Some reflections on constraints, which I have summarized in a foreword to "Composing with Constraints" by Jorge Variego, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.


Constraints are often seen as limitations, but are omnipresent in the musical context and can unfold considerable creative potential in the compositional process. 

To simplify, one could say that in contrast to a rule, which rather formulates a strict if-then relationship, constraints establish a network of conditions in which musical structure can evolve in manifold ways. 

In this sense, constraints are the essential basis of every musical analysis and also serve as a conscious or unconscious guideline for the act of musical composition. 

As far as analysis is concerned, a work must meet certain criteria in order to be assigned to a certain musical style or the oeuvre of a certain composer. And it is only through constraints that it is possible to transform the analytical approach into a generative one, i.e. to write exercises in the style of a particular musical genre or of a particular composer. 

Of course, many composers are innovators who break out of the compositional paradigms of their time or introduce radical innovations, but preferably not without being aware of the musical tradition and thus being able to transcend it in a reflected manner. 

Apart from these analytical or related style-generating approaches, constraints are also of decisive importance in the compositional process. 

The act of composition is framed by a number of constraints, may be consciously defined or in fact applied unconsciously. Even when relying mostly on their own intuition, the composer is nevertheless confronted with various constraints that determine the compositional structure to a certain degree, such as the dynamic, articulatory or pitch capabilities of the instruments, and many more. 

Now one could provocatively ask the question why further "restrictions" beyond the intrinsically given constraints should be actively formulated in the compositional process? 

First of all, because for most composers the deliberately chosen constraint is not a restriction, but a fundamental means of creating the musical structure–and this does not have to involve sophisticated techniques of algorithmic composition or generative music at all. The process already begins with the choice of instrumentation, the decision for a certain harmonic material or even the preference for certain rhythmic constellations, just to name a few examples. 

Deliberate restrictions, however, not only allow a clear structuring of the material, but additionally give rise to new possibilities of musical expression by opening new paths that would hardly have been possible without applying any constraints–or formulated as a question outside the musical context: what point can lipograms make in literature, apart from the mastered linguistic challenge? 

Last but not least, the application of constraints in a musical context abstracts from the individual case and creates a meta-class of possible compositions. On the one hand, this enables experimentation with different musical realizations that nevertheless satisfy a superordinate musical concept through a network of given conditions. On the other hand, it is precisely this abstraction that allows an analytical view of one's own work and opens up new ways of reflecting on one's own creative compositional process. 


I wish my esteemed colleague Jorge Variego every success with this book and for the readers I would like to add: May the force of constraints be with you!