About Those Jets’ Fundamentals

Reader HL asks…

I wanted to ask you a question about composing. In sports, it is said that when two high levels opponents meet, the one with the strongest fundamentals is the one that wins. I was thinking about this watching the NFL playoffs this past weekend when all of the sudden teams were busting out their running game more than they ever had during the regular season. Sports metaphor aside, I was thinking about how great musicians also appear to have the strongest fundamentals.

In playing an instrument the fundamentals are rather obvious. How’s your sound, your intonation, your articulation, your air support, you hand position, etc…? And each instrument has exercises to address this concerns. But in the realm of composition they don’t seem as obvious to me. What do you consider to be the fundamentals of good composition and how do you go about continuing to develop them? How do you write better compositions as opposed to just more compositions?

My first reaction is to say that, well, music is obviously not sports. No one “wins” or “loses.” The basis for judgment is subjective and new music can only be valued on its own terms.

But putting that aside because there is something to this question and asking rather — What are the basic traits that make a composer whose music we like? What do you hear as the “fundamentals of good composition?” Accepting that the answer will be different for everybody (though probably with some healthy overlap) takes you away from the NY Times approach of last week’s Top Ten Composers Of All Time post. Anybody else surprised there were no Americans, women, or Dukes of Ellington?

Curious for all takes on the issue. Listeners and musicians.