Composing Tip #6: Be Specific

Art Relecting Art, Reflecting on Art

(Photo credit: cobalt123)

Write music for people you know. Write it for their specific needs and abilities.

Write for specific occasions: recitals, recordings, weddings, funerals, supermarket openings, etc.

The best way to write a piece that has universal appeal is to write for a very specific time, place, and person.

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Composing Tip #5: Go Exploring

A steelband in Port of Spain in the early 1950s

Explore writing music in many styles, for many instrumentations, including a lot of ‘nonclassical’. Can you write a big band chart? A steel drum band? A jingle for a Coke commercial? A sports broadcast fanfare? A horror movie soundtrack? Aliens landing? Double concerto for bass clarinet and marimba?

Everything you learn from wildly disparate sources will cross-pollinate with everything else you learn and make your music unique and interesting and you highly versatile and ready for anything.

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Composing Quote of the Day: Details, Details

Benjamin Britten

Composing is like driving down a foggy road toward a house. Slowly you see more details of the house – the color of the slates and bricks, the shape of the windows. The notes are the bricks and mortar of the house.

–Benjamin Britten


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Composing Tip #4: Embrace the Unfamililar

MUSIC: 200603-200803 Listening History Graph

(Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

Spend at least as much time listening to unfamiliar music as you do studying scores, trying to figure out what characterizes it, or better, trying to write an emulation of it. Failing to achieve a flawless copy is perfectly fine – you have possibly invented something new and have certainly learned a lot in the process.

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Aural Influences: Learning from What’s Not Written Down

The video of the piece below is an example of a piece that come from Composing Tip #3, below. The piece arose from the confluence of several experiences. At the time I was working on jazz guitar, and went to a three-day jazz workshop in Tübingen, Germany that was sponsored by the publisher Advance Music. It was a terrific workshop and I still remember (this was, oh, over twenty years ago) great talks and performances by Bill Dobbins, Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid, Bobby Watson, Steve Erquiaga (guitar), and others. What was most affecting, however, was not guitar. I had an hour free and wanted to fill it with something, so I signed up for Pamela Watson’s Gospel Choir. I am not a singer, but I can find pitches and read rhythms. I was the only native English speaker there – there were (real!) singers from Vienna, Berlin and other places. What astounded me was that, unlike me, they were not new to singing this style. When they started singing, it sounded like they had been born and raised in Mississippi. It was a real treat to masquerade as a singer and be among them. Pamela Watson was a terrific director. We sang some of her arrangements and I am here to tell you: it was probably the single most fun I have ever had making music of any sort, and that is saying something.


Composing Tip #3: The Ears Have It

Motown 4 album set

(Photo credit: vintage_breda)

School can teach you a lot – about composition, about a lot of things, but mostly about things that are easy to write down. As soon as you can, go beyond this model. Learn all about historical written music, but as soon as you can, learn from the living music all around you as well. Learn from especially from music of oral/aural traditions: country western, zydeco, the Beatles, ragtime, field hollers, gospel, reggae, samba bands, African choral music, jazz, garage bands, Motown. These styles haven’t been written down, but that’s a feature, not a bug. There is too much information there to capture in any inky representation. So you just gotta listen.

Listen to the nuance – if you want a challenge, try to notate this kind of music exactly. Listen to jazz singers – how they may start a little before or after the beat, or drag the first part and hurry up the second part or tuplet-ize something that is written in straight quarters in the fake book.

Learn from every kind of music you hear, whether you like it or not. If you can’t find something to learn from in every piece of music you hear, you’re not trying very hard or your attitude needs an overhaul.

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Composing Tip #2: Write Your Own Music

English: Milton Babbitt in Juilliard School of...

After you have written what you need to for classes, contests, tenure committees, commissions – i.e. what other people want you to write – write the kind of music that you like to listen to, music that you would like to play.

This may be very different music than the stuff you wrote for the other people.

Approach composition as 3 people: composer, audience, performer. Besides deciding what you would like to write, think about what you as a performer would like to play, and what would you as an audience member like to hear?

If you subscribe to Milton Babbitt’s dictum, ‘Who Cares If You Listen,” don’t be astonished to get “Who Cares If You Compose” back at you.

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Composition Quote of the Day: Nothing Better

Clara Schumann

There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it.

–Clara Schumann


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Composing Tip #1: Dare to Be Bad

The series begins…

The composition of two point reflections is a ...

Dare to be bad – in the initial stages of composition.

If you try to write an immortal masterpiece for the ages, you won’t get past the first bar, or it will stink if you do.

Write for the fun of it, just get something down. Not caring or comparing during the first draft is immensely liberating. You can always edit – or throw out the whole thing – later.

Trying to be impressive, brilliant, erudite, perfect, etc. severely inhibits the creative process. Don’t edit or judge at first, just record your idea any way that you can.


Crowd-Sourcing Composing Tips: Introduction

English: Level/Time of competence when learnin...

Acquiring composing skills and knowledge is very much like living: you just pay attention and learn one thing after another. Your skill (theoretically) improves over time, your tastes develop and change, your ear gets better so that you can analyze a lot of what you hear (recordings, concerts, elevators, TV & radio, anywhere, anytime), the better to steal, uh, learn from it; in any case, toss it on your musical compost heap to (switching metaphors now) slowly become part of your musical DNA. Another analogy: once, during my bluegrass guitar phase years ago I asked a pro player how he learned so many fiddle tunes. He simply said “One at a time.” Composing is like that. You just keep learning one thing at a time, and keep doing that over and over for a long time. Another analogy: like learning a language, including your native language. You can always learn more words, become better educated (history, sciences, current events, food, fashion, sports, games, music, literature, on and on), learn to craft felicitous phrases, no matter what you start out with. You can always improve, learn more, hone your craft, add depth to your knowledge and understanding of the world. It all supports your craft. All you need besides that is what we said earlier: the itch, the inspiration, the energy, the drive to put it to use.

What I’m getting at in this series of composition tips is this: