Advice to Young Composers

In recent years I have received several inquiries from young composers or would-be composers, asking me: “How do you compose?”  At first I was surprised by such queries, never having fancied myself a composition teacher.  It took me many years merely to begin to unlock the mystery of composing, without even considering the conundrum of imparting that skill to others.  Furthermore, I was wary of stifling the creativity of a young composer by imposing my own approach or my personal viewpoint.  In the end, I simply described the process that has worked for me personally and the background that I drew upon as I put music to paper.

My compositions generally start as sketches.  An earlier post to this blog describes a thick file I have of such sketches, going all the way back to my youth.  My earliest musical sketches are now lost (mercifully, perhaps), but some were created as early as age 10, reflecting a compulsion to write music that came from within me, with no outside encouragement that I can remember.  I suspect that most true composers experience this internal drive to create, beginning in childhood.  My earliest sketches, I am sure, were not impressive efforts.  It takes many years — in my case, about a quarter of a century — to develop the composer’s craft to the point where one’s music begins to sound inspired or even very original.

As a Romantic composer, I consider melody the core of music, so my initial sketch(es) for a composition generally consist of a melody, perhaps along with some tentative harmonies.  Sometimes I may develop the melody through improvisation, but more often it comes to me at random times, even in the middle of the night (obliging me to get up and look for a scrap of paper to jot it down).  The initial sketch is just a raw idea, a low-pixel “screen capture” from my imagination that probably would not sound like much to anyone else.

But then over a period of days or weeks, I imagine what might be done with the thematic idea.  Are there contrapuntal lines that would work well with it?  Could it undergo interesting kinds of transformation, maybe sounding jubilant in one version but peaceful in another?  Would it work best as a piano piece, or would it work well with other instruments?  Could it be juxtaposed with other themes I have been experimenting with?

After that, I start thinking about what the large-scale form of the work might be.  Not just whether it will be in ABA form or sonata form or whatever, but also:  What will be the emotional/spiritual shape and direction of the composition?  Will it rise to an emotional climax?  If so, will it subside afterward, or should the climax be at the very end?

Next I start sketching out the whole texture.  After I have sketched the whole work, I go back and make revision after revision.  I may rewrite passages that do not sound right, or which are unnecessarily awkward to play.  Generally, I try to polish the developing work so that every part of it contributes to the whole, and so that each section flows naturally from what precedes it (unless an abrupt contrast is desired).  Ideally, every note should serve a purpose.

Notating the piece using computer software happens only near the very end, but even after entering it into a computer, I may continue to make at least minor revisions.  As noted in an earlier post about “The Amadeus Myth,” many of the greatest composers continued to make revisions to their works, even years after they were initially published.  If even the great Beethoven developed his music through a succession of drafts, then certainly my own initial drafts cannot be expected to represent truly finished products.

Obviously, knowledge of music theory is essential to every step of the process I have described.  Successful composing, in my opinion, presumes a thorough mastery of the principles of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form.  If these principles are thoroughly assimilated into one’s subconscious musical intuition, they do not limit one’s creativity.  On the contrary, those principles become a wellspring of ideas, stimulating the creative imagination.

Beyond the formal music-theoretic training, I believe that good composers possess a natural curiosity about what makes music work and that this curiosity should be purposely cultivated.  That topic will be expanded upon in a future post to this blog.

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