I love music. I play the piano and know the basics of orchestration. I also know how to manage the computer programs required to make music. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) I have many other interests. And observing how my life is going so far, I do not think I will go to music school (I'm about to graduate from school.)

Most likely, I will end up studying philosophy or something similar. But as stated earlier, I love music, and I don't want to drop it. I want to learn how to compose orchestral music like the masters, but I just don't have the time to invest in a complete musical career.

Can I do this even without formally studying music?

  • If you have the hunger then you'll make it happen. Otherwise not. There's that line in Donald Fagen's New Frontier where he sings "…Till I finally make up my mind To learn design and study overseas" Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 11:41
  • To “compose like the masters” you have to put in a lot of time. Even if you don’t attend music school, this still applies. Not attending music school is not a shortcut (in fact, studying on your own will probably be less efficient – as Gary mentions).
    – 11684
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 8:44
  • Is your main goal to become a good composer or a good orchestrator?
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 11:19
  • @Dekkadeci It would be amazing to be both
    – John F101
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 17:59

2 Answers 2


I like to think one can compose music, songs, jingles, etc. without "formal" training, but ...

There is so much to each of the arts that it takes a mysterious and marvelous mental and emotional facilities to produce a decent creation (that has anything extra above the commonplace work) in any art. This includes music. There is always a possibility of genius so there is no telling when and where it will appear. You might have it, or it could just pop up as you begin to "do" music.

Training, schooling, and studying on your own are always helpful, though. And then practice, practice, practice, is usually needed, and can become a fun part of your life.

Being in a school setting (for the arts) gives you a better chance, however, for many reasons. First is learning the discipline you will almost surely need. Then there is being with others, interacting with them, and being inspired by what you see and hear, and developing your tastes of what to try and what to avoid.

You will be exposed to working with others and seeing what you can easily do to work with them, and discover areas you will have to study and develop for your own work. You may get chances to do things you need materials and help to try and understand.

For example, I played the piano, but got the chance to (some would say "had to") play trumpet, violin, guitar, clarinet, flute, and some other "things," all of them not very well. Without having to commit to any of these instruments, I still learned about them and what they are capable of. It is a great help (or was to me) to feel comfortable about writing for them.

So, depending on how well you can soak up experience on your own, I'd still suggest you sample some formal training in a music education setting. I was in a university that had a conservatory so I could take Music School courses while I was still a major in mathematics and philosophy. I feel like it saved me ten years of study on my own in one year of study in the conservatory.

Good luck to you, whatever you do, and enjoy the music!


I agree with Gary and would just add that for me, as a composer, the most fantastic thing about music college was having an orchestra you were encouraged to write for. Mixing with other musicians was important too: finding out what's possible on a harp, which trills are best avoided on bassoons and why you should never smile encouragingly at the brass.

Almost as important were composition tutorials, then harmony and counterpoint ones, then ear-training and improvisation classes, and lastly figured bass, over which I draw a veil.


There are websites where brass players demonstrate the different mutes, bassoonists show you how they flick and guitarists explain flat finger tunings. When I was a student, scores were extremely expensive. Now there are out-of-copyright ones you can download free, and YouTube clips showing the score as the music plays. And scores are also cheaper to buy. Norman DelMar's Anatomy of the Orchestra is full of useful practical information and there are plenty of books on orchestration. Piston's is wonderful, if a bit dated.

There are online courses in harmony and counterpoint, but choose carefully. This forum sees some very misleading examples. Ask a composer to be your tutor. You will need one. Get him/her to criticize everything you write. (I'm too old to use the cowardly upstart 'critique'!)

It's good that you're handy with the technology. Most composers prepare their scores in Sibelius, as you probably know. And of course film composers need to be able to synch to picture using something like Cubase.

Most Russian composers studied and worked in some other field than music, so it can be done. Though it helps if your parents are aristocrats. Any chance?

  • 1
    "Though it helps if your parents are aristocrats. Any chance?" Hahaha, no chance. :)
    – John F101
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 13:20
  • “and why you should never smile encouragingly at the brass” • OT, but… do tell!
    – mirabilos
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 18:32
  • Two pieces of advice to conductors are attributed to Richard Strauss: "Never smile encouragingly at the brass." and "The left thumb must never leave the waistcoat pocket." When I was a student - ages ago! - these were well known. Somehow the first quote has become corrupted into the less funny "Never look encouragingly..." The original source was, I think, the conductor Maurice Miles, who, I think, had studied under Strauss (gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/…) at the Mozarteum in Salzberg. Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 21:05
  • @Old Brixtonian: Perhaps because you don’t want the brass to smile back?
    – wabisabied
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 0:06
  • Oops! SalzBURG, not -berg. Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 9:23

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