Learning How to Compose Music – Chasing a Dream?
Learning to compose music is a funny thing. I seem to hear a lot, and read a lot, that composing cannot be taught. Why is it that so many people think this? Is it true that composition can’t be taught?
Throughout the article, I’ll keep a tally of what can be taught and what cannot. Hopefully, at the end, the number is greater on the “can be taught” side.
The Skills, Resources and Knowledge of a Composer
First we have to look at what is involved with learning how to compose music. It is a little more than just teaching people to be creative. What skills do composer’s possess? Were these skills intrinsic in them?
Learning to Read and Understand Music Notation and Theory
Obviously the first step should be a basic understanding of music notation and theory. Yes, you can compose without knowing how to read and write music. But your growth as a composer will be short lived. If you don’t understand what you are writing, and what others have written in the past, then you will quickly find your inspiration drying up. You may listen to a lot of music, and figure out some of the stuff you like by ear, but good luck figuring our an entire Mahler symphony by ear.
Can they be learned? Yes, music notation and theory can be learned. Tally 1 for “Can Learn How to Compose Music.” 0 for the “Can’t Learn How to Compose Music” crowd.
I list this as the second skill, because once you start composing, and learning music theory, you’ll find that discipline is vital. Composing takes a lot of hard work. You may be struck with inspiration to write a symphony, but can inspiraton carry you through the process of writing out each part, listening back, checking for errors… Probably not. In fact, you have to have some serious intestinal fortitude to make it through. But the payoff is great at the end.
Discipline will also allow you to write a lot of music, which is a key ingredient to becoming a better composer. Look at the greats, they have all put out a ton of music.
Can discipline be learned? Not as much learned as cultivated. But every time you practice discipline, you get a little bit better at it, until, voila! You are disciplined. Tally another one for “Can be learned.” Still 0 for the other guys.
This is a tough one. I have yet to hear a great definition of what creativity is, especially in connection with composing. For things like novelty, seeing things in a different way, perspicacity (big word, basically being mentally sharp, and more specifically with composing, being able to spot your good ideas), these are things that can be improved. But for now, I am going to give this one to the can’t be learned group, simply because, if you don’t know exactly what creativity is, then how can you learn it?
I’ll am in the process of doing more research on creativity, so I’ll get back to you on this one.
- 2 – the good guys
- 1 – can’t be learned
Recently, I read a very interesting book on inspiration. The book, The Voice of the Muse: A Study of the Role of Inspiration in Musical Composition, by Louise Duchesneau. It is a great book minus one thing, half of it is in German or French, neither of which I speak.
Inspiration, kind of like creativity, is hard to pin down, but I think she does it well. She basically puts inspiration into three categories.
- Inspiration from Above – From God, the muse, etc.
- Inspiration from Inside – Dreams, visions, daydreaming
- Inspiration from Outside – Musical influences, art, literature, science, nature, etc.
I won’t go into detail about inspiration in this post. I think it is a very interesting subject, and I would like to go more into depth in a later post.
Can inspiration be learned? No. If it could, then we would all be inspired all the time. I think what can be improved though, is our ability to recognize what the inspiration is, and how capitalize on it. What do I mean?
Well for example, if you think you’ve been inspired to write a Symphony, what inspired you? Was it a melody you heard? Was it a vision of a peaceful lake? Was it from God? Is the inspiration something concrete, like an actual melody, or is it just a passion to write?
And then what comes when the inspiration goes away, which eventually, it will, if only temporarily? This is where discipline comes in.
So another one for “Can’t learn how to compose music.” Not looking so great. But wait… there is one more thing.
I think the best thing that you can do to learn how to compose music, is to start connecting with other composers. We have this image, mostly from the Romantic era, of the “lone composer,” struggling by candle light to compose his masterpiece alone. He hasn’t eaten for days, and all he’s had to drink is a glass of wine… blah, blah, blah. It’s not really true. It’s more of a fantasy.
Once again, all of the great composers of the past, have been in places where there were other composers. Most of them cultivated relationships, and critiqued each others music. Just look at the correspondence between Mahler and Strauss.
Connecting once again, is a skill that can be learned. Sometimes you have to force yourself, but when you do, it will improve your composing. It may not be through direct “criticism,” either. It may be the ethereal “Inspiration,” or it could just be a kick in the pants to start composing again. In fact, almost anything can be improved by connecting with other composers.
The Final Tally
- Can learn how to compose music – 3
- Can’t learn how to compose music – 2
So the good guys won. Yay! Seriously though, don’t let anyone bring you down by telling you that composing can’t be learned. Just keep at it. Look at it like anything else, learning to paint, type, or even drive a car. You will get better the more you do it.
It doesn’t matter that you cannot learn inspiration or creativity. They will come. Everything else can be improved. Everything else must be improved. Its all preparation for when you do get inspiration and feel creative. If you have not prepared, then when inspiration comes, you will not be able to capitalize on it.
What do you think? Can you learn how to compose music?