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Learning how to compose (better)

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#1Kylotan  Moderators

Posted 07 February 2013 - 11:36 AM

This is a pretty vague question, for which I apologise!

There are lots of people making music, and I consider myself among them. I produce many tracks each year and lots of people enjoy them. But I often feel like I don't really know what I'm doing and would find it difficult to branch out into different styles. Without the luxury of being able to do 3 or 4 years of full time music education it's hard to know where to start.

Recently I watched a video by Mike Verta called Composing Live where he showed his process for composing a piece. The process was basically:

• Decide what sort of thing you want to hear
• ...
• Play it
• Refine it
• Record it

For Mike, there was no explicit step 2. Once he knew he wanted some suspended chords and a memorable motif, he could just play that straight away. What he doesn't talk about is how he decides he wants suspended chords, and how he chooses several in a row that work well together without even thinking about it. Obviously if you stick to one key you can't go far wrong harmonically, but without some extra sense of purpose or direction you're unlikely to come out with anything compelling in terms of tension and resolution or melodic flow either. It takes me milliseconds to play an arbitrary suspended chord, but I have no idea which chord to play next.

So my question to other composers is this: what is your step 2? How do you go from having a general idea of the sort of thing you want to hear, to knowing which chords you want or what type of melody to use?

Posted 07 February 2013 - 12:13 PM

What he doesn't talk about is how he decides he wants suspended chords, and how he chooses several in a row that work well together without even thinking about it.

This is where an understanding of music theory really comes in handy. It takes much of the guessing work out of how to work out a progression. And it doesn't have to be an extensive, 4 year kind of understanding either.

Listening to plenty of other tracks and studying what is where will help illustrate why certain chords fall in certain places. For me it all comes down to tension and release, which is how a piece of music conveys grow or direction. So, taking the suspended chord as a example, this can often happen right before a cadence because the suspension raises the tension which makes the cadence (release) that much more satisfying. Harmony is just one of many methods to create tension and release.

I really like what Jeff Coffin suggested when discussing critical listening: listen to a full song and zeroing in on only one track at a time. Toggle this with listening to the track as a whole and you'll start to see how everything is combined to make a good track.

Edited by nsmadsen, 07 February 2013 - 12:14 PM.

Composer-Sound Designer

Cedar Falls, IA

Posted 07 February 2013 - 12:19 PM

Obviously if you stick to one key you can't go far wrong harmonically, but without some extra sense of purpose or direction you're unlikely to come out with anything compelling in terms of tension and resolution or melodic flow either.

In my opinion, you CAN stick to one key and create a sense of purpose and/or direction. But it does mean you have to be more intention about what chords where, your instrumentation (and it's evolution), as well as the voicings you picked. Then add in articulations and dynamics and you have so much to pull from. Something that Billy Joel does, and he learned it from the masters of classical music I believe, is a inversion chord cadence vs. a root position cadence. Such a simple, small change but it can really make a difference between a somewhat firm and very solid cadence in a song.

Composer-Sound Designer

Cedar Falls, IA

#4Kylotan  Moderators

Posted 07 February 2013 - 12:33 PM

Music theory covers a lot of ground! Most of it (thankfully) descriptive rather than prescriptive. I studied music in the past to the degree where I appreciate perfect/imperfect/plagal cadences, know about different scales and the flavours they impart, and know a bit about various topics like voice leading, how best to use certain instruments, etc. But none of it has ever really told me which chords to use, except when trying to compose something within strict parameters such as traditional counterpoint or serialism.

When I write the key for me is always to try to introduce tension and resolve it, but ultimately I feel a bit trapped since I lack ways to do this. When I write more popular music I can set up the tension via the lead melody which is usually aiming towards the tonic, but if I'm trying to compose in a more chordal fashion then it's not so simple, as I don't have the musical vocabulary to figure out what to place between the I/i chord at the start of a passage and a cadence at the end of it. Sure, throwing in a suspension here and there helps if I can resolve by step to the next chord - but I have no instinctive way of knowing where to place them short of playing random chords in the key until one sounds good. I'm not comfortable with that.

I liked the hint about inverted chords in cadences vs root position chords - that's something I tend to forget about, with almost everything I write making heavy use of 2nd inversion chords almost by default.

#5GeneralQuery  Members

Posted 07 February 2013 - 03:40 PM

I think you might be getting bogged down with the application of theory. It's not so much that there is a conscious thought process as to how the music will progress or that it's a problem solved through analytical breakdown, rather the theory is a framework that you (mostly) unconsciously tap into. Music really is one of those disciplines where the key is the learn and practice until it becomes instinctual rather than a discipline that is honed through intellectual rigour. It seems like you're looking at the pieces of the puzzle but it's not really clicked yet. This isn't a shortcoming on your part, it's a necessary part of the process. The only thing I can suggest is to periodically review your theory material to see if you're ready to click any more but also to grab as many tracks as you can and (either with your ear or finding tabs/videos online) rip them apart musically. Build up your instincts and the theory will slot into place in due time.

#6JackMusic  Members

Posted 07 February 2013 - 03:43 PM

A great exercise is to just completely steal ideas from other composers. Chord sequences, snippets of melody, usage of instruments, accompaniment styles. The more you do this, the more you get to learn what particular effect each technique has. Try listening to pieces you like while reading through the score, then you can stop and analyse what happens at points you find particularly effective.

For building and resolving tension and creating surprise, I'd recommend studying Beethoven's use of harmony. Analysis is deep and pretty dry but if you listen / play / copy the examples given in books on particular works, you will add all these tools to your repertoire. Here's a good thread suggesting some analysis books http://ask.metafilter.com/38665/What-books-have-given-you-great-insight-into-great-music

#7HiddenMovement  Members

Posted 08 February 2013 - 02:09 AM

Sure, throwing in a suspension here and there helps if I can resolve by step to the next chord - but I have no instinctive way of knowing where to place them short of playing random chords in the key until one sounds good. I'm not comfortable with that.

Some of my more interesting work has resulted from an element of randomness. Don't worry too much about happy accidents.

Mark Hall

Composer and sound designer

http://www.hiddenmovement.co.uk

@HidMovMusic

#8Kylotan  Moderators

Posted 08 February 2013 - 07:20 AM

It seems like the common answer is simply to play more of other people's music while using my theory knowledge to understand what I'm playing and then reuse those parts in my own pieces. I'll also check out some of the books at that MetaFilter link because I feel it would be more efficient for me to be able to read some ideas written down. In general it should be possible to distil key features of existing works into ideas others can use so I'll be looking for those.

Posted 08 February 2013 - 07:39 AM

So many good ideas in this thread! I definitely agree with:

1) "borrow" material and incorporate it into your own songs/practice as a way of learning the language more. Jazz and rock musicians do this by learning "standard" licks early on in all 12 keys and then incorporating it into their own music. It doesn't mean you regurgitate the licks 100% each time. Instead, after much practicing they begin to evolve into your own speech pattern. Many legends got their start from listening and then transcribing (be it just by playing along with by ear and/or actually using pencil and paper) the musicians that inspired them. They were teaching themselves the language of music.

2) Learn the rules. Then learn how and when to break them. Do what feels nature to YOU as a composer, while always striving to find your own touch or voice. At first glance these seems like a contrary statement but you have to first learn the words, phrases and overall language of music before you can really speak it. This doesn't have to happen with theory text books and formal classes but almost always happen with at least critical listening and the borrowing step from above.

Whenever I've felt like I'm running into a rut in my compositions I try a few things to stretch myself - take on a completely new style. Work with a completely new set of instruments/samples. Write in a key or mode that isn't normal for me. Write at drastically different tempos - really slow and really fast. Try different time signatures. Anything that can add a new element for experimentation and change. See how that changes what ideas you come up with.

Edited by nsmadsen, 08 February 2013 - 08:16 AM.

Composer-Sound Designer

Cedar Falls, IA

#10CaseP  Members

Posted 16 February 2013 - 03:48 PM

I'm going to throw out few things not mentioned here, some may sound bizarre in some cases but when you're stuck in a rut, they may help you, as they help me a lot when I find I can't get the ball rolling with my compositions.

This might sound pretty obvious in other cases of composing (such as band work) yet many people don't take this wonderos tip into consideration when trying to come up with a new tune for their next musical project. I often open up my DAW, in this case, Pro Tools, get a couple of nice sounding instruments set up, hit record and just jam or improvise over some very basic chord structures, the amount of times I hear people say something a long the lines of "I came up with a cool melody, but now I can't remember it" is quite a lot, me included, so remember to hit record whilst jamming something out as you may discover an super catchy melody accidentally.

Set yourself a challenge

A strange yet useful tip to get yourself out of your comfort zone and into uncharted territory that you've yet to discover yourself, is to set yourself a challenge. Be it timed, themed or something else that limits you to staying out of what you know can help you in progressing through various styles of playing. Here's an example of something I did a few weeks ago. I gave myself a time limit of 1 hour to complete a 30 second composition with the theme of 'futuristic'. I actually surprised myself with the results, as I and I'm sure a lot of people work better under pressure (which the time limit gave) and come up with 'out of the box' ideas.

Use the MIDI Editor to manually input notes
A common routine people seem to find themselves in is only using external devices, such as midi keyboards, to come up with chord progressions and melodies/harmonies when in actual fact, even the most talented and knowledgable musician would have a tough time adding in those 64th trills followed buy a chromatic scale running up spanning across a 5 octave range every demi-semi quaver in the tempo of 200bpm. Well the previous example might be a little farfetched but don't be afraid of using the in-DAW MIDI editor to your advantage as you could come up with the most memorable melody by shifting a few notes into different positions from your previous jam or even input chords that you couldn't quite figure out/reach. I admit this is by far the most trial and error technique on here, yet you can come up with some awesome results.

Hope some of these tips helped you out, if you need any other tips/tricks, feel free to PM me.

#11Ludus  Members

Posted 16 February 2013 - 05:21 PM

There is one very important part of learning to compose better that hasn't been mentioned here yet - ear training/aural skills. By practicing this skill you will be able to recognize the elements of music much better, whether in a piece of music you're listening to or an original composition in your head. The notes will begin to come easily to you, so when your thinking of a melodic line, harmony, texture, etc., you won't have to spend time figuring exactly what notes are. Instead, you will be able to write them down right away as naturally as you would for writing text. There is software intended to help develop this skill, such as GNU Solfege and the exercises on http://www.teoria.com

Posted 16 February 2013 - 07:28 PM

There is one very important part of learning to compose better that hasn't been mentioned here yet - ear training/aural skills.

Actually listening (ear training/aural skills) has been mentioned quite a bit. I think many have been suggesting taking a theory-based knowledge of music and then listening to be able to best identify what it is the song's doing to capture one's attention. It's not enough to just listen, you must listen critically. This doesn't make anything you've said wrong or anything, but I wanted to point out several folks have suggested this as a very useful, if not vital, step in learning how to be a better composer.

Thanks!

Nate

Edited by nsmadsen, 16 February 2013 - 07:30 PM.

Composer-Sound Designer

Cedar Falls, IA

#13Ludus  Members

Posted 16 February 2013 - 08:09 PM

Actually listening (ear training/aural skills) has been mentioned quite a bit.

Perhaps I wasn't clear in what I meant about aural skills. Yes, people have suggested listening to pieces of music and figuring out what the artist is doing, but what I meant was practicing the more fundamental aspects of aural skills - such as identifying intervals and dictating melodies into notation by ear alone. These exercises may seem very dry and boring to practice, but they are essential for becoming a better composer.

#14Gruby Phil  Members

Posted 17 February 2013 - 03:22 AM

Great ideas in this thread! Thanks everyone!

Personally, I like to listen to my favorite composers and write down a score or put it into DAW. This is a great way to learn harmonic rules and see how professionals build up tension.  If someone better did it before you there is no reason to reinvent the wheel

BTW. Reading books like: Rimsky-Korsakov "Principles Of Orchestration" may be also helpful.

Edit: Sorry, made some mistakes ;)

Edited by Gruby Phil, 17 February 2013 - 03:22 AM.

Posted 17 February 2013 - 08:12 AM

Perhaps I wasn't clear in what I meant about aural skills. Yes, people have suggested listening to pieces of music and figuring out what the artist is doing, but what I meant was practicing the more fundamental aspects of aural skills - such as identifying intervals and dictating melodies into notation by ear alone. These exercises may seem very dry and boring to practice, but they are essential for becoming a better composer.

Ah, I see the disconnect now. Perhaps it was unique to my schools but, during both undergrad and graduate work, music theory was always both a mental and aural exercise. It was never only one. For example a prof could say "C up to an F is a perfect fourth. It sounds like so." then he would play it on the piano. Then he would drill us on which intervals were a perfect fourth. Once the class got it, he'd move on. My professors would do this with all sorts of intervals and chords.

So... for me and my background, learning music theory was actually doing both. And that's how it should be, in my opinion. Perhaps someone teaching themselves would split things up... but even in my private lessons with my piano students, it's always focused on both mental and aural. It would seem very incomplete to just read a book or research intervals and do zero aural training with those studies. Almost like reading a book on programming but doing zero programming exercises.

Composer-Sound Designer

Cedar Falls, IA

#16Bakuda  Members

Posted 23 February 2013 - 08:03 PM

There is one very important part of learning to compose better that hasn't been mentioned here yet - ear training/aural skills. By practicing this skill you will be able to recognize the elements of music much better, whether in a piece of music you're listening to or an original composition in your head. The notes will begin to come easily to you, so when your thinking of a melodic line, harmony, texture, etc., you won't have to spend time figuring exactly what notes are. Instead, you will be able to write them down right away as naturally as you would for writing text. There is software intended to help develop this skill, such as GNU Solfege and the exercises on http://www.teoria.com

That's great advise.  We used a program called MacGamut in my theory class (though we had a different name for it).  But a great free resource out there is musictheory.net.  There's some great exercises in both basic theory and aural skills.

#17JordV  Members

Posted 27 February 2013 - 01:35 AM

Love the responses in this thread. It jives with what my mentors have always told me. "everything is borrowed" "don't be afraid to sound really bad for a moment or two if it means learning what to do or more importantly, what not to do" It's also a good idea to stop and look at your current musical vocab and think of new clever ways yo use what you know already. After all some of the best songs in the world are just 3 chords with a exciting or emotional melody over it. Just a tip that I have to remind myself about from time to time.

Edited by JordV, 05 March 2013 - 07:03 AM.

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