- Title Page
- A Composer’s Manifesto
- Introduction: Composing as a Set of Options
- Melody and the Basic Idea
A Composer’s Manifesto
I will finish every composition that I start (except the 9th Symphony. In fact, just stop at the 8th).
I will not bask in the glory of my finished composition – that is what amateurs do. I am a professional.
I will find something good in every composition I listen to. All composers have something to teach us.
I will be compassionate with other composer’s compositions, and uncompromising with my own.
I understand that I must deliberately practice my composing. I do not choose if anything I write will be a masterpiece. I just compose what I need to compose, and leave it at that.
I will give myself over to a higher power when I compose.
Introduction: Composing as a Set of Options
Thank you for purchasing this book. Whether you’ve been composing for a while and you want to expand your horizon, or you’ve just gone through my beginner’s course, I think you’ll find this book helpful in many respects.
This book has an accompanying website, with musical examples, and links to various other resources. Please check it out at:
If you are reading this on your computer, you should be able to click on any of the example titles, and they will take you to the musical examples online.
The Genesis of this Book
When I finally sat down to write this book, I had been thinking about writing a book for a long time. I wanted to create something that my audience from artofcomposing.com would find useful. My original idea was to create a book on chromatic harmony. The problem with that book, was the lack of practicality. The problem in dealing with harmony is that it requires lots and lots of theoretical assignments that are separate from composing, because you need to get down the skills of voice leading, as well as knowing progressions. Going in depth about chromatic harmony would have created a monster volume, and more than likely, it wouldn’t have been what people were looking for, so I abandoned that idea.
Next came a follow up to my beginner’s course, in which I went into more depth on each topic covered. That was 8 lessons; each about the basic idea, harmony, sentence, period, and small ternary form, as well as additional details like dynamics, articulation, and gestalt, or the feeling of wholeness to a piece. But as I was creating that book, I realized that most of the information needed was already in the free course.
When I sat down and thought about it, the original idea for the course came from what I had learned, and I thought others might want to learn this too. I spend a lot of time reading music theory books, combing the local college libraries for gems. Most of the time, this search is tedious, and not very fruitful. Music theoreticians, while often brilliant thinkers, tend to speak in a language foreign to most. So my goal was to take the golden nuggets I found, and translate them into useful – and more importantly – actionable and practical information. Something you could immediately use in your own composing… right now.
The thing that really interested me recently was composing in sonata form. I had read descriptions of sonata form, and had made attempts at composing a sonata. I thought I knew what went on: an exposition, with a main theme in tonic and a subordinate theme in dominant. This is followed by the development, where you basically are free to go wherever you want, but which then leads back to the recapitulation, staying in the tonic key throughout. But, as you may have guessed, this leaves a lot of questions.
What keys should I explore in the development? Is dominant the subordinate key? Can I use other subordinate keys? How long should each section be? Is the subordinate theme built the same way as the main theme?
So I decided that I would put together a sort of road map for myself to compose in sonata form.
So ultimately, this book became a mix of the second idea (an expansion on the basic course) plus the main focus, which is composing in sonata form. The goal is to cement the ideas from the basic course, expand a few more ideas, tackle a larger work, and to give a clear guide to writing in sonata form.
The Path of the Composer
I want to make my belief clear right from the beginning. Becoming a great composer is a life-long process. If you have read the Composer’s Manifesto, then you realize I am from the “school” or belief that being able to compose is a direct reflection of the amount of work put in.
Ten thousand hours is what it is estimated that needs to be put in to become an expert in anything. That means 10,000 hours of composing. That is a lot of hours. But not just any hours; these are dedicated, deliberate practice hours.
Deliberate practice is all about improving specific aspects of any set of skills you want to learn. You have to be able to identify your weaknesses, and then target those weaknesses.
Deliberate practice is specific. When you know you have a weakness, you must practice the tasks that improve those weaknesses. It doesn’t help to attempt to write a symphony if you have trouble creating good chord progressions. You’ll just end up being overwhelmed and not improving either.
Deliberate practice tends to be short tasks that are repeatable. This repeatability is helpful, because it allows you to ingrain the correct way of doing a task. If it is not repeatable, then you cannot legitimately practice it. Short in this case is also relative concept. If you are a beginner, short may be a single phrase. If you are Mahler, short is a ten minute symphony movement.
When you are working on something that you are not very good at, having to repeat it over and over, this can be very mentally tiring. There is a limit to what most people can do, when deliberately practicing. This is usually around two hours.
Inherently, Not Very Fun
With things like “mentally tiring,” and “repeatable,” deliberate practice tends to not be as fun as unfocused work. This doesn’t mean it won’t be any fun, but at a certain point, you’ll probably have the desire to move on to something else. This is where you must have the drive to continue learning and pushing yourself. Work hard now and enjoy the benefits later.
Not all of Your Composing Is Deliberate Practice
But some of it definitely should be. Noodling every once in a while is okay, but if at least some of your composing is geared towards learning specific tasks or skills, then you will see improvements. Your enjoyment of composing will improve with more effort put towards learning the craft. What should you be improving though?
The Skills of a Composer
As a composer, there are certain things that you can improve directly, and certain things that you cannot.
The things you cannot directly improve: the mystery (see afterword).
Thats it. Everything else is up to you.
Your ability to focus is probably the most important factor. It has repercussions through all of your composing related activities. This includes actual composing, working out exercises, analyzing music, listening to music, meditation; they are all affected directly by your ability to focus.
How do you improve your focus? Sounds a little like circular reasoning but you improve focus by practicing focus. The best thing to do is be 100% committed to anything you are doing, while you are doing it.
There are some other things you can do as well.
- Make sure you complete one thing before you start the next. Not just composing itself. Make sure, when you are doing your taxes, or cleaning the dishes or whatever, that you complete the task. If not, it will be gnawing on your mind when you are doing something else; and you will not be able to focus.
- Set up a reward system for yourself. If you do a good job focusing, treat yourself to some regeneration time (watching TV or additional sleep).
One of the easiest ways to lose focus is not writing down your music while you compose. Most people noodle. On whatever instrument they use, they noodle around too much. You may write a bar, then play for about 10 minutes, saying “oooo, that’s good,” but then you look back at the page, and you still only have 1 bar. Make sure you write. Write, write, write! If it’s not good, you can scratch it out, or erase it.
Forcing yourself to write is a skill in itself.
Your ability to listen will improve with your growing understanding of the music. After a while, you will start to notice things in the music that you didn’t hear before.
While this book goes over a good bit of music theory, it is not in itself specifically a music theory book. Theory is difficult to teach yourself. I recommend taking some college courses or finding a private teacher to teach you harmony, voice leading, counterpoint and orchestration. These four are really tricky to learn on your own.
I plan on putting together a full course online covering those topics. As of writing this book, all of these topics are not yet completed, but continue to check out www.artofcomposing.com as they may be put up online while you are reading this.
Checking Your Ego at the Door
This is a tough one. I have always been sensitive to criticism, and most people with an artistic side are the same. Let me be frank – not everyone is going to like your music. Some people may hate it. Some will let you know, and they won’t be nice about it either.
Remember in the manifesto:
I will be compassionate with other composer’s compositions, and uncompromising with my own. Go into the ring with the expectation of being hit. The thing about it is, you have to put your music out there… You have to be willing to back up what you write.
Many composers of the past were treated like garbage because of what they wrote.
Mahler’s first Symphony was a resounding flop at its premiere.
A reviewer of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue wrote it is “as incomprehensible as Chinese.”1
Don’t be dissuaded from following your dream. Everyone gets bad reviews. You just need to “get back up on your feet,” and continue composing!
Composing Is All About Options
The process of creation is a mix of intellect, sweat, and luck. But what it really comes down to is options. When you sit down and stare at a blank piece of staff paper or a blank screen on your favorite notation software or sequencer, you have many, many options. With every constraint you put on yourself, either through decisions made away from the paper like, “I am going to compose in Sonata Form, in A minor, 4/4 time signature or,I would like the piece to last at least 3 minutes, and have a tempo of 100 beats per minute (bpm),” or, if end a phrase deceptive cadence, these are the myriad options and choices that face you.. the key is knowing the options in the first place. Knowing what is stylistically normal, what is adventurous, and what is completely out of the norm, you can decide how you want your music to develop, and ultimately be perceived.
If you know all of your options, you are in a much better position to make a better choice; the right choice. That may sound very absolute, but when you really get down to it, and you listen to the music that you love, you cannot imagine it written any other way. It would just be… wrong.
I am going to take a guess and say that you’ve also listened to music, and heard things that you weren’t anticipating, and thought had it been your composition, you would have written it differently. That composer probably knew the options, and decided to write something different, or possibly stayed “within bounds,” where you would have gone “out of bounds”.
Know your options.
Free Beginner’s Composing Course
One last note. If you have not been through my free beginner’s course, and this book looks a little daunting, I recommend you check it out. Go to: http://www.artofcomposing.com/free and sign up for the course. Once again, it’s absolutely free, and will give you a great foundation for tackling a larger work like sonata form.
I would like to thank my Dad for teaching me about real music and taking the time to proof this book. I know I would not be the composer I am today without his influence. I would like to thank my Mom for not letting me quit trumpet when I was 12, and having the idea to bribe me with a skateboard. Fortunately I stuck with the music, and not the skateboarding. I would like to thank William Caplin for writing his inspiring book on classical form, it has truly changed the way I look at, and think about form when composing. Most of the ideas in this book stem directly from his work, and I do not want to take credit for them. I cannot stress how important it is, if you want to learn to compose in the classical style, to buy and read his book. I would like to thank Carolina Gale, my high school music teacher, for supporting my composing. Most of all, I would like to thank my wife and my son, for giving me the drive… and time to write this. To everyone else not listed… you know if you deserve an acknowledgement. So if you do, give yourself a pat on the back. If not… well, sorry.
1: Melody and the Basic Idea
The Basic Idea The basic idea is the foundation of your melody. The term “basic idea” was coined by William Caplin in his book Classical Form, in which he states, “The basic idea is small enough to group with other ideas into phrases and themes, but large enough to be broken down (fragmented) in order to develop its constituent motives.”2 Sometimes creating the basic idea can be the hardest part, because it is usually characteristic of your piece, and not conventional. Something that is characteristic, by definition, defines the character of your piece. For example, this basic idea from Mozart is very characteristic.
I have no doubt that you could instantly identify it when heard. Conventional melody is something that is usually more “cookie cutter,” like a descending melodic line at a cadence, trills or what is termed passage work, with arpeggiation and dramatic virtuosic writing. This example is more along the lines of conventional melody.
Basic Idea vs Contrasting Idea vs Random Music
When I say basic idea, I am specifically talking about writing the two bar segment of music, that has an initiating or beginning function, and is found in the antecedent phrase or presentation phrase. But the things that go into a basic idea, harmonic clarity, shape, characteristic ideas – they all transfer to other parts of your composing. If you can write a good basic idea, you can write a good contrasting idea. If you can write a good basic idea, you can handle writing a good continuation phrase or consequent. The process is the same. The labels are specific. Sometimes, when I say basic idea, I probably mean “idea” which is a general two-bar phrase, not specifically the opening phrase that prolongs tonic. Just look at the context, and I apologize up front, if I misuse the term. The most important result from practicing basic ideas is improving your sense of balance, clarity and conciseness. You have to be clear about what you want to convey to your listener, because you only have two bars to do it. This also helps to get yourself out of, what someone called in an online forum that I like to visit, “The Ostinato Habit.” The ostinato habit is really noodling at the keyboard, with a pattern, and then playing random stuff on top. Sometimes, if you are really going for that minimalist sound, this can be good, but done too much it ends up being a copout. So practice developing good basic ideas, and all of your composing will improve.
Melodic Shape of the Basic Idea
The basic idea is what opens up your piece, so it is very common to have a rising melody, also called a melodic opening up, but this by no means is absolutely necessary. In fact, you can create any kind of melodic shape. A good exercise is to trace out the melodic shape of basic ideas written by composers that you admire, and then work within that shape, creating your own new basic ideas. Here are a few examples. These examples are all from public domain scores on http://imslp.org/wiki/. IMSLP is a public domain musical score library online. It is one of the greatest resources ever created for composers. What gives it that power, is your ability to look up a score, even multiple versions of the same score, and then jump over to youtube, to listen to ten different versions of that score. Invaluable.
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