Why would anyone spend the hours and hours it takes to do such a thing, anyway? Even a short piece of music, even a song, generally represents an immense amount of labor on someone’s part.
I’ve been mulling this over, and have come up with a few possible reasons, some more likely than others:
1) For money.
This, I trust, needs no explanation.
2) To express yourself.
Express what exactly? Your mood? Your opinions? Your personality? Improvisation is a better bet for expressing how you feel at any given moment. If you’re a singer/songwriter, and you still feel the way you did when you wrote it, then a song is a good vehicle for self-expression. A string quartet not so much; emotional or intellectual content may be there for the performers to dig into and bring out, but it’s there because it was constructed to be there, not because the composer poured it there like milk into a waffle mix.
3) For someone to play.
True enough, but I’m betting pretty rare. Not that there aren’t plenty of composers who write music for themselves or others to play, but I doubt that there are many for whom that’s the primary impetus. Maybe those who play rare or unusual instruments and need repertoire.
4) For someone to listen to.
Well, yes. But who? Someone specific? Not usually. The whole world? Not that likely unless you’re writing pop songs. A specific community? That’s quite likely. Posterity? That would be the specific community of people who appreciate you after you’re dead much more than anyone did while you’re alive. (It’s always nice to have imaginary friends.)
5) To make the world a better place.
It doesn’t work. Plato notwithstanding (“let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws”), I doubt any piece of music ever changed anyone’s mind permanently. Besides, whatever your music does to make people better—and can you prove it?—there’s another piece of music that does exactly the opposite.
6) To prove your reproductive fitness.
I’m a big believer in evolutionary psychology, the notion that the roots of much of our behavior can be traced to our evolutionary background as tribal primates. (I’m grossly oversimplifying, of course.) It’s the only remotely satisfying explanation I’ve heard for why people are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. The origins of music from this point of view are controversial, but one plausible theory is that it has its origins in courtship displays, not unlike those of birds. Certainly a lot of young men (I was one, once) start writing music to impress girls. (Sometimes it works!)
More generally, though, the idea is that our various biological drives are sublimated into our complex modern societal activities. For a male, at least, a display of status, strength or daring can signal that he’s worthy of a mate, an imperative to follow even if he already has a mate, or has no interest in one. Composer examples of these might be Brahms (I’m the heir to Bach and Beethoven!); Wagner (Mine’s longer than anyone else’s!); and perhaps Beethoven, Debussy or Cage (I’m staking out territory where no one has dared go before!).
And of course there’s the well-known equivalence between any artist’s work and their children; it’s not too far-fetched (to me, anyway) that another biological imperative that gets translated into composing for some is the urge to spread one’s genes.
7) For fun.
I will confess that when I’m composing I often picture myself as a four-year-old playing with blocks. That’s the thing about writing music; it’s work, often difficult work, but it’s also play of the most rewarding kind.
For myself I suspect that several of the above factors are relevant; I’d imagine that for most of us it’s at least that complicated. And undoubtedly I’ve overlooked some, perhaps most. If there’s a reason to write music I haven’t thought of, please let me know!