Composition Masterclass

First printed in the Rhinegold Guide to Music Education (Rhinegold Publishing, 2007)

Most of us start our composition journey the traditional way – learning the conventions of music through practical music-making, theory exams and exercises. This is a double-edged tool: as a young composer you need to understand the role of this training – that the things you learn are a trampoline to launch your imagination, not a boundary fence around it. Conventional skills, like balancing an eight-bar phrase with another, are fundamental, but they are not in themselves meant to impose limits on how we compose. It is very important to cherish what you learn – musical literacy – but remember that a work of art always involves a leap of imagination.

If you’ve tried keeping a composition going without knowing how, you’ll know how frustrating it is! That’s why we learn traditional skills: thinking about balancing phrases prepares you to connect event one in your phrase to event two. Without that we just flounder between new ideas. But your composition will be wholly limited in expression if you try to write only within conventions like regular phrasing: many great classical pieces themselves went far beyond such practices. Try taking the idea of balancing without borrowing the actual phrase-structure. Harmony offers the same pitfalls. Learning how keys and chords work opens up understanding but it doesn’t have to limit our creative work; don’t just accept the boundaries of tonal composing but explore new ones. The conventions of harmony, phrasing or metre from the past can help us not because we use them literally, but because we know how to. Composing means being unhappy with what we have: if you’re totally happy with reusing the materials of the past, you need to ask whether you’re really composing something personal. In this way, composition is about going beyond what you think you can do. If composition were just reproducing musical patterns we already know, it would hardly be a discipline. It is normal to have the feeling at the outset of a new piece that you don’t know how to do it, in one sense, and that you do, in another. This is because traditional training should kick in, as you evolve a way to work. Composition includes a sense that you are finding out something new – it’s a puzzle that you both create and resolve yourself. The word most frequently associated with composers – dead ones, at least – is inspiration, but it’s amazing that no one pauses to ask what this means, least of all what it means to young composers. So as a young composer you should be asking what this famous tool is, and what it can do for you. There’s lots of nonsense around the idea of composing, but like most fairy-tales it has a grain of truth. Going for walks in the country like Beethoven is not the whole of composition, but it is, in fact, a good way to think clearly. Inspiration and perspiration are always closely associated with composition: there’s a time to think big thoughts and there’s a time to struggle with the details at the piano. Don’t confuse these! To compose you need to have a plan before you start; never just jump in without first thinking what you are trying to do. Your material will probably develop partly through your artistic dreaming but partly through hard graft at your desk or work space. You will start with a vague idea, which you then need to hone and pin down. So inspiration is only the start, but we shouldn’t knock it. What is certain is that in starting a work you need: the idea. Your piece should be about something the listener can identify, not necessarily a long flowery theme but perhaps a short, nuggety motif or even a sound. No better example of this exists than the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The pompom- pom POM idea is so chunky you could keep it in your pocket, but it sustains not only the entire first movement but interweaves around the entire work. The more complicated an idea is, the less adaptable it can be. For this reason I prefer the term ‘idea’ to ‘theme’, which suggests long flowing melodies – nice to listen to but hard to develop. So you have an idea. Then what? Even a great composer like Tchaikovsky faced the dilemma we all dread: what do you do with your material? A common pitfall for young composers is to avoid the problem by bringing along something new immediately. This is more fun but is not a recipe for lasting success. Without reaching for those eight-bar phrases, try what Schoenberg called ‘developing variation’ – a continuous chain of expandings, stretchings, distortions, compressions and fragmentations. So, with tactics honed and an idea pinned down, it’s time to go and do it. Scared? You should be. Making something that wasn’t there before is a big ask. A splurge of chaotic ideas without clear thinking is more promising to me than a neat, derivative package that will never be anything more, because art is a search – not finding is a better state than not looking. Take risks and do not expect easy answers from any worthwhile discipline. Oh, and if you are writing instrumental music, keep in mind what real instruments can do – or, better still, collaborate with a player or two. From them you will hear all the things your computer can’t tell you.