The Basics of Composition:

So, you want to be a composer? What, exactly, does that mean to you? Seriously. If you have romantic visions of being a struggling, misunderstood genius who will eventually be acclaimed as a master, then I suggest you abandon music right now. If you want to see your name on a score with some notes on staves, then, go ahead: impress your family and friends, but I have nothing to offer you. If you want praise, then post at any of hundreds of web sites where there are folks who can't wait to heap praise on anything that has sounds in it. If you want to write a tune to impress your girlfriend, that's fair enough; I hope you get laid. Let's face it: there are any number of reasons to want to "compose music," but there very few who are willing to put in the thousands of hours of study—difficult study—required before they can even begin to "compose." You can dream about being a nuclear physicist when all you have is grade nine algebra, but you have many years of hard work ahead before you'll get there. Composing music is no different. As the old chestnut puts it: making music is 99.99% hard work and 0.01% inspiration.

I am willing to help you in a small way if you are ready for it. That is: are you willing to give up preconceived ideas about what is "good" music and what isn't? are you willing to examine yourself and root out those things that are hindering you from writing music that speaks to others? do you see problems as obstacles or as opportunities? I can't teach you much, but I can help give you an orientation.

Making music is something humans do. We all respond to it. Even a very young child will move in time with simple rhythms and chant in a sing-song voice. Go to a night club and you will see adults moving synchroniously with, what can be, quite complex music. Go to a worship place and see tears in people's eyes as they chant a simple hymn to their god. Music is piped into malls and supermarkets and we respond by becoming less aggressive and more anxious to spend our money. Music plays a very important role in our mating rituals and our death rituals. It heightens our pleasure in dramas and in game-playing. I can't imagine how an extreme fundamentalist group can enforce a ban on all forms of music in a society, when people replay music they have heard in their heads, but, I can understand, to some degree, why they would want to ban it. It is so ubiquitous and fundamental that, if one could rid us of all exposure to music, we would not be human, as I understand the meaning, anymore.

Further, as anthropologists are discovering, music and language are closely connected in the development of the human brain. Let's clear this up right now: birds do not "sing" in any sense that humans sing. Humans are free to choose any pitch, meter, rythym they wish; birds cannot. Bird "singing" is hardwired and, while individual birds can—and do—make small changes in their speces' "tunes," such changes are very restrictive and limited. A robin's "song," is clearly distinguishable from a crow's "song," no matter what individual differences might occur in individuals within the same speces. No bird creates something new in the bird repertoire. It is also interesting to note that our closest relatives in the evolutionary tree, the bonobo and chimpanze, have no music, while extinct specis of humans, such as the Neaderthal and Cro-Magnon, did have music.

Composers have a very important role to play in our small human enterprise, and, with that, comes very important responsibilities. Anyone who calls himself a "composer" and admits that he does not like a certain kind of musical expression is, in my opinion, not entitled to be called a composer. If he does not like "that rap-stuff," then, I suggest, he has not listened to "that rap-stuff" with a composer's ear. A composer can relax with certain forms of music in preferance to other forms, but he can never dismiss anything musical that people do with a condescending sneer. If music is his business, then all music is his business. If he is to be a master composer, then he has to understand how any expression of music is made. Yes, there is idiot stuff being presented to us under the guise of music. The world of music is no different than any world humans are involved with. Anyone is free to say that the earth was created in a single instant by a montrous creature who created layers of different kinds of rock and fossils just to test our gullability—and can even write books about it, but it is still idiocy. By the same token, anyone can string a bunch of notes together and call it a symphony, but it can still be meaningless musically no matter how many admirerers it garners.

The way I look at the art of composing is this: imagine that there is a very large mountain covered in jewels. The jewels sparkle in all colours, shades of intensity, and shape. Imagine a large group of people gathered around the base of the mountain, hunched over, picking up jewels which they can fit together to produce even more beautiful jewelry and share with their neighbours. The jewels at the base of the mountain are very simple, so that anyone can fit some of them together. But, the higher up the slopes of the mountain, the more unique the kinds of jewels there are, and fewer people can manage to fit them together. Most are content to forage around the base, putting the jewels of tonic, subdominant, and dominant together over and over again. A few meters higher, some folks are adding the jewels of dominant sevenths, and modulation to their designs. But most people are content to stick with what is familiar to them, no matter how shop-worn and limited the resulting works can be. A bit higher, more complex jewels are available. Large areas on the mountain slopes are dominated the different colours of eastern music, of aboriginal, oriental, African, and unknown musics. Some people wander from one area to another, putting together works of amazing beauty as they combine all these different sorts of jewels. You will notice an occasional person climbing a steep spire, gathering jewels that no one else can reach; someone might be sprawled, spider-like, clinging to the underside of an outcropping. As you look higher and higher up the slopes you will see only a few individuals, struggling to work out how newly-discovered complex jewels can be fit into a whole. No one has, as yet, come close to the peak, but, many can tell you what will be found there. If you are to be a composer, think about what is there, imagine it, the sum of the entire mountain.

If you are to be a composer, you must be prepared to climb. I have nothing to say to you otherwise.

Next: 2. The "Rules"