Learning Music Theory/Composition.
March 1, 2006 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I want to get better at composing music.

I can noodle around with a midi keyboard and Reason and stumble on some good riffs every once in a while, but I really would like a sounder basis for writing melodies and arranging. What the best way to go about that? Piano Lessons? Music Theory lessons? The immediate purpose of this is to produce electronic dance music, but I'd be interested in learning either Jazz or Classical as well. If you suggest music lessons-- what's the best way to find a teacher that specializes in that kind of thing? I'm not interested in performance, just composition.
posted by empath to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Sammy Nestico wrote a book called The Complete Arranger. If you can get a copy, you should be off to a good start. He's one of the better arrangers of big band and jazz music (and if you've played any Count Basie charts in school, chances are you've played his work).
posted by plinth at 7:57 AM on March 1, 2006

The aptly named musictheory.net helped me out quite a bit.

Also, I was given The Idiot's Guide to Music Theory as a gift and found it useful. It assumes you have zero knowledge, so you might have to skip the first few chapters ("...this is a quarter note..."). The final chapters cover the basics of composition (chord progressions, counterpoint, etc.) enough to get you started and able to read more advanced works.

Good luck!
posted by pealco at 8:15 AM on March 1, 2006

Hmm, interesting. Metafilter adds its own referrer code to Amazon links.
posted by pealco at 8:16 AM on March 1, 2006

Yes, "music theory" lessons would be the best way to achieve what you want. There are plenty of good books; browse websites and read reviews, then visit local libraries to check out the favorites. As to finding a teacher, it's difficult since you didn't specify where you live, but the general advice is to approach a local music school or university.
posted by cribcage at 8:19 AM on March 1, 2006

improvising jazz by jerry coker is a short book that although it's geared more toward performance, has a rich set of chord progressions typical of jazz that is valuable to study and learn from ... even though it's meant for performers, there aren't a lot of "play this" note by note examples ... the emphasis is on chords and how they work together and it's very useful for composers
posted by pyramid termite at 8:33 AM on March 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would recommend doing the Royal Conservatory piano course with a teacher. The fundamentals cover a far more useful notion of composition than a Jazz course would (relative to electronic composition).

You don't need a jazz improvisation course because you are composing on your own and (hopefully) you aren't soloing for 15 damn minutes.
posted by dobie at 8:59 AM on March 1, 2006

I recommend music theory too. I'm on my second semester and there are loads of things that are turning out to be useful. (I'm a songwriter, btw.) At the least learning about chords and scale theory will give you some ideas.
posted by konolia at 9:19 AM on March 1, 2006

I'm a composer so this may be the one question that I'm qualified to answer. I would recommend reading up about basic theory but getting a teacher is a good way to go. It's very useful to have someone push you in different directions and also to have someone on the 'outside' as it were who's able to see what you need to work on.

Really the best way to learn is by actually writing as much music as possible but also by listening to as much music as possible. I think that composers have to become professional listeners. It's possible to hone your listening skills so that you have a pretty good idea what's going on in any given piece of music (regardless of style). The goal being that you can ready absorb the ideas of others and process them through your own writing 'filter' (which I think you can only really develop by continuously writing music).

I don't think that musical style has much to do with it. Obviously theory is grounded in classical music (and jazz) but I think that in this day and age one should be open to all styles and influences. It's possible to draw a compositional lesson from all types of music.

I'm sorry if this reads like a stream of consciousness, but I wrote this way too quickly. My email is on my profile, so you can email me if you like.
posted by ob at 9:28 AM on March 1, 2006

The best theory book, esp. for someone like yourself, that I've found is this one (but I used it almost 20 years ago, so can't vouch for the current edition).

I recommend some basic theory coupled with piano study, too--learning to play the piano some will really help you 'put your hands on' the basic theory you'd learn. In writing songs of any kind, an understanding of tonality, keys, etc., is critical--and understanding the building blocks of tonal music is as much kinesthetic as it is visual, aural, or conceptual. Coupling intellectual study (in theory) with the kinesthetic and aural reinforcement of basic piano study is most efficacious in my experience as a teacher. (I'm a music professor/conductor now.)

I also recommend something Bach had all of his students do: copy music. Get a book of Bach's two and three part inventions (which you could reasonably aspire to play, too--at least, the 2-part ones) and some manuscript paper, and copy them. By rewriting his music, one is forced to really look at the details of things like voice leading, movement of tonal centers, etc. From there, you could proceed to Haydn string quartets and do the same.

Also, listening to music by great melodists while looking at the score can be tremendously helpful. (The list of 'great melodists' could be really long, but I'd recommend Dvorak, Schubert & Schumann lieder, um....my brain's not working--other suggestions, anyone?)

And finally, listen to as much music in as much detail as you can--ob is totally right that composers must become professional listeners. Try deconstructing it to the extent possible: any music must have form to make sense--can you perceive large-scale form in some of your favorite music? (Asking questions like: where does material repeat? where does it contrast? where are new elements introduced? will help you get started.) Well-composed music doesn't have just a memorable melody (if it's melodic music), or clever orchestration, or innovative sounds, or etc.--it has two key, un-do-without-able elements: economy of means and a perceptible form.

To learn to create music well (of any kind), you must first learn to perceive it clearly.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:49 AM on March 1, 2006

dobie, the improvising jazz book is very thorough when it comes to music theory ... even though it was written for improvisers, the depth of theory explained in this book and the many example chord progressions will teach a composer more about what's been done in popular song, how and why chords are put together and how they lead into each other, than most other books do

it isn't a "play these notes like so and so" kind of book ... it's more "this is what jazz musicians know about music so they can improvise" ... but it's the same things they have to know to arrange and compose, also

i've had this book for 30 years and still refer to it
posted by pyramid termite at 10:56 AM on March 1, 2006

Listen a lot. You want to get to the point where you can shout out the chords in a pop song as they go by. You need to know what a chord progression sounds like in order to know when you want to include it in your own composition.

I would recommend trying classical theory first. It's harder than analyzing the blues, but it'll be applicable to pretty much all Western music. After you have solid background, it'll make learning, say, jazz theory much easier.
posted by danb at 12:38 PM on March 1, 2006

Also, listening to music by great melodists while looking at the score can be tremendously helpful.

That's good advice, but I don't see why you should restrict yourself to "great melodists." I'd say "great composers.

You don't need a teacher to learn theory. The aforementioned musictheory.net is nice, but very basic. I learned from Harmony by Walter Piston.

Piston's Orchestration is good too, but Adler's is more modern and thorough.

That's all stuff you can sit down and read through and learn on your own. Piano lessons would probably help, but I'd probably be more inclined to recommend singing lessons. Composition is very much a hearing art. You can't write what you can't hear. You'll get a lot of mileage out of developing your ears. Even if you don't feel like getting singing lessons, you should focus on ear training. It's crucial.

When you've got some theory under your belt, check out Alan Pollack's notes on the Beatles canon.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:09 PM on March 1, 2006

(I'd say "great composers."

Oh, absolutely--empath mentioned wanting to write better melodies specifically, thus my rec.)

(If anyone wants an amazing glimpse at a possible pluralist future for concert music, check out "Ayre," by Osvaldo Golijov. Truly remarkable work--written for Dawn Upshaw, with a chamber ensemble + laptop and sound design.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:31 AM on March 2, 2006

cool question and links...i'm struggling with the same thing...trying to come up with some self-study for composing, with ear training and improv (piano) in particular, and the links here are helpful...

and ludwig_van, that beatles canon link is sweet! i'm ready to drop my other music and just use the beatles catalog with this site to learn from...
posted by troybob at 2:07 PM on March 2, 2006

and ludwig_van, that beatles canon link is sweet! i'm ready to drop my other music and just use the beatles catalog with this site to learn from...

Seriously. I've learned a ton from it. Just read and listen and read and listen until you've internalized it. He's very thorough in illuminating all the devices they used, and they're very easily applicable to many different types of composition.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:36 AM on March 3, 2006

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