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I'm interested in learning music composition, but in spite of music being as old as time itself the majority of resources I've come across so far seem to suggest that a beginner learn sections of music theory, which is a monumentally complex subject, or work to improve through simple trial and error.

It makes the idea of becoming even moderately skilled seem dauntingly difficult.

Taking illustration or painting as an example, if a beginner were to simply draw lines to approximate what's in their mind they would eventually learn to become a better artist, but the progress would be slow and painful. Fortunately in that case you could build on the work of past artists by learning/practicing specific well established skills:

  • Shape/proportion
  • Light/shadow
  • Perspective
  • and so on...

My real question is this: What, if any, analogues exist for music composition? Essential skills that every composer needs to know that serve as building blocks for more complex artistic expression. Or is my thinking here fundamentally flawed?

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    No, your thinking here isn’t flawed; you actually stumbled into something unique about composition pedagogy, of which there are arguably scant resources. Many composition teachers argue it can’t even be taught. As you alluded to, most of the time books on “composition” are actually books about theory, form, orchestration, etc, but not actually about composing. Fundamentally, you need to understand pitch, articulation, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, texture, tempo, and practicality. – jjmusicnotes Aug 7 '18 at 1:30
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    There are absolutely different and distinct skills involved in composition, many of which jjmusicnotes alluded to. Although composing is a creative and personal art, like painting, your ability only improves as you study the individual skills of harmony, theory, orchestration, technique, etc. You'll find that many of the great composers studied things like counterpoint with fabulous teachers. So although a certain amount of "raw" bent toward musical creation should exist to begin with, study of these individual skills will only vastly improve one's composing horizons, so to speak. – Kevin H Aug 7 '18 at 2:20
  • Thanks for the comments! I'll be researching done of these terms as well as the accepted answer. – Tristan Shelton Aug 7 '18 at 10:59
  • @ToddWilcox It's not that I don't want to learn music theory, it's just a lot to take in all at once and it's not all applicable to all types of music. I find that practicing essentials makes it easier to learn the more nuanced aspects. – Tristan Shelton Aug 7 '18 at 11:04
  • Sorry, I think I misunderstood your point about music theory. – Todd Wilcox Aug 7 '18 at 14:08
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It's an interesting question, and the answers depend on what style you're aiming to compose and where you are as a beginner. Here I'll list five basic elements, and these elements assume an understanding of basic theory (like pitch and notation).

Melody Writing

One could make a good argument that the most influential aspect of most music is the melody. Sure, there are pieces where harmony or rhythm are more important, but more often than not it's the melody that tends to get stuck in our heads long after the piece is over. There's just nothing like a beautiful melody.

In the Classical era, good melody writing fell under the purview of counterpoint. Counterpoint is still taught today, but it's often taught very different than it was, say, in 1770.

Harmony

In many respects, harmony also once fell under the umbrella of counterpoint. (See How is counterpoint different from harmony?) But learning proper harmonic progression, and how to trigger particular emotions with harmony, seems paramount.

Rhythm

It's true that rhythm hasn't always been the most important musical element; one could certainly make the claim that it didn't really achieve much prominence until about the second half of the twentieth century. But proper understanding of rhythm (and meter) and how rhythms coincide (and work against each other) is vital to creating whatever effects you're seeking.

Form

The inherent emotional content of form is often overlooked; composers throughout history are on record emphasizing the meaning behind their formal structures. And this isn't something limited to classical music; form in popular music is equally interesting, if not moreso.

Instrumentation

One can be a great composer and have relatively little knowledge of orchestration, but clever orchestration can make all the difference in the world. Check out this piece, originally written for piano. Now see what a difference this orchestration makes. Or perhaps this segment compared with this orchestration makes the difference even more clear.


Of these, notice that all five really fall under the purview of music theory. Understanding good melodic writing, especially in terms of counterpoint, is music theory. Harmony, rhythm, and form are all absolutely essential music-theoretical concepts taught to every undergraduate music major. One could perhaps make an argument that orchestration falls outside the category of music theory, but I'll offer a (perhaps silly) rebuttal: every university I've ever seen lists orchestration as a music theory course.

  • An excellent answer and very rich in the exact kind of information I was looking for. Thank you! – Tristan Shelton Aug 7 '18 at 10:58

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