Holding Composers Responsible

We don’t hold composers responsible for writing music that is  difficult to sing. In fact, we allow them to write music that is frequently ridiculous from a vocal standpoint. If the singer can’t make it work, it’s the singer who is at fault.


People do lots of things that can either be regarded as brave and exciting or stupid and harmful. If you choose to climb Mt. Everest with an inexperienced guide (to save money!) and you die in the process, who is responsible for that? If you choose to jump off a mountain in a “bat suit” and glide down, but crash into a wall and die, who is responsible for that? If you choose to get in a race car and drive around a circular track at astounding speeds and your car turns over and bursts into flames, who is responsible?

But if you ask a composer to write music for singers and that composer does not bother to find out how singers actually sing, (and that is typical) and that composer writes music which is abusive in its demands, and singers attempt to perform that music in public and get into some kind of trouble, who is responsible? Difficult question to answer, no?

We hear a lot about abuse in the news. No one ever says that it is a form of abuse for someone who does not sing, has not ever sung, and does not study the art of singing to be paid a lot of money to write music that singers must perform regardless of how thankless the music is. There is much attention about “honoring living composers” but not much attention about questioning why a good deal of music living composers write is nearly unsingable and why we not only tolerate that, we laud it.

The human throat functions like any other tube in that it must behave according to the laws of physics. There are things that singers cannot do in certain pitch ranges unless they want to sound bad or risk ruining their vocal folds. It shouldn’t be the responsiblity of the singer, alone, to have to address the vocal requirements of music that is poorly written. The composer bears some significant responsibility for his or her composition. But, go head, ask anyone who composes (and does not sing) if they should bear some responsibility for understanding how to write music that is easily sung and likely to allow a vocalist to remain healthy, and you will hear a resounding “no!” 

New. Different. Unique. Breaking with the past. Special. Unusual.

Unsingable. Abusive. Stupid. Insulting. Degrading.

Just because someone got money to write vocal music, doesn’t mean it’s good and just because someone got a commission to compose for singers doesn’t mean that singers will benefit from performing it. Criticism that supports singers and holds the feet of the composer to the flame of knowledge shouldn’t be automatically dismissed.

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