So you want to get better at music composition. You’ve written some simple pieces and you’re excited to take the next steps. Whether you are pleased or not with what you’ve composed so far, you know there is always space for improvement. The question is: “How?”
How do you get better at music composition? The short answer is simply “practice”. Just like anything else, the more you do it the better you become. That’s just how our brains and bodies work. But of course, there is more and it’s the combination of several musical activities and exercises working together.
So in these 20 practical tips (15 do’s and 5 don’ts), we’ll explore what it takes to get better at music composition and how to go about it.
All the issues we bring up today are in no particular order of importance. They’re all useful and they will all work together in making you a better composer.
1. Listen (even if you don’t like it)
The first few points in this article are all about nurturing your musical instincts and the most basic activity to do so is to listen. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It should be rather obvious that to get to know music, we simply need to listen to it. It’s a lot like how children learn their first language simply by immersion.
Now you’re probably thinking “But Matt, I listen to music all day long… is that all it takes?” Of course this is not all. Hear me out:
You should listen to all sorts of music by all kinds of artists of all types of styles. Listen to ancient music, contemporary music and everything in between. Listen to the music of other cultures as well as to your own. Listen to instrumental music, choral music, electronic music and any other you can think of.
Why do I emphasize listening to such a variety of music? Because through this variety you will experience how other musicians thought about music. There are only so many notes (and sounds) available to us and yet, millions of musicians, composers and songwriters have found – and continue to find – something new to do with them. And each one of their creations has something to say about what music can be.
Each one of their creations has something to say about what music can be.”
Yes, you will run into music that you don’t like and that’s good news. We all have our preferences – being a musician doesn’t mean liking everything that’s out there. But do take it as an opportunity to be curious. Listen with an open but critical ear:
- What is it that you don’t like about it?
- Why don’t you like it?
- What would you change?
- What could you adapt from it to make it your own?
This kind of critical listening is essential to a budding composer.
2. Score Read and Analyse
Score reading is exactly that: reading a (musical) score. Just like we can read a poem written on paper, we can read music written on the staff. You can do this while listening to the music and you can do it without. Either way, this is one of the most underestimated activities today even though it’s one of the most valuable.
When you read a score ask yourself what makes this music work the way it does. Why is it so good (or bad perhaps?). What is interesting about it? How does it progress? If you’re studying a particular topic, how does the music make use of it? If it doesn’t, what’s the effect of its absence?
The beautiful thing about musical analysis is that it’s so rich in lessons. When you come back to a score the second, third and more times, there are new lessons for you there.
The beautiful thing about musical analysis is that it’s so rich in lessons.”
The first few times I heard and read Beethoven’s 5th symphony, I simply followed that “dun dun dun dunnn” motif all throughout.
When I came back to the same symphony later, I noticed the dynamics and what a big impact they have on the overall effect. When I studied sonata form, I noticed the key scheme. When I studied orchestration, I noticed how the woodwinds worked with the strings (and I especially noticed the oboe solo in the first movement).
And on and on, there are hundreds of lessons in every piece. It all depends on what you’re focusing on.
3. Learn Music Theory
In its broadest sense, music theory is everything from the rudiments of notation to the details of how notes are organized (into rhythms, scales, chords, etc.) as well as to the more advanced topics of harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration and so on.
Contrary to what some believe, music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal. I will leave that argument for another day but when done properly, music theory is simply about understanding how music works and why it works that way. Music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal, it makes you informed.
Music theory doesn’t make you unoriginal, it makes you informed.”
Now I know what some of you are saying: “But Matt, do I really need to spend years learning this stuff?”
Music theory will make you a better composer but you don’t have to become an expert to benefit from it. Covering some of the fundamentals already puts you steps ahead. You can go as far as you want (or need) to go.
For example in this lesson called “Why are there 3 minor scales?”, we learn that it’s actually just 1 scale which composers alter according to their specific needs. In this lesson about the concept of tonality, we learn that tonal music is so powerful because of how it allows composers to manipulate two specific notes and chords of the scale.
As we said, this knowledge will not restrict your imagination or stifle your creativity. It simply makes you aware of how those aspects of music work and why they work that way.
4. Play an Instrument or 2
Playing an instrument is how most of us get into music as kids. If this is true about you too, then you know that playing an instrument brings you closer to music. You don’t have to be a virtuoso – even playing a few simple tunes reveals to us a different side to music. A side we cannot experience just from listening.
Playing an instrument brings you closer to music.
As a composer, you’ll also get to appreciate what musicians go through as they master their instrument and learn a piece of music. And it’s also a great way of becoming familiar with how an instrument works. While my main instrument is the classical guitar, I had a year of violin lessons and it did wonders for my string writing!
Playing around on an instrument is also a common way of coming up with some musical ideas that you might shape into a real piece later on.
However, there is a danger with this so please be wary of it:
You don’t want to become dependent on an instrument for all your composing. If you cannot compose without an instrument, than you are probably limiting yourself to composing only what you can play rather than what’s possible or what is best for the music you’re writing.
5. Sing and Train your Ears
With that last point, some of you might be wondering “What about singing? Isn’t that an instrument?”
Yes, of course! The voice is also an instrument but it even goes a step forward (or should I say, deeper?) because it is literally inside each and every one of us. You don’t have to be a great singer (and you don’t have to let anyone listen in if you don’t want to) but the benefits of singing in ear training are immense.
Why is it called ‘ear training‘? Because it trains you to understand what your ears hear. One of the most efficient ways of doing so is to sing.
- Want to learn how to recognize the Dorian mode by ear? Sing it!
- Want to learn to hear the difference between a major sixth and a minor sixth? Sing them!
- Want to learn to the hear the difference between a dominant 7th chord and a major 7th arpeggio? Sing them!
Of course you won’t get them right at first. Even on a bad day an experienced musician can make some basic errors. The point is not to sing perfectly in tune every time all the time. The real benefit comes from simply trying and from correcting those mistakes.
The reason that it is such a powerful tool for ear training is that singing forces us to imagine the notes before we produce them. On a piano it’s enough to find the key we need, play it and only then find out what that note actually sounds like. With singing, we must know what the note sounds like first (if we want to sing the right one).
This subtle change trains the mind to come up with the note first and that makes a whole world of difference. I’ve seen this in myself and then with countless students of mine: the benefits of singing are great!
6. Practice (aka The ‘Just Write Something’ Principle)
No amount of listening, score reading, learning music theory, playing and singing will make you into a composer if you don’t actually compose! The question is: what can you compose if you’re only just starting out? It doesn’t really matter… just write something!
Write a tune for solo flute, a 16-bar waltz for piano, an acoustic 1 minute song for guitar and voice… at this point it doesn’t matter what it is, as much as that you’re actually doing it. Also keep in mind that what you’re writing might suck at first and that’s all the more reason to keep doing it.
Studies have shown that at the beginner’s stage, the quantity is important. To learn something from scratch we must do it over and over again for hundreds of times.
It is this persistence that will eventually lead to quality works. Slowly but surely, your creations will suck less and less until you’re actually proud of them and happy to share them with the world. Whatever your dreams are, you get there with practice.
Whatever your dreams are, you get there with practice.”
Can you really practice being creative?
Yes, you can.
Normally we don’t think of practice as something to do with creativity. Composers are just supposed to wait for inspiration – you know, that spark from the heavens filled with great new ideas. But it doesn’t happen that way, not all the time anyway.
That spark has a better chance of reaching you if you have a routine where no matter what, you sit at the desk to write.
Without practice, we might even get that jolt of inspiration when we’re not ready for it. What if you get a great tune in your head but don’t know how to develop it into a real piece of music? Without practice, all is lost.
This brings up another point. Practice is also important because talent is just not enough. While talent surely plays a role, successful artists are those who hone their skills with practice.
Before anyone cared about them in the early 60s, The Beatles spent 2 years playing in German bars. When they returned home, they had played thousands of songs for hundreds of hours – what would that kind of training do to anyone’s songwriting abilities? (Not only that, but they continued to improve and to write new stuff all the time.)
The same can be said of the greatest composers and songwriters: one way or another they practiced and went through some rigorous training. So here’s a simple challenge for you: write 1 minute of music everyday for the next 10 days. As long as you’re doing your best, it’s ok to suck. The goal is to just write 1 minute’s worth of music a day to the best of your current abilities.
7. Learn the Software Really, Really Well
Composers nowadays are spoiled for choice when it comes to software. There are all sorts of programs and apps intended to make our life easier. My advice is to pick just a few and learn them inside out.
Depending on what style of music you are composing, you are likely to need 2 kinds of software:
- Musical notation software (such as Sibelius, Finale and MuseScore) to produce sheet music;
- Digital Audio Workstation, aka ‘DAW’ (such as ProTools, Cubase and Logic) to produce realistic sounds and edit/master/mix your tracks.
For both types of software, there are too many choices to list here so do a little bit of research and pick what seems to be the best for you. You might want to start with the free versions to play around with and get a feel for how they work.
No matter what you pick, learn it and learn it well! Knowing how to do what you need it to will make the process smoother when you’re actually composing. Interrupting your creative flow to go looking for some function is a great way of losing the spark.
Interrupting your creative flow to go looking for some function is a great way of losing the spark.
This is also another reason why practice is so important. While you’re practicing composition itself, you’re mastering the software too.
8. Write Real Works for Real Musicians
Practice is great but it’s really just a stepping-stone for writing works that can (and hopefully will) actually get performed. Working with real musicians in mind teaches us things that we’d never learn otherwise.
Beside the obvious issues such as what instruments are available and what the level of the musicians is, you might have to factor in rehearsal time (if any), duration of piece, who the audience will be, what the occasion is, and other nitty gritty details.
Where do you find musicians to perform your work?
That’s a tough one and it’s a very real daily struggle for thousands of budding composers. The short answer is to make connections, network and just be involved. Very often it begins with friends. For example, if you’re in music school find some fellow musicians who might give your score a go.
But it can also happen through friends of friends, social media (especially Facebook) and composing competitions if you decide to take part. Keep your eyes open for even the smallest opportunities as you never know if that could be the path to something bigger.
9. Arrange (or Transcribe)
A great way of getting into a piece of music is to arrange it for another instrument or ensemble. What we do in arranging is to take an existing piece of music and change it (arrange) to make it possible for other instruments to play it.
In this sense, transcribing is the same as arranging. The difference is that transcriptions are as close as possible to the original whereas arrangements are freer to change and adapt the original. What we’re talking about here would typically be somewhere in between but probably more towards arrangement.
For example, get a piano piece and orchestrate it. Get an orchestral piece and reduce it for 1 or 2 pianos. Get a piece for solo voice and expand it for a fully-fledged choir. Some composers have done this with their own music. A great example is Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Originally he wrote it for piano but he later arranged it for string orchestra.
Arranging forces us to look deep into the score and understand what the composer was going for in his/her music. We’ll then have to reinterpret those intentions unto another set of instruments. It also means we’ll have to know what the instruments we’re writing for are capable of.
Arranging is fascinating as it puts several of our previous tips in use at the same time! Such an exercise allows you to:
- Listen to the piece first (tip #1),
- Read the score (tip #2),
- Experience music theory in practice (tip #3),
- Learn the software (tip #7),
- Write for real musicians and real instruments (tip #8).
All in all you’ll get to see how everything works together so don’t underestimate this exercise.
10. Compose Honestly
It’s a common mistake by enthusiastic students to try and include everything they’re learning into a single composition. The result often sounds forced and instead of an actual piece of music, it ends up sounding like a collection of techniques. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.)
The better approach is to ‘compose honestly’.
Rather than proving that you’ve mastered a technique or trying to write something impressive, ask yourself ‘what does this music really need here?’ If you’ve been honing your skills and nurturing your instincts like we’ve been discussing today, you will know the right answer.
What does this music really need here?
If you don’t have an answer yet, experiment. Something that clicks and feels right will inevitably come out.
11. Judge Your Work (fairly and not too early)
This ties in with the previous point. It’s important to be critical with your own work and judge it fairly. As we discussed in this article, students often ask if their music is any good. This is not that simple but we can get a better answer by asking a better question:
Is my music effective?”
‘Effective’ here means how well the music accomplishes whatever it sets out to accomplish. And that’s different for every composition:
- It could be a piece that expresses an emotion (like a nocturne),
- It could be a piece that accompanies a short film (a soundtrack),
- It could be a song that should match the meaning of the text (like a hymn),
- It could be a fun piece that explores the theme from different angles (like a Theme and variations),
- and so on.
If we know what the music is meant to do, we can judge its effectiveness. And whether a piece is effective or not is a better question because it’s less subjective. Let’s take the examples from the bullet points above:
- If we wanted to write a nocturne (a piece that suggests the night), is the music too loud?
- If the piece is accompanying a short film, does it enhance or get in the way of the dialogue?
- If the piece is based on some text, does the melody follow its rhythm properly?
- If we’re composing variations on a theme, are there enough or too many variations? Are they different or similar?
And so on and on, we should be critical of our own creations. Before we move on to the next point, it’s important to keep in mind not to judge your works too early.
It’s usually better to put the analysis aside until later. While there is a creative flow and you are composing fluently, don’t stop to analyse and judge. Analysis is a very different activity than being creative and studies have shown that we use different parts of the brain for them.
That means that stopping to analyse your creation while it is being created completely disrupts the workflow. It might take hours to get back into that state so leave your judgement for later.
12. Join a Community
You don’t have to go alone on this journey. There are thousands of people in online communities discussing music composition every day. Nowadays groups are mostly on Facebook but there are some forums too.
A good community will help you along even through the points we’ve been discussing today.
On our School of Composition Facebook group, for example, we listen to each other’s works, discuss different aspects of music, talk about books, ask questions and give advice. Sometimes we also have music composition challenges.
If you’re interested, click or tap here and come join our Facebook group. We’ll be happy to have you join us!
Being part of a music composition community brings up 2 very important details. To be a valuable member keep these in mind:
- Ask for feedback and be open to criticism,
- Give feedback in return.
Communities are great to ask for feedback. Of course it’s not always easy to share your work publicly so choose a community you can become comfortable with.
You also have to get over the idea that not everyone will like your work. That’s just how the world works! Don’t let this stop you from sharing. And don’t let this stop you from meeting fellow composers whose genuine advice might be invaluable!
Now the other side of this coin: When you join a community don’t expect to simply take without giving. Be involved with the discussions, share your opinions and give feedback in return. Apart from meeting new people (remember tip #8 – networking) this is a fantastic way to develop new ideas.
13. Organize Your Learning
I see this issue with self-teaching students that come to me for feedback. They are aware of a lot of little things about many topics but they just can’t connect the dots. It happens especially when they are learning from a wide variety of sources: YouTube channels, Facebook groups, courses, blogs such as this one and books.
While these are great resources, make sure you’re not jumping around from topic to topic too quickly. Build a strong foundation first (with musical notation and basic music theory) and then proceed to learning harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration.
Don’t start too many books and courses at the same time. Pick a method and stick to it to the end. If you find that you don’t like it, choose something else and stick to that. Just don’t move from one topic to the another without reason.
Make it a Routine
A part of organizing your learning is also to create a schedule that puts time aside specifically for music. If it’s a routine, you’re far less likely to skip it or forget it.
14. Get a Composition Teacher
One way of handling the previous tip is getting a good composition teacher. (Hint: Not all great composers make great teachers). A good teacher is an invaluable resource – look for someone who will guide you through every step, provide the right materials including exercises, feedback on those exercises and above all, someone you get along with.
You can get a live one-to-one teacher, join a class (usually the cheapest option) or go online like we do here at the School of Composition.
If you can’t afford private tuition you can at least find a course with some feedback mechanism. That means a course where the teacher is hands-on and is ready to answer questions, give you some advice and critique your work in some depth.
15. Try Something New Every Now and Then
In time and with practice, you will notice that you have some strengths and you have some weaknesses. Let’s say if you play the flute, then you’ll probably write for it and other wind instruments better than you would writing for strings.
Or for example, if your music software has a really nice trumpet sound, you might be tempted to use it often and so develop a knack for injecting its sound.
Whatever strengths we develop over time, it’s really tempting to stick only to them. It’s much more fun and rewarding than plugging away at something we’re not that good at. The problem of course is that this will slow down our development as composers.
As the 16th century Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, is quoted:
Never have a favourite weapon.”Miyamoto Musashi
A favourite weapon makes you predictable and in combat that can get you killed. In the arts, it will make you boring. So remember to mix and match in your music and try something new every now and then:
- Compose short pieces as well as longer ones,
- Compose for solo instruments but also for ensembles and orchestras,
- Compose instrumental music and also for voices or choir,
- Compose in a different style than you normally do.
Another popular saying is to get out of your comfort zone, implying that progress comes with some level of discomfort. Whichever quote resonates with you better, the bottom line is to challenge yourself to write something new, something different than you normally would.
This will force you to think in new ways and come up with new ideas. In other words, you grow!
Five Don’ts of Music Composition
So we’ve discussed how to learn (and get better at) music composition in quite some depth. I want to finish today’s article with 5 tips for what not to do in music composition. These are 5 very common mistakes that beginner composers make to the detriment of their progress.
16. Don’t Write a Symphony (yet)
You know the old maxim “Walk before you run”? Well, in music it applies in several ways. First of all, write simpler and shorter pieces before attempting longer ones. And secondly, don’t compare your pieces with those of the masters (for several reasons, it will never ever be a fair contest).
Since music composition is such a vast skill, it takes a long time to master. The gap between absolute beginner to professional (or at least, advanced) can look hopelessly massive.
It can be tempting to skip the elementary exercises and move on to composing a more advanced piece like a symphony or a concerto. But this is the equivalent of going for a marathon before learning how to stand on two feet.
Before attempting a symphony, a concerto or an opera, compose something simpler. A collection of short preludes for a smaller ensemble might be a better idea.
There are lessons to be learned in writing those simpler, shorter works that cannot be learned through other means. These lessons are not only useful but essential to tackle the bigger compositions.
There are lessons to be learned in writing those simpler, shorter works that cannot be learned through other means.
So what it comes down to is simply this: build your skills and your knowledge piece by piece.
17. Don’t Forget the Details for your Score
If you’re following the advice from tip #8 and you’re producing a written score for real musicians, put in some details. What we’re talking about here are the dynamics, tempo, articulation, various signs and expression marks.
All these work together to bring the music to life. For anyone reading your score, they make your intentions clear. Even if you don’t expect your piece to be performed any time soon but want to get feedback on it, the details are still necessary to get your ideas across clearly.
In my “How to Read Music in 30 Days” book, I dedicate the entire last section to these details. That’s how important they are!
18. Don’t Write Chords and Melody Together
While the harmony is extremely important, melody usually comes first in most music styles. Typically it’s what the listener follows and remembers a piece by.
Because of this, you should probably not think about chords or harmony before you think about the melody. Your melody needs the freedom to go up and down and twist and turn as it likes, without any restrictions by a preplanned chord progression.
Some ideas about what the harmony might sound like are ok but don’t drive the melody into a corner trying to make it fit some preconceived scheme. Musical coherence depends to a large extent on the melody so it needs the flexibility to develop. You can always alter some notes here and there later.
It’s not advisable to write melody and chords together either. Doing both at the same time will diminish your composing speed and that’s another way of disrupting your creative flow.
19. First Build the House, then Choose a Front Door
Don’t start with the introduction. You might simply start writing without a plan, stumble upon something you like but then you get stuck. You end up with an intro but without any idea where to go next. That’s because you never knew what you wanted to say in the first place.
It’s like trying to install the front door before you even build the house. It can work but it’s much better to know the right size, material, weight, color and so on to buy the door you actually need. In musical terms, the front door is the introduction of the piece and its attributes are duration, tempo, dynamics, key, meter and so on.
In music composition, you are normally better off starting with some sort of plan about what the piece is about. A theme, a motif, a tune or even just a concept are better starting points than a random intro.
Once you know what the piece has to say, you’ll probably know how to introduce it too.
20. Don’t Revise an Older Piece Endlessly
Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying that art is never finished but abandoned. There must be some truth to this because it can be difficult to let go of a finished piece and start a new one. I know I’ve been guilty of this and there are several reasons for it.
Sometimes it’s harder to start something new so tweaking an older piece is an excuse for feeling productive. Other times it’s the perfectionist in me who needs to make sure that every little detail is accounted for.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.”Leonardo da Vinci
The problem of course, is that this takes valuable time and energy for very little in return. By all means, revise a piece if it needs some small improvements before you share it with the world. But don’t revise it endlessly to the point of obsessing about it.
Finish a piece and move on.
It does take time to get better at music composition but it is possible if you follow these steps with patience and perseverance. Let me know of any questions or thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to come join our Facebook group!