I have a simple question. What should a composer expect to get out of copying scores? Why do we do it? What are some things we should be aware of or look for? In some of the scores I’ve copied I’ve seen things to match something I’ve experienced aurally and, essentially, added to my own musical vocabulary. What other thoughts do you have on this topic?
Copying scores is really an age old tradition. There is no better way to fully engage with and commit to memory the techniques of great composers. But it is a lot of work. So I recommend to get the most out of it you do the following:
1. Listen to the piece a lot. Having a good aural image in your mind greatly aids in deciphering the score.
2. Do harmonic, melodic, and formal analysis to the best of your ability. Just identifying big formal sections, like expositions, development, and recapitulation sections can enlighting your understanding. Add in chords, melodic ideas that are modified and scoring techniques and you will really begin to understand the piece.
3. Copy complete musical thoughts per instrument at a time. If you are copying a score, write out basic ideas, and phrases. If you write bar by bar down the page, you won’t get a feel for the way the composer treats phrasing.
4. Reflect and write about your findings. You don’t have to publicly blog like me, but writing is the best way to clear up and organize your thoughts. Look for usable techniques and give them unique names. I call adding choir after an orchestra is already completely playing at top dynamics the “last ditch effort” because choir can make everything sound bigger. That is one example of “giving something a name makes it easier to remember”.
5. Apply it to your own compositions. You must apply soon after learning or it will be lost.
Don’t think about the short term gains when copying. Think about where you will be 10 or 20 years from now, if you spend time now reading, analyzing, copying, reflecting, and assimilating. You will be unstoppable!