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The Mystery of Music Composition: What You Need to Know Before Composing a Note

by 1:46 AM
The act of composing music requires years of training, experience, and a knowledge of some basic theory to be a professional composer. However, this doesn't mean you can't learn to be a very effective composer without putting in thousands of hours of composing time. Anyone can learn to write music, but how far you go down the rabbit hole depends on your goals.

While there are people out there who can compose music without learning all of the intricacies of the craft, you'll go much farther if you take the time to learn a few basic skills.

The good news? This blog is really all about you. I'm giving you my best advice to develop your skill and ability as a composer. You're getting all of my years of experience studying with some of the world's most famous composers. I've studied and had master classes with composers who are already in the history books, and lucky you, all you had to do was find my website.

I'm not saying this to be egotistical. It's actually anything but that. I'm telling you this because I want you to know that the information about composing music contained in this blog is real, and you can take it to the bank. Best of all, you don't have to pay several thousands of dollars worth of tuition to get this information. I've worked with some really great composers, and I want to share what I've learned because it helps me to process my own beliefs about music and what it should be.

So, now that we've settled on the fact that you're selfish for getting all of this information for free, and I'm selfish for using your time to process my thoughts on music, let's get some real information going.

We've all heard the story of how Beethoven composed music without being able to hear. What you might not know is that Beethoven had been composing for a very long time before he lost his hearing. He developed an internal sense of music that was developed during the years that he could hear. This enabled him to continue composing even after losing his hearing.

My point? I don't care if you're Beethoven, you still need to know what the fourth ledger line on the treble clef staff is if you're going to compose music seriously.

Composing music does require talent, and there are some naturally talented people out in the world, but it's also about much more than simply being talented. You also need to know some of the basics of music composition, and you need to work hard.

One of the longest compositions I've written is a work called "The Fool's Journey." (I know, here I go talking about myself again) Ever heard of it? Not many people have. Why? Because I'm still perfecting it, and it's a monster of a piece. (Yes, those are the only reasons why. I swear. Because the moment I release it upon the world it shall bring about world peace.)

The Fool's Journey is a work for wind symphony, and it has over one million notes between all the parts. I rewrote this work several times in an effort to continually perfect it. Even now, I'm still finalizing the work and getting it ready for a demo recording.

My point is, if you want to be a composer, you're really going to have to work at it. But, every journey has to start somewhere, and while other composers may suggest another track, I believe there are three elements that are essential before you can seriously begin to compose music.

  • Music Notation: You have to be able to read music if you're going to write classical-style compositions. I'd argue that you should be able to read music no matter what you want to write. Yes, there have been many composers throughout the years who said they didn't know how to write a single note. But, if you can't read music, you're doing yourself a disservice. Notation allows you to get your ideas down on paper where you can edit and change them until they really represent the mood, emotion, and intent you're trying to achieve.
  • Music Theory: Music theory is not the only way to learn to compose music, but it's definitely the fastest way. Think about it, what's going to take you longer to do? Listening to 400 years worth of music, or taking a theory course that introduces you to the basic principles of composition. Learning music theory is like a taking crash course in the most popular music over the past few centuries. Don't be the pompous annoying jerk who says they don't need to study music theory or listen to other composers music because they won't be original if they do. At the risk of this turning into a tirade, let's just make this simple -- if you don't know what already exists, how do you know what you're composing is new?
  • Musical Counterpoint: At its core, musical counterpoint is simply the creation of more than one melody that when played together sound pleasing. It's also a way to add chords to a composition without really understanding much about chords and progressions. While I would still much rather you learn to compose your own chords, counterpoint is something that can help you get out of tricky situations without much of a time investment. By the way, for those of you more advanced composers out there, this also includes voice leading.
There are other requirements like orchestration, instrumentation, form and analysis, and music composition technique. However, all of these skills can be learned as you go. The first step in learning to compose music is to recognize that there are certain skills you have to master. Then, you can begin a step-by-step process towards developing those skills.

Music lessons are a good way to begin working towards developing a solid craft in music composition, but during the initial stages, you can also learn most of what you need to know on your own.

If you've never studied music before, it's not too late to start. There have been cases of pianists going to Carnegie Hall in their 40s after picking up the piano. It just requires some dedication, and the ability to push yourself mentally.

Start by picking up a music theory textbook, and then move from there to more advanced subjects. This blog deals only with helping you get the tips and tricks you need to learn how to compose music more effectively. It's geared toward the entry-level composer, so you can begin to learn what it is you need to do to succeed.

Over the years, I have taught composers from all walks of life from the very beginning composer to doctoral candidates in music composition at large universities. And, I'm dedicated to helping you learn to compose your own music. Why? Because the more composers we have in the world, the more informed our musical audiences will be. It's also a great way to relieve stress, deal with powerful emotions, and it's something all people should have the ability to enjoy.

I don't care what your ultimate goal is for being a composer. The world needs educated audiences, and music education is something that is severely lacking in our schools. It's something that people from several different cultures can understand and appreciate, yet, it's also the subject that is first cut from our schools when budgets run dry.

Music is one of the things that makes us human, and it's one of the few things we don't share with other species. As far as we know, the enjoyment of music is uniquely human.

Whether composing music is a hobby or you want to break into writing your own music for orchestras, there are paths available to you. You just have to be proactive, promote yourself, and develop the technique needed to compose effective works.

I've compiled a list of resources that you can use to begin learning music theory, and start the path towards becoming a composer:

Beginning Music Theory

This section is for the person who knows nothing about music. The Dummies books will have you up and running and teach you the basics of music composition fairly quickly. Once you get through this book, you can start composing your own music and work on the Intermediate Music Theory section. 

Music Theory for Dummies

The Dummies books are okay starting points for people who have no real knowledge of music theory. If you want a fun, and humorous method of learning to compose music you can start with Music Theory for Dummies.

Intermediate Music Theory

For those who want something more in-depth and a little more serious than a Dummy book, this section is for you. This is where the real education begins. If you're looking at the books in this category, that tells me you're starting to get serious about learning to write music.

In effect, this section is where the "E" word begins to really means something.

Stefan Kostka: Tonal Harmony

If you want something more intensive, then I suggest you go with the textbook that colleges around the world are using. Tonal Harmony is a good textbook, and if you make it through the entire book, you'll have all the knowledge you need to start composing music quickly.

Advanced Music Theory

If you've gone through those textbooks, or you feel confident that you already know your music theory, then here are a few texts that might give you that extra insight to understand that theory is just a means to an end. You don't really need music theory to compose music, but it does help you to understand how to compose music more quickly and gives you a good insight into the technique of the masters from the past.

Paul Hindemith: Music Theory Text

Paul Hindemith believed that composers should learn music theory and get on with it. His courses were notorious for being only 10 weeks long. If you want some insight into his method of teaching theory, his Music Theory text is a good place to start.

Arnold Schoenberg: Theory of Harmony

Arnold Schoenberg was another famous composer-teacher. For those of you who know this man for his atonal works, don't turn away just yet. This text focuses on traditional harmony, but it's extremely philosophical, and it is the type of theory text you can read through. His Theory of Harmony is widely regarded as one of the most important texts in music composition available.

A Word About Music Theory

Music theory is important, but don't make the mistake of thinking that it will solve all your compositional problems. I see music theory as a way of avoiding having to solve the problems that composers of the past already confronted and solved. I believe in doing things in a new way when it makes sense to, and following the status quo when it makes sense as well.

Yes, you need to understand music theory. It's just that important. However, remember, if you learn music theory and compose your own compositions based on the rules of theory, you are nothing better than a Xerox machine. (We still use those, right?) On the other hand, if you are doing this for fun and that tricks your trigger? By all means, put that theory book to good use and enjoy a good campfire with close friends.

Even so, music theory is like a set of training wheels. Use it to help get your bearings and learn how to compose, but once you know how, it's time to take off the wheels and start riding on your own. This is how you begin to write original music, and believe me, there are very few composers out there who are truly writing original compositions.

Why You Should Be Careful Taking Music Composition Lessons Online

by 5:01 AM
Learning to compose music is a process that takes time and commitment. A talented composer with little training can get most of the information they need from listening to and analyzing the score of a master composer. Learning from the masters would be an ideal way to study music composition, and their scores can provide fledgling composers with the information they need to create a successful work. If a composer could learn everything they needed to know about composition by simply looking at a score, there would be little need for a composer to learn music theory at all.

The reality is that there is just too much music out there for a composer to extract the information solely through the study of scores. Music theory allows a composer to stand on the shoulders of geniuses and acquire the skills that master composers developed over a lifetime in just a few short weeks. Humans are able to process and understand information because we can recognize patterns and assign labels. This makes it easy to recognize basic forms and elements in musical works. Through the study of theory, composers are able to see how different composers are able to use these basic elements of music in differing ways.

The images below are all pictures of houses. Most people wouldn't argue this point, and we can easily see that each image is a house. We don't even have to think about it. We have so much experience with houses that it's easy to identify the structure.

 

Let's say you found someone who had never seen a house before, let's call him Fred. Fred makes up his own word to describe what he's seeing. Maybe he'll call it a "man-made protector cave." Fred can now identify other man-made protector caves and he can go out in the world and label these structures. He feels pretty good about himself, analyzes the structure and begins to build his own without ever entering a house or learning about load-bearing beams and the need for a strong, structural foundation.

Since Fred doesn't really know the purpose of a house, he begins to teach others how to build their own. He's excited about what he's learned and he wants to share his knowledge with the rest of his people. The houses look beautiful on the outside, but he doesn't know what a house should look like on the inside so he fills it with concrete. Since house-building is a mysterious skill, his people don't realize that they are supposed to live inside the house. They treat the man-made protector caves as works of art that deserve to be observed and cherished.

Self-taught composers tend to have the same problem. They often don't know what they are looking at and in an effort to learn, they create their own words for devices they uncover in music. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that with a little formal instruction they would be able to recognize these components much more quickly. Additionally, they would know the purpose of each element and why a composer used the technique. And most importantly, they would be able to use a common language to talk with other composers.

Let's take the case of chord inversions as an example:

A self-taught composer might notice that each of these chords has a different character. They may even notice that composers use these chords to create certain effects in the music. The composer might realize that the root position triad in the first measure sounds very compact and powerful. The next chord feels just a bit unstable and more open. The final chord sounds light and airy. All of this is fine, and they are good observations. They would also be mostly right in their analysis, but this answer is incomplete. Inversions solve problems, they aren't simply there to add color or spice things up a bit.

So what about all of the things they don't see?

  • Inversions are used as a way of creating a more effective chord progression that doesn't prematurely return to the tonic. A chord built on the first scale degree of a key creates a strong foundation that unmistakably identifies the key. If at some point in a progression you need to return to the first scale degree root position chord, you can use an inversion to avoid a premature end.
  • Inversions are essential for creating a smooth harmonic background. Using inversions can help avoid the jumps and leaps that would come from using root position chords. Most importantly, using the right inversions can ensure the melody doesn't get lost in an overly animated chord progression.
  • Inversions are essential when you want to modulate to a new key. 
There are many other things that a self-taught composer might not see when attempting to learn on their own. While cracking open a theory book is a good place to start, it takes a really curious mind to be able to look to the next stage of learning. An experienced composer can take you beyond theory and help you to develop your voice.

By all means, take music composition lessons online. However, if the composer you're studying from is only teaching you what you can learn more effectively from a theory text, then you're simply wasting your time and your money.




The Blank Page: Dealing with Writer's Block as a Composer

by 5:15 AM
Coming up with that first idea can be a very frustrating part of composing. Once you have that initial germ of an idea, the compositional process becomes much easier, but getting there can require large amounts of time. Even if you don't have writers block, there are practical steps you can take to improve your writing.

Avoid taking your writers block too seriously, the more you stress about the problem, the worse it becomes. This is a time in which your brain is looking for new ideas that it can't yet express. Sit down to write every day, and you will eventually break through this block and ideas will start flowing freely again.

Get Some Air

Sometimes getting outside is enough to initiate a new idea. It may not always be possible to get outside depending on the local conditions, but exercise and a change of routine are crucial for composers. Find a way to get some physical activity to help distract you from your work.

Often, just taking a break is all you need to get out of a rut. I find that driving, hiking, running, and walking all have a beneficial effect on the compositional process. There is something about getting your body moving, and exposing yourself to changing scenery that invokes the creative process. Composers are often sedentary because of the nature of their work and a daily stroll can help you relax and give you space to solve problems.

If you are working an active job right now to pay the bills it may not seem necessary, but as you begin to gain recognition, exercise becomes more crucial, especially as you age. I realize it may come as a shock that I am telling composers to exercise, but think about it. Every aspect of your life depends on your health. If you aren't healthy, your brain doesn't function properly, your body is weak, and you won't have the energy needed to fulfill your obligations as a composer.

Writing Schedule

If getting outside and getting some exercise doesn't help you, the next thing to do is add a writing schedule. Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven and many other masters of the craft all wrote on a daily schedule. Philip Glass, a modern composer, is known for his discipline to write at the same time each day. Glass believes that the schedule allows his mind to prime itself and prepare for writing. He has stated that this simple process allows him to have more ideas and be more creative. The result is that he is more productive and he finds that the mind is naturally more active and creative during his scheduled writing time.

Setting a specific time aside to write is important and will help you get into a routine with your music. If possible, write before you go to work or at the very least write at the same time each day. This makes writing a priority, and it allows your mind to mentally prepare. If you decide to try a schedule you don't need to set aside more than 45 minutes at first. Even if you can only set aside 15 minutes a day to sit in front of a desk and think, it is still beneficial. Once you sit down, commit yourself to a set time and do not leave until that time is up, even if you end up with nothing, you are setting the stage for future work. (If your house catches fire, you have permission to leave.)

My own personal schedule only allows me to sit down and write for about 30 minutes each morning. However, I do that every single day, and it helps me to run through ideas that I otherwise wouldn't address. Then, when I have larger blocks of time, I sit down and expand those ideas into complete compositions. The daily schedule is something that everyone should try to implement. You will find that once you get into a habit of writing at the same time each day, not only does it get easier, but when you don't follow the schedule, ideas start coming to you during that time anyway!

Counterpoint Exercises

Counterpoint used to be the main method of instruction for fledgling composers. Today, it is a great tool for keeping your mind sharp and allowing you to compose when your time is limited. Counterpoint is great for your 15 - 30 minute daily writing schedule and helps keep your skills sharp. Exercises can be completed in as little as fifteen minutes and provided you play the examples back, it helps you to continue to make progress when you would otherwise be unproductive and staring blankly into the great void of space.

Concerts

Go to live concerts. Don't just listen to music on your computer or electronic device. Concerts have an atmosphere that is motivating and you may even find yourself coming up with ideas for your own music during the concert. Music does not exist in a vacuum and listening to other composers music will only help you to become more diverse and aware of what is out there.

I know too many composers that refuse to listen to any music but their own. They are fearful that expanding their musical horizons will somehow limit their creativity! Living in a box does not make you more creative. It stifles your writing and the audience is able to pick up on the experience that is lacking in your music.

Everyone experiences periods with no ideas or motivation to write. When this happens, discipline becomes crucial to the craft. Force yourself to sit down at the same time every day and complete some theory exercises, come up with a melody, or just sit still for a predetermined length of time and think about music. Eventually, your creativity will come back and you will be glad that you worked through your periods of creative paucity.
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