As someone who has never taken composition lessons, I've always wondered how one teaches composition without straying into the purely subjective. In other words, how does one teach composition in a way that you're giving students fact-based suggestions for improvements instead of merely opinion-based suggestions?

I suspect that good composition teachers offer a mixture of both, and that subjective suggestions are more about teaching students to always think of new approaches. But I'm specifically asking how one teaches fact-based suggestions in a subjective (i.e., opinion-based) art form.

And more specifically, what are these particular objective tasks that are taught in composition lessons?

If possible, I'm looking for answers that apply to composition of all genres.

  • 1
    There are elements to constructing a musical piece that can be view objectively but the application of those elements is up to the composer. I imagine that the same is true of painting. You can teach one how to use light, shadow, perspective, etc to create a scene but the artist is free to use them as they please, even to misuse them in a sense.
    – user50691
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 1:08
  • 2
    Though the parallels are very interesting, art should not be thought of or taught as science, and the traditional stance on this seems to have been that craft can be taught, but art can only be learned. Maybe the best you can do is provide tools and a model for inquiry. It sometimes feels like "fact-based" vs "opinion-based" has become a hollow soundbite: the opinions of those who have devoted much time and thought to a subject are valuable. I think that one role of a teacher, whether of mathematics or of music, is to lead by example a critical inquiry.
    – user39614
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 1:13
  • @DavidBowling - 'art can only be learned'. It often can, but there are those who never 'learned' it, instead it was (and is) an innate quality, maybe getting better with experience.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 7:17
  • Fact-based suggestions for improvement will be plentiful when the music would otherwise be unplayable. Examples include spans of a 13th or more in one hand for solo piano, 6 or more music channels for NES music (note that the NES is not compatible with Famicom chips that can increase the number of music channels), and low C for piccolo.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 7:52

5 Answers 5


Composition is actually taught (and learned) only partly objectively, with the rest being taught subjectively. Broadly, there are "mechanical" aspects to composition that range from critical to helpful in importance. At the same time, every composer has to find their own process and "voice", so there are ways to help composers do that, but it is essentially a subjective process.

The objective aspects of composition are probably already clear. Music theory, the ranges, timbres, and loudnesses of different instruments, and even what we might call "tropes" or forms and how they typically are interpreted by listeners comprise the bulk of the important objective knowledge needed for effective composition. Many have composed without solid knowledge of all of these areas, but knowing as much as possible does help a lot. Every composer has to have some way to "fix" their compositions, whether writing sheet music or recording ideas or just jotting down chords, so teaching how to read and write music and/or record and produce music are also important objective aspects of composition.

For the subjective parts, obviously there's no body of knowledge that can be transferred, but it is possible to lead to students on processes of discovery. One time-honored way to do that is to give compositional assignments that start small and grow in complexity and originality.

An excellent example of a leading exercise for composition is an assignment to write a two-part invention. One way to make it easier for beginning composition students (who should already be adept at writing short four-part harmonies either given a predetermined chord progression or soprano or bass lines) is to have the students come up with their own motif or subject and then create a countersubject. From there, students can be told or allowed to model their inventions on existing inventions, perhaps by Bach.

That process begins with analyzing the invention that the assignment will be based on, writing the Roman numeral analysis on the score through the whole invention, as well as marking the major sections, key changes, and often circle of fifths progressions and cadences. Students might also be asked to note any suspensions or other types of dissonance.

From there, the original invention can/must be followed. Perhaps the student picks a beginning key and then creates the same harmonic structure based on their own melodic motif. The easiest way to complete such an assignment would result in an invention that has exactly the same number of measures as the original, with exactly the same harmonic movement from chord to chord and measure to measure.

Writing and adhering to the form and traditions of a baroque invention turns composition into a problem solving exercise. You generally have to alter the motif in interesting ways to follow the harmonic structure of the original invention without unstylistic dissonance. And it is much easier to write a development section when you have the subject and harmonic structure already decided. Such an assignment teaches students how composition can often be a process of creating and then solving problems for oneself. Having completed such assignments, it was a surprise to me how much I grew to be frustrated with my original motif as I tried to work through the development section, while at the same time learning that every motif/subject will present different challenges when one is trying to develop it within a predetermined structure.

Subsequent assignments can range from single movements in sonata-allegro form to entire symphonies. Each assignment can (and arguably should) have different rules and restrictions, which help prevent students from feeling overwhelmed. The fewer choices you are allowed to make in the beginning, the less pressure there is to "be creative".

If you're skeptical whether such exercises help develop each student's individual creativity, I have some responses (which you may or may not accept):

  • This is a time-honored compositional education strategy that has been used by many to learn composition.
  • The incremental nature of the exercises gradually builds the creative requirements and asks more and more original content from the students.
  • Artistic creation is, in more ways than you might expect, largely about problem solving, not about inventing something from nothing. Generally, a very small amount of raw inspiration is the germ from which a large work of art that is broad in scope is grown in a mostly mechanical, problem solving process. The initial idea(s) lead the artist to the subsequent ones, and at some point the restrictions and structure form the snowy slope that the tiny snowball idea is rolling down, gaining mass and momentum, until the huge snowball/avalanche is formed seemingly on its own. 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration applies just as much to the arts as it does to invention.
  • Not only is it hard or impossible to teach creativity, you don't have to. Humans are inherently creative. Once you've given a person the tools to create, they will start creating. Now, that doesn't address the subjects of taste or artistic honesty and integrity. I personally believe that a creative professional with the tools and training will be inspired to create work that only they can create, and while it may be small, there is some kind of audience for almost anything that is the result of diligent and thoughtful hard work.

Great answer by Todd.

To create a short answer culled from what he wrote:

Counterpoint is a method of composition that is rule based (or "fact based", if you will). Follow the rules and it is nearly impossible to create a piece that sounds bad. As Todd notes, it consists of a great deal of problem solving. So, even in the "facts", there is creativity. It's like having a map and coming to a fork in the road --> do I turn right, or left? It's a choice.

When teaching "music theory", ie harmony and/or composition, it is common to use what I call "restriction exercises". You restrict the choices available in order to dig deeper into variations that can be created w/ the tools you can use.

For example. Let's use a key, and C is easy.

The chords of C

  • Imaj - Cmaj

  • IImin - Dmin

  • IIImin - Emin

  • IVmaj - Dmaj

  • Vmaj - Gmaj

  • VImin - Amin

  • VIIdim - Bdim

For the sake of the exercise, pick any 3 chords, and try to make it "sound bad". You'll find you can't. Also, we'll omit the Bdim chord for the time being.

How many arrangements of these chords can you come up with?

Does ||: C / Amin / Dmin / G :|| sound good? Of course it does.

How about: ||: Emin / C / D :|| Yes, again, of course.

Experiment w/ different arrangements of these chords. The given key, w/ the given chords is the "fact based" aspect. How you choose to organize your song/piece/arrangement is up to you. This is not factoring in various styles, etc, as mentioned in above answer, but how many styles can you use to play your arrangements? How about fingerstyle? Voice leading? etc.

Again, read the above great answer, as he goes into it deeply.


Forget all about conventional "music theory" (apart from the basics like note names and durations,) "common practice harmony," etc, etc. Going down that rabbit hole teaches "how to imitate (usually poorly) someone else's compositions," not "how to compose."

Treat the subject like an adventure game. Give the student some rules (paradoxically, the more limiting the rules, the better the results, with good students) and make them explore the possibilities of those limitations.

Eventually, let the students choose their own rules to explore. Actually, with good students, you wouldn't be able to stop them inventing their own rules and exploring where they lead to, even if you wanted to.

A simple example of that sort of exercise: "Write a piece (any length, any combination of instruments) using only the pitches A and E flat (in any octave you like). All the A's must be half notes or longer. All the E flats must be quarter notes or shorter."

  • There is a potential parallel in visual arts called "stochastic painting," where the artist (or the instructor) sets up a set of rules and uses randomness (e.g. dice rolls etc) to pick coordinates, line length/width etc. A student might find something like this somewhat interesting and it might be better to start there and then encourage them to start making decisions in a later exercise. It may not produce many works of beauty, but it is a good way to really establish the structures in a playful way without angst. Then again, might be too cerebral for some.
    – Yorik
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 14:19

If you want to teach music composition the objective way, you'd have to study just intonation (no, not just temperament). Despite the fact that most (99.9%) of music is written in 12TET, music often has implications of nearby just compound frequency ratios. For example, the major triad is close to 4:5:6, the diminished triad is close to 5:6:7, and the dominant seventh chord is close to 4:5:6:7. You'd have to dissect the full meaning behind frequency ratios in just intonation and learn concepts like prime-limits, tuning lattices/structures, etc. In short, the only objective way to teach music composition is by teaching the math behind it.

  • Just can't understand what this answer has to do with composition. Tuning, yes, composition, no.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:36
  • @Tim This looks like a troll to me Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 14:18
  • in weak defense of 12tet, the western style of music is an implicit injection of subjectivity that many do not realize. It is as deep a realization as it is trivial IMO.
    – Yorik
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 14:22

As someone who works directly alongside university composition professors (I'm not one, though), I observe that they do not usually think of helping students master historical styles as "teaching how to compose." You write an invention in order to understand how Bach composed. But that doesn't make you a composer.

They tend to see their job in two parts. At the end of the process, they help student composers present their work in correct and efficient notation. They'll point out places where the way something is written will be confusing and unprofessional, not get the effect wanted, antagonize players, etc. They'll also advise on practical issues of orchestration and ensemble politics. (Better not to write three isolated notes for marimba in the middle of 20" piece with no other percussion!)

But their main interest is in engaging students at the level of IDEAS. A student brings in some musical material, which is interrogated as a source of musical ideas -- ideas which can be developed, contrasted with other ideas, generalized or extended in systematic ways. Once a student composer starts writing, various continuations are essayed in sketch form and a discussion happens: what are you doing here? Why did you move away from this stuff to do that other thing? Where is this all going? Don't you think this section is too long (too short, not varied enough, missing a key potential of the material, etc.)?

At one level, this is all subjective. But it's intersubjective: the contract behind composition lessons is that the student can't say "well, that's just how I want to write it," and the teacher can't say "well, do it this way or else." They keep each other in check. And they negotiate according to a logic that is real, and shared. So it does have something like an objective existence. (See Kant, Critique of Judgment for details, he said, kicking the aesthetic can a long way down the road..)

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