do you guys know how to prepare for a music major? More specifically a composition major, in an university/faculty that emphasizes performance. (or a conservatory)

Should I be a master at my instrument?


You need to be humble, first and foremost. Especially as an undergraduate, accept and try everything that your teachers tell you - especially if you don't agree with what they say. Composers who believe they know best tend to learn little and their careers suffer as well.

Write as much music as humanly possible.

ALWAYS revise - especially when it's painful and you believe that you love what you have.

Write everyday; never stop, no matter how long or arduous the process may seem.

You do not need to be a master of your instrument, but you can only write music as expressively as you yourself can perform it, so think about that. Also, I would highly suggest writing for every type of instrument you can get your hands on - talk to the people who play those instruments WELL, and take notes. Do not believe for a second that writing for an orchestra makes you a respected composer.

If you're in high school and applying to some universities, I would try to get your high school band / chorus to perform / record something of yours. It wouldn't be a bad idea to write something for yourself as well. ALWAYS try and diversify your pallet of experience: write for what you don't know. If you play brass, write for strings, woodwinds, and percussion. Write for everything. All the time. Always.

If you are already enrolled in the university, I would highly recommend taking the pedagogy classes that your music education classmates are taking. Learning how to play each instrument (and the issues therein) is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Good luck.

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  • This is a good answer. Basically, you need to have a primary instrument that you play well, you need to be able to pick up other instruments to check for playability and range at a basic level, and (this is something jj didn't mention) you need to be very good at analyzing music -- that means studying music theory. You'll also need a lot of patience, or else be preparing for a day job. Music composition will not earn you the downpayment on a house, unless you get a teaching job in a music department. That takes time -- hence the remark about patience. – aparente001 Dec 6 '15 at 2:36
  • @aparente001 Yes, you're right, I forgot! Analyzing other people's music does take theory, but analyzing your own music (especially when composing) takes experience and an objective eye; composers must keep their idealized, mental projection of their intent in focus. – jjmusicnotes Dec 6 '15 at 6:05

I failed an audition for DePaul's music composition program (the only school to offer a Jazz Composition degree), so I can offer a few tips.

You should be able to sight-read simple pieces on your primary instrument cold. And you will be expected to go beyond just playing correctly, but musically -- with any piece of music they put in front of you. Now of course, they're not going to hand you a Bach fugue (but if you can play one, they'll probably want to hear that, too). But you should be fluent on your primary instrument, though you don't need to be a virtuoso -- that's what the school is for.

You should bring some things that you've written, but avoid being too avant garde. That original that you scrawled on poster board with a dip pen in red and purple ink -- leave that at home. Write it out nicely, in standard notation. Even better, bring more than one copy so they can read along. Don't try to out-Schoenberg Prokofiev, because you won't do it justice.

[Hm, need to edit-out some sour grapes, there.]

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    Though they both lived at the same time, I do not believe Schoenberg and Prokofiev shared compositional techniques with one another. Now, Stravinksy on the other hand... – jjmusicnotes Dec 5 '15 at 17:45
  • Was the program solely on composition? Or composition and performance (or something like that)? – Shevliaskovic Dec 5 '15 at 18:27
  • I auditioned on piano, which I had only played for 2 years, having played guitar for 6 years at that point (age 16). So I was told that I wasn't sufficiently competent on my chosen primary instrument: piano. This was in conjunction with an early-acceptance application, so that may have raised the bar on me. I could play every song recorded by Tori Amos (pre-1996) but I couldn't play this piece they put in front of me that was supposed to sound like a rooster crowing or something. I forget the title, or maybe I never knew it. – luser droog Dec 6 '15 at 0:37
  • @jjmusicnotes I had listened to them all devoutly, but without any rigorous study or analysis of technique. So I had written a few pieces that just kinda sounded weird but pleasing to me. And they weren't impressed. I later realized that it only sounded right on my piano, which was an ex-player upright, not in particularly good repair. Certain combinations of notes would evoke these eerie resonances from that sorry instrument that simply couldn't be reproduced on another piano. – luser droog Dec 6 '15 at 0:42

A good composer would still be proficient in one or more instruments. Do not stop playing your instrument just because you have decided you want to compose.

As with all music programs the more theory you know the better. That is also actually one of the better reasons why you should do theory as it educates you in how to compose.

Also I would start analysing a lot of scores. The wider your musical knowledge spans the better informed your own compositions would be.

Write a lot of melodies. They form the basis of all compositions.

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    Personally, I've found music history to be much for informing compositionally than theory, but that's just me. Theory helps if you're stuck on an idea sometimes. Also, melodies absolutely do not form the basis of all compositions. – jjmusicnotes Dec 6 '15 at 17:48

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