November 26, 2010

Why every musician should compose

Composing is a discovery process. When you compose even a bit, you learn about what goes through composers heads when they compose, and you will learn to interpret their music better. You will learn what makes music work (or not work).

I periodically go through phases where I am obsessed with the idea of composing. Usually, no more than a few sketches come out of it and few pieces get finished. It was frustrating until I considered that maybe I wasn't really trying to write the greatest guitar sonata ever, but instead I was examining my understanding of and relationship with music.

It's just like writing

You don't have to write a whole novel when you sit down at the word processor. You can start by jotting down an idea or two, maybe just vague notions in your head, and do your best to put them into words. As you do that, you may notice connections and ways that those ideas can fit together, or ways that they don't fit together.

Sometimes you need to write the same idea a few different ways before the right one appears. As the ball gets rolling, new ideas will appear on their own.

It's also like drawing

Don't tell me you can't draw. When you've got a blank piece of paper, you don't have to fill every sheet of paper with some painstakingly detailed landscape. You can sketch things out, or doodle. Sometimes just a stick man will do.

The hardest part is getting started.

Ever have a little fragment of a melody go through your head? Sing it. Find it on the instrument. Figure out some chords for it. If you can only find part of it, make up the rest. It doesn't have to be good, and if it's not, you don't have to play it someone else or even think about it ever again.

You don't even have to write it down, just play with it. What kind of accompaniment would Carulli give this melody? What about Villa-Lobos? How might Debussy have written it differently?

Note: Christopher Davis recently did a great interview with GFA winner Johannes Möller. In the second video, Johannes talks about composing. I wrote this post before I saw the video, so I'm happy to see some of the same sentiments but also some other great points of view. Check it out.


  1. Good thoughts. Especially the one about it doesn't haven't to be good -- avoid judgment when composing. When you judge your own work it's really hard to write anything. It's hard to even write any additional notes when worried about writing the "correct" thing.

    I do disagree about the hard part being started. It's really easy to get an idea. The hard part, in my opinion, it developing that idea -- using your material well and turning it into a full piece.

    Thanks for the links!

  2. Maybe I should have said that the hardest part of getting started is getting started :)

    I guess it's a matter of where you're at. I don't find it easy to develop themes, either, but for me, coming up with a good theme is rewarding enough in itself.

    Of course, I had to adjust my attitude for this; I used to hate it when I couldn't complete something. But the better I understand music, the more development seems to present itself on its own without me having to sit there and say "what comes next?"

    Thanks a lot for your comment. It got me thinking more about this topic and gave me ideas for a future blog post.

  3. Very perceptive insights. I've been reading "The Art of Writing" by a fourth century Chinese poet. Amazing how some of your thoughts coincide with his.

    I agree that all musicians should compose, otherwise you won't understand the process by which music gets created and you won't be able to express it fully. For example, to play a sonata well, you have to know the form intimately and what better way to know the form than to write a sonata yourself.

  4. Nice post, and some good advice.

    I first got into steel string fingerstyle guitar listening to Michael Hedges. I learned that he was a composer by training, so I thought it would be fun to do that. So i put my guitar in DADGAD or DGDGBbD or something similar and came up with at least an albums worth of pieces. I didnt really judge myself to much, just had alot of fun coming up with tunes and playing them for friends.

    Then later on as i started getting into more celtic music, and playing it on guitar, i started reading how some people considered folks like Hedges or similar players as more noodlers, that they were just coming up with cool riffs and stringing them together. So i started worrying more about my own compositions, and thought because i didnt hear it in my head first it was not a valid compositional idea. And I more or less stopped playing my own pieces after a while, electing to just arrange traditional music, which i find very rewarding and enjoy.

    Reading this post makes me think i should get back into composing. I have tried, with many stops and starts. My problem is I think i have to write a novel every time I sit down.

  5. Anton:
    You should revisit those. If you didn't record them or write them down, just try to remember what you can and make stuff up to fill in the gaps.

    I know what you mean about Hedges. I love many of his compositions, and I feel like he used the effects he came up with to serve the compositions well.

    A lot of his followers have overlooked his sense of melody and orchestration and just ran with the slapping and harmonics and stuff. A lot of people love that stuff; probably a lot more than would appreciate anything I play on my classical guitar.

    I think there's a lot of potential that they're just not tapping into; I'm not advocating stifling creativity by imposing too many rules but sometimes a memorable or even hummable melody would go a LONG way. :)

    For a variety of reasons, I've been spending several hours a day writing. I'd be interested in checking out that book you mentioned; is it available in English, and if so, who is the author?

  6. It's called the Art of Writing by Lu Ji. I have two translations, one by Sam Hamill and one by Tony Barnstone. I like the Barnstone one better and it has additional excerpts from other authors.

    BTW thanks for including me in your blogroll. I'll return the favor next week. Have to hack my template first. It has very little functionality.