Musical Composition for Beginners
Musical composition is a slightly odd area of musical study in as much as it usually requires a method of notation as well as the inspiration to compose in the first place. Composition for beginners then needs to start with two connected strands of study: theory and notation. The good news is that the theoretical side of music covers, to some extent, the idea of Western staff notation and this is often felt to be the most useful way to begin. This is a debatable point and one I will discuss further later in the article.
It helps but it is not essential to be able to play a musical instrument or to be a singer when embarking on learning to compose. The central reason for this is simply that unless you have a very acute ear and can ‘hear’ your compositions in your head, being able to play them through on a piano, for example, is an advantage. You do not need to be a concert pianist or an operatic soprano, but basic instrumental or vocal skills are a help.
With some skill in voice or another instrument then beginning to explore musical material or devise ideas through improvisation can be an interesting and liberating way to start. The tough part comes when you wish to capture what it is you have improvised so that you can work further on it. This is where the fundamentals of notation come in handy but it is not a simple task.
To notate an improvisation with any degree of accuracy, you need to be able to know the speed of the piece, use the correct rhythmic values of each note as well as their pitches. This is leaving aside the subtle nuance of dynamics, articulation, and phrasing.
One advantage of technology today is that there are a few reliable and intuitive notation programmes that will do the job for you. Sibelius is one of the leading software packages that have this facility but you will still need to have a good grasp of notation and be prepared to edit your work.
Another option is to make an audio recording of yourself or to capture the improvisation via a computer using software like Logic or Cubase that transforms your performance into MIDI. This is a handy series of rectangular shapes that appear on something resembling a piano roll. These ‘notes’ can then be edited in multiple ways that allow you to develop your composition.
One word of caution, however, is that some programmes will allow you to write anything for any instrument. This can be used to create something unique yet unplayable by human instrumentalists or vocalists, and this is a key consideration. If you are writing for live performers, make sure you check what you have composed in your software is playable by human beings.
Another key aspect to consider is the kind of composition you wish to write. Many songwriters work with an instrument and their voices developing songs with only a few chords without the need to ever notate their ideas. They often work instinctively, perhaps modelling their work on their favourite artists, from their creating their unique style.
There is an argument to say that some of the best and most original ideas come without formal study. If you think of some of the most famous singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Suzanne Vega, Paul McCartney, they work aurally rather than committing their songs to some kind of formal notation. That said both Elgar and Chopin hated having to notate their work but thankfully they did and left us with a wealth of beautiful compositions.
If you are more interested in cultivating your musical skills to write for a String Quartet, Choir, Orchestra or Piano, then I would suggest a more formal study of theory and notation. What this means in practical terms is understanding the basics of harmony, melody, and form alongside traditional Western Notation.
The reason for this approach is so that you can grasp how music is put together within a tonal system as well as how to write out your work accurately. This is very important if you expect other performers to play it.
Beginning by being able to know what and why chords fit with a melody is vital. How to compose a melody that is interesting and balanced to fit over your chosen chords is a time-consuming practice. Trial and error are an important part of this process and it helps enormously if you can undertake some aural training in addition to the study of composition to develop your listening skills.
A study of the history of music is advised when you have the opportunity to look in detail at the works of composers through the ages and analyze how and why they did what they did. When it comes to learning about instruments and their ranges, creating textures, especially for larger ensembles and orchestras; this can be invaluable.
You may not want to write in the style of Bach but if you can then you can push this in a musical direction that you want. Composers like Ravel were superb orchestrators. If you have studied his work not only will it benefit your scoring but it will give you a valuable window into how he used harmony, melody, rhythm, and form amongst many other musical components.
One interesting starting point for a new composer can be to notate their ideas graphically. This is not as childish as it may first sound and many 20th Century composers have used this method to great effect. Instead of using traditional notation, develop your own notation using anything that you feel represents the sound you want the performers to produce. What it can do is bring in the element of the unplanned that in turn leads to compositional ideas that would not have been available with players reading from traditional notation.
There are many online courses offering beginner courses in composition. Some may be worth exploring, others less so. You may wish to think about working towards ABRSM Theory Exams (https://us.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/music-theory-exams/#), or even a GCSE in Music.
Be open to what your instinct tells you to do and find the best way for you to express your ideas all be it electronically or with the help of the London Symphony Orchestra.