The Basics of Composition
Rules You Cannot Ignore


The purpose of music is to communicate with our fellow humans. If no one "gets it," then we are wasting our time. So, that's rule number one: the music has to mean something to someone other than the composer. You can sit at a piano keyboard and play a C major scale with all sorts of fervent emotions coursing through your fingers at each note, but is anyone listening to that scale going to hear the emotions you were imparting with all your might? If someone else plays that same sequence of notes are they going to feel the echo of your emotions? Not a chance. No more so than if you fill pages of staves with notes that you sweated over with majestic emotions firing in your neural pathways. Just putting notes on a piece of paper does not mean anything, no matter how difficult it was to do so.

Suppose you remember a special sunset and you want to tell others about it through the medium of music. How do you go about it? Is just thinking about the sunset while you scribble notes on a staff enough? Of course not. Before you begin you need to have an understanding of how others have communicated the image and emotions you have in mind. Once you understand that, how is your sunset different from all those others? In other words, what will be unique about the vision you express in your music? You can copy Liszt and Chopin till the cows come home, but until you can say what they said in their music and do so in your own language, you are not composing. In other words, rule number two is: you need knowledge of what those who have gone before you have done and how they did it, and you need to realize that the language of your predecessors is not your language. You communicate nothing when you imitate. Or, put another way, you need a deep understanding of past composers as well as an understanding of yourself.

Rule number three is about skill. How many different ways can you describe a sparrow in flight musically? Can you do it with a bassoon? If not, why not? Are you satisfied with a flute or a violin playing swooping arcs? Come on. Think! Don't accept the "conventional" or easy answers. Does an army need to be represented by a 4/4 march heavy on drums and brass? Do menacing feelings need to be expressed by tremoled strings? Whatever you have heard in a movie soundtrack is a cliché. If you imitate it you are dead in the water. Develop your skills so that you can express whatever you want to communicate in at least a dozen different ways. One of the greatest soundtracks, by the way, that I have ever heard is Prokoviev's score for Eisenstein's 1938 movie called Alexander Nevski. Listen, in the U-Tube example below (Jos矓erebrier and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), to how he scored the battle on ice-covered Lake Peipus in 1242 between Russian peasants armed with sticks and the invading Teutonic knights on horseback. It is nothing like any other battle scene music—except for a few pale imitations that came along later. Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition is another masterwork of musical communication. Prokoviev and Ravel were not copying anybody else, and they had the skills necessary to communicate their visions clearly. Why should you aim any lower?

The Unbreakable Rules of Writing Music
  • Rule One: Know that notes on a score mean nothing.
  • Rule Two: Learn how others did it and what makes you different
  • Rule Three: Develop your communication skills.
  • Rule Four: Apply the mechanics of scoring.
  • Rule Five: Know the instruments you are writing for.
  • Rule Six: Respect and love your music.

There are a number of rules about how the composer communicates with the musician. They are conventions that have developed out of centuries of misunderstandings. For example, there are rules about the order of staffs in a score. There are rules about where, in relation to the staff, expressions should be placed. There are rules about what various curved lines mean for different instruments. There are rules about which clefs to use for which instrument. Writing a violin part in a bass clef does not make any sense and you will just irritate anyone who looks at your score. Similarly, viola players like their music to be written on an alto clef. There are transposition rules for different instruments. Some instrumentalists like to see lots of ledger lines (for example, the tuba) while others, such as keyboard players, would rather see 8va or 15va. A composer has to know all these things and to get them right. If you present a conductor with a score where the strings occupy the top of the page and the brass the bottom, he will immediately feel that you do not know what you are doing—and he is probably right. The thing about these mechanical details is that they are not hard to learn, but failure to learn them and employ them properly makes it less likely that your score will be taken seriously. My immediate reaction when I see a novice score for an orchestra with the staves out of order is to think that this person has no business even trying to write for an orchestra. I cringe when, 200 measures into a score, what had been a solo flute suddenly is asked to produce two notes simultaneously. If there was supposed to be two flutes all along playing in unison, then why didn't the composer indicate that right at the beginning? Such details will quickly kill the reception of a work. So, this rule can be summarized as: know the mechanical details of writing scores and get them right.

Very closely related to knowing the rules of score presentation is knowing the instruments you are writing for. That goes way beyond knowing their ranges; though writing out of range for an instrument will immediately make you look like an idiot. You need to know the different voices the instrument has; and you need to know the various techniques that musicians can employ. If you do not know how string players produce double stops and chords, then find out. Any book on basic orchestration should describe it in detail. If you do not know how to write for the harp, then figure it out. You need to know that a harpist cannot play a C and a C# together (but can play a B# and Db together). So, you need to know harp pedaling. If you write a passage for a flute in the lowest octave of its range and mark it fff you will still not be able to hear it set against a full orchestra. (The flautist will ignore the dynamic indication anyhow, because there is no way physically that a flute can be played fortissimo in its lower register.) But, of course, as a composer, you know that. And, most of all, you need to know that what you hear on the computer— no matter how good a sample package you have—will not sound the same when played by live musicians.

If you would not agree to be operated on by a surgeon who has not studied anatomy, then why should anyone be interested in listening to your music if you can't get the basics right? When I was a teenager I knew an artist who would make a number of preliminary sketches before settling down to create the final product. He spent a lot of time on those first sketches. When I asked him why, he answered that the better the preparation, the better the final product will be. He went on to become one of Canada's finest and most celebrated printers (Google "Stan Bevington"). You've got to strive for perfection and realize that you will never get there. If your music means something to you, then treat it with all the respect it deserves. If you don't love your music and know that it was the best you could do, then don't inflict it on the rest of us. This has nothing to do with styles of music or likes and dislikes; it is all about the individual, technical knowledge, and—especially—about self respect.