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Thread: Best way to learn to compose

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    Default Best way to learn to compose

    Hello. This forum sounds fun, I can't wait to become a part of it.

    I am in need of some advice - some advice I know I will be able to find here.

    I recently (about 10 months ago) fell head over heals in love with CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHONBERG'S 'Les Miserables' and 'Miss Saigon'. I was so moved by the sensational music which really made my heart sing that I went out and got a piano, and purchased some books on music theory. One of which is excellent 'The AB Guide to Music Theory Part I and II' by ERIC TAYLOR. This book has already enabled me to read and understand music notation just like I could not do before.

    As the music that inspires me is traditional, classical orchestral music I then turned to BEETHOVEN, ELGAR, TCHAIKOVSKY, BRAHMS, RACHMANINOFF and many many more. As expected total admiration for them all, absolute without question masters of their craft. Of course naturally listening to each composer you also want to know their story but there is something I just do not understand.

    No documentary for one, is that accurate, I mean the ones you watch, not published biographies - these people existed quite sometime ago, finding accurate information is not easy I do accept that. They all claim, or filmmakers rather should I say, claim that these composers all 'studied' music for sometime before going on to compose x, y and z - but how much time is sometime?

    After studying myself for almost a year I have found some parts of theory so hard to sink in, but you do finally get there yes, it is like anything, if you have passion then you will achieve. When can one say it is safe, or say yes, okay I know enough to be able to write down what goes on in my head, the tunes, melodies etc. How long did all these composers of the past really take study the craft of music and the theory to be able to produce what we can hear today?

    In the short time I have been studying theory and piano I have established (and many have) that music theory is complex, there is a lot to know, arguably too much to know. Did these great composers know all of it, in order to create the masterpieces that they created? Is theory and artistic creation miles apart of close together?

    If anyone else would not mind mentioning in their own opinion on a good way to learn music, to learn how to compose I would be very gateful.

    Many thanks,
    David
    Last edited by davidchampion; Nov-04-2017 at 20:21. Reason: better format

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Welcome to the forum David!

    To answer your specific questions: I don't know about Elgar's training, but I know about the others. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all studied theory and composition thoroughly and for years, Tchaikovsky was the only late bloomer. The fathers of Beethoven and Brahms were professional musicians. Beethoven had theory training from a professional composer throughout his teen years, while becoming an excellent pianist and improvisor. As a teen he could play Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory and was composing all of the time. He later had lessons from Haydn when he was refining his technique. Brahms was composing from, at latest, his ninth year. His piano teacher complained that he could be a great pianist if only he would lay off the composing. He seems to have picked up basic theory naturally by playing great music. He made an impression on several professional composers by the age of 20. In his early 20s he studied with a professional composer, Joseph Joachim, writing canons, fugues, invertable counterpoint, and so on, along with choral music in Renaissance and Baroque styles. Rachmaninoff was reputedly a lazy student, but by the time he was finishing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory he took gold medals in piano performance and composition. He studied with professional composers at the conservatory, including advanced counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev.

    Anyway, they all had a thorough command of harmony and counterpoint as you would see it in modern theory texts, but they all did advanced study way beyond that, learning to write complicated counterpoint in baroque and earlier styles. They all worked out their own personal vocabularies based on this knowledge from a young age spent composing. For all of these composers, the fluency of their own styles is deeply tied up with their systematic study and mastery of harmony and counterpoint. For them, theory and artistic creation are closely related activities.

    How long did they study theory and composition before they began publishing their works? About ten years, although Rachmaninoff had one of his biggest hits as a teen.

    My advice is to study theory with a professional. Get fluent at harmony and counterpoint. Have someone check and critique your work at every stage.

    Good luck and don't hesitate to ask follow up questions.

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    Thank you for this detailed explanation. I did read online that many found Brahms's music "too academic", but I also know that ones own opinion matters much more than anyone else's!

    It's fascinating you mention counterpoint. A few people have but interestingly it is not featured in my book on music theory (grades 1-5). Perhaps counterpoint comes in part 2, perhaps counterpoint is a more advanced topic?

    Would you mind explaining it to me? Would be good to hear how you explain it.

    Thanks, David
    Last edited by davidchampion; Nov-04-2017 at 21:42.

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    Senior Member Vox Gabrieli's Avatar
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    Trying to become a composer without any formal experience is kind of a tall order. Composing requires a higher degree of thinking that even the most seasoned musicians ultimately lack. You could have that ability, but it's important not to be in over your head about this. The amount of work and dedication - and most importantly - the sacrifice that goes into composing is something many people aren't prepared for. Be careful not to be naive, because you'll very quickly learn that maybe you're not as talented as you had initially hoped.

    I highly recommend score studying and analysis to acknowledge and appreciate the most impressive examples of counterpoint and harmony. IMSLP Petrucci Library offers an unsettlingly large amount of scores scanned and uploaded to the internet, so check there before making any purchases.

    A common mistake for young composers is to consider their writing to be wholly infallible. Mistakes are common, and revisions must be made.
    Last edited by Vox Gabrieli; Nov-05-2017 at 00:46.
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    Beethoven was a pretty fair composer while still young. He had a set of piano variations and three piano sonatas published for sale when he was 13. He followed these by three piano quartets, two large-scale cantatas, and other works.

    Still, the powers that be in Bonn considered his talent a bit raw. They sent him, at their expense, to Vienna at age 22 to study with Haydn—he also studied with Albrechstberger. He didn’t produce his first real published work, which he designated his Opus 1, until three years later. It was a great success and is still a cornerstone of the piano trio literature.

    Even then, he continued his studies for at least five more years, adding Salieri to his teachers. This is to say, even for a tremendously talented person like Beethoven there’s a lot to learn!

    PS -- The powers in Bonn expected him to return after his studies and add to the city's glory. They really should have gotten that in writing.
    Last edited by KenOC; Nov-05-2017 at 01:22.


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    The best way to learn to compose IS to compose.

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by davidchampion View Post
    Thank you for this detailed explanation. I did read online that many found Brahms's music "too academic", but I also know that ones own opinion matters much more than anyone else's!

    It's fascinating you mention counterpoint. A few people have but interestingly it is not featured in my book on music theory (grades 1-5). Perhaps counterpoint comes in part 2, perhaps counterpoint is a more advanced topic?

    Would you mind explaining it to me? Would be good to hear how you explain it.

    Thanks, David

    Counterpoint is the art of combining two or more melodic lines such that each is heard as coherent and independent. In conservatories and university music programs, courses in counterpoint are usually left for the third and fourth years, after two full years of harmony and ear training. But this is mostly for practical reasons and there is little logic to it, since there is no good harmonic writing without proper counterpoint. Counterpoint is more fundamental than harmony, in that all the rules for voice-leading and dissonance treatment one learns in basic theory (avoid parallel fifths, resolve sevenths downward, favor contrary motion, etc.) are actually laws of counterpoint. By concentrating on harmony first, focusing on four-part chorale style writing, students tend to get a warped idea of how music works and their written exercises tend to sound nothing like the chorales of Bach on which such exercises are allegedly based.

    One must learn basic harmony. But learning how to compose in any classically related style means learning to write good counterpoint.

    Your frogs make me shudder with intolerable loathing and I shall be miserable for the rest of my life remembering them.
    — Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs

    Originality is a device untalented people use to impress other untalented people and to protect themselves from talented people.
    — Basil Valentine

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    Composers will learn new techniques, styles and improve their craft their whole life. There are no real rules (let's say you want to compose in medieval, impressionistic or Eastern Asian style - all the parallel fifths etc are allowed and authentic).
    I recommend any book series like idiots/dummies guide to composition/orchestration/harmony etc. These are written in normal language and without any academical pseudophilosophical remarks and theories.
    If you are interested in specific style, check the "The Cambridge Companion to xxxx composer" or similar titles.
    Studying the scores of the old composers and playing piano transcriptions is the way to acquire mastery of the chosen musical idiom.

    Harmony - Tchaikovsky
    http://imslp.org/wiki/Guide_to_the_P...vsky%2C_Pyotr)

    Rimsky-Korsakov - Orchestration with added remarks by the contemporary composer and educator Alan Belkin (check his website, he has several free e-books on composition, counterpoint etc)

    http://northernsounds.com/forum/foru...-Orchestration
    Last edited by BabyGiraffe; Nov-06-2017 at 11:12.

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    Thanks, this is very useful.

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    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    I think the most important thing is to know chord progressions, which is the most basic for all forms of music. You don’t need to know advanced theory to compose. The fastest way to get up to speed is analyse the chords and harmony that other composers used and look at the left hand patterns to go with the melody. A lot of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin can be broken down to simple chords, but you need the basic theory to know the inversions, to find out the right chords. Pachelbel’s Canon is just basically a chord progression.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Listen to as much music as you can. From different eras, different traditions, different ensembles. Study scores like crazy. Some great composers were severely hampered by a faulty technique, Mussorgsky for example. Beethoven, too, to some extent - he wasn't the most detailed and tidy of composers. Mahler expressed that counterpoint dogged him and he wish he had taken it more seriously when at university. If you are ever baffled by how composers can sit down with paper and just write music out of their head, it's not because they have some incredible concert-hall-of-the-mind with perfect pitch; it's because they have a highly developed technical skill. Can I also recommend something else? Write melodies every day. No fair using a piano. Carry a pad of music paper and think of a new melody and write it down. Choose different keys. Then check on the piano or other instrument and see if you wrote it correctly. That's how my theory teacher started with ear training. Every day we had to write three melodies. Then when we mastered that, we wrote one melody but now had to harmonize it. Then we added countermelody. At the end of two years of doing this daily routine our ears were extremely developed and we could analyze music on the fly - just listening we could identify chords without problem. Train that ear!

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    I agree with all said on previous posts. I would add, try to compose music with very limited material and make the best you can out of it. For example a good excercise on writing melodies is to create two contrasting motives and create the whole composition from them. Start with one voice and then try later counterpoint with two or three voices. Start skecthing the form of your piece early on for example by drawing lines descripting the density, register, time spent on one harmony/melodic idea etc. You can always change the plan later, but having something written down, helps you to plan the process of the composition better.

    As was said in earlier posts, study lots of scores by listening and analyzing but also try to write your own pastiches from them. For example you are interested on how Schumann writes for piano, pick up some of his piano collections, analyze every song not only from the perspective of harmony but what kind of texture, register etc. he uses. Try to find situations that seem to occur more often than others and try to compose a small song based on those.
    Last edited by pkoi; Dec-05-2017 at 02:49.

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    I think your best bet would be to find a professional music teacher - someone who teaches theory and composition. You might succeed without guidance, but don't count on it. There are many good books on theory and composition but it's really hard to know what to focus on without a teacher to point you in the needed direction. I have no idea what the typical cost is, but here in Seattle, WA, USA instruction costs around $40-$60 per hour.

    Also, if you are really serious about composition, are willing to work at it, and want constructive feedback rather than meaningless praise for mediocre composition, take a look at the website http://www.composeforums.com/.

    Anecdotes prove nothing, but I'm a case in point. After a lifetime of listening to classical music I decided to try composition 8 years ago - at age 64. After writing absolute junk for a couple years I joined the Composeforums, posted a few of my attempts, and got a chorus of "Learn music theory". I tried learning on my own but got nowhere so I searched the web for some teachers in my area. I met with a couple of them, had a good feeling about one of them, and am still seeing him 1-2 hours a week. After 5 or 6 years I'm beginning to feel a bit like a composer and actually get a work performed now and then.
    Patrick O'Keefe
    Retired techie and amateur composer

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    The basic idea is to hear something in your head and be able to write it down or somehow record it. After the basic ideas have come, perhaps a pleasing melody, it’s a matter of developing it—doing something that is pleasing to yourself and hopefully to others. Or if not pleasing, at least interesting in some way. Anyone can hear a melody in their head, though sometimes it’s a matter of waiting for one to come. The study of harmony and counterpoint is to help develop the ideas. But perhaps the best place to start is to be able to read music notation and be able to write your ideas down, made much easier if you can play an instrument, especially a keyboard instrument that can help you in the study of chords and harmony. Perhaps the key to it all is not that complicated but simply a sufficient love of the music that compels you to learn as much as possible and keep moving forward. Some composers get a great number of ideas by being able to improvise on their instrument. It helps to have a teacher because it saves time or making mistakes that have to be corrected later. The more you learn, the more you may feel you need or want to learn, and sometimes the study can be quite challenging. Best wishes.
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Dec-07-2017 at 02:35.
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    Junior Member spidersrepublic's Avatar
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    In my opinion going to College or University is the best way to learn to compose. Not only do you get a crash course in composition and music history, you also have your eyes opened to many composers and techniques you may never have known about.

    Attending a university will also put you in touch with performers and other composers, as well as great lecturers who are often established composers themselves.

    A good university will also give you opportunities for getting your pieces rehearsed and performed. A composer of classical music needs to be able to understand how players play and what is possible for them (and also how to push the boundaries once you know what the limitations are). Having a piece rehearsed and played will give you profound insight on the process and help you evaluate your writing both in effectiveness in the concert hall and ease of play for the players.

    You can learn some things online, resources like musictheory.net or the artofcounterpoint youtube channel are helpful, but you will struggle to get the rounded education and practical experience necessary to really be considered a composer.

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