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Composing: Where do I begin?

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For quite some time I've been wanting to create my own music. About six months ago I bought a book on music theory, to learn all about intervals, scales, chords and so forth. I've been a guitar player for two years, however I've never made my own stuff. I now know the basics of music theory, and I know how to apply it to the guitar, but I still have no idea how to actually compose. Sure, creating a I IV V progression isn't all that hard, but it still doesn't feel very musical. It feels as if I'm stuck with the harmonized major scale (eg. C Dm Em F G7 Am Bdim C), and that I can't really use all those interesting m7add13 chords and similar harmonies. I become baffled when I hear more complex music and I can't understand how they do it. Not that I expect to be a master when I'm in fact a novice. So -- how did you do when you started out? What should I do to start creating actual songs?

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My advice:

Get ready to read. A lot. Knowing basic theory (i.e. scales, chords, rhythm, notation) is absolutely essential. But what actually makes music really FUNCTION is much more dense and esoteric.

Go to your local used book store and browse the music section. If you're in an area with a decent college campus nearby, you're likely to find used college music textbooks. In particular, look for textbooks focusing on the subjects of harmony and counterpoint. Usually these books would cost $100 new, but I've found some really good resources for $10 a pop. If you're lucky, you might find a good guide for orchestration while you're at it. But harmony and counterpoint are the underpinnings of what make it all work. Try to find an intro to harmony textbook by Robert Ottman if you can.

You need to understand things in terms of harmonic function, like how any of the four members of a fully diminished vii7 chord can become a leading tone to a new key, what effect inversions have on chords and their function, why you should avoid parallel fifths in your chord voicings, technical stuff like that. For a long time I recoiled at the thought of taking such a dry and scientific approach to something emotional like music, but I've found it only deepens my appreciation. These days I can hear something on the radio and I'll hear some clever melodic or harmonic device and go "AHA!" Before I might have missed that kind of comprehension completely, and I certainly wouldn't be able to explain exactly what it was about the piece that I liked so much.

Another good reading suggestion is "What to listen for in music" by Aaron Copland. While Copland isn't my all time favorite composer, he really breaks down a ton of genres and their history, and shows you what makes them tick.

And as much as I hate the "one size fits all" approach, I have to say that I was actually somewhat impressed by "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composing Music". (My suggestion here does not reflect on my estimation of your intelligence!) It's fairly well rounded and touches on a lot of subjects that beginners need to learn about. It's certainly not all you'll need, but it might be a good place to start. You can probably find it on Amazon.

I also took two harmony classes at my local junior college, and it was hands down the BEST investment in my education I've made so far. In an old classroom with only 10 other students, I learned more about how music actually WORKS in two semesters than I had my whole life. Then I got my office gig and I don't have time for classes, so I'm trying to self educate in my spare time.

Also, get yourself a really cheap keyboard. It doesn't matter if it's a Casio worth $50 from Radio Shack, it's worth beginning. There are many chords and voicings that are simply unplayable on guitar due to the mechanics of the instrument, and basic piano is a very useful skill to have that'll open doors for you.

Hope this helps!

[Edited by - Brian Timmons on July 25, 2008 11:02:36 AM]

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Quote:
Original post by Brian Timmons
Also, get yourself a really cheap keyboard. It doesn't matter if it's a Casio worth $50 from Radio Shack, it's worth beginning. There are many chords and voicings that are simply unplayable on guitar due to the mechanics of the instrument, and basic piano is a very useful skill to have that'll open doors for you.

I will second that. I've been playing guitar for over 35 years, I had 4 years of music in high school so I have a basis in theory, but it wasn't until I bought a piano a few years ago and took formal Conservatory lessons (sittin' there on the bench waiting for exams with a bunch of 10-year-olds who were more advanced than I was was slightly humiliating) that I really understood how a lot of the stuff worked together. Read all you can but music is an "ears on" thing -- you have to hear what the theory is doing to really appreciate it. The mechanics of the keyboard make the mapping from theory to practice so much more obvious. I found it opened some big doors pretty wide when it came to composition.

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Hey,

I just posted an in-depth post that deals with the networking, marketing and business side of being a professional composer-sound designer. This might interest you. Once you get the composition part down- there is still many other factors to master so that you can actually land clients and make a living. Hopefully this post will help give you (and others) some ideas!

Starting your career as a composer-sound designer

Thanks,

Nathan

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