The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Composer
Anyone can become a composer. But it takes the right mindset.
First, let me dispel some myths that plague the world of composition:
- Composition can be taught.
- You do not have to posess some special genius, but you will have to work to become good at it.
- Great composers use tried and true techniques, formulas, schemes, and models.
- Composition is rewarding and fun.
What is musical composition?
Musical composition is the process of making or forming a piece of music by combining the parts, or elements of music.
As a starting point, it helps to understand that composers are generally not creating something out of nothing when they write a new piece. Instead, they are creating out of past experience – their understanding of music theory, what they’ve studied and listened too, what they would like to hear themselves – or maybe even just to answer some specific musical question they have. These are the things, parts, or elements they use.
Take for example, this very famous piece, Pachabel’s Canon in D.
This chord progression and melody, is actually a very well known, and very commonly used blueprint called the Romanesca.
Here it is being used by Mozart in The Magic Flute”.
This is just one of many examples of composer’s learning from, and borrowing from older composers. As Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
It really is about putting together the different elements of music
Our goal is to eventually create something new and unique, but not before we master that which has come before us.
How then, do we go about learning to compose music?
The Process of Learning Musical Composition – The Trivium
The first step in learning to compose, is realizing that you are just beginning, and not to place too heavy a burden on yourself.
Our job as composers is not to create masterpieces, but instead, piece together a master.
A great corollary to learning to compose is found in the greek method of the Trivium. The Trivium follows three distinct phases if learning:
- Grammar: A solid grasp of the fundamentals.
- Logic: The ability to create logical arguments.
- Rhetoric: The ability to persuade.
The Grammar of Music
So we begin by learning fundamentals, the grammar of music. For anyone serious about learning composition, it is key to learn the language.
You need to be able to read music notation. Period.
Some may object, pointing to numerous examples of people who compose by ear. While they do exist, I can point to hundreds of examples of composers that could read and write music notation. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky… all of the great composers could read, write, and think in music notation.
There are many resources for learning to read music out there, and a quick google search should point you in the right direction. You’ll quickly find there isn’t all that much to reading music. The challenge lies more in becoming fluent, than becoming familiar.
But also part of the fundamentals are the basics of music theory. Things such as scales, triads, and seventh chords. These are your building blocks. If music notation the alphabet, these are your words. And much like a child, you probably already have an aural knowledge of these “words”. You know what a major chord sounds like, or what a minor chord sounds like. But as a composer, your knowledge needs to go beyond the aural and superficial level. You need to understand exactly what they are.
If you can read, the next step for you should be to sign up for my free beginner’s composing course, which explains in about the fastest way possible, what all of these basics of music theory are, and how to use them in composition. You’ll receive one email a day, with guidelines, worksheets, and a video.
The Logic of Music
Once you can read and write in music notation, and you know the basics of theory, such as scales, and triads, the next step is to learn how these combine to create small scale, simple music. That is in fact exactly what my free beginner’s course teaches.
Music’s apparent logic, comes from the fact that most of the music we hear follows the same guidelines. These guidelines become ingrained in our ears, and we expect to hear them. These expectations are built into the music.
The logic is in understanding how to use these expectations.
The Rhetoric of Music
Great composer know about these expectations, and know how to use them to their advantage. Most of the time, they follow expectations, but sometimes they don’t. This is what great music is about.
It is at this level, that you are like a greek rhetorician, persuading people to your musical view point.
Start With Basics
- The Fundamentals of Music – Why you should focus on learning, or re-learning the basics? In this article I talk about the basics of not just composing, but being a musically minded person. Having the skills to look at and understand written music, or to play back by ear something you’ve heard, or even just listening to music is very important, and should be cultivated by anyone wanting to learn the fine art of music composition.
- The Stages of Learning to Compose Music – Where are you on the path to becoming a composing master? Not all people are at the same place in their efforts of learning music composition. It is very important to take a step back and evaluate where you are in the spectrum of knowledge. Why? Well for one, it will give you focus in what you are learning, but almost more importantly, it will allow you to accept what you compose, based on your actual knowledge of the craft of composition. You can’t be too hard on yourself if you want to write like Mahler, but you’ve only been composing for a month.
Start Composing Now
This series of articles was written for the beginner composer in mind. Where do you begin to learn music composition? What kinds of stuff do you need to have? Do you need a computer, a piano, or a pad of sheet music?
- How to Compose Music, Part 1 – The Composing Mindset. Music composition first starts in the mind, and having a clear mind and an acceptance of who you are is key to clearing your conscience for creativity.
- How to Compose Music, Part 2 – The Home Composing Studio Setup. Once you’ve got the right mindset, it is important to create a space for yourself to get away and compose. You may also be interested in this article about having a composing sanctuary.
- How to Compose Music, Part 3 – Melody or Harmony First? The age old question of the chicken or the egg, just rehashed. The answer may not be what you think.
- How to Compose Music, Part 4 – Start Composing Now! Now that you’ve read all about music composition, it’s time to start. With all this talk about theory, and fundamentals, the most important thing you can do to become a better composer is… actually compose something.
- How to Compose Music, Part 5 – Simple Musical Form for Composing. Are you looking for some direction in your compositions? The place to start is musical form.Definition: Musical Form is an emergent feature of music that happens over time when you combine the separate elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo and texture.
- How to Compose Music, Part 6 – Simple Functional Harmony. Tired of C, F, and G chords? So am I. Learn how to harness harmony. After this, you’ll want to get into more detail with Unlocking the Secret to Diatonic Harmony.
Free Composing Software
There are many ways to compose. I am personally a big fan of getting away from the computer to do your initial creative work, coming up with melodies, key harmonies, themes and so on at the piano with nothing other than a pencil and staff paper. But computers offer a great tool for realizing your music beyond the initial stages. One of the keys to this is the computer can play your music back, without error and without having to practice. While this can be a problem, tricking you into writing music that isn’t actually playable (assuming that is what you are going for), it can also mean that you are able to hear your creations in ways that composers of the past would be drooling over.
The best part is, you don’t have to spend a ton of money. In fact, you don’t have to spend any money at all. There is a great notation software program called musescore, and it is available for mac or pc for free. The sound is usually not the greatest, but you can also look for SF2 sound files on the internet and load them into the program.
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