It is said that it takes 30 days to form a habit. For instance, if I want to commit to running three miles every morning, once I complete to a solid 30-day trial period that action will have officially entered my brain as “that thing I do every morning.” I think the same can be said of forming a habit of not doing something—breaking a habit—such as quitting smoking or cutting down on television viewing. Either way, although the actual length of time for the action to gel into a habit will obviously vary from person to person, 30 days serves as a basic benchmark in that process.
Habits can be good things, in that they don’t require the same level of effort to execute as something that is not a habit. They “just happen” without needing a lot of consideration or energy once they become integrated into the daily routine or the personality of the individual. So how does this rule apply to musical habits? We all have them—the compositional things we do that make up our “musical voice,” whatever that may be. I think we can all agree that such habits make Philip Glass sound like Philip Glass, Joan Tower sound like Joan Tower, and probably even John Cage sound like John Cage. As I’m composing I tend towards certain musical gestures, harmonic schemes, and structural approaches. For example, there are certain string techniques that I really like to use because they convey a specific mood that I’m interested in creating, they work well within my musical language, and I just like the way they sound. Same goes for chordal structures, instrument pairings, etc. However, at some point the use of certain techniques starts to feel like it has reached critical mass, and maybe the time has come to shake things up a bit.
That’s when I say, “Okay, let’s not do that at all in this piece.” So what to replace that with? Often I try to dream up several completely off-the-wall musical scenarios that could serve as replacements—the weirder or more outlandish the better—and often something in there will spark an idea, or a combination of those bits of information can be worked into an entirely new version of that. It makes the process of pushing oneself out of routine kind of fun! And in the end I have a lot more musical material than I started with.
Ultimately I’m not sure how musical habits like this end up forming—through 30 days of composing? After 30 pieces? Once you’ve heard 30 performances of a composition? However it happens, recognizing those habits and evaluating whether they should stay, go, or morph into something else is one way to keep growing and developing as a composer.