Someone recently reached out to me on Instagram and asked if I had any advice for young, emerging composers. After responding, I realized that this might be a topic that could help other students of music theory that are trying to transition into composing. Here are a few tips to help you take your first steps toward composition!
1. Study Music Theory
Music theory is the foundation for every composition. Even musically illiterate pop singers who write a song with three chords and a simple melody are utilizing theory – they just don’t realize it. Anyone can write one song but the key to longevity and creativity is an extensive knowledge of theory.
2. Begin with 4-Part Writing
Most theory textbooks approach musical analysis by teaching the rules of 4-part writing. These textbooks also include exercises that reinforce the rules and help to develop a mastery of 4-part writing. I believe that the best progression to learn 4-part writing is:
a. Add inner voices to given soprano and figured bass lines.
b. Use a given figured bass to create a soprano melody, then fill in the inner voices.
c. Use given chords to create a figured bass, then create a soprano melody and fill in the inner voices.
d. Create a melody, choose a chord progression that fits, then fill in the rest.
In a first year theory course, this may feel tedious but it is everything that you need to compose!!! Take these exercises to heart and once you have mastered 4-part writing, you will have all of the building blocks necessary to create your own piece.
3. Start Simple
We all love Eric Whitacre and want to emulate him, but even many established composers aren’t ready for that. Most beginning composers have been inspired by the repertoire that they have performed in an amazing choral or instrumental experience and develop a desire to create something similar. Unfortunately, this often results in a young composer littering their first work with cluster chords in 8-part harmony. You may end up with something that sounds cool on your composition software, but it is likely that the music is overcomplicated, unsingable, and unlikely to be performed. I firmly believe that great composers are able to create amazing sonorities with the least number of notes possible (see Tip #2). I was recently mentioned in an article on Choral Clarity (check it out here) for my music being accessible for high school groups, and it is due to this philosophy. In short, composers must FIRST learn to create cohesive music in 4-part chorale form. Only once they have mastered that will they be ready to incorporate non-chord tones, divisi, and polyphony.
4. Compose Something Everyday
I often encourage my students to audition any chance that they get (even if they believe that they won’t get in) because the only way to get better at auditioning is by auditioning. The same is true of writing music – the only way to get better at composing is by composing. It is natural to want everything that you write to be a masterpiece but if you keep waiting until you are inspired to write a masterpiece, it will never happen. Music composition is all about learning from your mistakes and the more mistakes that you make, the more you will learn. Make it a goal to compose something every day, even if it is just a few measures that will never turn into a piece.
5. Write It Down
Writing something down makes it meaningful. Much of the value that you assign to your creation comes from the amount of time that you have invested into it. It is easy to invest the additional time that it takes to write down a composition if it is something that brings you pride, but what about the passage that you overworked and think is terrible? Write it down anyways! As I mentioned in Tip #4, everything that you create (whether it is an entire composition or a few phrases) is a valuable lesson in composition. Investing time into writing down unsatisfactory music allows you to move past it and puts you one step closer to a masterpiece. If you don’t write it down, the mistakes lose their meaning and are more likely to appear in subsequent compositions.
6. Don’t Rush
You can’t rush creativity. With the exception of prodigies like Mozart, it takes most composers many years to refine their style. It has been 11 years since I had my first piece published and my style still continues to evolve! I urge you to push discouragement aside if you struggle to find a group to perform your music or a publisher to put your music into print. Composing is a learning process and it takes time to create your masterwork. I have learned many times that when I feel like I have created my best product, there is something even better on the horizon that I will reach once I start composing again.
I hope that these tips are helpful to anyone who is learning to compose! Feel free to comment below with any questions that you may have about my compositional journey or for clarification about the information in this post.