16 pro compositional tips that will 100% solve all your life problems

Published 19 Nov, 2019

15 + 1 tips out to have your composing life sorted out 100% , by Alex Tay:

1. Do something

Well done, you’re on your way.

2. Sketch loads

Striking gold takes time, so patiently hammer out some ideas. Maybe that’s on paper, the computer, sequencing software or something more inventive. Your thoughts will transform when they’re in another form. Find something that you like.

3. Technique

In music, time gives ideas meaning, or at least significance and shape. It’s up to you as to whether those shapes and significations are shit or not. Composers need techniques to determine how their ideas occupy time. The techniques that you choose should chronologically frame your ideas in a way that maximally and authentically represents your artistic ethos. And yes, technique and ideas are inextricably linked, with one often informing, shaping or birthing the other.

4. Finish up

This is difficult. But easier if you have a clear idea of where the piece is going so this bullet should really be titled “Plan”. Make a formal plan first, and the piece will have a stronger arc and more impactful identity. When it comes to actually executing plans, some composers write their pieces completely out of order, coming up with endings, middles and beginnings totally asynchronously. They find that if they know where their piece will end up, then its easier to find what comes before and work out the general direction in which the piece flows. I should admit that I’m more of an A to B kind of guy.

5. Imagine

By the time you’ve finished composing, you need to be able imagine your piece in its final state. If like me, you work with notes, pen and paper, it’s a matter of hearing what you write, so develop and train your ear. If you’re not, good for you. In any case, only you can tell the world how your music goes.

6. Perfect Notation

It just saves rehearsal time. Gould’s Behind Bars will show you all the standardised notational conventions. If for aesthetic reasons your notation must deviate from standard practice, then remember: performers above all appreciate notational consistency and clarity. Have a notation key in your foreword.

7. Have friends

Also difficult. But friends are essential. Most likely you’ll be collaborating with your friends and, if they like you, they might perform your stuff. Performer friends are especially important for instrumentation. Composers always need help checking through what they’ve written for playability: you can read as many orchestration/instrumentation manuals as you like (and you absolutely should), but none of them can tell you, “this passage will never work because this particular combination of notes requires ultra messed-up fingerings”, or “I don’t have enough feet for this timpani part”, like an actual human performer. Well, maybe you should know the latter example already.

8. Proof, proof and proof again, seriously

Again, it saves rehearsal time. Check pitches, rhythms, timbre markings, mutings, dynamics, spacing the whole works in the score and then the parts. Either print parts out to check them through or, if you have one, use a tablet because you’ll miss stuff on your computer screen.

9. Get performed

Getting your own music performed is the most educationally valuable experience a composer can have. It’s only in these situations that you find out whether what you’ve written actually works (didn’t Cage say something about this? Don’t quote me on that…). At best, prior to that first rehearsal, a composer can only make an educated guess as to what will happen in the work’s premier. Throughout the rehearsal process you learn what balances in real life, how a performer will interpret what you’ve put in front of them, and what’s awkward in terms of instrumentation and coordination of ensemble. The gap between computer simulation and real live human performance is closing fast, but the differences are still present. Even if you’re more of an electroacoustic tape person, live performances are chances for you to interact with an audience and talk to them about how they perceive your work. You can disagree with their feedback, but your knowledge of what they think is essential to your growth as a composer and will help you consolidate your aesthetic principles. And then you know, why else are you composing if not for others to hear you.

10. Perform yourself

It’s always nice to help a composer buddy out. Perform in whatever capacity you can. If you’re an instrumentalist then lucky you, it’s likely that you already have the keys to a whole kingdom of instrumental knowledge. Ultimately though, it’s just nice to participate in a whole different side of the creative process.

11. Study up

If you’ve had an idea, chances are someone else did it first. Studying other people’s recordings, scores, interviews and analyses will give you a head start because it will show you what your precursors tried to do, what they succeeded at, where they failed and what you can build upon or improve.

12. Listen widely

I always feel like life is more exciting after discovering something I’d not heard previously. If you're listening to the same stuff over and over, you stagnate. Keep an open mind, listen to what you hate as well as love, and ask your friends for recommendations. Also life will be better. Some awesome stuff that I’ve recently been recommended by my friend, and absolutely wonderful composer, Christian Drew (find him on SoundCloud yo): Asuna (everything on Spotify) and The Thin Tree by Klaus Lang. Also I’ve been enjoying The Raga Guide recently, an album of Indian Classical music. Stunning.

13. Let it all in

I’ve always loved martial arts movies and animated fight choreography. I love the flow of movement, gesture, rhythms and visceral impact of every blow and throw. For similar reasons I find watching the dance choreography of Tricia Miranda addictive. Growing up, I felt the former example was an easy way of connecting to my cultural identity as an Asian person (although, to better do this, I definitely should have spent more time actually learning the languages of my parents instead of wasting hours watching Donnie Yen kick the crap out of everyone in a 2m radius of himself). Years later, I went to a Lee Krasner exhibition in the Barbican Centre and discovered that for me its all part of the same thing. The exploding energy and impact of Lee Krasner’s somersaulting gestures and the flow of fight and dance choreography all connect in my mind musically with the rhythmic instability found in Stravinsky’s Petrushka or much of Finnissy’s output, and now I love tuplets. Everyone’s going to like and be obsessed with different things, so just let yourself be and you’ll begin to develop an artistic personality that is as interesting and nuanced as your personal personality already is.

14. Culture up

Arts, theatre and dance run parallel to (and often intermingle with) music in such an exciting way. In the same vein as the above, just go out, see a bunch of stuff and be excited by a bunch of stuff. You know what, I really need to do this more myself. Oh, and obviously see live music in an array of different settings, because recordings are so photoshopped for things like balance and general editing nowadays. You won’t know how something actually sounds until you hear it live.

15. Exercise, stretch, have a good composing setup

Murakami runs and that’s enough for me. It probably should for you too. Seriously though, take care of your body and your mind will feel better for it. See a physio if you get aches and pains, and they can suggest changes you can make to your physical working situation. You will compose better. Just on the subject of exercise, and this is hardly an inspiring story, but once I was running and, around that time, I was writing a serial piece. I memorised the row and its transformations and, as I ran, I looped the rows round in my mind. I came back and finished the piece in 10 minutes. Just kidding, but writing the piece was a lot easier after. Then again, another time I went running and got an entire bottle of Yazoo thrown at me. So swings and roundabouts.

16. Apply to competitions, schemes and prizes

Throw out a big wide net and you’ll catch loads more fish. Figuratively. I don’t think this is how fishing actually works. I also need to do this myself more.

There you have it, I don’t have all the answers, or do I? Now PM me, and I’ll send you my account details so you can money me for all the life-changing knowledge you just received, you just got KNOWLEDGED.

Written by Alex Tay