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At this old age I began, two years ago learning to write music. I write it using Sibelius and let the computer play it for me.

I have been strongly recommended to learn to play an instrument. I have two connected questions.

What instrument(s) would you recommend in my case. In my mind I imagine piano and violin are too difficult to begin this late. I suppose the instrument should at the same time be meaningful for music composition. My main purpose is to write music for me, but getting better at it is always good.

Now, I don't exactly understand completely the process by which learning to play an instrument is so important for composing. I understand that knowing the sounds the different instruments can produce, the techniques to produce them, etc. is important. But I imagine that can be learned by listening to others play and reading about the techniques and listening to examples.

So my second question is: Is is really that important to build the physical dexterity required to play an instrument for composing music? Or in other words. What aspects of knowing how to play an instrument are useful for composers that cannot be learned by seeing someone else play?

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When composing, it's a good idea to know the limits/ranges of each instrument so you don't write something they can't play! (it's happened to me) –  amanda witt Feb 7 '13 at 5:28
    
Thanks. But I think that can be learned without knowing how to play. I have seen tables or diagrams showing the ranges of the instruments in an orchestra. I think Sibelius 7 (the software) also tells me that. If I put a note out of the range of an instrument Sibelius 7 simply doesn't have a sound sample for that note. –  ABC Feb 7 '13 at 5:58
    
Meanwhile professional composers do this all the time. The David Stock violin concerto has French horns playing c# above high c. That said, please don't do this. ;) –  kojiro Feb 7 '13 at 12:34
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What instrument can't an old guy learn? – Another old guy. –  kojiro Feb 7 '13 at 12:41
    
There is a difference between learning about an instrument and learning to play it. Playing an instrument involves knowledge about the instrument but also physical dexterity. The latter is obtaining by practicing and practicing only. It is a reality that older brains tend to become less capable of assimilating new knowledge. Specially knowledge that can't be or shouldn't be rationalized. You can rationalize knowledge about an instrument, why one hand can't play a 12th interval in a piano for example. The knowledge involved for a hand playing quickly scales is of a different nature. –  ABC Feb 8 '13 at 4:34

9 Answers 9

I'd suggest the piano. While it takes many years to master, the piano is one of the easiest instruments to begin playing. Learning to play even the simplest chords or melodies on other instruments can take weeks, but a complete novice can use a keyboard.

The piano also lends itself well to composition because it has a wide range and it is easy to play polyphonic music. Since you're already using Sibelius, it's also worth noting that you could plug a keyboard straight into the computer and begin composing without having to worry about recording an acoustic instrument.

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Completely agree. As a violinist myself who studied the piano for a while I recommend an instrument that lends itself to chords and counterpoint as well as the melodic line for composing. There are a handful of instruments that can do this somewhat (the guitar, for another) but the piano is the canonical choice. –  kojiro Feb 7 '13 at 12:32
    
+1: You really can't do better. I was a flutist in my early years and played piano as a sideline. Now it's pretty much all I play, given that it's too hard to find ensembles to play with. I can sit down and play piano anytime. –  Robusto Feb 7 '13 at 22:05
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+1: Learning the piano is probably worth it just for the fact that you can use it for composing in Sibelius with a keyboard. –  Leo Feb 8 '13 at 8:36
    
+1 And don't be intimidated by the complexity of playing the piano. If you're learning in order to compose, your major goal is learning to pick out lines and try different kinds of things -- you're not trying to play a performance. (Unless of course you fall in love with the piano and start practicing a lot and performing!) –  terpsichore Feb 9 '13 at 4:56

I agree with sjy that piano is probably one of the best choices for this. Then again, I don't really see why you would need it if you just want to compose. In the days before composition software with playback it was of course helpful to be able to actually hear what you wrote but other than that I can now only come up with these:

  • You might be able to try out different things, like melodies or harmonies or rhythms, quicker. For me it's faster to do it in my head, though, and then use the software to check how it really works. Also, if you're a beginning player this might just limit you since you can really only try simple things.

  • Even though the programs today can do some rubato and dynamics, and you can get pretty good-sounding samples, their playback still sounds very artificial. With a real instrument it could be easier to try out different nuances like good rubato or microdynamics, or what really sounds good on a real instrument. For this, too, you'll need to get above beginner level.

  • Knowing an instrument will also help you write "idiomatic" text for it. But again, if you don't get pretty advanced you might as well just study the instrument and its playing techniques theoretically. This is what composers do for most instruments anyway since there are way too many to play all of them.

So, these are some reasons but they all seem to require above-beginner level of skills, and on the other hand if you have a good "inner ear" you can do the first two without an instrument anyway.

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Traditionally speaking, composers throughout history have either been keyboardists of some sort or violinists. The reason for this is that before the advent of technology, the piano was the primary source for playback for a composer - thus, if a composer wanted to hear what they wrote, they had to learn to play the piano. As far as violin goes, I can only estimate that it is because its lineage (along with the rest of the string family) predates the large majority of other instruments.

That said, technology has in some ways replaced much of the old tradition. Now, a composer doesn't have to be a competent pianist in order to write - the computer plays everything back - albeit a bit unrealistically.

Learning to play an instrument is beneficial for composing for a few reasons:

1.) You can play what you write for others! You can share your passion and joy with those around you, and that is something that is very enjoyable in itself.

2.) It helps make your music more expressive. It has been said that the music you write can only be as expressive as you yourself can be expressive on an instrument. Learning an instrument for composition has more to do with learning how to express things musically than rigid technical mastery.

3.) It provides invaluable insight into the way instruments handle - how to write idiomatically for each instrument. This is important for helping performers to sound their best while also making the music rewarding for both you and them as well.

4.) You don't have to master the instrument. Even just a basic understanding about how an instrument works - that is, how it produces sound, things it does / doesn't do well - can significantly improves a composer's writing quality.

5.) Talk to people who play instruments. I love doing this and it is very helpful. They've put in all the time and effort learning the instrument, and they can share their knowledge with you. Going along with this, also have people play sections of things that you're working on. This can give you a clear idea of the sounds you're looking for.

6.) Lastly, don't feel as though you have to pick a particular instrument. Regardless of what you do, all that really matters is that you try to find an instrument that you enjoy playing - for the sole purpose of playing for simple enjoyment.


That all said, it is important to be realistic about your goals. I'm definitely not suggesting that you should stop everything your doing, rush out, and purchase a really expensive instrument. That's just silly.

You don't have to know how to play an instrument to write music - thousands of people do it every day. I merely suggested it as a means to help you increase your writing ability.

Finally, I don't believe someone is ever "too" old to learn new things. I just read an article today about an 87yr-old woman who earned a college degree. Things like this are always inspiring and motivating.

I hope that helps.

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In my experience, learning an instrument makes coming up with individual voices in a song much easier, because you can press "play" on your Sibelius song and solo/jam along to it until you produce something you like. This helps when you're at a particular measure in a song and you find yourself lost or falling back on the same songwriting tropes.

Piano is a good choice for a composer, since it allows you to realize rhythm and lead at the same time, even at a beginner level. It's harder to do that with an instrument like guitar or violin.

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I think this answer has some good content but I am not clear what it refers to. When you say, 'Another thing to mention is that it makes coming up ...' What is the 'it' referring to? –  ABC Feb 7 '13 at 13:13
    
Are you saying that composing on Sibelius may somehow make me tend to restrict myself in some particular cliches? If this is what you are saying I kind of agree with you. That happens to me. Now, I am not completely sure if to blame Sibelius or my creativity and my experience, the lack of it. –  ABC Feb 7 '13 at 13:19
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(Edited my answer to make "it" clearer.) Well think about it - by learning an instrument, you can improvise along with the song, playing whatever happens to flow from your fingers. You can often "discover" new ideas for your song this way (either by accident or by accessing ones lying dormant in your subconscious) that you otherwise wouldn't have thought of. How would you replicate such a thing in Sibelius with a static music sheet staring you in the face at all times? Unless you hear the music in your head already, you're feeling in the dark. –  XåpplI'-I0llwlg'I - Feb 7 '13 at 14:26
    
This is a very good point. I feel this when composing in Sibelius. It is more rigid than when I fool around with some friends' keyboards. In Sibelius you can input notes using the keyboard of the computer, A,B,C,D... but since accidentals require more key combinations they are only added a posteriori. –  ABC Feb 8 '13 at 4:21

I also tend to suggest the piano. One new argument for it is, that digital pianos are available which may directly provide MIDI input for any decent composition software. While there are a few other midi-enabled instruments, like Yamaha WX5, which may be easier to master in real-time, the restricted range will make things unnecessary complicated. Dynamics are much easier simply recorded than written and to speed up, what you played, to the tempo you imagine is also easy.

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I suggest a multi-pronged approach. I think to write music you need to be able to play basic tunes and chord progressions by ear on the following classes of instrument:

  1. A keyboard-based instrument

    A piano keyboard makes a lot of music theory explicit. When I explain transposition, keys, and other matters to do with relative pitch, I usually refer to a piano keyboard, even if the questioner is used to a different instrument.

    So a keyboard helps you "see" pitches, and is particularly useful when transcribing music, because it's so explicit which notes you're playing.

    For your purposes, a $30 toy electronic organ serves the purpose as well as a grand piano. I imagine USB musical keyboard will be of use in Sibelius.

  2. A chord-based instrument

    ... by which I mean an instrument in which (as one playing style) chords are the primary thing you "punch in" to the instrument. The prime example is a guitar, ukulele, banjo etc. - most players begin by learning to strum chords.

    It's good to have an instrument like this to explore and experiment with chord progressions, without focusing all that much on individual notes.

    Other possibilities for playing with chord progressions include autoharp (acoustic or electronic), or the auto-accompaniment feature on many electronic keyboards.

    Or, of course, you could just play triads on a keyboard.

  3. A diatonic instrument

    By restricting you to a diatonic scale, an instrument like a harmonica, melodeon, certain toy instruments, make it easy to improvise melodies in a Western tradition.

    You can get the same effect by just playing the white notes on a piano. Experienced players of any instrument will have trained themselves to stay in a scale, but for beginners it's good to have "training wheels" like this.

    Of course, sometimes you want notes that aren't in the diatonic scale -- at that point, switch to a chromatic instrument.

  4. An instrument which doesn't distinguish between sharps, flats and naturals.

    On a piano, you know if you're playing a sharp/flat because the key is black. On a guitar there is no special indicator. Sometimes it's nice to think in this style: a fifth is just five frets up, no matter where you start. This is good for thinking in tunes in terms of intervals, regardless of key.


Clearly there are overlaps here; your example of piano and violin covers all those categories -- piano for 1,2,3 violin for 4. But you could pick another set of instruments that allow those styles of thinking.

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+1 for including diatonic instruments. –  luser droog Feb 8 '13 at 8:08

What's that saying about old dogs and new tricks? Yeah, that one. It's a load.

I say, go out and get yourself a keyboard and/or a guitar. There are a wide variety of models at different pricepoints and feature levels; you should expect to pay at least $500 to get either a keyboard or a guitar that will be durable enough and sound good enough to last you a while.

The keyboard is going to be the more versatile of the two, and the easiest to start plunking around on, although as was said, it can take you several years to really get comfortable playing with all five fingers of both hands.

The guitar is going to be the easier one to start doing chord work on; you can learn the open chords and start playing along with basic chord charts in a matter of days. A lot of singer/songwriters of all ages do their composing on guitar, because that's the instrument they'll take out to the coffee shop (or the stadium) to perform those same songs.

On top of all that, I would invest in some music theory education. Just diving in and writing what you hear in your head is great, if you can, but not a lot of people can do that without any formal music education. I'd check the local community college; even if you're not planning on getting a music degree, the ability to sit down in a classroom and interact with a teacher who really knows this stuff is light-years ahead of most of the resources on the Internet, even including this site.

As far as knowing how to play an instrument before you start writing, there are good reasons but I wouldn't call it an absolute necessity. It's a good idea because:

  • First and foremost, you have to know the sounds you want when you're composing for an ensemble. You can get the basics by just listening to each different instrument, but each instrument is capable of a large array of subtle differences in tone and expression that you can utilize if you know what markings the instrumentalist will be expecting to see when you want him to do something.

  • Second, you have to ensure that your piece is within the technical ability of the instrument and the average instrumentalist. Most trumpet players are not Maynard Ferguson (though they may want to be). Just because someone can hit that high Z-flat doesn't mean it should be expected of everyone. There are resources that can tell you the expected range of the instrument given the skill level of the player.

    For chorded instruments like the keyboard and guitar, you have to make sure that the instrumentalist has enough fingers to form the chord you want. For piano, for instance, if you expect two notes to be played at the same time on one hand, they can't be more than about an octave apart (and some really good pianists can't span an octave). For guitar, where the notes are laid out in two dimensions, a single hand is capable of "spanning" multiple octaves, but as there are a limited number of strings, there are fewer valid combinations of notes playable on a guitar as a chord. Therefore, you have the opposite problem; you have to ensure that the two notes you want played together can be played by fretting two different strings within about five frets on the fretboard. Minor and major seconds that don't include an open string's pitch are generally no-nos.

  • Third, even knowing the range of the notes, it's helpful to know what movements of notes would be considered difficult:

    • On wind instruments, large jumps (an octave or more) generally require crossing some sort of "break", such as changing partials, where there's more to changing between the two notes than changing fingerings.
    • Woodwinds additionally have a "native key" that can be played on the main fingerholes or pads; going more than two keys around the circle of fifths from that native key is going to be troublesome for all but the most skilled players.
    • On bowed strings, you can't usually expect a legato transition between strings more than one string apart (such as from the E to G); you can, however, still get away with some pretty big jumps, because the open strings are tuned a fifth apart and the span from the open string to octave is possible, if difficult, to span with one hand on a violin or viola (cello or bass, no way, but a good cellist can fake it remarkably well).
    • On plucked/strummed strings, the "shape" of the notes on the fretboard become important; it can be difficult to jump around in intervals that require the same finger to be in two different places very quickly.
    • On keyboards, lines that cause the two hands to merge or cross are generally to be avoided because it'll jam up the pianist; they generally like melodic runs that stay on one hand or that transition cleanly between two hands.
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In addition to the suggestions here, working on your singing may be helpful; being able to sing what you are trying to write, by itself, or over top of your playing (or computer playback) can be a way to rapidly test ideas.

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A viable choice I see underrepresented here is the Autoharp.

It has the advantage over other instruments that the keys are labeled with chord names. If it's songs you're trying to write, words + music, this could get you going pretty quick.

For an even lower lo-fi approach, the autoharp can be simulated on a zither or hammered dulcimer by using the left hand to mute unwanted strings much as the mutes on the autoharp function.

The zither is a diatonic instrument, (cf. Slim's category 3). This instrument drives home the term key-change. You literally have to leave the key hanging on the instrument and grab it and change it.


Having listened to some music from your link. I have another quirky suggestion, for antiques-mall entusiasts. The electric organ. It's like an enormous harmonica with an electric bellows. But it gives you expression in the timing, and shrieks like a banshee. Glorious noise.

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It is more like this kind of music (youtube.com/user/franklinvp?feature=mhee). Not really songs, but it could be songs some time. But it is good. First time I hear about this instrument. –  ABC Feb 8 '13 at 8:28

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