Composerly Thoughts

How to Think Like a Composer [composition workshop]

How to Think Like a Composer [composition workshop]

When composers set poems to music, they exert a great deal of control over how the listeners hear those poems. In the hands of different composers, the same words can become tender or hard-edged, energetic or gentle, earnest or ironic.

You can tell which words and phrases speak most strongly to composers, because they treat them differently. They might begin with those words, repeat them, or end with them. They might give them snappy rhythms, or separate them from the rest of the piece with silence. They often imbue them with great passion, using register (i.e. high notes), dynamics (i.e. fortes or crescendos), or note values (i.e. extra long or short notes).

If this sounds like favoritism, you’re right. Setting words to music is not an equal opportunity endeavor, and composers definitely play favorites. Composers suddenly break out the harmony when their most cherished words walk through the door, or they launch into a feast of counterpoint, or they cut to the chase with a strong unison. Whenever their most beloved words make an appearance, they lavish melismas upon them like garlands, or whisper them tenderly. Special effects leap out of nowhere, sprinkling fairy dust all over everything.

Of course, some composers are subtle about this, while others are more overt, wearing their hearts right out on their sleeves.

This may not be apparent when listening to a single piece of music. But comparing different composers’ settings of the same poem can be very revealing. For example, composers Gwyneth Walker, Elliot Levine and Eric Whitacre each made very difference choices when they set e. e. cummings’ poem, “i thank you god for most this amazing day” to music.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e. e. cummings

From Complete Poems 1904-1962, published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.
Reprinted here for educational purposes only.



Listen to Walker, Whitacre and Levine’s settings. (You’ll find links to recommended performances below.) Choose several words or phrases in the poem and compare how each composer chose to set them to music.

  • What tools do the composers decide to use? This might include unison/harmony, solo/tutti, high/low, tempo, rhythm, counterpoint, repetition, melismas, instruments or special effects. No observation in this regard is too small; you never know what parameter might have meaning!
  • What does the composer’s choice of tools say about what he/she might be trying to communicate? How might the composer be commenting on the poem itself? This is a completely subjective question, but go ahead and try to mind read. (Yes, composers absolutely want you to do this!)


Setting #1: by Gwyneth Walker

Recommended performance: 2002 NMMEA All State Treble Choir
(New Mexico Music Educators Association)
Available here:

Setting #2: Elliot Levine

Recommended performance: Western Wind
Available here:

Setting #3: Eric Whitacre

Recommended performance: Stanford Chamber Chorale, Stephen Layton conductor
Available here:

Adapted from Elizabeth’s composition workshop at Visitation High School, Mendota Heights, MN. Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Alexander

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —