Essential Skills for Composers

When I tell people I'm a composer the usual response is something along the lines of "Oh, I could never do that!"

I'm often asked by musicians who are interested in composing how I do it and, more to the point, how they can do it. I can tell you what I do, how I do it, and the skills I developed over time that allow me to compose. But you are the one who is ultimately going to have to make it happen.

This is the first in a series of posts on the foundational concepts of composing and how to get your career as a composer off the ground. Today I'll be talking about the core skills and foci every composer must have. All of this information is really geared towards people who want to compose in a more traditional sense; however, these concepts apply to anyone who wants to write any kind of music.

Work, work, work, work, work

And I'm not talking about Rhianna.

The truth is that composing isn't for everyone. It isn't easy (which is the understatement of the millennium) but it's incredibly rewarding. There's nothing like being surrounded by other people listening to something you've created and enjoying it. It's the greatest feeling in the world.

When people say music is universal they're not kidding. It's built into nature itself. Our brains and bodies are hardwired to respond to it. There is no other art that effects people on such a visceral, emotional, biological level. Other arts can do this for people--but music is the only one you don't have to understand on any esoteric level to enjoy and feel. You have to understand language to enjoy poetry--but even wild animals respond to music.

It's worth it to make music. You can connect with people and express yourself in a way that no other artist can touch. It's obvious why people would want to be involved in music... until you understand what it really entails.

It takes more than just a love for music to do this professionally. In fact, you have to love it so much that you're ready to allow it to take over your entire life. It's not just playing a bit on stage and getting a standing ovation so you can have champagne and hors d'ouvres at the reception. It's hours, days, years in a practice room alone. It's endless classes, giving up nights and weekends, expensive instruments, expensive lessons. There's information all over the internet talking about the difficulty of music degrees (especially music education, which really is the beastiest of undergraduate degrees. No one else has to have 17+ hours every semester, bogged down by eleven courses at a time just so they can graduate in five years, which is on time, if they're lucky and work really hard and probably take summer and intercession courses at every opportunity). Music degrees are like one gigantic five-year long run-on sentence with too many parenthetical clauses. I'm not saying this to scare you away. But you need to understand what you're getting yourself into if you're thinking about music as a career or major. It's totally doable. But is not for the thin-skinned, the faint of heart, or the lazy.

All this is to say that if you want to compose or work in music in any professional manner you're going to have to put in some serious time. You won't become good at this overnight. Patience is a virtue you need in spades.

The Musician's True Secret of Secrets

Once, when I was in graduate school at the University of Central Arkansas, my friend Leanne said to me, "I don't want to be a good flute player. I just want to be a good musician."

This really stuck with me. I've thought about this every single day since. No matter what kind of music you're involved with this is the single most important concept of all.

After all, how can you write music if you don't understand music? And I don't mean just knowing music theory or being able to play a difficult passage on your instrument.

The best thing I ever did for my career as a composer was earning an MM in performance. I was pushed out of my comfort zone. I had to become a better musician. In learning to express myself in new ways, in teaching myself a new level of discipline, I opened up new levels of possibility within my compositions. My music became more thoughtful, more complex and yet simple, more cohesive and meaningful. Better in every way.

It was my saxophone instructor, pushing me, encouraging (and scolding) me when I needed it. It was me in a practice room communing with the the thing I love most--the music itself. Don't get me wrong. All those years of composition lessons were essential and I am not discounting even a modicum of their worth. But they wouldn't have been nearly as effective without musicianship backing them up. It takes a village, as they say.

So we have rule number one: to write music, you must become a musician in every sense of the word. The goal is not to be the best composer you can be. It's to be the best musician you can be. If you keep your focus there everything else will fall into place much more easily.

Listen, Listen, Listen!

Every writer has one cardinal piece of advice for aspiring wordsmiths: read voraciously. Everything you can get your hands on. Every genre, every author, short stories, epic poems, novels and novellas, classics, fluff, best-sellers, and things no one has ever heard of. All of it.

You, composer, must do the same. Listen to everything you can get your ears on. For you this will be significantly easier and cheaper than it was for me because we live in the age of YouTube and Apple Music and Spotify. Every piece of music ever is out there somewhere where you can listen to it for free or included with some subscription you're probably already paying for.

Also available to you is the International Music Score Library Project, where you can listen to all kinds of music AND you can study the scores--for free!--of anything that's old enough to be considered public domain. A lot of other things are up there, too--great works any composer should be familiar with like Johann Joseph Fux's treatise on counterpoint Gradus ad Parnassum and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration.

For a small donation IMSLP also offers you access to the Naxos music library, a staggeringly vast collection of recordings. (Though if you're enrolled at a University with a music program the library probably pays for this already, which means that your student credentials will get you access to Naxos for free.)

Most publishing houses also have reference recordings and even scores for most of their catalog available on their websites.

Spend some time going down the rabbit hole. Devour it all and let it become a part of your musical identity. Make it a point to listen to or study the score of at least one or two pieces you're not already familiar with every week, no matter what. This is where you'll learn all your new tricks.

Know the Language

To compose effectively you need to understand the language in which musicians work. Our grammar and syntax are, collectively, music theory.

If you're getting a degree or a minor in music you'll already be studying this intensely. Pay attention.

If you're not (or if you're just not there quite yet), there are copious resources out there. Some will cost you an arm and a leg, some are free, and every single one of them thinks it's their way or the highway. Ignore that last bit from every one of them. As Jack Sparrow remarked about the pirate's code in Pirates of the Caribbean, it's more of a set of guidelines.

Don't let this mislead you. Study the theory. Intensely. Know it inside and out but don't let it rule you. If you do your music will be terribly boring. This is, after all, the twenty-first century. Musical rules are not strict and binding any more. In fact, since everything (everything) has been done in Western music already a good way to make your music fresh and interesting is breaking the rules creatively. But you have to know the rules to use them to your advantage.

Check out the following resources on music theory. I've linked some free options, some paid options, and some texts I think are helpful that you can purchase.

These four resources are free. I've spent a bit of time looking through their information and exercises and they've got solid information that will give you a good foundation or help you review if you're a bit rusty. Of all of these Open Music Theory is the best--it's a complete textbook in music theory online, free, and easy to reference if you have any questions or need to look anything up quickly. The rest have lessons and information available and also include exercises that will help you start to apply the knowledge.

Open Music Theory




The Berklee College of Music is mostly geared towards pop musicians or rock band types; however, their skills are essential for any classical composer. Their material and exercises are really good. Just understand that they think their way of thinking is the only way of doing things. If you want to be an effective composer for popular music these are the people that can help you the most. But if you want to be a classical composer all of their work is your foundation, which you'll eventually need to move beyond. This is a paid service but it's really effective.

Berklee Music Theory

Music in Theory and Practice by Benward and Saker was the textbook I had during all of my music theory classes. It's well written, accurate, clear, and concise. Buy a used copy of any edition and you'll be in good shape. Also keep in mind that these days you can rent text books if you don't want to pay an arm and a leg for a book, you just won't be able to keep it permanently.

Music Theory for Dummies is not just for dummies.

If you live near a university or college there will be lots of used textbook shops around. You might also check those out and see what they've got, though be aware that in many of these places you may have to pay a little more for a book if you don't have a current student ID.

Once you get more comfortable with theory you'll want to apply the concepts to some music that already exists--i.e., you'll want to analyze things--so keep IMSLP in mind for an unlimited source of free

music you can print out and pick apart. Also take advantage of the exercises in the above free theory resources. They'll put you on the right track.

Develop Your Ear and Your Voice

Robert W. Smith always makes the musicians he's working with at clinics sing. Half of that concert band (especially if the musicians are young) inevitably balks. You can almost hear their silent horror: "but I'm an instrumentalist! There's a reason I don't sing in a choir!"

Poppycock. Balderdash. Flummery. Malarkey.

Scientifically, you're only tone deaf (a condition called amusia) if you literally cannot tell the difference between two pitches. If you can even half-recognizably hum a melody or if you can tell when you're playing out of tune--even if you don't know how to fix it--congratulations. You are not a part of the less than .05% of the seven-plus billion people on Earth who were born without the ability to discern anything about pitch.

What does this mean for you? Well, you weren't born with perfect pitch and you might never reach Renée Fleming's goddess-level domination of the operatic stage. But you sure can develop the skills. You weren't born knowing how to pick up a pencil and write. Your voice and your ear are skills just like any other and so long as you're not stricken with amusia you can learn.

Why else would every music school under the sun call the class "ear training" or "aural skills?"

Aural acuity and reasonably accurate vocal pitch are essential for composers. All you have to do is get over your nerves and get some help. Trust me, it's possible--my voice isn't exactly pleasant to listen to but at least I know how to use it in a way that's helpful to my art. My ear started out even worse but after lots of practice it's pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

Pay attention during class. Refer above to the Musician's True Secret of Secrets, since your ear is essential to making any kind of auditory art and start really listening to yourself (maybe even recording yourself) when you practice. Avail yourself of the following resources to learn or brush up:

Music (free) (Also available from Music the Tenuto app in the Apple App Store, $2.99)

Good Ear (free)

Toned Ear (free)