I am trying to come up with a structure for how I approach learning to compose, or really, re-learning to compose. While driving to work, it dawned on me that learning to compose is similar to learning a language. More accurately, learning to write in a language.
When we first learn a language as a child, obviously we don’t start with writing a book. You start by listening to who’s around you. You pick up little things here are there. You start to say words and then sentences, and eventually you can speak the language. But then you go to school and they have you do this funny thing called writing.
Well, this is similar to the way people get into composing. You listen to music, you like it, you probably sing it back to yourself (it may not sound good when you sing, but we won’t get into that). You understand the music, not theoretically, but internally. We as humans are very good at this.
Writing Your First Composition – Hmm…
What happens next? Well, you get the urge to write some music yourself. Maybe you want to write a hit song, or maybe a Nocturne like Chopin.
You sit down at an instrument (hopefully you can already play a little) and then start to write, and you maybe come up with something that sounds okay, but more than likely, it just doesn’t sound like your favorite composer.
What’s wrong? Don’t you have the same passion? Haven’t you listened to all nine Beethoven symphonies?
What you are lacking is a good foundation in the understanding of what makes music work.
Learning the Musical Alphabet
Learning to compose has to be approached methodically, if you want to have a deep understanding. You have to start off with the basics. Just as when you learn to write, you start with the alphabet, you have to start with the equivalent of a musical alphabet.
These are things like the notes and symbols, keys, time signatures, clefs… all the basic building blocks.
Learning Your Musical Grammar
After learning the alphabet, you start to learn simple rules of grammar. Just like you learn how to construct a sentence, you also have to learn how to construct a scale and chords, simple phrases, the difference between melody and harmony, and so forth.
Learning Your Musical Logic
After you learn to create a sentence, you have to be able to create a coherent thought. This is the basics of logic, if a, then b, (Sorry, I am not a master of logic, but I think you get the point). Well the equivalent of music logic is understanding form, cadences, functional harmony. This is where things really start to come together, but probably, if you stopped here, it would seem a bit mechanical.
Learning Your Musical Rhetoric
The definition of rhetoric is basically speech geared towards a certain audience. It is understanding what to say, and how to say it to get a certain response or affect the audience in a certain way. This is the next step in your composing journey. Understanding musical rhetoric is like learning how to orchestrate, and learning to develop your ideas into larger more complex works, or to write more nuanced music.
Our goal at the end of this is the equivalent of musical poetry. Just as beautiful poetry is the pinnacle of understanding language and being able to convey your thoughts, musical poetry is like what you hear when you listen to the best of Beethoven, or Mahler, or even the Beatles. They took it to the next level. But they were just ordinary people. Their brains weren’t different.
Where Do You Stand?
Where are you on your path to musical poetry? Are you struggling with the alphabet? Have you bothered really learning the whole alphabet, or do you just know a few words here and there?
Let me know.