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How Do You Go About Learning to Compose?

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by ThomClaire, Oct 10, 2013.

  1. ThomClaire


    Dec 31, 2012
    Asheville, NC
    I have been (trying to) write celtic tunes. I've been completely inspired by "Music For Two" (Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer), and have been thinking about Irish Flute and Double Bass compositions ever since, as my friend plays flute and pipes. So far I have begun each tune on paper, and then taken to an instrument, either my bass, or my friend's flute, to find out how exactly it sounds. I can't sight sing, though I do have a general idea of what the tune sounds like before I actually hear it. How do teachers in music school go about teaching composition? Other than writing down notes that seem coherent, and then finding out what it sounds like, I really don't know how to go about it.

    Also, any book recommendations/suggestions are more than welcome. I'm decently advanced with music theory (maybe the advanced side of intermediate), so I don't think that is what I need, but I also don't know. Any advice is much appreciated!
  2. PaulCannon


    Jan 24, 2002
    Frankfurt, Germany
    NS Design Endorsing Artist
    Notation is a means to an end. Sitting down with a pencil and staff paper might be the hardest way to begin a composition. Sit down at the piano, or with your bass, and find what it is you're trying to express. Once you have ideas, even if they're just sketches, that's when you can write it down to mess with later.

    I think every composer has a different process. I don't compose too often, but when I do it's with a bass in my hands. If it's a solo, I'll pretty much have the whole thing performance-ready before I try to write it out. If there are multiple parts, the process of notating things can help clarify some ideas and see where different parts and ideas can fit together.

    You can begin by writing a melody and finding implied harmonies and bass lines from that. Or you can build from the bottom up and write an interesting bass line first and try writing a melody on top of it.

    You should also spend a good chunk of time studying scores for pieces you'd like to emulate. Where no score is available, you should take the time to transcribe things. Take a look at the forms and structure. Take note of the harmonic progressions, and pay special attention to what the bass line does with those progressions.

    Celtic and other folk idioms have very well-established traditions, forms, and gestures. Edgar Meyer's music is amazing, but incredibly complex relative to more common bluegrass and folk songs. It may behoove you to spend some quality time with his source material before you try anything too ambitious. Perhaps a good starting place would be to find an existing celtic song you like and simply arrange it for flute and bass.
  3. ThomClaire


    Dec 31, 2012
    Asheville, NC
    Where can I read more about melody, harmonies, counterpoint and all the things that make up compositions? I've written tunes before, but I want to understand composing better
  4. skwee


    Apr 2, 2010
    There are numerous resources for learning music theory online, including http://www.musictheory.net/lessons, you just click on the bullet points to hear the examples they provide. It is very helpful to understand Roman Numeral analysis. Once you get your brain around that, you can start to analyze what your favorite tunes are doing, and emulate them.

    One part of my own process is to record the hooks/melodies that I come up with to my phone or computer, and then transcribe them to Musescore (which is free and awesome), and then try to figure out what chords work underneath the melody to fill it out.

    best of luck!
  5. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Three books I used in my student days:
    Composing Music, by William Russo
    Musical Composition, by Reginald Smith Brindle
    Fundamentals of Musical Composition, by Arnold Schoenberg

    In private lessons, I was taught to improvise on paper, and then revise my work.

    For counterpoint, "Counterpoint in Composition" by Salzer & Schachter, and "Gradus Ad Parnassum" by Fux are good. There is a computer program called "Counterpointer" that is pretty cool.
  6. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
    No substitute for sitting down and making sound and *then* writing down what you like out of that. Writing on paper is great and super useful, just don't get bogged down thinking you have to start there.

    When I compose, I'm at the piano, holding a bass or guitar or drumsticks, or humming a melody (which I then have to go to the piano to plink out). Paper is nearby and handy to have too especially when the ideas start to get complicated and/or need to be chained together. When I arrange, more writing down is going on as I try and analyze how to work with the melody and/or rhythm I've come up with. Then back at the piano or other instrument to try out ideas. What makes sense to me with theory and on paper doesn't always work when I listen, especially inversion and octave choices. It's an iterative process for me and always evolving. I can't speak for others.
  7. ThomClaire


    Dec 31, 2012
    Asheville, NC
    Thanks very much for the recommendations.

    Improvising on paper, and revising is kind of what I'm going for. I don't have a piano, so unfortunately that is not an option, and believe me, I wish it was. A lot of what I've been writing is written for Irish flute (so far, at least), and since I'm not particularly advanced on the bass, it's honestly more difficult to start with the bass than on paper. Anyways, thank you all for your help and advice.
  8. Space Pickle

    Space Pickle

    Apr 15, 2013
    Lift tunes to see how they work. Figure out what sounds you're hearing and write those.
  9. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    The reason to write without an instrument is to remove an intermediary between your musical ideas and what gets written down. In order to do this, you have to get beyond the "going to the piano and plinking it out" stage. This is usually done with sight-singing, but writing down the ideas in your head works the same muscles, just in the other direction. This skill is especially valuable if you are writing for instruments that you can't play. A flute sounds very different in low, mid and high registers, whereas a piano is fairly neutral from top to bottom. It also enables you to write music on the subway or bus. :)

    If your plinking out ideas on an instrument, and you don't get it right, your mistakes can distract you from your initial idea.

    Imagine you had to speak before you were able to write down your sentences; you might forget what you said. Then, imagine developing the ability to just write down your sentences without the extra step of speaking. You eliminate the possibility of saying something cool, but then forgetting what you said and writing down something approximate instead.

    You CAN write good music at an instrument, of course. The sound of an instrument can inspire great ideas. Whether to develop your chops (or not) to the point of not needing the instrument depends on how far the rabbit hole you want to go. If you are serious about composition, it is an essential skill, even if you chose to write at an instrument some or most of the time.
  10. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
  11. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Another good exercise is to write a piece that copies or mimics an existing piece that you like and would like to learn from.

    Or, arrange an existing piece, and use the form as a basis for a theme and variations.
  12. mtto

    mtto Supporting Member

    May 25, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Start now, it will pay off big time! The same company that makes Counterpointer makes a program called Practica Musica for ear training.

    All you need is sheet music, though. There are sight singing method books, but any songbook will do the trick as long as you don't already know the songs. Dig in!
  13. Tampabass

    Tampabass Going Viral By 2080 Supporting Member

    Feb 16, 2006
    I know you are, but what am I?
    +1 on Musescore -- as mentioned, it's free and awesome, and fairly "intuitive" to figure out.


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