Comment: how composers can use the scientific method

British-Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein puts the scientific method to work on his music

Throughout human history the mystery of artistic creation has always been observed with a mix of curiosity and fascination. It has puzzled both theologists and philosophers and, closer to our time, psychologists and neuroscientists. It has long been my opinion that, in order to be able to express the complexity and ambivalence of human emotions, an artist needs to use the full extent of his intellect and work methodically at creating a unique autonomous world. As a composer, this means that for each new composition I need to both imagine and craft an entirely new world.

During the preparation for a lecture I gave at The Royal Institution in London earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk with renowned scientist Professor Maneesh Sahani, from Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London. We had lengthy discussions about the commonalities between music and science and found some intriguing similarities between the scientific method and the practicalities of composing.

The dictionary defines the scientific method as a method of procedure consisting of systematic observation, measurement and experiment – and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. Criticism is the backbone of the scientific method because at the end of the process we need to analyse the data and draw a conclusion.

In February it took just 25 minutes for Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra to perform my Big Bang and Creation of the Universe, op 52.  The 25-minute composition took 400 hours of work to complete, over the course of a few months. Why did it take so long? Partly because I needed inspiration to find a good idea to begin with, but also because I face many choices during the process of creation. Something akin to the scientific method is needed to solve essential issues such as ‘what to keep and what to let go’; or if what has been written feels and sounds wrong, then I need to decide upon a change of direction.

Here are two stories to illustrate my point. Many years ago, whilst composing my Dark Fantasy for Orchestra, I was faced with a curious problem; at some point in the piece I wanted to give the feeling of a fast, exciting, and slightly out-of-breath passage – the problem was it sounded too slow. I tried repeatedly to make each theme move faster and be more rhythmical but nothing changed. The feeling the passage conveyed was still slow, powerful and dramatic. My progress with the piece came to a standstill. Before finding a better solution I had to understand the root of the problem. After a month of questioning I found my answer – very remote, in a low accompaniment passage by the double bass, lay a slow legato melody.

With everything else moving frantically, the mind was still attracted by this unique slow passage. Having understood the problem I had struggled with for weeks, I was now able to solve it in a matter of minutes. I changed the double bass melody to pizzicati… and that was it. I had learned a useful lesson; the mind is attracted by the slow and what is important is not how fast the ‘fast’ is but how slow the ‘slow’ is. I could use this lesson in a different manner afterwards; if you want something to feel slow, have something fast alongside. It’s all relative.

I also used the scientific method during my composition, If you will it, it is no dream, a recent commission by the Philharmonia Orchestra to be premiered by Ashkenazy at the Royal Festival Hall in June 2013. This piece had an extremely agreeable starting process. I sat at the desk and immediately found the first minute of music coming to me, as if already written in its perfect form from somewhere else.

I continued to work on the piece for two months and then found myself stuck. I had already written eight minutes of my ten-minute piece. It was now time to finish the piece but the composition that had started so well now seemed to me to be slightly boring in the middle. For weeks I tried to understand what was happening. Like a scientist, I devised experiments and tests to see what was wrong. Should I change the rhythm? That was no better. Should I transpose higher or lower? Should I change the notes? Change the orchestration? Introduce more or less counterpoint? Despite my experiments absolutely nothing changed the feeling the piece invoked.

I then decided that if I could not find the why then maybe I should first find the where. So I listened to the music in my head in a constant loop for days and eventually decided that it was after one minute and 40 seconds of music that it all sadly changed for the worst. After much research I then understood that the second theme, which came immediately after the successful beginning, was indeed beautiful on its own merit. However, it was far too similar to the first theme and would do much better in another piece. I then took away everything that I had composed after my beloved one minute forty and started afresh. It was only then that I was able to find the right contrast and write the rest of the piece in a blissful flow.

Each new composition poses different problems and it is the questioning that is my constant companion. In great art, like in great science, you should not be ideological and decide in advance what the result of your experiment should be. Theory has to adapt itself to the facts and not the other way around. It is both surprising and agreeable to discover that by analysing, comparing and discovering new aspects – as well as developing a renewed understanding of problems – that far from explaining everything we broaden our horizons and enlarge and deepen the ‘mystery’. It is the eternal human condition to always ask more and more questions.

This post originally appeared in IAM, March 2013