Join 10K+ Subscribers

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Join over 10,000 artists who already receive my weekly newsletter featuring short, actionable pieces of experience to improve your compositions/productions; no algorithms - straight to your inbox.

New Composers Worry about the Wrong Things

May 18, 2024
As a young, inexperienced composer, I remember going into my first composition lesson and asking a man who had studied with Gian Carlo Menotti, Scalero, and Samuel Barber "how do I make sure I end a piece in the same key signature I started in."
He paused, looked at me, and said, "why the hell would anybody care?"
It was at that moment I realized that not only did I not have all the answers, I didn't even have the right questions.
Fast forward about a dozen years, and now people ask me similar things. How do I know when to modulate? How do I pick a time signature? How do I know which instruments to use?
The questions are valid. But, the real issue is that when we start, we don't realize we're getting caught up on details. We do this before we've asked more important questions like: what is the purpose of this piece I want to write? Or, "how do I want this to make the listener feel?"
From Abstraction to Foundation
These questions seem abstract. So we avoid them. After all, it's much easier to find approach things from a theoretical perspective.
This is why almost every YouTube video that talks about composition or song writing immediately jumps to music theory.
It feels more black and white. It feels formulaic - like the "right" way to do something by following a few simple rules. It also makes us feel smart when we throw out terminology that, in reality just intimidates most beginners.
How do we turn these abstract, but crucial questions into something real? Something musical.
Reverse Engineering
"Every great piece has a model."
When my teacher told me this, I had the same reaction a lot of you have had.
"But I want to make something original and innovative."
The more experience I've gained, the more I see the value in studying the masterpieces that have preceded us, and taking my favorite components to explore in my own work.
Take a piece of music you love and study why it works - why it moves you. Why did the composer decide to repeat this section here and not there? Why did they expand upon this theme instead of that one?
What does it have in common with some of your other favorite works? How is it different?
Sketch out the basic form. Listen for sections and each time you hear a new one, jot down a letter name for it (for example, A, B, A).
Once you understand the framework, you can take that framework and decorate it with your own ideas.
As you gain more experience, you can start to expand and reshape things to fit your own taste.
Although known as a great innovator, Beethoven still used Sonata form. In his later Sonatas, he started to blur the lines and develop ideas in unique ways.
In Op. 101 he throws a fugue in the middle of the Development of the last movement (just to torture me as a prepared for my Master's recital I'm pretty sure).
None of us are Beethoven, but we can take this concept and apply it to our own work.
Focus on Fewer Things
I'm a big fan of French composers like Ravel, Faure, and Poulenc. Everything they do is so intentional. Something about the French school just has this "less is more" ethos to it that you don't find in Wagner or Reger.
I've made this analogy before, but it reminds me of the difference between Michael Phelps swimming across a pool swimming across the same pool.
One is efficient and has no wasted motion, and the other flails about like it's a Saturday at a South Mississippi water park.
If you focus on doing less, you have to make those few ideas really strong and really efficient. But once you have that, you have so much flexibility in how you can develop those ideas.
Strong ideas have more mileage in them. It always helps me when I have a few strong building blocks, then think about how many different ways I can use them. They also sort of beg to be repeated.
An example from last week's video is my improvisation with an A.I. prompt.....what a weird sentence to type....
I started with a memorable motif. It was a short melodic idea. I could always come back to it to ground the listener, even if I explored other areas in between.
You don't have to do everything (it's better if you don't)
As a young composer I wanted to master every style, every genre, every technique, and as I got a little older I realized that's just not possible.
It's also not ideal if our goal is to be unique or stand out from the crowd.
It's great to be versatile and stay curious. But I've found the most joy in figuring out what I want to do/what really moves me and going deep into those things.
This keeps me focused and excited to work on new projects.
It also keeps my music more focused, which happens to also help my career.
Sometimes I write dark electronic music with loads of distorted synths; sometimes I write melancholy piano waltzes.
But I'd like to think that it all still sounds like me because I'm using a lot of the same ideals and ideology regardless of the medium. I'm using my taste which has developed over decades of experimenting.
People come to me for my sound. This was not the case when I was desperately trying to get scoring jobs. Back then, I would bend over backwards to conform to what I thought the director wanted.
Pick the most fascinating things and learn all you can about them. But, more importantly, experiment with using the things you learn. Experience is the best teacher.
Learn an Instrument
Pick an instrument and learn to be proficient at it.
I can't stress this enough.
Your proficiency with an instrument will be your most important asset as a composer.
I'm partial to the piano because it's so easy to visualize theory concepts at the keyboard. It lends itself to linear thinking/writing like I talk about so often.
It's versatile enough to allow you to play multiple parts and see how they might fit together, but limited enough to keep you from doing everything all at once.
Study simple pieces by great composers. Prokofiev's pieces for children (Op. 65) are a great example. They are stripped down to the core elements. So it's easier to see the techniques and devices he use.
From there, you can build on a base of knowing what works and what doesn't. But, if you're like me, there's a temptation to jump to the end and write a symphony before you even know how to write for your own instrument.
Walk before you run, and you'll find yourself in much better shape when the marathon actually starts. 
P.S. If you want to dig deeper into the specific concepts that have helped me the most, for a limited time my Newsletter subscribers can get my composition course for 20% off by using the code SUMMERNEWSLETTER at checkout :)
Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.