I think about teaching and learning music composition a lot. And I mean a lot. Between creating and running artofcomposing.com, building a new online music composition academy, trying to build a career as a composer, and going through the UCLA Film Scoring program, I am constantly aware of the difficulties of trying to learn music composition.
But sometimes, the real problems are not that clear until someone points them out. Initially, you may think the difficulties lie in the complicated nature of composition, but that is not really the case. So let’s look at the difficulties and how you can overcome them.
Problem #1 – You have to wade through a lot of music theory to get to the good stuff.
As I’ve learned over the last three years of writing articles on music composition, there is a lot of music theory out there… a lot. Some of it is amazing. I’ve spoken numerous times about Classical Form, by William Caplin, which effectively changed the way I think about composing music.
But by far, there have been many more underwhelming, and sometimes just plain confusing theory books. And even the good ones, are not written with composers in mind. It’s because most music theory books are written for theorists. They tend to focus on descriptive, rather than prescriptive techniques. So in a book like Classical Form, you spend a lot of time learning how to analyze whether a certain type of theme is a small ternary theme, or small binary, and the multitude of analysis issues. Don’t get me wrong, this is really informative, but it is also a lot of work. For most people, it is overboard.
Problem # 2 – You are unable to clearly identify your own weaknesses.
As a budding composer, most of the time you have a vague idea of what you need to improve, but not necessarily a clear idea. You know you need to improve your ability to write a melody… but what abilities exactly. You know you need to improve your ability to use harmony, but where do you even begin.
And there there are the things that you don’t know that you need to improve. For instance, you may not know that your voice leading is bad, because you don’t know anything about voice leading. You may not know you are putting a cadence in a strange place, because you don’t know anything about form.
Problem # 3 – You don’t have a good measuring stick with which to measure success.
As you start to grow as a composer, one of the dangers is measuring your success incorrectly. Chances are, you are measuring your success in one of two ways.
- You are comparing yourself against other beginners.
- You are comparing yourself against masters.
Both of these have their own issues, so let’s look at them.
Comparing Yourself Against Other Beginners
When you are around other beginning composers, it can be tempting to compare your progress with theirs. But this is very dangerous. The reason is, because at the early stages of composing, every new piece of advice can give dramatically improved results. Just take form for instance. Understanding how to craft a theme, like a sentence, can instantly give your melodies a sense of logic and coherency. And you never know when another beginning composer gets advice like this. So if you try and compare yourself against them, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What you don’t know is that if you were to just have that one small piece of information that they have, you too would see the same improvements.
Comparing Yourself Against Masters
It is obviously natural to want to compose like your musical heroes. Whatever composers you’ve grown up listening to, chances are, you are not listening to their first works. You are probably not even listening to a work composed in the first 3rd of their composing career. And this poses a problem, because now you are comparing yourself with a composer who has generally spent their lives improving their craft, critical listening abilities, and taste. So when you compose something, like a piano sonata, and then hold it up to one of Beethoven’s sonatas, you feel inadequate.
Solution #1 – The good stuff has already been found, compiled, and is ready for your consumption.
Since the beginning of artofcomposing.com, I have had one over arching goal for every article, video, or podcast that I release – the information must be clear, concise, and above all, practical. The Art of Composing Academy continues this tradition by having the most thorough, and yet most practical music composition courses to be found, just about anywhere.
I have spent the time reading through the theory books that most people are afraid to open, let alone actually have access to. I’ve regularly traveled an hour to go to university libraries and have come home with 10-120 books at a time, just to find the ones that actually give insight into the way music works, and how we can create it.
And then I take those golden nuggets of music theory, and distill them into exactly what you need to know to compose. Sure there is some theory, history, psychology, acoustics, cognitive science… but just enough, and nothing more. The Art of Composing Academy focuses on the practical side of music composition first, and the theory side second.
Solution #2 – Feedback from mentors and peers.
One of the major benefits of living in the times we do is the ability for people to connect through the internet. You have a world of experience out there that can help you on your path to becoming a composer. But I think you’ll find that part of the problem is, no one seems to have the time for you. Go to a composing forum, or a facebook group, and you may be lucky to get a little feedback, but that is about it. Well the Academy is here to change that. Part of the concept of each course is that as you go through, you upload your finished pieces, and then get feedback on them from experienced composers. I personally like to listen to each piece uploaded and give feedback and discuss what I like and don’t like about them.
This means that in the Art of Composing Academy, experienced mentors are helping you to identify your weaknesses so you don’t have to figure it out by yourself.
Solution #3 – Measure against your own progress.
The reason so many people give up on things is unrealistic expectations combined with slow progress. Let’s put that to rest right now. If you put in the work, follow the lessons, do the exercises, and submit your pieces for evaluation, you will improve. And then you will have your own progress, not someone else, to measure against. You are here because you love music. You love how music works, how it makes you feel when you listen to it, and you love the process of discovery as you compose a new piece. As long as you keep realistic expectations about how you progress, you will be a lot less discouraged.