Calling all composers! Advice from the professionals.

Piers Hellawell, Professor of Composition at Queen’s, has some words of wisdom for students working on composition projects.

Firstly, your ideas need to be based on what real instruments can do. Forget the computer playback, which will do what you tell it; a player won’t! You need to ask your mate who plays trombone to give you a lesson, so you can write actual trombone music. Instruments are not all the same! Ask a player if your music looks as if it was written by a player – that’s a great compliment if it does.

Secondly, composing is not just about repeating stuff you already heard; we’re all influenced by what we like, but to compose is to try to make your own little space – and this means, sometimes, looking for new harmonies and breaking out of ‘4/4’ rhythmic blocks. Yes, you must be conversant with how tonal harmony works (related keys, inversions etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s the best material for your own piece!

Thirdly, you must devour classical music from the past, to build a platform – no one can compose in a vacuum of ignorance. Don’t be scared of scores, which are a miniaturized world full of know-how by great people. Get a score of a Beethoven symphony and follow a CD with it until you aren’t intimidated by the score any more. Other composers’ scores can tell you how to write down things you hear in your head.

It's very common for young composers to shrug when players point out mistakes, as if to say 'it wasn't me'! That might do for Bart Simpson, but not for you. Notation is a message to players; if it causes problems instead of giving answers, it isn't working - just like handwriting or spelling. Things like bars adding up and notes being playable on your instruments are YOUR responsibility. They waste precious few minutes you could be hearing your music; would you really rather be explaining why your violin has a bar missing? And don't assume computer notation means you don't have to know how to write music down! Programmes deal in raw data; it has to be edited just like a manuscript. You should only use a computer score once you have learned your trade - and that comes from studying other scores.

Finally, remember that composition is a great way to understand more about yourself and the music you hear and perform. You may start out imitating something that made a big impression - whether or not you realise! But if you keep going and are really critical of what you write, there is a good chance that 'the real you' will emerge in your sounds. I am amazed in Queen's University that the more we are surrounded by commercial and 'easy' sounds that we already know, the more students want to compose things we don't know - they want to struggle, want to be heard. Composition offers something new to every generation.