Composers

This page is about composers and jazz artists in general—who are they and what they do.

If you want to find out more about a particular composer or jazz artist, click one of these links:

A composer is someone who writes music. Anyone can be a composer. However the word ‘composer’ normally means someone who has written classical music, or possibly jazz.

Composers of classical music are normally known by their last name. For example, one very famous composer is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, nobody talks about him as Wolfgang. Instead he is simply known as Mozart. Perhaps you have heard of this name before?

After the name, the next most important thing about a composer of classical music is when they lived. This is normally written in parentheses (-) after the composer’s name. For example, we often see Mozart’s name written as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). This means Mozart was born in 1756 and died in 1791. Examples of other things you might see are:

  • Philip Glass (1937– ). This means the composer was born in 1937 but is still alive.
  • Thomas Tallis (c.1505–1585). The ‘c.’ means that nobody is sure of the exact year, but it’s sometime about then. In other words, nobody know exactly when Tallis was born, but it was about 1505.

It is important to know when a composer lived because different times in history have different musical styles. For example, baroque music is a style of music written between about 1600 and 1750. The more you listen to classical music, the more you will begin to recognise these different styles. If you know when a composer lived, you know what to expect before you hear their music. You will also know what to listen out for.

Another reason for knowing when a composer lived is to understand what was happening in their lives. Understanding history is very important for music. For example, if there was a war on when a composer was alive, this composer might have written music about that war. They might have written about how they felt during the war (one example is Shostakovich). Or they might have written music to celebrate the end of the war (one example is Handel).

The more we understand about a composer’s life, the more we can understand their music. Good music is not just a lovely tune. Good music says something about the deepest feelings and thoughts of the composer. In this way, good music can say something about our own deepest feelings and thoughts as well.

Composers of jazz music are a little more straight-forward. They are often known by both their names, such as Louis Armstrong or Dave Brubeck. It is also important to know when a jazz composer lived—although it is not as important as it is for composers of classical music. Different times do have different styles of jazz. However jazz has only been around about 100 years. It doesn’t have a very long history like classical music.

By the way, composers of jazz music are often called jazz artists. This is because most jazz composers are known for playing their own music. When most people think of a jazz composer they don’t think of the composer writing music. They think of the composer playing music—just like we would think of a rock band. In fact, many jazz artists don’t really write music at all. They simply play other people’s music differently. But a good jazz artist will play the music so differently that they really are making a new piece of music. So I think they should be called ‘composers’ too.

I should say one last thing about composers. Almost all composers of classical music are men. Until very recently there were almost no women composers at all. And there still aren’t very many. Even in jazz, most composers are men.

I don’t know why there are so few women composers. I understand why there might be fewer women than men. But I don’t understand why there have been almost no women composers at all in the past. There have certainly been women writers in the past, and even women artists—but where are the women composers?

So girls, start composing!!! The world needs to hear from you! Here’s a video of some music by a woman composer to encourage you. It’s music by Clara Schumann (wife of Robert Schumann). She is about the only woman composer of classical music from a long time ago that I know of!

First movement of Clara Schumann’s Trio, Op. 17

Picture credits:
  1. Music by Mozart in his own hand writing. This is part of Phantasie für eine Orgelwalze (Fantasy for a Barrel-Organ) in F Minor, K. 608 from 1791. The image is cut from a larger one which is in the public domain. Click here for the source of this larger image, along with the relevant copyright information.
Video credits:
  1. Trio Debussy – Clara Wieck Schumann Trio in sol minore op.17 1° movimento. Trio Debussy – Concerto al Nuovo Auditorium di Milano – Clara Wieck Schumann Trio in sol minore op.17 1° movimento.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clare Bryden 14th January 2010

Hi Malcolm!

Excellent stuff! Some hopefully constructive comments…

Why don’t you have videos of yourself playing the piano? 🙂 There are women composers around! I’ll start by suggesting you look into Hildegard of Bingen, e.g. A Feather on the Breath of God.

2 Malcolm Pullan 15th January 2010

Thanks for that Clare. First of all, I do plan to put some videos of me playing the piano on this site. However this is going to take some organising!

Next, I did not know about Hildegard of Bingen being a composer. For those who don’t know, Hildegard of Bingen lived about 900 years ago. She was an abbess (leader of an abbey) famous for her unusual visions of God and what she wrote about them.

I do understand that there are women composers around. In fact, after receiving this comment I looked on wikipedia for women composers. There was a huge list. However, when I looked at the names, the only names before 1900 that I recognised were Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

What I meant to say in the article about composers is that there are virtually no well-known women composers. And I do not know why. It’s obvious why there were fewer women composers in the past—women were expected to look after families and leave other matters to men. However, the same arguments apply to other forms of ‘art’, such as writing and painting. Yet there are famous women writers and artists. So why are there no famous women composers? There must be another reason. I wish I knew what it was.

3 jordan 17th August 2012

There have been great female composers, great female artists, and great female authors, but they are lost to history because women were not allowed to publish. So men took credit for their works. There are probably great works you think have been composed by men.

4 Malcolm Pullan 17th August 2012

Thanks for that Jordan. I am sure there are many works of writing, art and music by women that have men’s name on them. It is often said that some of Fanny Mendelssohn’s works were published under her brother’s name, Felix Mendelssohn. As you say, this may have been the only way for Fanny’s works to get published. Felix loved his sister dearly and if he did publish his sister’s works under his name, he would have done this out of love for her.

I am still not clear why there are no well-known women composers. Somehow a few women managed to break through the barriers in literature and art to publish under their own name, but not so much in music. Why the difference? The best answer I can come up with is that music needs performing. It needs lots of people to make it work. Writing and painting do not need others to bring the work to life. They exist by themselves. Music needs other people to make it happen. It may well be that the barrier of a woman getting lots of people together to play a piece of music was too great. I don’t know.

5 Karen Dunn 13th August 2013

Hello. My name is Karen Dunn and I’m trying to finish up writing and submitting my book for middle school children on 7 Women Composers. You asked a question on your composer page about why women composers are not as well known. There are many reasons! Libby Larsen, American composer, gives good reasons on her website. I hope you might look her up and add her to your classical composer list. Thanks

6 Malcolm Pullan 16th August 2013

Hello Karen. Thank you very much for your comment. I really appreciate being pointed to the article on Libby Larsen’s website about why there are so few women composers. All the best for finishing your book!

7 Linda 14th April 2014

How about adding Jennifer Higdon to the list of women composers? Another worthy candidate…

8 Malcolm Pullan 14th April 2014

Thank you for that suggestion. I haven’t heard of Jennifer Higdon. I see she is a contemporary composer (i.e. alive today). I know there are a lot of very good women composers around today. This is really good to see (and hear!).

9 louise 3rd May 2015

bach is a really good composer.
i love his church songs
🙂 i am playing one of his songs for my piano exam

10 Gayle 22nd August 2016

My daughter is finishing her last year of doctoral studies in music composition at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Interestingly, she is teaching a class at the university this year about women composers. There is a push now to start encouraging and recognizing more women composers. I would enjoy sitting in on her class!

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