I feel every composer should learn at least one instrument as well as piano and a few others if possible. However, composition is a separate craft/discipline of music from performance that needs time to be practiced just like an instrument.

I feel it it would be unreasonable to expect a professional composer to be able to play as well as a performer, since a composer will spend more time on composition taking away from instrument practice.

The question is, how well should a composer be able to play an instrument. Should he be at a virtuoso level similar to a performer or simply enough to be respected by other performers? Perhaps only enough to be able to outplay amateurs?

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Last edited by British_Steal at Mar 28, 2013,
A composer should be able to compose on the instrument. Having knowledge on theory in general would be a better asset than know the ins and outs of the guitar for example, imo. The instrument is just their voice. I feel like its more about what they hear in their head than how well they can play it. Piano I feel is a must learn as you can play both bass lines and counter-melody, melody, and harmony fairly easily on one instrument (theoretically, I have very little experience with piano, best friend is at uni for piano).

Being able to transfer what you hear in your head to your instrument to your score accurately is better for a composer than how well thay play it, imo.
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being able to play piano is vital, or at least a understanding of the theory behind it.
western music is based off the piano.

as for playing skill being a virtuoso would help, but as long as they can play what they hear in there head they should be fine
Historically, the top composers were also top performers, especially piano. A notable exception is Wagner, but you can hear it reflected in his compositions. They're not as agile as others, if that makes sense.

I think composers should be proficient enough at playing to carry out their ideas. Composition is often "slow improvisation". A certain organic flow is hard to create without being played and "slowly improvised" in real time, when your mind and creativity is locked in and there's a momentum that keeps the flow going and taking the musical idea further.

...modes and scales are still useless.

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I would give my right nut to witness a guitarist on the magnitude of Lisztian skill and compositional output and talent. Or Ravel or Rach or Bach or Beethoven or Scriabin....

The piano is vital. I don't think a guy like Haydn played all the instruments he composed for.. as long as you know their timbres then your good.
I think Guthrie Govan has it spot on : "a [composer] should be able to play what he hears in his head with facility."

And don't forget that most of our favorite musicians write and play their music, which can be both immaculately composed AND technically proficient.
To be honest, as long as a composer has enough experience to hear the music in their head well enough, there's no reason why they need to be proficient on any instrument - particularly in classical (orchestral, as the term 'classical' actually refers to a specific time period in music), where there are loads and loads of instruments being written for. If a composer understands the instrument well enough to compose for it without writing unplayable passages on it (notes out of the instrument's range, for example) then there is no reason why they need to be able to play it.

That being said, I'm sure playing an instrument makes it a lot easier, and I imagine most (if not all) the major composers probably play the piano to a high level, as well as one or two other instruments.
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If someone can compose good music without being able to play, you can't really argue with that. Lots of great composers wrote out of their heads. Their ability on their instrument was somewhat irrelevant to their compositions at that stage.
its all down to what matters to you.
to me, the most important thing is to be able to play what i compose (which actually started when i started writing technical exercises for myself and has gone on to include my ensemble works)

however, i try to stay away from the guitar when i compose - the scales and arpeggios are so drilled into me that i'll end up writing something incredibly boring, unless i accidentally play a really cute little chord..
It generally goes, if you write a 11:17 polyrhythm, you must be able to tap or play it. Otherwise the musicians that play your music will lose respect for you.

I don't play anything and people sometimes look down on me a bit, but I don't give a fuck. I've never thought, "wow, I wish I played AN instrument." I've often thought about wanting to play a specific instrument that I'm writing for to get inside it better, but never just in the general sense. There's some practicality in knowing the piano (which I don't) but I've never felt at any real disadvantage for not playing it. Frankly I don't see why it should matter outside of the whole, "everyone in the past played piano, that must be what made them good composers."

The only shitty thing about not being able to perform on an instrument is that it takes out a large percentage of my value in the musical sector, which sucks. But there's nothing in relation to composition.
A lot of the music I write is written on a guitar (or in my head, but thinking about guitars), and even in pieces that don't have guitar in them you can sort of tell. Now that university is making me learn piano, I write at the piano sometimes, and it has a very different vibe, but I can't really play a lot of what I write there. Basically what I'm saying is it helps to be able to play, but it's not necessary. You can write perfectly well out of your head, but having an instrument you're proficient with helps the creative process. Virtuosity is by no means a necessity.
I think rock/metal would be better if you have people who learn theory and compose and dont play any instrument and people who only play and dont even learn scales or nothin at all. Most of my favorite musicians are classical violinists and pianists that never compose at all. But maybe Im wrong cuz then there is some great music that might not have ever happened. I dont know.
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