How to Really Start Improving Your Composing
Since I started artofcomposing.com back in August of 2011, I have been searching for different methods, techniques, theory… in fact just about anything that can improve my composing.
You Are What You Eat
Along the way, I’ve read some great books on psychology and mastery. Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, really taught me that the best way to work towards truly changing yourself is through the process of teaching others what you want to learn. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, taught me that mastery comes through the hard work, and dedication to a clear goal, and that is reached by specific practice of things that will inch you closer and closer to that goal.
Theory… in Practice
Then there are some really great music theory books, like Arnold Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition, and more importantly William Caplin’s Classical Form, that really drove home the logical, syntactical side of music. Aldwell and Schacter’s Harmony and Voice Leading, which is very… thorough… to say the least.
I’ve watched videos, read articles and dissertations, analyzed compositions; I’ve definately done my share of listening.
Through all this, what has been the most helpful so far?
That’s right. It’s all about asking questions. In fact, you can get meaningful help out of just about anything you read or study, but it all depends on the questions you ask.
Much like a student learning to critique an essay will have to learn about what questions to ask in order to delve into the deeper structures, you too must learn to ask specific questions in order to delve deeper into music composition.
1. How does this work?
This is a basic question, and it works on many levels. It is open ended for a reason, because nothing in music really has any deeper truth beyond what is perceived in the listener. And really, when it comes to learning composition, you are the listener that matters.
Asking “how does this work?” could be about the clear cut harmony, for instance, “How does this piece modulate from the key of C to E major in 1 bar, but still sound natural and not forced?”
It could also be, “How does the music seem to maintain forward momentum without chromaticism?”
It may be more emotional, like “How does this piece make me feel hopeful?”
Or it may be related more to sound and texture. “How does this piece sound like an orchestra with only a string quartet and a flute?”
2. How Can I Do This Differently?
It is very easy to get stuck in a rut with composing. If I had a dollar for every time I sat down to compose and immediately played a C major chord at the piano, I would probably retire, and well… compose for the rest of my life.
Being deliberately different makes it much harder to fall into this rut.
For instance, I was frustrated that a lot of the openings to my compositions were coming out boring. So I asked myself, how many ways can I start the first bar. This lead to a breakthrough and a lot of very unique openings. Not all of them will be used, but none the less, it all started with thinking deliberately about how I could start a piece differently than I have.
Other ways it can manifest are things like, composing for different instruments, in different places, using different methods. In fact any part of the product or process of composing can be changed. This will lead you ultimately down the path to finding your unique process for composing, and your individual voice.
3. Am I Where I Want To Be?
This question is a little more philosphical than the others, but just like the others, operates on different levels.
It could refer to your level of knowledge, “Am I where I want to be with my understanding of counterpoint?” (For me, the answer is almost always no).
It could also be for life in general, “Am I doing what I truly want to be doing?” This may be something like a job, or school… or it may be composing the wrong kind of music because you think it’s what will earn you the most money, or it’s what you have to compose because someone told you to. General reflection on where you are, and where you want to be is eye opening, and can help push you to the next level.
Actually Asking the Questions
The final element in all of this is actually asking the questions. Most people (yours truly as well), read advice about all sorts of things, but never put it into practice. Well the good thing about this, is it entirely revolves around you. The goal of asking questions is not necessarily answers – you may get more questions in the long run. The goal is to get used to asking the right questions in the first place.