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:


Getting Started Composing: The Itch

The hardest part of composing is getting started. You need an idea and some kind of itch that you need to scratch, which can only be done by working out that idea and turning it into a composition. You can have a million ideas, but without the itch and the subsequent scratch, it don’t mean a thing, you won’t compose a thing.

More Wild West

(Photo credit: Pulse3)

I think the first time I started try to write down music I was in the 6th (maybe 7th) grade. It wasn’t my music. It was from a commercial on TV that used Western film style music. It had a lot of French horns. I played horn. I wanted to play it or something like it – my first itch. So every time I heard it, I tried to remember it and write down a little more of it. I noodled a bit at the piano, trying to find the notes. Then I wrote down my guesses on manuscript paper (I don’t know where the music paper came from – must have been from my mom, who was once a violinist, but hadn’t played in year. I really can’t come up with any good reason why we had it, but there it was). It was very empowering, taking the invisible notes out of the air and committing them to something you could look at, lift, count. My effort was innocent of bar lines, time signatures, key signatures, and was no doubt mostly inaccurate, but I was tickled about it. I could play (sort of) the notes, with a certain amount of (read: a lot) fudging. Notation = power!


Welcome and What’s Going On Here

Compost heap. This is the amount that is produ...

My problem is that I’m interested in too many things. I already have two blogs (Horn Insights, Improv Insights) and a web site (U of Iowa Horn Studio), but I was inspired this morning to start another one about a subject interests me that doesn’t really fit any of the others: musical composition. Horn Insights is about the instrument and various aspects of music; Improv Insights is about creating your own spontaneous music as a classical musician; Composition Insights will be a collection of inspirations, reflections, procedures, stories, and general whatnot about writing music down. Composing is a long-range activity where you constantly learn more about the process, which will affect what you compose and how you compose it. As you listen to more kinds of music and take it apart and experiment, skills and tastes change. I am going to treat this space as a kind of musical compost (maybe the site should be called Composting Insights or Compostition Insights) heap to record my experiences, old and new, on the subject. I hope that it will attract the thoughts of others who will be inspired to share their experiences and thoughts as we go along.

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