5 Instant Ways to Improve Your Composition

Everyone wants to be a composer, but there’s so much to learn about music, and for someone who wants to write simple music, most of it might never be used; it all depends on what your “voice” needs. Take Philip Glass: his music is largely diatonic, largely simple in rhythm, but nobody would call it “low music”; that would be like looking at an Ansel Adams and complaining about how there’s not enough color. Most of the music we listen to is what could be classified as “diatonic”, or “chromatic”; I’d argue that 12-tone music is chromaticism to a certain degree, but there are almost no limits as to what you can create and still call “music”, and using the simplest tools and methods.

I’ve often said that the only prerequisite to being a composer is the desire or need to write music. Everything else can be learned through time. I’d contend that for every super-genius composer, there are probably at least a few that were equally effective composers through pure luck, although luck does improve with knowledge and practice. All of that said, here are some tips, mostly geared toward the beginner or enthusiast, to get you past some of the growing pains:

1. At first, don’t think, just write. Then edit.

Ever journey begins with a step. Strange as it may sound, some of your best ideas might come purely by accident, but you’ll never get there unless you write it down. Our brains work in mysterious ways. You’ll never write a masterpiece until you’ve got something on paper, and as with all things, practice makes perfect! You can always fix and edit, but you can’t do that until you get it “on paper”.

2. Get out of Root position

I’ve noticed that a lot of new composers write with very perfunctory harmony because they must feel safe in root position, or something. If you change up your bass notes, you’ll suddenly discover new harmonies. For example, if you’re in the key of C major, and you play a G7 chord, and accidentally hit a Db, guess what – you’ve just discovered the “tri-tone substitution”! Move that bass-line around.

3. Discover 7th & diminished chords

These are 2 of my favourite flavours of chords, because they can do anything. They’re like the Swiss Army Knives of music. Get to know the different varieties of major and minor 7ths, and fully and half-diminished chords. Move to and from, or just stay on them. See how they feel.

4. Learn to develop thematic material

First, get a melody or fragment. Try repeating it. Now vary it slightly. Rinse, lather, repeat. You can easily write a piece using one melodic fragment (See Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – the WHOLE piece – as a classic example of this). Development is simply playing around with a melody or harmony. Repetition is not boring as long as you change it up once in a while.

5. Ask a composer about writing, an ESTABLISHED composer.

Most composers who are serious about the craft love to talk about it, because it helps us talk out our method, and it helps the process evolve. Also, we live in an age of e-mail, Facebook, what-have-you. Everyone is everywhere, so fire off a quick e-mail. Be polite and ask concise questions. It never hurts to ask. Just be aware that the more successful a composer, the less time they have.

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