There is a great deal of information regarding musical composition on the internet, but rarely have I encountered personal accounts from students of composition detailing the struggles they went through in learning how to actually write music. One can learn all the theory in the world, but actually being able to compose a piece of music is another thing altogether. There isn’t much in the way of learning how to distill all that knowledge into a working ability to create. I thought I’d write about my experiences, because if I’d known what I know now back then, I’d have had a much easier time of it.
I wasn’t one of those lucky children who was handed a grand piano or a violin at the age of three and forced to master the thing. Nor was I trained in musical composition by the best professors in the world, earning Master’s equivalency by adolescence. (Sod off, all you rich kids!!) I recall expressing a desire to own a piano at a very young age. Unfortunately, money was such that I acquired my first keyboard at the age of fifteen. I entered piano lessons three months later and was immediately placed in the eighth year. Apparently I had some natural aptitude for it, but it never seemed very special to me - as Bach said, you press the correct keys at the correct times and music comes out. Though I still intend to improve my skill, I eventually left serious piano study by the wayside.
I was more interested in learning to compose, in becoming an arena rock-star with all the sophistication of knowledge as the classically trained. I grew up listening to Vivaldi and Oldfield, Kikuta and Zeppelin. Such a maelstrom of ideas and feelings. I had ideas about music that nobody else seemed to have explored. I felt it would take tremendous composition ability to execute works implementing all the innovations of the late 20th century while maintaining the virtuosity of the 18th and 19th. I had great disdain for the contemporary radio stars, who seemed to make a mockery of the craft with their utter lack of virtue. I set about my studies as much in defiance of these filthy infidels to the church of music as in reverence for the great composers whose works gave me so much.
A couple friends of mine.
I envisioned music of profound depth, unmatched complexity, and stunning originality. Music of such a level I would not encounter until years later when I heard Soshiro Hokkai’s Harmony of Dissonance - now there was a shock. But then, I didn’t possess even a fraction of the necessary ability to realize the vague concepts swimming about in my mind. I thought that simply by studying more and more, I could reach a level of skill where I would be able to compose the music I wanted to write. I listened to material written by other amateur composers and determined that I had no interest in writing music so poor - I would study and study until I could create incredible work, and until then I didn’t want to write anything at all. After all, why would I want to create music that I myself knew was derivative or poorly executed?
Of course, I didn’t realize that’s not how it works. You can’t just study your way to the top and then begin writing masterpieces once you’ve achieved Level 99 Textbook Status. I don’t know why I thought that would work. In my efforts to bring the powerful concepts in my heart to life, I hit constant stumbling blocks. Almost every time I composed music I would get stuck at some point in the process, and I wasn’t sure why. Lacking confidence, I listened over the parts I had already written again and again, trying to determine if it was any good, trying to figure out how to proceed. Naturally, by doing this the music became so nauseating to me that in my mind it was ruined and I would never be able to finish the piece. That is a special brand of frustration not easily matched in other experiences.
My solution to this was to read more textbooks, transcribe more music, study more scores. My knowledge increased exponentially but my ability to actually write a piece of music did not. I struggled with this until I discovered two pieces of advice that completely changed my approach. Finally I broke down, swallowed my pride, and asked one of the musicians I greatly admire for advice. He told me something indispensable, yet so obvious that I should have known it from my language studies, if not from common sense.
Don’t rest too soundly rock’n’roll, I am coming back for you!
He told me that when transcribing music to learn from it, one should play it on the keyboard, as it’s easier to understand the internal logic of the piece when you have it under your fingers. Of course! In my experience, most composers work out their material on the piano before putting it to the score - which is to say, in the very moment one is working out the composition, the whole of his musical understanding is distilled to the motions of his fingers over the keys. A vast knowledge of theory does not necessarily help in this moment. When it’s just you, the keys, and the score, that wealth of knowledge can be all too abstract and distant.
In musical composition, every single note is specifically placed to achieve a desired emotive effect. Your job is to manipulate the feelings of the listener in such a way that he understands what you are trying to convey. The purpose of aurally transcribing music is to gain an understanding of exactly how the composer achieves a specific effect, so that you can harness the theory principles behind it for application to your own work. When you play the songs on the keyboard as you study them, you are linking your new-found knowledge to muscle memory. Now, instead of just knowing in your mind that the Dorian i - IV produces a majestic, adventurous effect, your fingers know how that sound feels. When you’re sitting above the keys working out the harmonic structure of a phrase, that is invaluable.
What could make more sense than tying your theoretical expertise to the physical implement used to compose music? It’s no different from learning to use the non-roman characters of a foreign language. It’s important to write them down as you learn the meanings and pronunciations of the characters so that all the possible applications - reading, writing, and speaking - are linked, increasing your ability to recall the knowledge in various situations.
My introduction to Flutes, Oboes, and Clarinets. Thanks, Queen Bluegarden.
My second discovery was when I came across an interview with Jeremy Soule, whose soundtrack for Secret of Evermore instilled in me at the age of nine a profound love of woodwinds and dark harmonies, wherein he mentioned J.S. Bach’s assertion that it is crucial for students of composition to write music every day. Of course, there are innumerable separate skills involved in the process of musical composition, and it is obvious that exercising these skills is indispensable to one’s growth as a composer. But! When I considered this statement further I realized why I had so often gotten stuck in the midst of a piece. I lacked the necessary command of my knowledge to give voice to my musical concepts.
It was in part because my knowledge of theory was so abstracted from my process of composition, but also due to an important truth of the craft; that is, the better you know beforehand what to write down to achieve the effect you desire, the easier the process of composition and better the final result. Knowing exactly what to write before you write it is, strangely enough, a skill not acquired through study of textbooks. Simply knowing a lot about music isn’t enough, you need to be able to use it.
The only way to build that skill is to compose… a lot. To build up a personal library of knowledge about what notes, intervals, chords, and arrangement techniques create specific sounds and feelings, so that when your heart tells you to evoke the melancholy of a spring evening, you already have a good idea of how you might do it. The process will be heavily informed by your creativity and stylistic tendencies, but having a powerful command of all your theory - a certain ease of application - is what enables you to bring that vision to life.
So many melodies come to mind.
In a conversation with Bear McCreary on his blog, he told me something to the effect that one’s technical skill should be secondary to one’s creativity. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but I think what I have been talking about is the very same issue he was getting at - achieving that command of your musical knowledge so that when your creative vision points in a specific direction your technical skill is ready and waiting to follow its lead, allowing you to effortlessly paint your soul onto the score pages. I suspect that achieving such facility is an endless journey.
In summary; yes, you should study textbooks, scores, and transcribe lots of music. But remember that each discovery is a tool that can be internalized and employed in the future. Be thorough. Be inquisitive. Experiment a lot, and examine the effect produced by harmonic, contrapuntal, and arrangement techniques. Remember to apply all your findings to your composition process. When you discover a modulation which possesses a quality you like, play it on the keyboard and internalize it. The knowledge is worthless if it cannot be applied in that infinite, fragile moment when you set out to write your feelings down in notes.