composing tips

Composition Tip #24: Program Notes!


(Photo credit: jjpacres)

If you have published a work in any form, make sure that the publisher (even if the publisher is you) gets copies of your new work off to as many music reviewers as possible (for instance, just about every instrument has an instrumental society that has a journal that has a section devoted to reviewing newly published works). It’s always been a mystery to me why the vast majority of published compositions seem to have no information on the composer or any words from the composer on the work. Make sure that your publisher includes both.


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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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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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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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 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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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: