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Worse Composers Make More Music

May 25, 2024


If we've spent years or even decades working on our musical skills and craft, sometimes we look down on others making music who may not have spent as much time learning as we have.

"He doesn't even know how to read music," or "she can't even play a REAL instrument." And yet, those people often seem to find something that resonates with other people. They might make more music than we do, and they never seem to second-guess themselves.

As the saying goes, "they don't know what they don't know." So, they waste no time worrying about it.

They've tapped into something intuitively and out of necessity that those of us with more musical training often forget: limitations are key for productivity. When we try to do everything, we often end up doing nothing at all.


A large vocabulary is a double-edged sword.


In my college papers, I used to pride myself on using as many highbrow words as possible. I was earning degrees like a "smart person," so I felt I needed to sound "smart."

Then I started teaching piano to beginners and realized I needed a new approach. My verbose language wasn't impressing my students - it was only confusing them.

When I started making YouTube videos, some of the same issues came back to the surface. I heard that you should "establish credibility" in your videos, so I tried to sound smart. This didn't help anyone; it was for my own vanity.

The same issues can also arise in our music.

I've noticed a pattern in artists who know a lot of chords or have a rich harmonic language. The more you know, the easier it can be to choose the wrong thing.

This happens to me all the time while I'm improvising. I try to force myself into new areas. Sometimes it works, but often it just doesn't.

Just because I CAN do a thing doesn't mean I SHOULD. If my goal is to choose the best possible chord for a piece, I have to take my own ego out of the equation and ask myself "which chord serves this piece better?"

What is the harmonic language I've established? Where is the line between finding a "fresh" chord that is a delightful surprise, and "forcing" a chord that doesn't belong and pulls the listener out of the world we've created?

It's my job as a composer to find that line in every piece I write.


Knowing more stuff can hold us back.


More knowledge means more options. More options can lead to a loss of clarity.

We often get so focused on all the little decisions and small details that we can't see the forest for the trees.

We spend all our time zoomed in to a microscopic level. We get obsessed with things like adding more ideas simply because we're afraid to repeat an idea the same way twice.

We forget the overall structure of the piece or what mood we've been trying to evoke with it.

If we zoom out, we can see the context. When I do this, I find that I've been obsessing over unimportant things. They don't make much of an impact on the piece as a whole.

This zoomed-in approach leads to overwhelm, which is one of the primary causes of what we often call "writer's block."

My composition teacher would often tell me that I wasn't out of ideas. I had TOO MANY ideas.

Composition is a BROAD subject. There are too many decisions to make when we don't set some intentional limitations in place.

I've spent the last few years curating the concepts that have helped me most into this video course if you'd like to dig deeper into the specifics.


Less is more.


This is why I'm such a believer in the "less is more" approach to composition. This doesn't mean our work is simplistic or less than. It means we take the time to craft stronger core ideas that have the ability to be reused and reshaped.

An incredible example of this approach is Poulenc's choral piece, "O magnum mysterium." My church choir sang it at Christmas, so it's still fresh on my mind.

There are four clear sections. There's an Intro, an A section with a stunning Soprano melody leading the way, a B section with a beautiful Tenor melody, and then the return of the A section.

Within that A section, we hear smaller phrases that keep alternating and returning. It's like a conversation between these melodic phrases.

Each time he repeats that initial descending Soprano line, the melody is exactly the same. But it's what he changes in the harmonies underneath it that make it feel as if we're going somewhere new each time.

Composers know lots of "tricks of the trade." It can be so tempting to always chase new material. We feel restless and want to show all we've learned.

Often, the piece would be stronger if we had conviction in the ideas we've already presented. If we were more willing to repeat them and develop them.

That usually feels more honest than trying to force things to happen that feel out of place.

Knowledge and skills are power. But only if you're in control of them, not the other way around.

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.