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What Is a Composer?

Beethoven is one of the most famous classical music composers.
Handel was a Baroque composer.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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A composer writes music and the term may or may not be thought of as interchangeable with songwriter, who tends to write shorter works with song elements. For most people, the terms are very close, but composer may more apply to writing music of classical or jazz genres or for writing longer pieces. To confuse matters, someone writing a rock opera is likely a composer, given the length of the composition, even if songs from the opera become very popular pieces that are enjoyed by a wider audience.

People can often quickly identify composers of the past and names like Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Wagner might come easily to mind. In the present, the need for composition has grown, magnifying the ranks of those who are composers. Most people won’t name the names of many of them, though a few, particularly those associated with film composition, might be easy to guess. A composer such as John Williams, for instance, who created the Star Wars score and the ominous score for Jaws, may be very memorable. Others, like Phillip Glass, who contribute something new or different to the way instrumental music is interpreted, may have significant following, too.

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It’s interesting to explore the range in which a composer might work. He or she could compose music for symphonies, symphonic bands, jazz ensembles, gospel choirs, classical choirs or others. Music could be for live performance, recording, or as part of TV, radio, or film. A composer might be paid in advance to create specific music, or a person who is actively involved the musical world may simply create compositions, much as one might create a novel or poem. When works are not requisitioned, the composer might spend some time attempting to get performance of a work or a recording of it.

Composition of music involves many elements. Whether or not composers are formally trained, they have to understand sound of instruments, sound of how to mix notes, chords and keys, time signatures, and the work that has come before them, so they remain original. Training and/or genius may help the composer ultimately put together and write music. A number of composers are now greatly aided with scoring software, which can help play different musical instruments and write notes. Others prefer to do this work by hand.

It’s possible to call the person who has written one poem a poet, but most people view the poet as somebody who has written many poems. In this respect, composers are similar. Many people write one piece of music, but most composers write a plethora of them. Continuing to work and produce new pieces may how they are most defined.

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