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Learning to Compose


Some great performers can read and play excellent renditions of compositions, but think they cannot improvise.  Some improvisers can play over music written by other composers, but think they could never






compose a piece themselves.  However, writing a song is very much a craft, and whatever one already knows about music, from advanced theory to simple appreciation of a good rhythm, provides valuable material to shape into a piece.


Finding Themes and Melodies


Whether one is just starting out composing or has more experience, often the same questions will arise.  For example, how does a composer invent good material or melodies in the first place?  One important thing to keep in mind is that almost everybody has not just a few, but thousands of useable musical ideas floating around in their head, ready to be used in a piece.  The tiniest ideas can sustain huge works.  For example, just thinking of the interval of a major sixth, playing it perhaps from E to C#--this in itself could be a theme, an idea.  Maybe there are some passing tones played in between, making it more interesting, or maybe there is a “tail” or second half of the idea, such as C# to A.  But the main point is that this one small idea alone could be a theme, which could then be developed using the tools below (and on other pages of this site).


The number of places to look for these ideas is endless.  There is no need to question a source of inspiration—it could come from many places, such as an aspect of theory that appeals to the composer.  Maybe a composer likes the sound of a major third, so he or she plays with it and brings out the tone and color of the interval.  Or ideas could come from a feeling a composer gets from a certain place or person.  The fog setting by the ocean, for example, could create a memory, a thought, a mood, an idea.  A composer could express this in music—maybe just a pair of notes, such as a dissonance of a minor second, could capture that feeling.  As well, ideas could come from works by other musicians—maybe the composer remembers an interesting phrase in another piece, and although he does not copy that phrase, he creates one similar, that is both reminiscent of the old phrase, yet incorporates new ideas, perhaps ones that are more modern.  Or if the composer also improvises, he could use phrases from his own improvisations.


In general, a theme can come from any of these sources and many more, creating an exciting range of possibility.  As long as the theme is distinct, and interesting to the composer, usually it is a good theme to try to use.  Clarity, memorability, and interest are generally more valuable than complexity or even length.


Solving the Problem of Development


Once the composer has a theme or musical idea he or she likes, another main question is, how does one develop the melody into a song?  A common problem is that there is this great melody sitting there, inspiring, interesting, catchy—and yet the composer does not know how to do anything with it, how to turn it into a song.  At this point the composer needs to understand the “craft” of composition, which involves a number of tools for shaping the song.  While the tools ultimately are to be used in an “inspired” way, they can also be learned and used very academically, as in just shaping a song that “makes sense,” without necessarily worrying at first whether it is really unique or an extraordinary song.


The general idea is that there are a number of tools the composer can use to go from point A to point B, to develop the theme, to shed light on what he wants to express, to create a “complete”-sounding song, etc.  Much of these tools could be likened in some ways to mathematics.  In math, the numbers one is using often change, but the rules for working with those numbers stay the same.  If one is adding a group of numbers, one sums the digits in the ones column, carries the number in the tens of the sum, adds the numbers in the tens column, etc.  In the same way, when composing a song, the themes may change, but oftentimes the same basic rules of the songwriting craft can be followed, to take that theme where the composer wants it to go.


For example, one tool is the basic AABA structure of a melody.  Many pop songs are written this way (see Songwriting Structure).  First, the idea is presented, such as that E-C#-A major sixth idea mentioned earlier.  Second, the idea is presented again, very much the same as the first time, but perhaps with an alteration in the phrase, an added passing tone, or a modified harmony.  Third, suspense is introduced, either by altering the idea, or just bringing in a different contrasting idea.  Fourth, the composer returns to the first idea, which gives the melody a feeling of conclusion.  This could be the structure for the first eight bars.


Moreover, just as in math, this structure could be used to shape any number of melodies into a piece.  At a basic level, the composer can put in to the formula his fresh musical idea—like the dissonance bringing up the mood of the foggy shore, or any simple but interesting melody—run this formula, and out comes a reasonable melody.  The quality and interest-level of the melody depends on many factors, such as the composer’s musicianship, knowledge of theory, creativity, etc.  But at least by using standard formulas, the composer can generally shape understandable, usable melodies.


Another tool is creating a contrasting B section, or a second melody, for the tune.  Again, one common structure is to play the melody once or often twice, and then play the second melody.  The B section could be in a contrasting key, such as the major key if the A section was minor; or it could introduce a complementary but different musical concept, such as the swing section in A Night in Tunisia, that contrasts the main latin melody, or the second theme in Beethoven’s Fur Elise that follows the main first theme.  Using the second theme or section helps to add development, to bring the listener into a different place in the music, to shed more light on the theme and the ideas expressed, etc.


Other tools involve incorporating any number of other theory ideas or techniques used by other composers.  These often could include the techniques of contrapuntal variation (listed here on this website), such as inversion, augmentation, diminution, etc.  They could include shifting keys.  They could include using classical harmonies, baroque counterpoint, or popular chord progressions.  This article does not attempt to detail this range of possibilities, partly because it is up to each composer him or herself to explore the music and discover the possibilities that work for him or her.  Listening to a jazz piece, flipping through a score of a Beethoven sonata, hearing how ‘60’s rock musicians make their points in the music—all provide tools and ideas for building the craft of music writing.


Thus, by building a knowledge of these tools, and understanding ways to put together musical ideas, one can learn to compose music.  While inspiration is important for creating an idea, basic knowledge of the craft is also important.  Music making is generally a combination of these various understandings put together—inspiration, structure, tools, ideas, rhythm, and energy are frequently all used simultaneously during the composition process.




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