Music tips

Join a Community

You don’t have to go alone on this journey. There are thousands of people in online communities discussing music composition every day. Nowadays groups are mostly on Facebook but there are some forums too. A good community will help you along even through the points we’ve been discussing today. On our School of Composition Facebook group, for example, we listen to each other’s works, discuss different aspects of music, talk about books, ask questions and give advice. Sometimes we also have music composition challenges. If you’re interested, click or tap here and come join our Facebook group. We’ll be happy to have you join us! Being part of a music composition community brings up 2 very important details. To be a valuable member keep these in mind:

  • Ask for feedback and be open to criticism,
  • Give feedback in return. Communities are great to ask for feedback. Of course it’s not always easy to share your work publicly so choose a community you can become comfortable with. You also have to get over the idea that not everyone will like your work. That’s just how the world works! Don’t let this stop you from sharing. And don’t let this stop you from meeting fellow composers whose genuine advice might be invaluable! Now the other side of this coin: When you join a community don’t expect to simply take without giving. Be involved with the discussions, share your opinions and give feedback in return. Apart from meeting new people (remember tip #8 – networking) this is a fantastic way to develop new ideas.

Judge Your Work (fairly and not too early)

This ties in with the previous point. It’s important to be critical with your own work and judge it fairly. As we discussed in this article, students often ask if their music is any good. This is not that simple but we can get a better answer by asking a better question:

Is my music effective?”

‘Effective’ here means how well the music accomplishes whatever it sets out to accomplish. And that’s different for every composition:

  • It could be a piece that expresses an emotion (like a nocturne),
  • It could be a piece that accompanies a short film (a soundtrack),
  • It could be a song that should match the meaning of the text (like a hymn),
  • It could be a fun piece that explores the theme from different angles (like a Theme and variations),
  • and so on. If we know what the music is meant to do, we can judge its effectiveness. And whether a piece is effective or not is a better question because it’s less subjective. Let’s take the examples from the bullet points above:
  • If we wanted to write a nocturne (a piece that suggests the night), is the music too loud?
  • If the piece is accompanying a short film, does it enhance or get in the way of the dialogue?
  • If the piece is based on some text, does the melody follow its rhythm properly?
  • If we’re composing variations on a theme, are there enough or too many variations? Are they different or similar? And so on and on, we should be critical of our own creations. Before we move on to the next point, it’s important to keep in mind not to judge your works too early. It’s usually better to put the analysis aside until later. While there is a creative flow and you are composing fluently, don’t stop to analyse and judge. Analysis is a very different activity than being creative and studies have shown that we use different parts of the brain for them. That means that stopping to analyse your creation while it is being created completely disrupts the workflow. It might take hours to get back into that state so leave your judgement for later.

Compose Honestly

It’s a common mistake by enthusiastic students to try and include everything they’re learning into a single composition. The result often sounds forced and instead of an actual piece of music, it ends up sounding like a collection of techniques. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.) The better approach is to ‘compose honestly’. Rather than proving that you’ve mastered a technique or trying to write something impressive, ask yourself ‘what does this music really need here?’ If you’ve been honing your skills and nurturing your instincts like we’ve been discussing today, you will know the right answer.

What does this music really need here?

If you don’t have an answer yet, experiment. Something that clicks and feels right will inevitably come out.

Arrange (or Transcribe)

A great way of getting into a piece of music is to arrange it for another instrument or ensemble. What we do in arranging is to take an existing piece of music and change it (arrange) to make it possible for other instruments to play it. In this sense, transcribing is the same as arranging. The difference is that transcriptions are as close as possible to the original whereas arrangements are freer to change and adapt the original. What we’re talking about here would typically be somewhere in between but probably more towards arrangement. For example, get a piano piece and orchestrate it. Get an orchestral piece and reduce it for 1 or 2 pianos. Get a piece for solo voice and expand it for a fully-fledged choir. Some composers have done this with their own music. A great example is Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Originally he wrote it for piano but he later arranged it for string orchestra. Arranging forces us to look deep into the score and understand what the composer was going for in his/her music. We’ll then have to reinterpret those intentions unto another set of instruments. It also means we’ll have to know what the instruments we’re writing for are capable of. Arranging is fascinating as it puts several of our previous tips in use at the same time! Such an exercise allows you to:

  • Listen to the piece first (tip #1),
  • Read the score (tip #2),
  • Experience music theory in practice (tip #3),
  • Learn the software (tip #7),
  • Write for real musicians and real instruments (tip #8). All in all you’ll get to see how everything works together so don’t underestimate this exercise.

Write Real Works for Real Musicians

Practice is great but it’s really just a stepping-stone for writing works that can (and hopefully will) actually get performed. Working with real musicians in mind teaches us things that we’d never learn otherwise. Beside the obvious issues such as what instruments are available and what the level of the musicians is, you might have to factor in rehearsal time (if any), duration of piece, who the audience will be, what the occasion is, and other nitty gritty details.

A Useful Web Interface

Along with the desktop app, Spotify has an amazing web interface which is just a mirror image of the desktop app. So once in a while, when you crave to listen to your mix of songs but can’t yet access your PC , just log in to the web version using your credentials. However, do make sure that the permission for the web player is enabled for your account in the advanced settings.

Learn the Software Really, Really Well

Composers nowadays are spoiled for choice when it comes to software. There are all sorts of programs and apps intended to make our life easier. My advice is to pick just a few and learn them inside out. Depending on what style of music you are composing, you are likely to need 2 kinds of software:

  • Musical notation software (such as Sibelius, Finale and MuseScore) to produce sheet music;
  • Digital Audio Workstation, aka ‘DAW’ (such as ProTools, Cubase and Logic) to produce realistic sounds and edit/master/mix your tracks. For both types of software, there are too many choices to list here so do a little bit of research and pick what seems to be the best for you. You might want to start with the free versions to play around with and get a feel for how they work. No matter what you pick, learn it and learn it well! Knowing how to do what you need it to will make the process smoother when you’re actually composing. Interrupting your creative flow to go looking for some function is a great way of losing the spark.
Interrupting your creative flow to go looking for some function is a great way of losing the spark. 

This is also another reason why practice is so important. While you’re practicing composition itself, you’re mastering the software too.

Sing and Train your Ears

With that last point, some of you might be wondering “What about singing? Isn’t that an instrument?” Yes, of course! The voice is also an instrument but it even goes a step forward (or should I say, deeper?) because it is literally inside each and every one of us. You don’t have to be a great singer (and you don’t have to let anyone listen in if you don’t want to) but the benefits of singing in ear training are immense. Why is it called ‘ear training‘? Because it trains you to understand what your ears hear. One of the most efficient ways of doing so is to sing.

  • Want to learn how to recognize the Dorian mode by ear? Sing it!
  • Want to learn to hear the difference between a major sixth and a minor sixth? Sing them!
  • Want to learn to the hear the difference between a dominant 7th chord and a major 7th arpeggio? Sing them! Of course you won’t get them right at first. Even on a bad day an experienced musician can make some basic errors. The point is not to sing perfectly in tune every time all the time. The real benefit comes from simply trying and from correcting those mistakes. The reason that it is such a powerful tool for ear training is that singing forces us to imagine the notes before we produce them. On a piano it’s enough to find the key we need, play it and only then find out what that note actually sounds like. With singing, we must know what the note sounds like first (if we want to sing the right one). This subtle change trains the mind to come up with the note first and that makes a whole world of difference. I’ve seen this in myself and then with countless students of mine: the benefits of singing are great!

Play an Instrument or 2

Playing an instrument is how most of us get into music as kids. If this is true about you too, then you know that playing an instrument brings you closer to music. You don’t have to be a virtuoso – even playing a few simple tunes reveals to us a different side to music. A side we cannot experience just from listening.

Playing an instrument brings you closer to music. 

As a composer, you’ll also get to appreciate what musicians go through as they master their instrument and learn a piece of music. And it’s also a great way of becoming familiar with how an instrument works. While my main instrument is the classical guitar, I had a year of violin lessons and it did wonders for my string writing! Playing around on an instrument is also a common way of coming up with some musical ideas that you might shape into a real piece later on. However, there is a danger with this so please be wary of it: You don’t want to become dependent on an instrument for all your composing. If you cannot compose without an instrument, than you are probably limiting yourself to composing only what you can play rather than what’s possible or what is best for the music you’re writing.

Learn Music Theory

In its broadest sense, music theory is everything from the rudiments of notation to the details of how notes are organized (into rhythms, scales, chords, etc.) as well as to the more advanced topics of harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration and so on. Contrary to what some believe, music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal. I will leave that argument for another day but when done properly, music theory is simply about understanding how music works and why it works that way. Music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal, it makes you informed.

Music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal, it makes you informed.”

Now I know what some of you are saying: “But Matt, do I really need to spend years learning this stuff?” Music theory will make you a better composer but you don’t have to become an expert to benefit from it. Covering some of the fundamentals already puts you steps ahead. You can go as far as you want (or need) to go. For example in this lesson called “Why are there 3 minor scales?”, we learn that it’s actually just 1 scale which composers alter according to their specific needs. In this lesson about the concept of tonality, we learn that tonal music is so powerful because of how it allows composers to manipulate two specific notes and chords of the scale. As we said, this knowledge will not restrict your imagination or stifle your creativity. It simply makes you aware of how those aspects of music work and why they work that way.