Wring music? How hard can it be?
June 15, 2008 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Can I learn to create melodies?

I love music, but I can't play an instrument. I can't read music. I don't understand the first thing about music theory. Though my life contains plenty of music listening, I've always been sad that it doesn't contain any music making.

I know that music-making is a hard thing to take up, especially for a middle-aged guy, but I have an impulse to make it even harder for myself: I want to compose. While -- in my wildest dreams -- I'd like to compose symphonies, I know that's not even close to realistic. I'd be overjoyed if I could gain the skill to compose "simple" melodies. Not for fame and fortune -- just to amuse myself and to learn a little about what it's like to "be on the inside" of music.

My guess is that even this is a pipe dream. Is it? One thing I've always wondered is whether people who come up with songs had melodic ideas before they ever learned about the mechanics of music -- just like someone might make up a story without knowing anything about the mechanics of writing. I certainly know of plenty of people, like The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin, who had melodic ideas without knowing how to read music. But what about people who have never even played an instrument?

I've never had an original song pop into my head -- or even a snippet of melody. Even if I learned how to read music and play an instrument, is there any reason to believe I'd be able to write music? I understand that to write music WELL, you have to be gifted. But is it more binary than that? Do you either have it or you don't? Can you become a music creator -- even just a so-so one -- by learning some mechanics?

(By the way, I know there are all sorts of looping programs out there. I've played with them. They don't interest me. I want to create original melodies. I don't want to mix a bunch of riffs and beats together.)

So have any of you ever go from having zero musical ideas to having some musical ideas? If so, what brought you from point A to point B?
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Just grabbing a guitar and playing around with it. I'd say string instruments would be your best bet because they have actual notes and it takes no skill level at all to make noise come out.
posted by theichibun at 8:46 AM on June 15, 2008

It's really not hard. Whistle or hum a tune and see where it goes. You can sing or hum along with a track on the radio, but take the melody in the direction you want it to. You needn't be able to play an instrument, anybody with fingers can play a basic melody on a keyboard and the more you play around the better you'll get.
posted by fire&wings at 8:50 AM on June 15, 2008

Response by poster: It's really not hard. Whistle or hum a tune and see where it goes.

This is my point, exactly. When I do that, unless I'm whistling a tune I know, I just start whistling the musical equivalent of writing random words. It's not even pleasing on a "Row Row Row Your Boat" level. I'm wondering if learning some mechanics would help.
posted by grumblebee at 9:00 AM on June 15, 2008

You may find it helpful to take a music theory class. Your melodies won't be spontaneous, but you'll learn how to create ones that reliably sound good.
posted by LSK at 9:06 AM on June 15, 2008

If whistling isn't pleasing, then writing music will not be either. You need to learn how to enjoy sound. Even if it doesn't have a "logic" it can still mean something. I suggest that you start with Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening practices to get an idea of how you give meaning to sound. Once you understand what sound means to you, you will understand what you want to do with it.

If you want to immitate Mozart, there is computer software that will do this for you.

If you want your sound to conform to some water-tight logic, you should learn about Anton Webern.

If logic isn't as important as just performing and having fun making sound, read Derek Bailey's Improvisiation. Ornette Coleman is pretty much self taught as a musician and considered one of the most influential musicians of the past century. Check out his album Free Jazz for some inspiration.

You don't have to have a conservatory education or years of lessons to be able to play, although they do help. Why would you want to write a symphony? Because you really like sonata form and middle movements with trios, because they are really long, or because some people consider symphonies the pinnacle of music composition? There are ways to be a good cook without running a three star restaurant, after all.
posted by billtron at 9:19 AM on June 15, 2008

What happens when you fiddle* around with a keyboard? It can be easier than whistling because you're always in tune and you can play with visual and tactile as well as auditory patterns. You can also tweak chords easily.
posted by trig at 9:22 AM on June 15, 2008

Here's a neat trick that really works:

Sit down at a piano and play ANYTHING as long as it's only on the black keys. It'll always sound good.

There's a reason for this, physical, theoretical, and spiritual, but we need not go into that now. Just try it.
posted by stubby phillips at 9:25 AM on June 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here's a more direct answer to your question:

I was 14 and I had just started my very first job. I was painting a church. I was high up in the air on a ladder, painting, and music started playing in my head. It never stopped. Over the years I've gotten better at transcribing it. That came from learning more and more about music.

So get a ladder and a paintbrush, is my advice.
posted by stubby phillips at 9:38 AM on June 15, 2008

It's hard- at least to create something that sounds like what your head expects. The best trick I use for just getting started is to give myself some kind of definite intent by taking a piece of text related to the mood of what I want to create (one that isn't from any song you know) and singing it. It's extremely goofy at times, but it usually yields something, a handful of notes, that I can key into software. I put down as much as I can think of, and then I just mold it, adjusting the length of the notes, doubling them, inserting rests, sharping notes, etc. Right now I like Palette because it doesn't require much knowledge of actual theory (just patience), but it has little lessons built in if you do want to learn.
posted by notquitemaryann at 9:41 AM on June 15, 2008

You can't really 'learn' a creative process. You can just do it a bunch and maybe you will create something to your pleasing and sometimes not. You don't need anything other than your voice to write melodies. A piano might be useful to keep you in tune.

Learning music theory and whatnot may help you avoid 'poor' melodies by teaching you what not to do (i.e. don't play notes not in key...unless it sounds good) and how to harmonize but you don't really need all that for basic monophonic melodies.

Also, you obviously have musical ideas even if they're songs you've heard from somewhere else. I don't think any artist creates in a vacuum: if you're trying to come up with a completely original musical idea you might be out of luck.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 9:42 AM on June 15, 2008

addendum: I also am aiming for symphonies, and I usually begin with sonnets.
posted by notquitemaryann at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2008

You've been doing it all your life. Ever whistled your own tune? Sang da-da-da-da? Thought you were singing someone else's tune that you got wrong? That's creating a melody.

Get a cheap keyboard and get thee to work.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:55 AM on June 15, 2008

Microsoft research has a toy called MySong, which exactly matches the situation you describe.

Or sit down at a piano or with a guitar and plunk out stuff your own way. It's not that hard, honestly.
posted by lothar at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to challenge most (all?) of your assumptions above. You've romanticized composition, and therefore you see it as mystical and out of reach. So let's dig in:

"I know that music-making is a hard thing to take up"

Wrong. We see children making up songs all the time. They may not be songs that anyone other than a parent would want to hear over and over, but that's a degree of craft. Making music is easy. Perfecting your craft takes time. But to your point, music-making is not hard to take up. We're all wired to do it.

"While -- in my wildest dreams -- I'd like to compose symphonies, I know that's not even close to realistic."

Mozart didn't pop out of the womb writing symphonies. He may have developed the skill faster than most of us, he still had to learn how to do it. You can. It may take time, but that's up to you.

"One thing I've always wondered is whether people who come up with songs had melodic ideas before they ever learned about the mechanics of music."

I'd venture to say that every musician had musical ideas before they learned enough theory to talk about them. If one doesn't like music, there's little reason to delve into the theory. Theory doesn't allow you to write music (although it can help you out of jams sometimes.) Theory helps you understand why and how you hear what you hear. It helps explain why you may like or not like something you're exploring. But you have to do the exploring first.

"I certainly know of plenty of people, like The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin, who had melodic ideas without knowing how to read music. But what about people who have never even played an instrument?"

They're called singers, and many write their own melodies. Most melodies imply chordal structure, so if you write a melody, any decent musician can help you figure out what you wrote. They didn't write it. You wrote it. They just know how to mechanically manifest what you wrote.

"I've never had an original song pop into my head -- or even a snippet of melody."

This is, I think, the thing that's holding you back the most. Famous musicians often like to say something like, "I don't know where this song came from. I just picked up the pencil and there it was." But that's bull. They've been writing for years, and are in the practice of writing all the time. That means they've developed their craft and the work sometimes comes easier. But it's still work. One of my most influential composition teaches once said to me, "We're lucky if we're inspired once or twice in our lives. The rest of the time is work." Writing music is work. It's something you have to learn how to do, and the most important way to learn is to do it. No amount of music theory can replace the work of sitting down and trying.

"Even if I learned how to read music and play an instrument, is there any reason to believe I'd be able to write music?"

Those are two separate things. Learning to play an instrument is fun. Writing music is fun. You can choose one, both, or none.

"I understand that to write music WELL, you have to be gifted."

No no no no no. To be a genius musician, you have to be gifted. (As a hint, there are probably less than a few dozen genius musicians alive right now. The rest of the musical world is just doing the work of making music.) Writing music is a skill, like making pancakes. The best way to learn is by turning on the stove and getting to work. You can consult cookbooks and other chefs all you want, but until you start cracking some eggs, you'll never get anywhere.

"Can you become a music creator -- even just a so-so one -- by learning some mechanics?"

Yes, but you can just as easily become a music creator without learning mechanics.

Since it didn't come up in a response, let me add that your first pancake is going to taste mediocre, maybe even bad. So will your second and third. You may get a nice one here and there, but it takes a while until they're consistently good. Your first melody may sound random to you, and in fact it might be. So will your second and third. You might get a nice turn here and there, but it will take time and effort before you're writing consistently interesting music. That's the single biggest element that separates professionals from those that tried, "but aren't gifted enough." The pros kept working until they got better. The "un-gifted" got discouraged and gave up.

Good luck.
posted by ochenk at 10:07 AM on June 15, 2008 [16 favorites]

I highly recommend the "bang on the black keys" suggestion. Just play around with patterns of notes... bang at random, and if something sounds good to you, start repeating it. Throw in little changes as you repeat it. If you make a mistake while doing this, be open to the possibility of keeping it, if you like the sound.

Making music, like all other creative fields, is about experimentation and taste. You mess around with your instruments and you stick with the things you like and discard those you don't. As you collect more ideas you like, they inspire further ideas, and slowly you might end up with something complete.

Also... there really isn't all that much theory to writing melodies. There aren't really "rules" for writing one, as there are (sort of) for harmony. Even those "rules" are meant to be broken.

That said, go learn some basic theory. It's not nearly as hard as you'd think. Understanding octave equivalence, intervals, scales will make it easier to compose music in the western tradition.

Oh, and I think you should try to write a symphony some day. I only restarted music at 17 or so, and I've felt like it was too late (I went to school with a lot of prodigies). It's never too late, the brain is extremely plastic. If you've been listening to music all your life, you've been refining your taste, figuring out what you like, and that's half the battle.
posted by phrontist at 10:08 AM on June 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

One thing you can do, even without any formal training, is to start paying attention to the little building blocks that other people's melodies are built out of. It turns out that there are lots of them — little snippets of melody or rhythm that are reused everywhere.

F'rinstance, hum the first five notes of "Row Row Row Your Boat." Now hum the start of the chorus from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime" ("Let the da-a-ays go by-y-y..."). Now try the first three notes from that damn "Do, A Deer" song from The Sound of Music. Now try the start of the chorus from John Denver's "Country Roads." Now try Janis Joplin doing the first verse of "Get It While You Can" ("In this wo-o-orld...").

Can you hear how the tune's similar on all those? The rhythms are different, but the melody follows the same sequence: a low note, then a little higher, then a little higher still.

There are hundreds of patterns like these. Some are melodic. Some are rhythmic. Think about that "shave and a haircut" beat that you hear in "Who Do You Love?" and "Not Fade Away" and the goddamn Macarena and about a million other places.

Some are local, giving you just a couple of notes. Some describe the shape of a whole line. F'rinstance, the lines in blues and older rock songs tend to start high and work their way down — think "Whole Lotta Love" or "Folsom Prison Blues" — while the lines in hymns and anthems tend to start low and soar upwards — think "The First Noel" or "Oh Say Can You See." Some even describe the shape of a whole song — think of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus in rock and folk, or the A-A-B-A pattern in show tunes ("I Got Rhythm," "Yes Sir That's My Baby," and also the Flinstones theme for some reason).

And seriously, 99% of the time, 99% of songwriters are just rearranging these old familiar patterns. It's why some songs sound familiar the first time you hear them. It's also why, say, traditional Chinese or Indian music sounds so unfamiliar to most Americans — they're drawing on a different set of patterns than we're used to.

So how do you learn these patterns? Well, playing an instrument does help. These patterns get into your muscle memory, and start to come out almost automatically if you just noodle around on the frets or the keyboard or whatever. Music theory classes can help. Some of them will teach you about songwriting theory; others will really just teach you how to read music or stay in tune with the band while you're playing a guitar solo, which are helpful skills but not essential ones. But no matter what, a lot of it is just paying attention. The next time a song reminds you of another song, ask yourself why. Think about what, say, Bob Dylan songs have in common that make them sound different than Prince songs, or vice versa.

(I seem to remember you write plays, yes? The active listening that I do as a musician has always reminded me of the people-watching and eavesdropping that my writer friends talk about. I know jack shit about your creative process, but I imagine one way or another you know how to soak up inspiration and influences and then reshape what you've got into something new. Really, songwriting is just doing that with melodies instead of stories and conversations.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:15 AM on June 15, 2008 [12 favorites]

The reason we suggest the black keys is because they make up a pentatonic scale. These scales (basically, a collection of notes you've chosen to write some section of music in) contain fewer intervals than the traditional western major and minor scales (which aren't the only ones, but they're by far the most common).

The intervals (frequency distance between notes) in a pentatonic scale are such that everything you play will be fairly consonant. Carl Orff, who you may know for having composed Oh Fortuna, developed a whole method of music pedagogy based around starting with pentatonic scales ("where no serious mistakes could be made") and adding intervals progressively, encouraging experimentation all the way.
posted by phrontist at 10:15 AM on June 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'll recommend Bamberger's course, again. You're just the kind of audience it caters to.
posted by Gyan at 10:16 AM on June 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't want to sound a fussy note (pun completely and obviously intended), but a little bit of knowledge about music theory would probably help you a lot. I'm not even talking about the kind of crazy-ass stuff you learn in your senior year at the conservatory, I'm just talking about learning what makes keys work and why some notes sound very natural (given when and where you presumably grew up) and others sound so unwelcome at times. I think people shy away from music theory because they have a sense that it locks you into one particular way of thinking and doing music, but I think that may be overblown. I learned lots of rules for how to make music growing up and I break them all the time if something sounds better.

A helpful guide to thinking about music theory to help you get your feet wet in writing melodies. Melody is just the arrangement of different pitches. We tend to think of that as arrangements of notes because since the ancient Pythagoreans, we've found lots of ways of organizing and classifying their relations to one another. If you take that continuum of pitches, you could divide it up any way you want, but western music has usually divided it into twelve tones - the twelve notes of the lettered scale you're probably aware of. You could have divided it into 24 units (as some do) or 16 (as some do) or 134,567 (as no one ever has, I assure you). Western music has settled on 12 for whatever grand reasons, none of which really matter to what you want to do.

Now, if you play all twelve tones indiscriminately, it tends to sound all jumbled and crazy. If you only play some of the notes and pick carefully to emphasize how they sound together, you create more of a sustained mood to the music you create. You can buy all the music theory books on Amazon and spend the next ten years studying anywhere you want, but that will always be the big idea behind the whole thing. Talk about keys, modes, tone rows and all the other fancy stuff are just different ways of coming at that same idea and writing it down. So I'd suggest you try picking up an instrument (better a cheap little keyboard or guitar than other alternatives) and read a little bit about keys (the link provided above). If you get bored with that after a year or two, maybe read about modes, which are just variations on the more familiar sorts of keys. All of these are just starting places to think about how to put music together, and anyone who does it long enough ends up throwing the rules out or ignoring them as they find a voice. In the end, play the music as you hear it, not as the book decrees it, and play it because you love to do so.
posted by el_lupino at 10:38 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The answer to all your worries about whether you can learn music-making is:

YES, you can.

If you've got a persistent urge to make music, you can do it. There's no guarantee that you'll be great at it, but you can certainly get better, and keep getting better, for as long as doing so stays interesting to you. This is true for anybody, gifted or not. Everybody who makes music had to study doing so, in some form or another, in order to get better at it.

So, you've missed out on learning music in all the traditional ways, and maybe you're not "naturally gifted." So, you'll just have let your preferences and passions as a listener and your determination to be a maker carry you over the difficulties. Your path to music making will be unique. Cool; maybe your music will be unique, too. How unique can you stand it to be? It'll be inefficient. So, how much frustration can you stand? And how fervently can you hold on to your purpose in the face of discouraging results or reviews? I wasted many years explaining to myself all the musical gifts I lacked before I finally decided to just go ahead and do it anyway, however I could. I've had a great time with music ever since, no matter how many folks question how "musical" what I do is...

You do need a way to test your musical ideas, so pick an instrument or some note-sequencing software, and start learning it. There's a HUGE teach-me-music industry out there. Much of it will be useless to you at the start and maybe forever, but some will be really helpful. Go ahead... The sooner you get started, the sooner you'll be surprising yourself.
posted by dpcoffin at 11:48 AM on June 15, 2008

sort of along the lines of the 'use only the black' keys method:

find middle C (or any C in the middle). whats cool about starting at C is that you can just play the next 7 white keys and you will get a standard do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do scale without having to know any flats or sharps (the black keys).

now, if you try to tell yourself that the C that you have chosen is some sort of 'home' key, i think you might be able to play around with some simple melodies. start with C, go up a couple notes, come back down to C. skip some keys, or dont. just stay on the white notes for now.

then, you can start playing with 3rds and 5ths. C is the 1st note, E is the 3rd, G is the 5th.

try playing C-E-G-E-C

this might help you start to get a feel for melodies.
posted by gcat at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2008

Response by poster: Good Lord what a bunch of great responses! Thank you. I wouldn't even begin to know how to mark a best answer. Everyone has contributed something useful.
posted by grumblebee at 12:08 PM on June 15, 2008

Btw, if you've ever had the thought that the music you were hearing would be better IF...., you've had musical idea.

And re: your comments about looping software: You might want to try working with some MIDI loops, as opposed to sound-file loops. The difference is that MIDI loops allow you to easily mess with the pitches and placement of individual notes, and you can change the instrumentation, too, so you can edit them in a much more "compositional" way than you can screw around with simple sound file loops. Apple loops, used in Garageband and Logic, come in both flavors. I suppose similar things exist in the PC world.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:14 PM on June 15, 2008

Yes, try a keyboard. It's easier, imho, than a guitar to get around to the different notes for a beginner. Your humming/whistling may not sound good because they aren't likely to be really on pitch or to get the intervals right. The black keys sound nice.
posted by DarkForest at 2:23 PM on June 15, 2008

Some great advice here. Another thing to think about is the music you listen to. Listening to drudgy and uninventive music won't help you much. Try listening to some great songwriters who write basic, highly effective melodies over interesting chord changes - early Beatles, Squeeze, Elliott Smith etc.
posted by fire&wings at 4:05 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sing a song to yourself. Then alter the notes, one by one. Then you'll have an original song. It's simple, it's easy and eventually you'll be able to take off the training wheels and just start making up your own melodies.
posted by Kattullus at 4:14 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I totally agree with what everyone here has said. Just a few things I'd like to add/emphasize:

* YES, YOU CAN DO THIS. And you can write symphonies.

* I think it's a big ol' stupid myth that creative endeavors and skills can't be learned. I used to believe I couldn't draw; I, personally, am in the process of learning how to draw (and paint), and while my efforts leave A LOT of room for improvement, they also show an enormous amount of improvement over what I could do before I started reading and practicing. Similarly, I know someone who thinks you can't learn to improvise musically; I, personally, am in the process of learning how to do that. Like ochenk said, your first efforts aren't going to be great. (My first efforts were decidedly not great.) Here's the trick: cut yourself some slack. You're a beginner. Reward yourself for effort and perseverance. You'll have plenty of time to figure out how to get better.

* To riff a bit on what nebulawindphone said:

My background is in language learning. Language learning is a lot of memorization and recombination:

I have a pen.
I have a book.
You have a book.
You have a pen.
We have a pen and a book.

You learn to make sentences out of little phrases you already know. There is nothing wrong with that. This is, in fact, how language works.

If you want, you can think of creating music in the same way. You can give yourself simple little exercises:

Take ten random pop songs.
Identify short melodies of no more than 10 notes from each one.
Recombine two or three of these snippets in different ways.
Play them over and over until they sound less like the songs you took them from. Lengthen or shorten a note here and there. Drop or raise a note here or there.
Listen to your slightly altered combination and decide whether you like it or not.


And some more exercises:

Write a melody line that ascends.
Write a line of six notes that descends and then ascends.
Write a line of seven notes that uses the notes in a Cmaj7 chord. (This is where the music theory comes in handy - but you DON'T need to know it all before you can start playing around.)

Just fiddling around with clumps of notes like this will get you started.

So, there are two things here: (1) don't expect yourself to be 100% original to start with; think of it as normal and valuable to begin by playing with snippets of existing music, and (2) give yourself tasks. "Write a symphony" is way too big of a task for a beginner. "Write a melody line" is perfectly doable.

* Go to your library and see what kinds of books they have. I hate the title of the "for Dummies' series, but I'm actually thinking of getting a copy of Music Composition for Dummies. I bet your library has it - and I bet they have a ton of similar books on the same shelf. Some will be ridiculously complex and over your head - but there'll be one or two that can give you some really good direction.

Good luck! YOU CAN DO THIS.
posted by kristi at 5:43 PM on June 15, 2008

This may be a bit off topic, but it may make you feel better to know there was (and possibly still is) a school of musical analysis called Schenkerian analysis that tries to reduce all the great western music of the ages to Three Blind Mice. So if you come up with something that simple, then play around with melodic variations, then maybe some tonicisation and key changes and you'll be well on your way.
posted by Admira at 6:17 PM on June 15, 2008

Fun little mini-lesson, one in a series.
posted by prefpara at 8:26 PM on June 15, 2008

I highly recommend learning to play an instrument that is technically very simple. I'm thinking something like a pennywhistle; unlike a keyboard, you are very limited in your selection of notes, which makes it easier to play, in a way. Then, start playing familiar melodies on it BY EAR. Resist the temptation to use only written music to play--it has it's place, but if you learn the tunes by ear, you will learn far, far more about how the melodies are put together.

Also learn some theory. I don't know if someone else has already linked to it, but musictheory.net is a decent place to start. Check out the ear trainers, especially.

I understand that to write music WELL, you have to be gifted.

This is only sort of true. People make a big deal about Mozart writing symphonies at age 3. They also make a big deal about him creating great art at age 25. They leave out the years of hard work and study that came in between.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:34 PM on June 15, 2008

Oop, almost forgot: if you parse down almost any piece of music of appreciable length, say the first movement of Mozart's famous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, you will find that large swaths of it are just repetitions of other large swaths of it. It's one of music's dirty little secrets.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:40 PM on June 15, 2008

The absolute easiest way to play simple melodies is to go to the toy department at a store and find the toddler toys. There's a toy called the Crocodile Xylophone (though you plunk keys rather than hit it). It's very easy to come up with melodies on it because it only has 7 tones and they're all in the same key. There's no way to overthink the Crocodile Xylophone.
posted by drezdn at 6:48 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Otherwise, nthing learning theory is a really great idea. It's the musical version of sharpening your ax or doing code practice. If you learn theory, as pointed out above, you'll be able to understand why something sounds good. With the right teacher or book, theory is pretty easy to pick up.

As a musician, when I was first starting out, I found the parts of songs I really liked the most (usually on the instrument I was learning to play) and looked up how to play them. Usually this was the melody, and it taught me both a bit about learning my instrument and learning how to write a melody.
posted by drezdn at 6:54 AM on June 16, 2008

I'm a working composer (in the sense that I make a [simple] living mostly from commissions/grants/prizes/fees) and I see there's a flood of excellent answers here already... so what I'll focus on are two points that struck me in your question:

1) Yeah, you seem to be romanticizing the act of composing (like almost everybody does) and thinking of it as fundamentally removed from the process of learning about and experimenting with an instrument or instruments. I'd say it's absolutely worth your while to start that learning/experimenting process and see where it takes you.

I notice your remarks that you have "zero musical ideas" and have never imagined "even a snippet of melody." I wonder if those feelings also come from a sort of absolutist "you either have it or you don't" thinking. I would say the only thing one either "has or doesn't have" is the basic impulse to create, and you obviously have that. You're obviously interested in composing over, say, directing movies or starring on Broadway (or for that matter, conducting), and those are equally romanticized professions, so there's a deeper focus to your impulse.

2) Writing for orchestra as an ultimate goal. Again, possibly the romanticizing speaking. Having written for all forces, solo to orchestra, I can give at least an anecdotal answer that question. Is it 'most fulfilling' to write for orchestra? Does it feel like a pinnacle of my work so far? It can be more significant in purely material terms (more likely to result in specific rewards and specific future opportunities) and there can be a primal thrill in hearing a large group realize one's ideas that's different from the thrill of working closely with a chamber group or a soloist. But writing a solo instrument piece or voice+piano piece or small chamber piece is absolutely the same work and the feeling is the same. Again, the same impulse to create.

But in terms of goals: there is no dividing line between first experimenting on an instrument and eventually writing a symphony. There's just a long process of learning, listening, thinking, and certainly trial and error (as ochenk emphasizes above). If you start studying theory and comp, along the line you'll have a chance to study orchestration, which involves learning about and learning to 'hear in the voice of' every instrument in the orchestra, putting them together in small groups and sections, and eventually putting together all the sections and learning to hear for them (write for them) collectively. Many thousands of people are going through this learning process right now. You can absolutely become one of them.

My most direct answer at the moment (and at first this will sound kind of adorably ironic given the bits about "romanticizing" above, but bear with me :)) is that I happen to be crazy in love right now and this has inspired me to do something I actually hadn't done before, which is writing music directly/explicitly 'about' another person. Now, the first two pieces I'm writing in this state are (because of existing performance opportunities) small chamber pieces. So, clearly, not symphony-scale. But they're still more thrillling than the large-ensemble writing I've done and they may turn out to be the best (clearest, most evocative, most musically effective) work I've produced so far, to whatever extent that can be measured.

The upshot? Again, the thrill is in the process and in the inspiration (wherever yours comes from, and obviously you're inspired). It doesn't have to be literal passion; the passion comes from the process itself. From the acts of discovery and focusing your hearing. Studying theory and history and analysis and orchestration is really all about focusing your hearing and focusing your experimentation -- giving you tools, vocabulary, and historical context so you can discover and hear in your own way.

So: Trust that there are no binary divisions (either of the "have it or don't" flavor or on the "solo vs. symphony" continuum). Go for it. See what happens.
posted by kalapierson at 3:03 AM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I understood from your comment that while not making music of your own, you've at least whistled to songs you already know. How often do you whistle (or sing, or hum) like that? Do you hit the notes? (Unless you're quite sure you do, you should ask a musical person; I think failure is hard to recognize for some.)

I haven't read the literature for music in specific, but in general I've gotten the impression that the neural circuits which control motor patterns are crucial in many kinds of mental imagery as well. If this does apply to music in the way I think it might, developing the ability (if you haven't already, that is) to effortlessly reproduce melodies (whistling, singing, or playing an instrument) would provide a necessary medium for a musical imagination to develop in. No guarantees, though: Both my mother and I are decent singers. She says that her head simply does not create music, whereas mine does all the time, and I don't know where the difference lies.

And all of this is moot, of course, if you already habitually whistle along in a passable manner.
posted by Anything at 7:45 AM on June 19, 2008

I am conservatory-trained in theory and composition and while I wouldn't trade my training for anything in the world, I also consider it completely unnecessary for writing music.

Some of the musicians I have admired most have had absolutely no formal training and know very little about music theory.

Learning theory is great but let's not put the cart before the horse. You are capable of composing complex and interesting melodies by ear, but it will take at least a year of solid theory training before you're able to put those ideas down on paper with any accuracy. Until you get pretty well-versed in theory, it won't help you to notate much more than nursery-rhyme type of stuff. So take your time and learn it thoroughly, but in the meantime work on composing by ear. You may want to look into a multitrack recorder or recording software that will allow you to sing a melody and cut and paste and slide it around.

In the meantime, some things you can do:

1.) Listen to a lot of music, any styles. Try to listen in a more active, open way than you usually do. Focus on things other than the melody -- maybe start with the bass line, or an instrument in the middle of the texture. Listen for how the music is developed -- how one idea moves to the next, how certain ideas come back again and again, and how (if at all) these ideas vary each time they come back. Pick an instrument that's not in the foreground and listen to it over and over and over again until you sing along with it. This could be the viola section in an orchestra piece or the snare drum in a hip hop track, it doesn't matter, just train your ears to listen "inside" a piece of music.

2.)If you think your "original whistling" is random and unpleasing, try recording it for a while. Listen to it back and find the spots that you kind of like. Whistle those ideas again and build on them. Record again, repeat, etc. Composing can be like sculpting -- you start with a misshapen lump of clay and gradually mold it into something with shape. If you think your whistled melodies are bad, think of them as your clay and then work on tweaking them until they're no longer bad. (If you think they're bad, then clearly you have an ear for discerning between good and bad -- try to think hard about why you dislike your melodies and alter them gradually until they're good -- it's that simple)

3.) Try taking a poem you like and singing it. Having lyrics may lend some structure to Sit for an hour with one poem and sing it over and over and over in as many ways as you can think of. I bet you will start to come up with patterns and start repeating yourself, repeating ideas and improving on them. Your melody will almost certainly sound similar or derivative of something -- don't worry about that, western musical language has only 12 notes and a handful of distinct rhythmic patterns so there's no avoiding that.

Hope these ideas help a bit
posted by Alabaster at 8:51 PM on June 21, 2008

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