seldom "write" their own music.

Even the classical music composer faces many obstacles in attempting to complete the two sides of literacy, reading and writing. The system of musical notation is over a thousand years old, the changes it has endured relatively slight. Guido d'Arezzo, the inventor of a musical notation system, could not envision the complications of musical life a thousand years hence. Because of these complications modern composers often avoid writing. The first thing a composer encounters when facing the blank page is fear.

During the early stages of my music composition course, I often hear these excuses for not beginning, "I'M not talented" or "I'm not creative." Often the most creative and gifted students will attempt to engage me in a game of "Ill play - you write." In other words, they are ear-oriented and want me to do the work of notation for them. This behavior comes under the heading of "screwing up." My music composition students feel that the actual writing of their musical score is out of their hands.


Dear Bob:

As I understand it, " screwing up" for the student of music composition is caused not so much by the inability of the student to find "something to say" musically, but by her unwillingness to actually write her musical discourses.

It seems to me that the movement toward literacy is what plagues the writing student, too. Most of my freshmen writers are good conversationalists - that is, they have something to say in an oral interchange -but they lose their sense of what it is they are trying to say, and of their right to say it, when they begin to write. Instead, they try to play the same game you describe: I'll only write if the teacher sanctions that writing.

Before we search for a heuristic to encourage writing, perhaps we should write to each other about heuristics in general: What are they? What use might students put them to? What would a heuristic ideally accomplish? etc.




Dear Mike:


As I mentioned earlier, music composition must involve both eye and ear, writing and playing, reading and hearing.

For the contemporary composer who writes, however, too much specialization has led to the systematic exhaustion of tonal combinations provided by the discovery of functional harmony and the equal-tempered scale. Contemporary European and American composers have gradually climbed the overtone scale. Thus, the work of the impressionist and jazz composers of our own time concentrates on the tonal possibilities of the top of the overtone series. In fact, "upper structured" chords have been explored for nearly a century. The mine is depleted - or as Aaron Copland said, "I've run out of chords." Bob Dylan said the same thing to Paul Simon. Coincidence? As a result of being disassociated from the grounding provided by a total exploration of tonal combinations from the overtone series, the contemporary composer is forever ungrounded in natural musical law. If a composer is cut off from the physical basis of musical sound, then she has lost the key to the garden, and is unable to eat of the tree of life - tonality. Her separation from performers and audiences is assured.

On the other hand, most young writers compose at an instrument, the piano or the guitar. This leads to patterned fingerings that re-occur as part of the normal process of learning to play an instrument. To explore new_ musical combinations, the composer needs to suspend everything she has learned in the past.


A heuristic, then, is a method of directing the composer to the less developed side of her talent - eye or ear. Either consciously or unconsciously, the heuristic helps the composer write her way through the obstacles encountered throughout the creative process. The application of a heuristic leads to the production of diverse material, lots of it, and reveals the vast resources of the composer's imagination, which might be otherwise suppressed. In other words, a heuristic helps a composer develop a rich range of "voices" to choose from in present and future composing.


Dear Bob:

I found your comments about the need to connect ear and eye especially interesting. The student attempting to write a spoken language faces a problem similar to the one you describe. She must use a language that is spoken and heard, is natural and rich, to construct texts that are written and read. If she sacrifices the oral fluency she already possesses as she tries to produce what she thinks a written text should look like, she will have difficulty employing the conventions and schemas that govern the production of extended written discourse, and make it comprehensible to a reader.

Somehow, then, a heuristic must help the writer in two ways: discover what it is she is trying to say, or might say, and move that discovery of something to say toward formalization in writing. The heuristics I teach are systematic inquiry/exploration/discovery procedures. Often called "content heuristics," they help the writer gather details, insights, ideas, flashes of genius, etc. Sometimes called " epistemic heuristics," they help the writer build knowledge, tap memory and existing cognitive schemas and hierarchies, focus on and understand aspects of external reality, enrich the knowledge required to write. Because the heuristics are many times closed sets of considerations, questions, procedures, mental operations, etc., they have tremendous generative power: that is, they are capable of generating questions and propositions, especially, not contained within their own mechanism, information, focus, etc.

For instance, the "dramatistic heuristic" poses "W" questions (Who?, What? Why? etc.) and asks the user to combine questions in different configurations: Who?/Why? or When?/ What?/Where? etc. The writer asking such questions and combining them gains unexpected insights, dredges up details and facts she did not see in the first place, brings to consciousness features/details/aspects/ relationships/components/etc. of her subject that would remain hidden without the use of the heuristic. Particle/wave/field suggests vantage points, perspectives, modes of perception: the use of this heuristic enables the use to generate long - even infinite - lists of features, stages, qualities, values, attributes, details, etc. having to do with the object being considered, the topic, etc.

Most writers, in my experience, find that the use of a heuristic leads to long inventories, lists, catalogs, dictionaries, enumerations, etc. Obviously, above, in my exploration of " heuristic," I have used heuristics to develop the text. You read, therefore, long, paratactic lists, potentially infinite; you might be troubled by the absence of conceptual relationships, closure, subordination, clear definition, etc. The "heuristic," I think, causes the writer to think divergently, to avoid rapid closure, to consider multiple possibilities, to explode a subject with lists of nouns, predicates, words, language starts, etc. A heuristic, carried too far, can drive a writer, and a reader mad.

I ask my students to use heuristics because they not only give them too much to say, but also move the " too much" toward written expression: in the "too much" of language, I hope my students will find a few gems, material from which to both discover and support arguments, hypotheses, beliefs, etc.

Like you, I hope that the stuff on paper generated by the heuristic will become, though a metamorphosis brought about by rhetoric and the active mind of the writer, the composition itself. As I read this heuristical exploration, though, I realize all over again that the heuristic provides an atomization of the external world and memory, but that composition must involve the translation of what is collected or found into language and text. Thus, the heuristic alone is not enough; it is a sense of discourse and context that finally enables the writer to compose that which is literate and textual - something other than a list. It is my sense of the discourse between you and me, Bob, that will cause me to abandon the madcap list-making and move toward the task of making sense of the lists.






Dear Mike:

With the help of heuristics, our notes seem to be turning into epistles. I'll follow your epistle with one of my own.

The following example (Figure 1) demonstrates the stages of learning to read and write music, accomplished in a single evening by a remarkable songwriting student. Moving from invention to product, it exemplifies the particle/wave/field heuristic.


                                                    Figure 1

I, too, ask my students to become collectors, to keep inventories and lists. I encourage them to keep notebooks devoted to chords found in the music of others or discovered by themselves. The collection often grows into a composition. Students learn to transpose the collected chords to all keys so they can be used where needed in the tonal fabric of a piece of music. All of the master composers could do this easily. Another inventory I ask them to keep is a "scale dictionary," which shows every conceivable form of scales listed in all keys. From such written raw material students find that new musical ideas are infinite, and that musical compositions reveal themselves slowly - like developing photographs.

In other words, for the composer of music, a heuristic frequently leads to writing that is done off to the side, not incorporated directly into the score itself. Here (Figure 2) is an example of the kind of notebook work that supports the composition itself.



                                                        Figure 2


For the great composers, however, much of the heuristical work was invisible, unconscious, cognitive. Here are some retrospective, external observations of great composers at work. Their composing processes were very different - and we can only guess at the heuristic procedures that were at work underneath: Johannes Brahms said that if he were ever interrupted during the composition of a song, he had to discard it. Robert Schumann, Brahms' teacher, gathered together a collection of the great string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He played them as best he could on the piano. Then in a single burst of energy, he quickly composed three string quartets of his own in a single year. Richard Strauss was a master of composing for the orchestra. Someone asked him, at a party, "How do you compose on so many lines?" He answered, "I start at the top and work my way down." Franz Schubert never knew when a beautiful melody would occur to him. Once, he wrote a song on the tablecloth at a local restaurant while dining with friends. Mozart loved to play billiards and had a table in his home. Sometimes he would excuse himself from the game, go to another room for an hour, write a movement of a string quartet or piano sonata, and return to the game without explanation. Hector Berlioz, the most flamboyant of all romantic composers, tells in his autobiography that he like to smoke hashish while staring into a fire. The fire suggested music to him. Beethoven walked regularly through the woods that surrounded Vienna. He carried a pad and pencil, and would often stop to notate some theme or fragment that would come to him. (Many of his melodic fragments resemble bird calls.) Felix Mendelssohn could not rest until a new composition was completey roughed out. His first drafts had many holes that needed to be filled later, but his goal was a working version of the whole score. Both Bach and the English impressionist Frederick Delius were blind in their final years. They dictated their last works note by note, including even music for full orchestra. Frederick Chopin, called "the soul of the piano" by some critics, worked quickly, but carried his drafts of compositions in a portfolio for months until he had tried countless revisions, often turning back to the original version for publication. Claude Debussy might take up to six months to decide between two chords.

Clearly, the composing processes hinted at above are as different as the individual composers themselves. In most cases, though, I suspect that the unconscious, by itself, doesn't always provide new knowledge and material in the right order. This is why I ask my students to experiment with fragments in their notebooks: not only is the fragment easier to produce than the complete score, but it can be used to construct something greater. For instance, I'll ask them to play through their fragments with different key signatures than originally intended. Most of these transformations will not work, but sometimes students discover a new key, or an interesting change of chord or melody line. My students play (or I play for them) all of their fragments in different orders, hoping to discover a new arrangement. We work: we experiment and make judgments: we play.





Dear Bob:

For writers in English, too, the heuristic inspires a kind of play - and interplay. It seems to me that we are both writing about the same sort of sloppy, groping process - one that finally constructs our playful fragments into a meaningful textual whole. Perhaps we should step back from our own play, read, and see if something whole can be constructed from the fragments we have written to one another.


Some Conclusions

We asked and continue to ask "Where are we now?" "What have we learned from writing back and forth?" "What is a heuristic?" Of course, the only way for us to reconsider our progress is to re-read the writing. As we read together now, and seek closure, we both feel a need to compress our written inventories, to arrive at some central understanding. In retrospect, we believe that our interdisciplinary correspondence has some important implications for all of us who compose and teach composing:

1. Writing and Composition. For composers, writing becomes more important than speaking. It is true that for at least two languages - English and music - composing can only happen when there is a kind of tension between different voices, as in dialogue, but it is the act of writing itself that makes reading possible. Reading, we suspect, is what leads to the discovery of meaning. And it is the act of transcription that consolidates meaning, even constructs it.

2.   The Interdisciplinary Note. For the composer or the teacher of composing, the interdisciplinary note (or interchange) is invaluable. Because we are too often locked into discourse within our disciplines, an effort to bridge categorical lines increases the possibility of fruitful dialogue. When we begin to write beyond our discipline, we will discover that we have not only more to learn, but also more to write.

3.    Written Dialogue as a Heuristic. The very act of exchanging writing inspires increased production of written material - " fragments" that can be used, reshaped, or even discarded for something better. In our own case, written dialogue also led to the extension of our individual contributions: we found ourselves writing more and more at each sitting.

4.   Epistolatory Discourse. Those who are exploring composing theoretically would do well to consider a new form for our own discourse, devoid of familiar academic schemas and even footnotes. The epistolary discourse provides a fresh approach to a writing about composing itself.

5.   Collaboration. Although research and theory in composing is, by nature, interdisciplinary (psychologists, linguists, and rhetoricians, for example, have collaborated to deepen our understanding of composing in English), we should begin to consider other collaborative possibilities. In our case, it was the collaboration between the users and teachers of different languages that proved fruitful.

6.    The Composition Class. As teachers of composing, we might begin to make use of epistolary discourse to help our students write. It would be easy to choreograph classroom activities where students would write dyadically, exchanging " notes" about a topic they were exploring. Students of English and music composition need to learn that they do not need to compose alone - that collaborative writing is available. They need to learn that writing back and forth is itself a form of discourse, and that the result can be revised into more conventional forms of discourse.

7.    The Role of Reading in the Composing Process. We have learned that writing alone does not promote the construction of unified meaning. Our written exploration of heuristics remained divergent and enumerative until we re-read the actual writing.

8.    Other Possible Interchanges. We know, now, that the interchange between the two of us is incomplete. "Heuristics" is only one topic and our correspondence brushed a number of others we did not pursue: " literacy," "audience," " language," etc. We suggest that writing about composing begin to consider these and other related topics from the perspectives of users and teachers of different discursive languages. Moreover, we suggest that composers (creators) working in discursive and presentational forms enter into dialogues: for instance, it would be fascinating to see the notes between a writer and an artist, or a music teacher and a teacher of dance.

We close, then, knowing that we are not finished. We invite others to help us with this discourse ...


A Freshman Writer's Invention Process: This sort of list-making and categorization typically grows from application of the "particle/wave/field" heuristic. In this case, the student writer was interested in exploring a "strange memory" of a room in her Grandmother's house. She used particle enumeration to recall from memory specific features of the room that was the source of her dissonance, and later her essay. To more fully understand her subject - the room itself - she placed it into a larger "field," the house that contained the room: by juxtaposing room and house (and subjecting the house, too, to particle enumeration), she hoped to understand more fully the context responsible for her feelings.


Grandma's room - strange, unfamiliar

but I'd been there before

dark, cold, silent

lit by moonlight

could see large, old, wooden dresser, jewelry on top in corner

overstuffed rocking chair in other corner

closet partly open, could see shadowy image

of clothes hanging (ghostly, reminded me of people) room was dead silent, no comforting, familiar noises no distracting, comforting objects on the floor or in her room, cold feeling

room was ordered - EVERYTHING WAS IN PLACE bed sheets were tucked in neat and formal (couldn't move feet around in bed, had to be still not to mess them

large room (void)

room was cool, sterile cool, sharp dry air

 House tall, two stories high (looked from

            back resting on top of a hill)

long (about 3 1/2 loading trucks side by side) reddish-brown wood house

approached from front, could only see upper level had 3 step approach from front

door sunk back into house from cement porch heavy wooden door w/ peephole in center

could see curtains of the kitchen from outside - yellow and lacey

kitchen window and guest bedroom window visible from front

side of house

kitchen window was high

low bedroom window, could see in

huge front lawn, 10 apple trees, 2 plum trees steppingstones leading around to back yard

steep slanted hill in backyard, 35-40 stairs w/landing leading up hill from lake to house - made house appear tall, majestic looking at it from the bottom of the hill on the lake

house dotted by windows on backside, had one large window

middle of house to look out over lake

Beginning of a Draft of an Essay Entitled "Grandma's Room": Notice that the writer has used many of the details and images she generated when making her initial inventory. Although the "house" details have been scrapped, their generation probably enriched her sense of the significance of the remembered room - contained by an old and wonderful home, a home that somehow dwarfs the room itself,that surrounds and protects the room, but can be peered into. It is as though the writer places the room into a larger box, peers into the box, then discards the box itself as she strives to make sense of the memory with which she began.

This draft, though not completely focused and refined, evinces the writer's reliance on the invention heuristic: it was the application of the heuristic that helped her probe memory, generate usable details, explore her topic, gain a sense of direction, come up with something worth saying in writing.

The closet door was cracked partly open. I could see the shadowy image of clothes hanging on their racks. A soft beam of moonlight was trying desperately to squeeze its way through the window. A little light crept into the closet and flickered off the hanging clothes. I thought I could hear them rustling, see my Grandmother's coat move toward me in the darkness. Shivering, I shrunk back into my Grandmother's huge bed.

My mind was playing tricks with me. It was just the light dancing about the clothes that made me imagine I'd seen her coat move. There was no reason to fear anything in the closet. This was the room I'd slept in hundreds of times since I was a small child. Still, my mind was not at rest. Quivering, I lay still in bed. Seeking comfort from the familiar objects in the room. My eyes began to wander.

There in the darkness of the corner lay the old wooden rocker. How barren it looked. I remember when I was younger sitting in Grandma's soft plump lap as she would gently rock the chair back and forth. How secure I felt, melting into her warm body as she held me tight. She would often sing to me in her deep, rich voice. I could feel the vibrations echoing throughout my entire body. Often I would peer up at her. Her eyes were always smiling, her cheeks so full and rosy. How I loved to sit in the rocker with Grandma.

But now, the rocker lay empty. It stood alone, old and cold. The hard wood looked uncomfortable. I wondered if Grandma was ever able to sit in the chair now. Her body had grown smaller. Her skin was dry and shriveled to her shrunken frame. She spoke now only in a whisper, her voice being soft and raspy. It had been days since I'd seen her out of bed, shuffling around her house. Grandma usually prepared this room for my visits. This time she couldn't