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Advice to Budding Composers

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I received an e-mail from a composition student yesterday, one who received an A-minus. The student, who did not question the grade, asked what could be done to improve. I should say the student is intelligent, musical, and as creative as the student’s current level of knowledge allows. Here is my response:

Dear [Student]:
There are several ways you can improve your craft. First the easy ones:

Listen to a *lot* more music, not just by the composers you already know and like, but a wide variety of composers. Make sure you hear music by composers not only from the late 19th century, but from all of the 20th century and, yes, even from this century. No, you won’t find everything to your liking, and some of it may even be terrible, but it is most important that you “open your ears” to more than what you’re already used to hearing. You can start with music by these composers:

* Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
* Gustav Mahler
* Richard Strauss
* Igor Stravinsky
* Erik Satie
* Arnold Schoenberg
* Alban Berg
* Anton Webern
* Edgar Varese
* Charles Ives
* Ralph Vaughan Williams
* Paul Hindemith
* Carl Orff
* Aaron Copland
* Bela Bartok
* Leonard Bernstein
* John Cage
* Terry Riley
* Ruth Crawford Seeger
* Steve Reich
* Phillip Glass
* George Walker
* Toru Takamitsu
[The list goes on, including composers from around the world.]
These names are just “off the top of my head.”

Look at/read scores, all kinds of scores, not just piano music. If you don’t know how to read an orchestral score, you can learn. Start with music of the Baroque era (JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example), move on to classical works (Mozart symphonies, then Betthoven’s), and so on. YouTube has a lot of music with scores, so that is an easy way to start.

The not-so-easy ways to improve:
* You need to improve your knowledge of music theory (harmony and counterpoint). Composition lessons are not the place for that; theory classes are.
* You need to know more about musical structure. Getting to know scores will help, but theory classes and learning musical analysis will help considerably.
* This next one is more about how you think about writing music than anything else: You need to be willing to “open your ears” to “new” sounds, to music that is different from what you’re used to hearing. (Yes, I am repeating myself. This is intentional.) I have not been trying to make you into a composer of unlikable music, but to have you develop as a more well-rounded composer, one who is aware of the myriad ways one can compose and can *choose* to write in particular ways. To use a weird metaphor, you can not break down walls unless you know where they are.

* Finally, a three-part suggestion:
1. Write music. Write a LOT of music. Experiment. Write music in a style you’ve never written in before, just because you haven’t done it yet. Write for instruments and voices you have never written for before. And don’t just “throw notes on the page”; listen, really listen to what it is you’re writing, and make sure it makes sense, that it takes you on a journey from the first notes to the last. Don’t just repeat phrases; treat them as DNA that needs to be expressed. Let them grow.
2. Do not be afraid to “fail” — to create unsuccessful music. We all (and by “we” I included myself) have written music that doesn’t “work,” but that is not only “okay,” it is essential to our development. We learn much more from the mistakes we make than from our successes.
3. Ask yourself questions when you compose:
* What did I do the last time I composed, and what is the opposite of that?
* What would happen if I. . .?
* Where does the piece I’m writing get boring? Why?

I hope this helps.

Best regards,
Dr. R.

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