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I play in a youth brass band and I've been writing basic arrangements for it for the past year or so. The thing is, I use MuseScore. I just enter what I think will sound good, play it back and make any changes that need to be made. I'm not using any theory whatsoever.

My question to you is, how can I get started writing arrangements without the aid of MuseScore?

Thanks for all your help.

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I don't think there's anything "wrong" with using MuseScore to play back your arrangements. Especially for brass instruments this is an efficient workflow. The alternatives would be writing with a pencil away from any instrument, or using a piano. So I think your question is really about learning music theory, not so much about using a notation program as a crutch. –  Matthew Briggs Nov 26 '13 at 21:02
    
Also, can you say what types of music you are arranging? Jazz? Pop songs? Classical pieces? –  Matthew Briggs Nov 26 '13 at 21:04
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@user8590 I think it's good to write without using any theory (for those who have already learned), it means you have to rely completely on your ears. However if you're a beginner, it's very hard to learn effectively without learning some basic theory. Too little theory, and you'll struggle to advance, too much theory and you'll be more of a mathematician rather than musician (music shouldn't be created using formulas equations!!). Learn the fundamentals, then forget them. And MuseScore is a good choice in terms of software btw. –  Anthony Nov 27 '13 at 1:35

5 Answers 5

In principle, there's nothing wrong at all with a trial-and-error approach to composition. Many of the greatest Rock songs and Jazz tunes have originated from mindlessly jamming along.

What is however, IMO, in fact wrong is to use a computer for that. Not when you actually intend to write electronic music of course (though I still don't much like such digital composition, but that's just my personal taste). But when you write for an actual band you should try it with the band. Computers may be able to approximate human performance, but ultimately that means the programmer is involved in your creative process.

Which may again not be bad in principle. The problem I perceive is that the interaction goes the wrong way around: the programmer has to kind of anticipate every idea you as the composer might come up with, and prepare the program to react to it like a human performer would. In practice, this is often implemented very badly, at least in simple solutions such as MuseScore1: a wavetable is picked, fixed choice based on the instrument you request. Then each note is played basically as an exact copy, merely moved to a "mechanically calculated" start time, trimmed to a specific length, pitch and dynamic level, but disregarding the musical context. That is completely unlike what good ensemble players do, namely create collectively a musical pulse, phrase the notes in a natural voice-like manner, intonate towards each other and adjust the dynamics to emphasise the crucial points. As a result, if you feed a computer a good score it will sound bad. If you tweak the score so it sounds sort of good on the computer (almost impossible anyway), it'll probably get horribly contrived and sound not good with the actual band anymore2.

So whatever "feedback device" you use during composition, you have to account for how different the actual intended ensemble sounds. That always requires experience, but IMO it's rather easier if you use, traditionally, a piano / organ / guitar to try out the harmonies, rather than a computer program which pretends to sound like an actual ensemble, but still doesn't.

Of course, with more limited devices you need to have more knowledge yourself about how stuff might work out. That is what music theory gives you. It basically is a framework to systematically categorise what intervals can be used to achieve a certain musical effect, independently of details of the instruments / the performance etc.. Once you've properly grasped these categories, you should be able to figure out the eventual result purely in your mind, with all the details. Really good composers can thus create masterpieces with paper and pencil alone (sadly, Beethoven was actually forced to do this). Most people still require some piano harmonies to hold on to, that's fine. But it's certainly not good if you require the computer for every single note.

That's my opinion. So, I suggest you do properly learn some music theory from books, Wikipedia, systematic trial&error, whatever.


1There sure enough are far more sophisticated algorithms around nowadays, e.g. Synful; but then these require you to specify much more information than you'd normally put in a score.

2Unfortunately, more and more composers do go this route now. I am very unhappy with most of the results, but what can I do.

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If you want to write 'correct' music (mind the 's) you should take lessons for theory, harmony and then composition (keep in mind that it would take years).

If you don't really care if your music is 'correct' by the standards of classical/jazz/atonal/whatever music, you should continue doing what you are already doing. Write what you think sounds good, then play it back (you can use a program like Finale SongWriter to do that) and then change whatever is necessary.

The most 'safe' way to do it though is to take lessons and practice a lot lot lot lot lot

Εdit: Also, a problem that you might encounter is this: You might find something you like that is only a part of a song and you won't know how to continue the song. That happens to quite a few people.

The only thing to do here is keep practicing songs that are complete (by other artists) and after some time, it would come natural to you (how to continue the song).

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Thanks for the response. Unfortunately, I don't have the funds to find a teacher. Are there any online, free resources that can get me started at least? –  user8590 Nov 26 '13 at 18:58
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Take alook at these. I haven't really watched them, but some friends of mine say they are pretty decent –  Shevliaskovic Nov 26 '13 at 18:59
    
If you do not have a theory backing you will hear it is wrong but have no way of getting it right. –  Neil Meyer Nov 27 '13 at 12:10

You can usually find other people's arrangements of music online. Once you've become familiar with basic music theory, you can analyze these arrangements to learn the chord progressions and most important motifs from the source songs to inform how you create your new arrangement.

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I think, knowing some theory may save you from re-inventing the wheel. Learning theory may fasten your progress, but, as leftaroundabout says, working with your band will make the real music sound better. But also theory is a little bit like a computer program: the one is made by second-, the other by third-class musicians.

If you are able to develop a good sense for the relation between the sounds of MuseScore and your band, then the difference to using a piano for composing will be marginal.

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All that music theory endeavors to teach people is how to write and or arrange music that sounds good. Theory is not in the business of making up and enforcing arbitrary rules just to spite musicians.

It is only a collection rules that musicians have discovered over the years and centuries that leads to good sounding music. People often see theory as just a painful thing you have to do for a diploma. Which is a pity.

People do not want to hear it because theory is a painful and long exercise but if you want to get really good at arrangements theory is a must.

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'good sounding music' is way wrong. Imagine what classical composers did when they first heard blues. THAT music was wrong in their theory, sounded way wrong, but it has become one of the most common music styles in our time, and also lead to other music styles. –  Shevliaskovic Nov 27 '13 at 13:06

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