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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Composition Quote of the Day: Be Clear

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing t...

What I’m saying, of course, is that you just can’t worry about trying to be completely clear, because it’s just not possible to write music on such a low and obvious level as to do that. On the other hand, I find that most composers exaggerate in the other direction. They think that if musical structure is clear the music will somehow lose its mystery, or people will think the composer is stupid. I find, though, that the more you understand music the more mysterious it becomes, and this is even true of pieces that have been analysed to death, like [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony. I also find that intelligent people always respect the intelligence needed to construct a simple structure in a clear way that really works.

–Tom Johnson

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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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Composing Tip #10: Write Idiomatically

The Spring

The Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Write idiomatically for the instrument; write stuff that sounds impressive, but lies well and is relatively easy to play; don’t write stuff that sounds easy but is difficult to play well. Players will praise your name for writing the former – or curse you if you write the latter. Keep asking yourself, would I like to perform this? – if you can’t answer an enthusiastic yes, start over.

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Composing Tip #9: Check with Players

Orchestral Violins

(Photo credit: jimcullenaus)

No matter how many times you have written for any particular instrument, always check with players about the capabilities of that instruments before you write, while you are writing, and check every note out in detail with them afterward. You will always learn something new, and sometimes tiny changes make huge differences in playability.

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Sound Cloud: Getting It Out There


(Photo credit: Okinawa Soba)

Continuing the thread addressed below in Writing for Famous People, one of the primary concerns of composers is Getting It Out There: finding a way for people to hear your music. One way is to use an internet resource like Sound Cloud, a site that gives you virtual space to post audio files where anyone can access them.

You don’t have to be a techno whiz to post files or have them be CD quality. Your audio file could be as simple as recording with your iPhone. Sound Cloud also offers an App Gallery of 100+ apps “for mobile, desktop and web” to make it easier to upload you music.


Composition Quote of the Day: What Works

English: An alternative logo for the Quote of ...

I stole this quote from Jennifer Jolley‘s wonderful composer blog Why Compose When You Can Blog:

Theory is when you know everything but nothing works.

Practice is when everything works but no one knows why.

In our lab, theory and practice are combined: nothing works and no one knows why.

–Anonymous [apparently]

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Composing Tip #8: Write for Children

Faroe stamp 110 europe cept 1985 - year of the...

Write music that children can play. Anyone can write ridiculously difficult music; it takes considerable genius and skill to write excellent music within the strict limitations of young players, and no group needs good music more than they do.

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Blues for D.D. (video)

[This is a video example of the previous Tip.]

Breathes there a composer with soul so dead who never to himself has said, “Boy, I wish a lot of people would either hear or play my compositions. Or both!”

The internet is and has been a huge boon to compositional democracy: you can write something, record it, and put it out there in audio or video form for all (all meaning anyone with electricity and internet access) to see. The process of making something and making a recording is a bit more involved than that glib sentence  might indicate, but the point is still there. The process is way better than the old way, which is 1) only local exposure (friends, family, school) 2) radio stations 3) CDs.

But there is one other way to get your music known. It’s not particularly easy, and will involve a certain amount of luck, and certainly requires a solid composition. And that is to have somebody famous play your piece. This doesn’t necessarily mean Pop Star famous. This is just someone who has something of a reputation in the field and performs a good bit around the landscape. This is a fairly large circle and there are various levels.


Composing Tip #7: Fame, Music, and $


(Photo credit: patrick h. lauke)

Write music for famous people, or rather send the best of what you write to somebody who’s doing it in the Big Time.

If they don’t look at it, what have you lost? If even one of them takes a shine to it, they may put it in their repertoire or even record it.

Fact of life: there is in fact very little money in selling sheet music and not much in recording unless you’re selling jillions of copies, but performing rights pay fairly well (albeit much better in Europe than in the US).

You will most likely make your money in this order [make sure you join ASCAP or BMI]:

1. Commissions

2. Performance royalties

3. Recording (sales & royalties)

4. Sheet music

Of course, you don’t write for the money. You write because you have to. Because it is who you are. Because it feels so good.

But musicians still have to eat. It’s nice to compose, to create, but it’s ok to make some $ from it, too.

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