Composing Tips

Composition Tip #20: Just Show Up

Note as

Write every day. Something. Anything. 4 bars of whole notes! Anything! No excuse! Momentum and consistent effort is the most important thing. You get 12 gold stars for writing anything (just show up!); only 1 silver star for any the amount. The minimum you need for a piece is a tempo, a meter, and an instrumentation. Short is good. A lot of short exercises are, in fact, not only a good way to get going, but also a good way to experiment with new stuff: styles, techniques, instruments. Practice writing what you don’t know yet.

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Composition Tip #19: Different Every Time

Encourage performers to experiment with your notes. They may come up with better ways of doing it than you thought of. It may very well come out different than you dreamed originally. So what? With any luck, every performance will be different in some way. This keeps your music alive, ever-changing and thus interesting, rather than encased in plastic.

Which is more interesting, a live unpredictable grizzly bear or one stuffed by the taxidermist that never changes, never moves, never breathes? Here’s a radical thought (works best in chamber music): include short sections that say “continue [or improvise] for 30 seconds in the style of the piece”.

Below is a recording of a performance of one such piece. My “September Elegy” (written in response to the tragic events of 9/11) for natural horn in Eb and piano has 4 sections: Prologue – Chorale – Reflection – Epilogue. All but the Chorale are improvised (within the mood of the piece). The piece is different every time and different for every performer, but it’s still the same piece and always has something new to offer both performer and audience.

Composition Tip #18: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Ink


(Photo credit: designshard)

Don’t fall in love with your ink. What you write is not Holy Writ. Your notation is just your best current guess at how to realize the nebula of sound you hear inside your head. There is almost always another way to do something, achieve an effect. Be ready to change anything and everything at any time for the good of the piece or to make it more playable (listen to the players. Composers – even you – don’t know everything). Or even to throw out the whole thing (sometimes starting over completely is the best/easiest way to fix a piece).

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Composition Tip #17: Improvise!

Improv Games Book CoverImprovisation is where music is born, and it behooves us as composers to do a lot of it.

Learn to improvise on both a melodic and a percussion instrument. Piano is an ideal place to start for any composer, since you can do melody, bass, harmony, and rhythm. But any instrument is good, and the more, the merrier.

Jazz is great, but remember, improv doesn’t have to be jazz; you can improvise music in all kinds of styles (march, dirge, lullabye, fanfare, children’s song, etc.).

Improvise with other people! You will harvest great inspiration (and get to steal a lot of ideas) if you improvise with others.

(Blatant plug alert). If you don’t improvise much but would like to, you might check out 1) my improv web site (Improv Insights) and 2) one or more of my classical improv books:

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (354 p.)

Improvised Chamber Music

Improv Duets

Improv Games for One Player

(all published by GIA)

Composition Tip #16: Drum!

A photograph showing various types of beaters,...

Buy a drum. Learn some percussion skills, however basic. Treat the world as a percussion instrument and be constantly making up interesting rhythms on any surface near you. All the time! This new sensitivity and knowledge of rhythm will work its way into your compositions and you and your compositions and the world will be better for it.

Start acquiring assorted percussion instruments. Shakers and the like are cheap, but consider laying out a bit more for the king of personal percussion, a djembe. It’s easy to lose yourself in djembe sessions.

Join a drum circle. Or start one. And/or: get a buddy and drum together. Or one of you drum and the other plays their regular instrument. Switch off.

Include percussion in your pieces. Percussion of any sort adds sizzle and pizzazz and panache and élan to practically any piece. If I perform older percussion-less pieces of mine, I add improvised percussion to them whenever possible. The piece is always better for it.

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Composition Tip #15: Grand Finale


(Photo credit: CLF)

Sibelius (software)

It’s a good idea to use pencil and manuscript paper in the first stages of composition: it’s quicker and you can do stuff that’s not necessarily easy on on the computer.

But later use a computer notation program such Finale or Sibelius to check for sounds, errors, etc. I catch lots of mistakes when I get to hear it played back as written (even considering the stiff computer rendition), and I can quickly tweak, improve, and correct the manuscript. Printing out parts is quick and easy. Revisions are a snap.

People play better when you present them with manuscript is very clear. There is not much excuse any more not to do this. Music calligraphy is still a great skill to have, but everyone expects to see computer notation these days.

Many publishers expect you to submit your work as a flawless Finale or Sibelius file, so it behooves you to work up some serious computer music notation chops.

Example of a music manuscript: Johann Sebastia...

Caveat: it is also possible to do very cheesy work with these programs – you still have to learn the art and craft of producing good music manuscript to make sure it looks professional – it doesn’t do it by itself.

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Composition Tip #14: Join Up

Português: Logótipo da organização norte-ameri...

After you have something performed or recorded, join a performing rights society: ASCAP or BMI. Time to be a card-carrying member of the club. Performing rights societies not only watch out for your royalties, but they offer grants, competitions, and a wealth of resources on the business side of composing (who knew there was such at thing?).

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Composition Tip #13: New Composers: Chum!

Boy fishing from pier

If you get a piece that works, send it to everyone you know who might possibly be interested.

Give your stuff away by the boatload at first.

Get known, build up some demand before you start charging huge amounts for your stuff.

Fishermen call this “chum”.

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Composition Tip #12: Write Chamber Music

English: Chamber Music Concert

Write a lot of chamber music. Chamber music gets played. It’s quick to do, relatively easy to rehearse and perform, and you learn from it right away and, thus enriched, you are ready to go on to the next thing.

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Composing Tips #11: Evocative Titles


(Photo credit: Bryn Davies)

Use evocative titles. A catchy title can generate interest among audiences or performers who haven’t heard your piece, and will keep it in their minds after they have heard it. Writing practice pieces is easier if you start with an interesting title: adjective + noun. E.g. “The Intoxicated Philosopher”; “The Amorous Porcupine”; “The Off-Balance Ballerina”. You have my permission to retitle them later as Sonata No. 4, Nordic Etude No. 1, etc. and then show them to friends.

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