Composing for idiots

September 19, 2011 at 02:16 AM ·

Simply put, I play, not compose. But in order to play in a play the hs I go to is doing, I have to learn to compose. Any simple methods to put what is in my head down on paper, or get inspiration really, really fast. I am not going for a symphony, just a viola/violin and guitar duet that might last five minutes at the most.

Replies (27)

September 19, 2011 at 05:07 AM ·

Well, here's an idea, but keep in mind that I don't compose either. Not only that, I don't play classical; I am more a fiddler than a violinist.

Take a piece you really like, and identify three high points that you really really like. Discard the rest, and try to tie those three together.

Next, remove those three, and see what you can do as a variation on them.

Finally, look it over, and see if it still makes sense. Change as needed.

September 19, 2011 at 06:26 AM ·

 I hope you have the words to the song already. If you are expected to write both it's a tall order. If you keep repeating the words of the first line, a rhythm might suggest itself, then a tune will follow. 

September 19, 2011 at 08:01 AM ·

Get your guitar player to figure out a nice simple chord progression 4-8 bars, then you keep improvising to it until you get a melody that you like. Take the melody and figure out different ways to play it. Take the chord progression and figure out different ways to play the rhythms. Record it first then write it out second or improvise it first then perfect it second. Fives minutes is a long time , do a lot of repetition.

September 19, 2011 at 08:20 AM ·

What Charles said. Working with chords is a great way to get a good basic shape to the song.

September 19, 2011 at 01:57 PM ·

Great advice you've gotten here. I would only add a couple of things NOT to worry about:
- Do not worry about being conventional.
- Do not worry about being derivative.
- Do not worry about copying.
- Do not worry about being original..
- Do not worry about being modern.
- Do not worry about tonality.
- Do not worry about atonality.
- Do not worry about having to write in sonata form (or any other kind of form).
- Above all, do not worry about editing what you write as you are writing it.
Just write what comes to you.
You can edit it later.

PS. When you say "composing for idiots," are you referring to the composer, the audience, or the critics?

September 19, 2011 at 02:24 PM ·

He's referring to a popular series of books such as "Gardening for Dummies."

September 19, 2011 at 02:38 PM ·

Hi, Paul. Yes, I know. Do they have one in the series called "Editing for Dummies"? They should, because the titles of the books in the series - say, "Writing for Dummies" - is ambiguous as to who are the "dummies" (the writers or the readers, or other?). Someone forgot to edit. So, it should be, as in the current case, "Composing for Dummy Composers."

September 19, 2011 at 03:45 PM ·

Yes but I think it's only ambiguous to those who haven't heard of the books.

September 19, 2011 at 04:20 PM ·

I'd like to clear up one point.  You say that you need "to compose a song for a play" and that you're going for "just a viola/violin and guitar duet that might last five minutes at the most."

Sorry to sound dense, but I'm a bit confused.  Are you composing an instrumental piece?  Or is this an actual song with words for singers? 

The bulk of my limited composition experience is unaccompanied violin improvisations.  Related to Roland's point: I take pieces I especially like and use them as springboards.  A lot of my inspirations come from violin etudes.

In my first actual songwriting attempt, I had the basic musical plan fairly soon -- but no words.  Heartache, the sort most of us deal with in growing up -- "Forget it, Jim; the young lady doesn't care at all about you" -- well, you guessed it.  That was the catalyst I needed.  The words started to come.

September 19, 2011 at 05:01 PM ·

Who hasn't heard of those books?  (a purposely loaded Americentric statement...)

September 19, 2011 at 06:59 PM ·

I don't think there is any point in composing for idiots.

It's probably a waste of time.

September 20, 2011 at 09:15 AM ·

If you are a beginner composer I would concentrate on getting a strong melody, as that will always be effective. Maybe because I am Celtic and was brought up in the Mediterranean, I would say that a melody over simple drones can work really well. As the play's the thing, it is probably a good opportunity for your first composition.

There are a series of lessons in melodic writing on my website here which may be helpful:

However five minutes is a lot of music to compose. The head of a music department at a major English university told me that his graduate students had to compose a five minute overture as part of their exam; the reason being five minutes took them past the easy stage. My advice would be compose a strong melody, even if it is just a minute and then present it to the director to see if it is long enough. 


September 21, 2011 at 06:02 AM ·

September 21, 2011 at 12:02 PM ·

"Nothing happens when I click it."

 I would like to point out the obvious , but it would be wrong.

September 21, 2011 at 12:04 PM ·

 john, haha,  i tried to click them, too.  we need: for dummies.  haha

tony was throwing a boone at us!

September 21, 2011 at 12:20 PM ·

You made me think about the process I use, and so I broke it down into components.Though I don't really think about it as it's happening, decisions have to be made, (I love that part, you get to decide). 

1.  Pace - slow, fast, medium, etc...

2. Mood - happy, sad, melancholy, etc...

3. Style - Classical, Folk, Blues, ethnic, etc..

4. Starting Point - High/dramatic, subtle/quiet, etc..

5. Dominance - Chords, Melody, Rhythm

6. Treatment of Idea - Develop slowly, quickly, repeat, or combination, etc...

September 21, 2011 at 12:28 PM ·

I forgot to mention, the mystery of inspiration....

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky - "I sit down to the piano regularly at nine-o'clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous."

September 21, 2011 at 01:10 PM ·

The famous sports writer, Red Smith, once said something related: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." I assume it is a similar process for composing music.

September 21, 2011 at 03:52 PM ·

For the internet and hyperlink challenged you may now click on the links which will take you to the storefront for purchase of the two "dummy" books above. My previous post was merely an attempt to add some humor to the subject matter, but I never imagined anyone would actually be interested in those particular resources. I had thought that the previous and subsequent posts were sufficient to give direction to the original poster.

September 23, 2011 at 10:54 PM ·

Go for four bar question and answer phrases then modulate into the dominant with some meandering through relative keys and repeat everything ending in the tonic,Simple recipe for a simple song

September 26, 2011 at 04:31 PM ·

There is one compositional technique that everyone has omitted (unless I missed it).

You can let your instrument write the peice.

This sounds silly, but whenever I have an emotion or idea inside of me and cannot express it, I pick up my instrument and just play until I hear something I like. It may only be a measure or two, or a small motive, but Beethoven shows how the smallest motive can grow into something very amazing. But I don't just play random notes, I stay in a certain tonality (key) and try to play something that makes sense.

September 28, 2011 at 07:47 AM ·

It is true inspiration can come from anywhere but I believe a composer should get ideas from inside her or his head. This probably requires an inherent ability and lots of very hard work, but so does anything worth doing.

The only advice worth following is to get manuscript paper or an instrument and compose. When you have to work to deadlines, trying to find musicsl ideas from environmental or random sources is not reliable. There are numerous quotes from composers. Duke Ellington apparently said that he knew of no such thing as inspiration, only deadlines. I think it was Rossini, who when was asked how to compose music said get manuscript paper, pen and ink and start.


September 28, 2011 at 04:14 PM ·

I agree with you Ian,

The method I described should only be used if you don't have any musical ideas in your head. It should never be used to write the whole peice. No matter where the idea comes from (or how small or large it is) your head is definitely the best place to develop your ideas. Using an instrument or computer program merely limits your ideas and the flow of the music. Beethoven often composed with nothing but himself and a peice of paper.

But you do have to be in the right mood, or state of mind to start a peice. Then after it is started the hard work comes and you need to sit down and just do it.

I have tried composing on paper and in my head  while walking, and it works very well. You can pound the beats in with your feet and don't have to think about meter as much. Maybe that's why Beethoven's music is so driving. They say he walked a lot when he wrote.

September 29, 2011 at 05:03 AM ·

 Start with the form, I know it doesn't sound artistic but it's reliable.  Stick to the given rules about the form you choose, e.g. developement, recap etc.

Choose a motive for the first 4 bars of section A, build on it and then give it various treatments in the above sections.  E.g. the developement could move to the relative minor, or you could do a varitation on the original theme.


Warning, monothematic pieces are hard to pull off, so you may want to introduce a second motif that can then be intergrated into the first motif during the developement 

September 29, 2011 at 07:33 AM ·

If you need help "getting your ideas down on paper" then forget about the paper at first and experiment with your instrument.  Improvise!  Don't worry about creating a conventional melody, just try to capture a feeling/emotion/mood.  You'll need some way of remembering your ideas that work well, so I'd suggest you video tape your improvisations and make sure that the camera has a good view of the fingerboard to make it easier to reproduce your ideas.  You can't set a goal of writing a good piece in X amount of time, but you can set a very reachable goal of recording your improvisations 3 times a week for 8-10 minutes.  It's a little like free-writing in an English composition class.

 Beethoven often composed with nothing but himself and a piece of paper


At the risk of stating the obvious, there was Beethoven, and there is the rest of us.  Even so, he was famous first for his incredible piano improvisations.  They would last up to an hour or more and explore a range of emotions.  It's my guess that these improvisations developed into many of the ideas for his symphonies.

There is work and the absence of work.  Inspiration is a word we use (myself included) to justify the absence of work.

September 30, 2011 at 12:34 PM ·

Most musical poeple can sing or hum an original tune, have a listen to the whistler in the work shed......I don't recognise the tune but it sounds familar and it's intune. All one needs to do is remember it and write it down, in any kind of notation... Inspiration for character and style of the composition may come from the content of the play....the theme, whats happening, where is it set, etc....

October 2, 2011 at 07:48 PM ·

I'm a total beginner and I've come across an app that I use to help me reading music, understanding notation, etc - it's call MuseScore.  It open-source, and runs on a varitity of computers.  With it you can write - and play back - complete scores.  Kinda fun.

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