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Ten Essential Pieces of Advice for Composers

It seems like there’s no shortage of tips for emerging songwriters out there, but what do you do if you’re a budding composer wanting to write for string quartets and symphonies? Composers get theory rammed down their throats until they’re spitting up treble clefs but not much in the way of straightforward, one-off pieces of advice for thinking outside the box or approaching their creativity in a fresh new way.

So, with that in mind… Here are ten straightforward, one-off pieces of advice for thinking outside the box and approaching your creativity in a fresh new way, for beginning composers, or really, anyone with a creative spirit.

1. Music is art that decorates time.

You’re a painter about to paint a picture, but instead of a canvas, you’re going to make art over time. Think of the duration between the beginning and end of the piece as the borders of your canvas. You’re going to fill up that time with music.

And just as there is an endless universe of expressive possibilities for putting color to canvas, there are no limits to the ways in which music can fit into that space you’re about to fill.

2. Music doesn’t represent anything other than the meaning we give to it.

I’m not saying that because it’s a nice piece of artsy-fartsy froofery, but because there’s just no way to create music that unambiguously represents something concrete and objective in the real world. Even the most programmatic piece of music is still only programmatic because the composer tells us what the piece is about. Theater, painting, sculpture, even dance, can all create unambiguous representations of something real, but put simply, music can’t.

However…

3. Music is really good at expressing emotion.

The edge that music has over most other art forms is that, in the right hands, it creates a shortcut through all that pesky conscious, ego-driven thinking we all have and gets right to the core of our emotional selves.

Think about this piece of information, and now think of the previous tip. The conscious combination of both can make for some seriously powerful music.

First, decide what you want your piece to be “about.” Yes, music doesn’t objectively represent anything, but that doesn’t mean it can’t represent something specific and personal to you. How does the subject of your piece make you feel? Lonely? Happy? Awestruck? Content? Whatever your answer, use that knowledge as an emotional backboard off of which to bounce your compositional ideas.

Does the music you’re creating feel like a good emotional match to the emotions your subject creates in you? If it does, there’s a really good chance it’ll elicit the same emotional reactions in your listeners.

If you get stuck or you find it difficult to put into words the emotions you’re trying to evoke, listen to music by other composers or songwriters that succeeds in creating those emotions. How did they achieve what you’re trying to achieve? Is it in the melody? Is it in the instruments they use? What harmonic progressions does the composer use?

4. Listen, listen, listen. Then steal.

It’s a cliché saying but it’s true: a good composer borrows, a great composer steals. If you have the tiniest qualm about this, get over it. Think about it. How did any artist before you learn their craft? Where did Leonardo da Vinci learn to draw? How did Michelangelo learn to sculpt? How did Mozart write a gajillion pieces at an age when most of us were comparing pokémons?

By copying the masters who came before them.

You can’t hope to become a better composer if you don’t listen critically to the works of others. Find a composer or two that you love and devour their work. Get your mitts on their scores. Listen over and over with the score in front of you. Make notes about what they do. Then make sketches of your own ideas based on those notes. (It just so happens I go through how to do this in a lot more detail and have done a bunch of analyses that can help you get started in my course, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft.)

5. Use the creative cycle.

Composing a piece of music takes time. Our songwriting colleagues have it easy in that regard, with a catchy lyric, a good hook, and a productive afternoon, they can end up with a finished song. But composing a piece of music can take quite a while, and when you work on a piece over a long period of time, it can be difficult to keep tabs on where you are and what you’re trying to achieve.

This is the creative cycle.

You’re creating something out of nothing so you need a plan of attack, and the creative cycle is that plan. Each time you sit down to compose, take a moment to plan what you want to achieve that day. Then do it. Then, leave it alone. Come back the next day, review what you’ve made, and based upon that, make a new plan.

Also, literally write down your plan each day, on paper, inside a journal, that you keep throughout the process. There’s something powerful about hand-writing plans and ideas. It turns nebulous thoughts into actionable list items, which is vital when we’re creating something as abstract as a piece of music.

6. Don’t let the bar lines push you around.

It’s pretty common these days for people to dive right in and compose directly into a program like Sibelius or Finale, or even a DAW like Ableton Live or Logic Pro. There’s nothing especially wrong with that, except that those programs have a couple of default settings that make it hard to create something freely.

I’m specifically referring to bar lines and time signatures here, but there are others. Basically, if you open up a blank document in Sibelius and just start composing it’s very, very easy to fall into thinking inside rigid little boxes of rhythm, and those boxes are called bars (or measures, as you up in United States call them). They serve a purpose, and some kinds of music and music composition absolutely require you to color inside those lines, but for some, those bar lines can mean creative death.

So get away from them.

Improvise, record your improvisations, and then transcribe them. Or compose onto paper by hand instead, freely, one pitch or gesture after another. Forget about the bar lines or time signatures, or even strict rhythms, and instead just get the vibe of a free-flowing musical idea down. Give it space and silence and shape before the computer makes you put it into absolute concrete notes. Lots of contemporary composers dispense with bar lines and time signatures altogether, and there’s a freedom to music composed in that way that a rigid adherence to the tyranny of bar lines just can’t match.

7. Explore extremes.

One of the most common critiques I give to budding composers is that everything is nice and safe and in “the middle.” This is most obvious when looking at the registers in which the composer has written. Does the whole piece sit nice and comfy in the middle of the staff, with maybe an occasional foray down to middle C? That’s lovely, but you risk composing the aural equivalent of your nan knitting a tea cosy.

All instruments have extremes of register. They aren’t meant for every day use. But if you want to create true drama or extremes of emotion in your work, get the heck out of the middle of the staff and explore the very bottom or very top of the instruments!

I’m not saying there’s not great music written in the middle of the staff. But if all you ever do is compose in the middle of the staff, you’re denying yourself a much richer sound palette. This is just as true for other extremes in music. Try composing something that goes really slowly. Or something that’s really quiet. And then wildly explodes to the other extreme. The centre is safe; only on the fringes can we test our creative mettle.

8. Don’t get stuck in major or minor tonalities.

I’m not just talking about diatonic major or minor scales, but also relatives of those, such as modes or whatever. Instead, rethink your whole attitude towards tonality in general.

Think of it like this: in huuuugely broad terms, we culturally agree that major scales are “happy” and minor scales are “sad.” What is it about the scales that make them happy or sad? It’s not the individual pitches that make them up (they are important, but for different reasons), because if that was the case then each individual major and minor scale would evoke very different emotional responses. Instead it’s the intervallic relationships between those notes. A major scale sounds major because of the relationship between the third and sixth degrees of the scale relative to the tonic, and for the same reason a minor scale sounds minor.

Who knows if it’s cultural conditioning or something deep-down and primeval but something about major scales says “happy, triumphant, content” or whatever, while minor scales say “sad, defeated, lonely” or whatever. But those are just oversimplified means of identification, and are widely flexible in practice.

So the tonality of a piece — and therefore, in no small way, the emotional world of a piece — is defined by the intervallic relationships between the pitches that you use inside it. With that in mind, you can create a very nuanced sense of emotion if, rather than just straight up using a major or minor scale (which is just a set of specific pitches after all), you create your own pitch sets or tonalities. Think of it as creating your own bespoke scales that you’ve created for a very specific purpose.

9. Look to strike a balance between predictability and unpredictability.

If a piece is too predictable, people go “oh yeah, yeah, I get this,” and they start to switch off, or even get bored. But by contrast, if a piece is too unpredictable they go “I have no idea what’s happening,” and then also switch off because they’re lost. You need to balance predictability with unpredictability, and keep everyone on their toes.

You’re creating a new world that your listeners have never been to. You’re their guide. If you just launch off into the blue and take them on ever-increasingly crazy and dangerous adventures with no explanation or point of reference, or chance for them to catch their breath, they’ll soon dread what’s around the corner. By contrast, if you promised them an exciting adventure and then took them on a journey to the local playground to play on the swing set, they’d want their money back. You have to take them on an exciting journey but give them reference points they can grab a hold of and be like, “oh yeah, I remember this, I liked this, I wonder what’s next?”

When you’re writing your piece, use your artistic judgement. Do you get bored? Do you get lost? If yes, then so will your listeners. Find that balance.

10. There’s a time to create and a time to criticize, and they’re not the same time.

The number one reason we get writer’s block is that we criticize our work as we’re creating it.

Imagine you have someone in the room looking over your shoulder while you’re working and saying, “um, that’s not very good,” or, “you’re going to do that? Okay, it’s your funeral,” or “is that what <insert name of musical idol> would do? Hmm, I doubt it.”

What would you do? You’d damn well kick them out of the room! They might be the most knowledgeable person on the planet but you can’t create anything with someone criticizing something as you’re working.

So obviously this transparent analogy is about that voice inside your head that criticizes you as you create. Unfortunately you can’t kick your own head out the door, so you have to make peace with yourself and agree that, once you’re finished composing something, you can criticize it all you want. That’s what the third stage of the Creative Cycle is for.

That’s not to say that while you’re creating you shouldn’t make critical decisions or exercise your artistic judgement. But ideas will come to you and you kind of just have to give them a try and see where they take you, rather than pushing them away all the time because they’re not “right” immediately. You will have all the time in the world to criticize what you’ve made after you’ve made it. Don’t do it to yourself during the creation stage.

That’s just mean.

Learn to compose, arrange for a string ensemble, or produce music for all types of projects, all with the help of a Soundfly MentorWith Mainstage courses like Introduction to the Composer’s Craft and Orchestration for Strings, as well as our harmonic theory focused double-header, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony, you’ll be on your way to a career in composition in 6 weeks. 

Tim Hansen is the instructor of Soundfly’s Mainstage course, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft.

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Tim Hansen
Tim Hansen

Tim Hansen is a composer, songwriter, music director, and storyteller inspired by a variety of gleefully dark sources. An enthusiastic and charismatic educator, Tim has created lessons for TED-Ed, is a composer in residence at Santa Sabina College, and is engaged with Musica Viva’s “Musician in the Classroom” program in Sydney. He is a co-founding director of W4 New Music collective in New York and has worked with ensembles including Synergy Percussion, the Song Company, Contemporaneous, Cadillac Moon, and TRANSIT. Tim holds a Masters in Music Theory and Composition from NYU.