I struggled to love my music in my first year of my Bachelor of Composition. It took months for me to be happy with the music I was hearing back from my computer, but when I did, I loved writing music again. Here are some tips that I learnt from my teachers and my own journey, that I hope will help you to become a composer who can write fantastic music!
1. Realise that composition is your instrument.
I started learning piano when I started primary school, and then learned some guitar at the beginning of high school. I was about 17 when I took my first composition subject.
At first, I thought of myself as a pianist who was also composing. But as I kept learning, I realised that things I’d struggled to learn as a pianist (such as sight reading and playing exactly what was written) weren’t required when I was composing. I could play whatever I wanted, go wherever the music took me, and no one could mark me down for it.
I realised that I’m not a pianist who composes; I’m a composer who plays piano.
Composition is just another instrument I’ve learnt to play. I need to invest in a good instrument if I want to make a good sound with it, and I need to invest in good software to expand what I can do. I need to practice composing every day if I want to improve. And I need to be patient with myself, noticing the small improvements along the way, because just like it took me years to learn piano, it is taking me years to learn composing.
Thinking of composition as an instrument changed the way I thought about the time and money I spent around it, and the other instruments I’d learnt. I realised that comparing my piano skills to performers was like comparing the skills of a drummer and an oboist. Composing is a skill in its own right, and thinking of it as such legitimises the time and money we invest in it. If you’re wondering whether to buy or spend time practicing something, think of the investment as investing in an instrument, and see if that helps you make a decision.
2. Copy other composers
Before I go on: plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it.
But copying other composers without publishing what you create is not only fine, it’s a good way to learn professional composition techniques.
You know how I kept referencing composers in my tips-for-newbie-writers post? Let’s hear from a writer this time, cuz why not?
Hunter S Thompson was a writer and journalist, who typed out entire novels like The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, “just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way.”
When we’re learning composition, it can be helpful to copy out other people’s work note for note, from a recording to MIDI or from a score to notation software.
I’ve had to do this a couple of times as part of my course, and it’s been helpful each time. Both ways taught me not only how to use my software, but also how to listen to specific lines and zoom out again to hear or read the whole piece, how to arrange parts well, and how to mix them for their genre.
Choose a song or piece you admire, and copy it out as accurately as you can. You’ll be studying under great composers, and you’ll get a feel for “what it was like to write that way.”
3. Listen analytically
Some people thrive from analysing music, and some vocally despise the practice. Whichever way you feel about it, analysing music helps pick up tools from other composers that you can adapt into your own work.
But how do we listen analytically?
First, break the music down into its components, such as:
- Melody (including its shape, register, range, etc)
- Rhythm (including tempo, time signature, speed of notes, syncopation, etc)
- Texture (what instruments are playing at this time, and how busy or smooth it is, for example)
- Dynamics (how loud and intense, or soft and gentle it is)
- Articulation (staccato, pizzicato, etc)
(There are heaps of these, so brainstorm any more you can think of, or do some research into the elements of music if you’re stuck!)
As you listen to music, pick one of these aspects of music and describe first what it’s doing, and then what it achieves emotionally or narratively.
- The repeated string line behind the sung melody creates a restless, antsy feel
- The melody is highly ornamented with trills and vibrato, which creates an exotic, foreign flavour
- The brass cuts through the high strings and long-held sung notes, pushing them to the background to create interest and a sense that the dramatic brass is maliciously taking over our focus.
Articulating how the elements make you feel is important for when you go back to your own compositions. Do you need to make your music feel energetic or on-edge? String ostinatos are a tried-and-true way to achieve this. Do you want to add drama? Reach for the trombones.
I was listening to an orchestral piece (“Tsas Narand Uyarna” by Christopher Tin) while writing this, so all those descriptions come from that song. Whenever I listen to music, or watch K-drama, I try to pay attention to what the music is doing, and how it creates the emotions I feel. This gives me a toolbox full of musical techniques I can use in my own compositions with confidence that they will work.
But Debbie, I hear you say, doesn’t that ruin the music? (Or the K-drama?)
Actually, I think it makes them better. I feel like a detective, a small smile sliding onto my face, whispering ‘genius,’ as I realise for the first time just how dubious my nemesis is. In the same way that a painter can see the brush strokes that make up the beautiful picture, listening analytically helps us see all the notes and rests that create the music we love, and appreciate the genius behind it more.
4. Your music is better than it sounds
When I started my degree, I was never happy with the music I created. It was messy, it had no direction, and the MIDI samples I was using made it feel cheap, and not worth taking seriously.
Then my teacher introduced me to Alchemy.
Alchemy is a synthesiser plugin that comes with Logic Pro X. My favourite thing about it is that it has heaps of awesome ready-made sounds that I can use in my compositions to instantly make them sound more professional. Instead of being distracted by how cheesy the MIDI choirs sounded, I could get lost in the eeriness of the distant voice samples, and finally enjoy my own music.
Don’t let bad MIDI samples convince you that your music is also bad–that’s like buying a $100 violin and wondering why it sounds cheap. Find a musician who can play it for you, or use synths, or invest in awesome orchestral samples, or use your own samples, or write it down on paper so you don’t have to hear awful playback. As you practice, you’ll learn not to trust MIDI, and not to decide the value of your music based solely on how it sounds in MIDI. Find the sound that works for you and your confidence in your music will grow, until you won’t need good samples to see the beauty in your music.
5. Use a metronome
I know this is anticlimactic to end on, but I wish I’d known this when I first started composing! When you’re about to start recording, if it’s not just getting ideas out, do yourself a favour and figure out your tempo. Record everything to that click track! It will make navigation and precise editing so much easier for you, and the track will sound cleaner in the end.
Out of songwriting, writing and composing, writing music is the hardest to start out in. Unless you spend hundreds of dollars and hours, (and sometimes even when you do) you’ll still have to problem-solve and think critically to achieve the sound you first imagined.
But don’t give up! It’s not impossible to write the music you hear in your head. One day, you’ll press play, and it will sound even better than you could have hoped!
- Open Culture 2017, Hunter S. Thompson Typed Out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms Word for Word: A Method for Learning How to Write Like the Masters, retrieved Monday 27 September 2021 from https://www.openculture.com/2017/06/hunter-s-thompson-typed-out-the-great-gatsby-farewell-to-arms.html
So, amazing composers, what style of music are you writing in? What’s your current composing project?