“Never have a favorite weapon.”
That’s the advice of Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th century Japanese sword fighter. What he meant was that we shouldn’t have a favorite tool. A favorite tool will make you predictable. In war, that can be deadly. In the creative arts, it makes your boring (and that’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it?)
It’s not just that though. As songwriters and composers we should keep an inventory of the many skills we need to make music. Not just for the variety in our music, but also because it keeps us learning, keeps us mastering some aspect of our craft.
The great composers were masters at this. Beethoven is famous for his Fur Elise (a simple, three-minute piano solo) as well as for his 9th symphony (over one hour of music for orchestra, choir and soloists). Bach has his mini-masterpieces such as the inventions (some barely 1 minute long) as well as the St. Matthew’s Passion and Mass in B minor (both for massive orchestral and vocal forces).
So what are the ‘weapons’ of a composer?
In other words, what are the elements of music?
- Rhythm: anything that’s got to do with timing and duration;
- Melody: any series of pitches,
- Harmony: combining notes into chords;
- Form: the shape of the composition as a whole;
- Texture: the overall sound of everything combined;
- Instrumentation: writing for specific instruments;
- Orchestration: combining those instruments;
- And then we’ve got to combine all this list; we’ve got to blend them into a satisfying, coherent piece of music.
That’s a sketchy list, of course. There are many subtleties to the art of composition so it’s natural to find that there are things you’re more comfortable with than others.
So let’s go write a piece using our least favorite weapon. Use that list for ideas. For example, if you’ve just finished a piece for orchestra, make the next one a piece for solo flute or violin. If you’ve written a song with long melodic lines, try a song with short phrases. If you’re used to major and minor scales, try a different scale instead. If you’ve practiced counterpoint for some time, write a piece without it.
This is obvious for professional composers who need to write music that meets the demands of their current projects but it’s just the same for beginners and hobbyists. No matter what stage we’re in, we can grow by letting go of our favorite tools and techniques.
By the time we make a full circle and come back to those first skills, they’ll need a good brushing up. That’s a recipe for a lifetime of artistic improvement!
1. Take inventory of your current skills and figure out: What are you really good at? What is missing from your list?
2. How can you let go of your favorite ‘weapon/s’ and try something new? Take some ideas from the list above.
3. Share your thoughts and results with our community on Facebook. Click here to join, we love meeting new composers!