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I am looking for a path of self-taught books for western music compositions. For instance I know there are many subjects like harmony, counterpoint, forms, orchestration, etc. But there are many books available for each subject and I don't know where to start. Can anyone provide me with a proper path, if there is any?

Which subject should be learnt in the first few steps and which book is the best practical choice for that? (by "practical" I mean it's not a 2000-page book containing all the history behind the rules)

EDIT: I am mostly interested in Classical composition. But my other favorites are Flamenco and Jazz.

I assume for flamenco I have to go through a totally different path but I believe learning the fundamentals of classical composition is the safe start for composing in other types of (rich) musics as well.

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For basic theory, Paul Harder's programmed introduction (2 volumes) to harmony is good. The newest versions are expensive, Greg A. Steinke (co-author) has a 12th edition for $118 per volume. I found some older ones (5th or 6th edition) in a used book store for about $10 each. These are really good for basic Common Practice Period harmony.

There are some good free texts (or reference books) in PDF format on the net. One is Frank Shepard's Harmony and the same author's Counterpoint. Also free (and very good) is Percy Goetschius' "Exercises in Melody-writing" (also available on Google Books and the Wayback Machine). Goetschius has two good books on counterpoint too. His books on harmony are not as good.

I don't know much about jazz but there are internet resources and some not-too-expensive texts. There are good net resources for flamenco.

In addition, you need to spend lots of time listening to music. With YouTube, you can get a good concert every day.

  • Thank you for your answer. Do you know what is the next learning step after counterpoint ? Is learning Forms a good next step? – Kennet Celeste Mar 9 '16 at 20:00
  • You will get some knowledge of form from the earlier study. Next (and along with learning thee basics) try composing things you would like to hear. The see whatever happens. – ttw Mar 9 '16 at 20:12
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I found Schoenberg's "Theory of Harmony" stimulating on the harmonic front, though you may want to look at some others (Hindemith, Piston?) to see if they are more suitable to how you learn. Rameau—mostly useless, avoid. Counterpoint is trickier, as a teacher or software (e.g. Counterpointer) are probably more useful for actually doing exercises and getting feedback than plowing through reams of text. Anything by Hugo Norden is excellent, though his books can be difficult to find.

  • can you also tell me what is the next (best) step after learning the counterpoint? – Kennet Celeste Mar 9 '16 at 15:15
  • Dunno, I learned counterpoint first, and harmony second. I suppose you could learn either first, or both at the same time. Otherwise, reading scores (e.g. the Bach chorales) is a source of good information. – thrig Mar 9 '16 at 15:21
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Study scores. Look at how it HAS been done successfully. A traditional path, before music printing, was to set students to hand-copying existing scores. An excellent way to see how the music actually works.

This week's project. Obtain a copy of Bach's "Minuet in G". Take it to bits. See how a melodic phrase is stated, then repeated, with variation? Then a portion of it is further repeated. See how it has a harmonic journey from G major to D major, then back again? See how the bass line sometimes echoes the melody, and the other accompaniment devices that are used?

Look at the other pieces in that collection. Try writing a similar piece yourself.

Then blow out on Mahler 4 or the Firebird. They're bigger, and louder - but the same devices are used.

PS Did I mention to study scores? Lots of them.

  • To amplify this idea, copy some scores into Finale or Sibelius or Finale Notepad (which is free and OK for small ensembles). Historically, budding composers copied out scores of interest. For Common Practice Period, there are lots of free scores on the net. Listen and study scores as you listen. I like to copy scores when listening to sports broadcast on radio (that's TV sans picture for the younger guys). Baseball and football are good for this; basketball and soccer, not so much. – ttw Mar 10 '16 at 5:34

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