What does it take to learn composition?
I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer isn’t that complicated. I created this page years ago, as a start to that question, and I’ve been updating it since.
As I see it right now (May 2019), the fastest way to learn composition is to memorize small fragments of music, and then learn to change and combine those fragments in very specific ways.
The process of changing it, actually forces you to understand it. This is actually much closer to the way composer were traditionally taught (composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Ravel, Debussy and of course… Bach).
When I started Art of Composing in 2011, I had a loose idea of the things I needed to learn. But it wasn’t very clear in my mind.
So I set out reading just about every music theory or composition book I could get my hands on. And I blogged about it at the same time.
What is your motivation for composing?
Since launching my original free composing course on youtube back in 2011, I’ve asked many of the 25,000 people who’ve taken it what their goals are for composing.
If any of these describe you, keep reading.
- You want to compose music that clearly expresses yourself and your emotions in a way that others understand.
- You want to create music mostly for yourself, but you’re interested in film, TV, and video games.
- You want to write down what you hear inside your head, and from that create longer works, hit songs, or just a good piece of music.
- You want to understand how music works, but your music theory is a little bit… shall we say… sketchy.
Your goals may be slightly different, but in the end, we all want some of the same things. To express ourselves, to bring joy to others through music, and to just create.
Do you really understand what it takes to learn composition?
Learning composition is a process that will take time. There is a lot you don’t know, and that’s okay.
It starts with your background knowledge – everything you’ve learned about music until this very moment.
You then focus on one specific composition skill at a time. This could be something as small as writing a note correctly by hand or as big as a symphony.
Starting with small skills makes the whole process flow better.
A composition skill should be a repeatable process.
Harmony, melody, form – these are not skills. They are categories.
A composition skill should be repeatable, and have a clear goal.
So here is a goal for you. Compose a one note piece of music, right now.
Let’s accomplish this very basic composition skill together, and through this, I think I can show you how you’ll approach learning composition in general.
Grab a pencil, staff paper, and compose with me right now.
Download staff paper here. It will open in a new tab.
Step 1 – Set some restrictions for yourself
Let’s be deliberate about this. Your goal is to compose for me, a 1 note piece of music.
So let’s start with laying out the boundaries.
Restrictions will help to open up our creativity, because they filter out unnecessary ideas from your brain.
For instance, you can throw away any ideas you have that are two notes or longer.
Right now, I just want one note. But we’re going to make it a great note.
Pick each of these before we start sketching and write them down in the corner of the paper.
- The tempo.
- The time signature.
- The key signature.
- What instrument or instruments will be playing the note.
If you want, you can just watch me do it.
- I pick a slow tempo, about 60 beats per minute, also known as 1 beat per second.
- The time signature is, 4/4. I don’t want to overcomplicate this.
- The key signature is C major. Because… it’s C major.
- The instrument I choose for this example is the violin.
Pretty simple right? Now that we have the boring stuff out of the way, let’s get on to the good stuff.
Step 2 – The process of composing, in one note
Let’s imagine your note for a second. Now you don’t need to hear the note before hand in your mind. You can start to get closer to the note you want, without hearing.
Is it a high range note, middle range note, or low note?
Is it loud or soft?
How should the note change over time?
How long is the note?
Here’s what I can imagine.
I hear a note, it’s middle range. The note is… soft.
Very soft. In fact, it is as soft as the violin player can play. Yes, I see the violin player. Heart pounding on stage. The conductor, about to give the upbeat.
And the note begins.
With the lightest touch of the bow, the string begins to just barely scratch out a sound.
But as the second beat hits, the note gets louder. The player puts more pressure. It gets gritty.
By the third beat, the note is very loud, and then suddenly without warning, the violinist accelerates the bow, to leave the ring of an open low G string.
Now, write that down. A low G, 3 beats long, starting very soft (pp), and getting very loud (fff).
Hopefully, you could see and hear in your mind what I just described to you.
It’s a little bit like a story, and you have the ability to imagine music in your head with the same clarity. It also develops and changes as you create it.
Now imagine doing this for more than just one note.
What do we mean when we say “compose music”?
It’s always helpful to have a clear definition when learning a new topic. Music composition is no different.
Musical composition is the process of making or forming a piece of music by combining the parts, or elements of music.
Composing isn’t about being totally unique. The search for ever more novelty has lead to a lot of incomprehensible music.
It’s also not about just copying the past.
What Composer’s Actually Do
We create music based on our past experience and shared musical vocabularies
Composers don’t create something out of nothing.
Take for example, this very famous piece, Pachabel’s Canon in D.
This chord progression and melody, are actually a commonly used chord progression 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 other composers.
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 Unique Challenges and Goals of Learning to Compose
Composing has some unique challenges, and it’s important to understand what you’re up against. Many of these will probably be familiar to you:
- There is too much to learn, not enough time to learn it, and it’s hard to understand on it’s own.
- Endless possibilities make starting pieces easy, but finishing them difficult.
- It’s difficult to compose without inspiration, which doesn’t always strike.
- You can’t accurately transcribe what you hear in your head, which means your music sounds different than you imagine.
- Your music theory knowledge is weak and you’re not sure how to apply it.
- You waste a lot of time trying to put together a coherent path to understanding composition.
- Finally, it’s really difficult to see how it all this can come together.
Too Much to Learn, Not Enough Time to Learn It, And It’s All Connected
At a basic level, learning to compose is overwhelming because there is a lot you need to know for things to click into place, and work together.
For instance, in order to harmonize a melody, you need to understand how harmony works. But in order to understand how harmony works, you need to understand how melody effects it.
The simple way around this is to give you very specific exercises which only require specific decisions to be made. For instance, how to write a melody over a chord progression that you already have. Once you can do that, you learn to write chord progressions alone. And then you combine the two skills.
Two separate composing skills become one.
Endless Possibilities Make Starting Easy and Finishing Hard
Endless possibilities make expressing your emotions in an original way challenging. Combine this with a small dose of perfectionism, and you’re stuck worrying about following rules, never finishing pieces.
There are so many great composers creating unique and interesting things. This in itself can be overwhelming.
This amount of freedom also makes it difficult to judge your own work and progress.
Once again, there are specific ways to address this so that you finish pieces. Namely very specific restrictions or boundaries that you choose not to cross. More on these later.
Inspiration Doesn’t Always Strike
When inspiration strikes, new composers usually don’t have a problem coming up with ideas. It’s committing to ideas and using them logically.
The problem is, inspiration doesn’t always strike.
It’s important to save your ideas when it does strike, but the real skill is knowing how to use those ideas to create finished pieces.
You Can’t Accurately Transcribe What You Hear In Your Head
But let’s be honest.
Occasionally inspiration strikes, you’re motivated to write, but you can’t take full advantage of it.
To express what you hear in your head, you have to be able to identify what you hear first. It’s not enough to just get close.
Ear training isn’t exactly fun though, and it isn’t really enough either. You want what you write down to actually sound like what you wanted to write down.
To do this you need a reliable process for hearing and experimenting with your ideas.
Your Music Theory is Weak, and You’re Not Sure How to Apply It
Music theory may not be your strongest point.
But you still want to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and learn how to apply the theory to actually writing music that expresses your emotions.
Theory is really just people trying to explain how music works.
So if the theory has good explanatory power, I like to learn it and use it. That’s the kind of theory you’ll learn here.
Music theory is not limited to college textbooks
A lot of music theory is boring, confusing, and doesn’t really help you to compose.
I basically skip that stuff.
Some music theory is extremely valuable for understanding why the music has the emotional effect that it does, by focusing on the critical elements of the music:
- Melody – the effect of the single line and how composers have tended to handle the problems of writing melodies.
- Harmony – how notes and lines sound together at the same time.
- Form – how any section of your piece can sound like a beginning, middle, or end, and therefore how you can organize it in unique ways to tell your unique musical story.
There is obviously much more to it, but that’s for later on.
Your Wasting Time Trying Finding Good Composition Lessons
Many composers endlessly fish youtube for self-learning resources, trying to figuring out what to study and how to organize it.
But without clear explanations of how composers actually work, the random bits of information seem to fall flat.
I have specifically designed courses to help you put all your random bits of composing knowledge into relationship to each other.
You Have Trouble Seeing How Musical Ideas Work and Should Fit Together
For your ideas to flow effortlessly from your mind to the paper, you need to understand why your ideas work, and how to best use them in order to turn those ideas into finished pieces.
How to Learn Composition
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.
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.
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 course. The Vocabulary of Composition 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.
Start Composing Now by Following My Journey
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?
- The Composing Mindset – 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.
- Setting Up a Basic Composing Space – 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.
- Should You Start With The Melody or Harmony First – Melody or Harmony First? The age old question of the chicken or the egg, just rehashed. The answer may not be what you think.
- 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.
- 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.
- Simple Functional Harmony – Tired of C, F, and G chords? So am I. Learn how to harness harmony.
- Unlocking the Secret to Diatonic Harmony.