Composing Music: Different Approaches

When I tell people I’m a musician, a lot of people usually ask me the same questions. The first thing they ask is the name of my band. It seems that to most people, that is pretty much all there is to being a musician. When I tell people I’m a composer a whole new set of questions arise. Most of them are completely in the dark about composing music. Composing music to most people, even some musicians, seems to be part genius and part magic. The truth is that composing is like any other skill a musician has. It’s a skill (or a muscle as I call it), that must be developed. The best thing for you to do if you want to become a better composer or writer is to simply start writing.

Just Do It

Yes, my first piece of advice is to simply start. This isn’t like jumping out of a plane; there is very little risk of bodily harm here. When I teach students I notice there are two general replies when I ask them to write a song (or improvise). Most students don’t know what to do or where to start. Even when they are given specific guidelines, there is still a lot of resistance. If I give them a simple exercise to strum some chords, or play a scale, there is no problem. As soon as I ask them to play the scale again but change it anyway they like, they usually give me an odd look and ask for more instruction. There seems to be part of our mindset thinking that we must know a set of rules before creating anything. I tell students that as soon as they pick up the guitar, they can make music. I encourage all of my students no matter what their age or ability to write and improvise. The only difference is the level of material being studied. For as long as I took guitar lessons, not once did the teacher ask me to take what they had given me and change it and make it my own. I wasn’t asked to make up my own compositions until I attended college! Why aren’t we asked to compose music from the very beginning? Why are we not given a bit of theory and then asked to compose upon that? There is no good reason not to do this.

The Approach

So you want to compose music but you don’t know where to start. There are many approaches. If you’re a serious writer I recommend trying them all at one point or another. I’m going to outline a couple of approaches here. Later we’ll get into specific songwriting and composition exercises. I do all of these exercises (approaches and methods) on a regular basis. Yes, these are exercises just like there are warm-ups, scales and chords to learn.

First off, let’s just run off a bunch of different ways composers going about creating music:

a) First and foremost, there’s the bang it out on piano, guitar (whatever your instrument) approach. This is the number one approach for many reasons. It’s usually a good idea (but not imperative) to write on a guitar or piano where you can play the melody and harmony at the same time. The parts you come up with will then be applied to the various instruments in your arrangement.

b) There’s the beat/groove approach were the song or melody is written to a groove or drum loop. This approach is effective because the groove is a prime consideration right off. It can also be advantageous because the melody isn’t reliant on a preconceived chord progression (more on this later). The lyrics and song are then written over top the groove.

c) There’s the lyric approach where the lyric is written alone without any melody, harmonies or groove. While not as popular as it used to be, it’s a good idea to work on lyrics aside from the song as a way to hone your lyric writing skills.

d) There is the loop approach where the music is entirely written based on pre-recorded loops and it’s just a matter of arranging and manipulating those loops. This has taken over in the past decade with all of the different hardware and software products available. This is different from b) because this is writing an entire song just by manipulating sounds and not writing a song (with lyrics and/or an instrument) over top.

e) Lastly there is the hum method. This is simply the matter of humming a melody or idea usually into a recorder to be applied to instruments and an arrangement later. As silly as this sounds, there have been a couple of notable composers and writers in the past that were well known for this method.

f) And of course, there is the application of all or any of the above in any combination.

The Method

Beyond these approaches, there are different methods to writing:

a) There is the search and destroy method. This involves just sitting at your instrument and banging out ideas without really knowing what you’re doing. It’s a matter of literally searching in the dark and waiting until you hit upon something that strikes you. The basis to this is that the musician usually has a basic knowledge of the style and their instrument. It’s a matter of searching to find something that strikes them and sounds like the thing that they’re looking for.

*This may not be the most efficient but it’s a great way to break the rules...mostly because you may not know what the rules are!

b) There is the preconceived form, style approach. This is the methodology used by musicians whereby the form, style and/or progression are set beforehand. The artist writes based upon that form, progression or rhythm. Examples of this would be:
  • following the form (e.g. a 12 bar blues, the AABA form in jazz, the rondo, the sonata-allegro form etc.). This would be used in writing jazz tunes, blues, classical pieces and certain styles of folk music.
  • following harmonic rules (as in the changes and turnaround in the blues, the changes in flamenco palos
  • following preset rhythms and/or patterns. This would include a number of dances (waltzes, tangos, mazurkas etc.), the compas in flamenco music and Indian ragas

c) There is the musical/theoretical/ education approach. This is the approach whereby the musician studies the rules and theories behind the music and seeks to master that style. The musician would study other musicians’ techniques, the history and theories behind the style. This approach is used in most jazz and classical programs whereby the student is immersed in the study of music theory, history and technique. The point is to master the style while creating a voice of their own. This is basic approach to all education programs but also to a lot of musical traditions including jazz, flamenco, classical music, film scoring, etc.

*Even though most pop and rock musicians don’t realize it, they too follow rules about chord changes, form and rhythm patterns. The only difference being that these usually aren’t a consideration right off. Most pop music is written in the same forms, with rules involving chord changes and rhythm patterns. As soon as you fit your music into a general style, you are automatically following the rules for that genre. For example the diminished chord is used a lot in jazz and classical music but almost never in pop. The snare on the 2 and 4 is pretty much a given for most pop music…More on this later.

d) There is the study of composition. This differs with c) in that it involves deliberately writing for different styles. It is study in composition for its own sake and not a study of a particular style. For example if you were writing a dance tune your approach would be different than if you were writing a folk song. There are certain methodologies, theories and logics involved when writing in the different styles. For example when writing the folk song in the former example, you would probably spend a lot more time on the lyric than on the chord progression or arrangement. You may want to stick to traditional folk chord progressions and arrangements to keep it authentic so the listener would focus on the message and not the instrumental performance. It would be different than writing a head for a jazz tune where the harmonic progression would have a lot more importance. You would want to write something that jazz lovers would find interesting and not something trite or too clich├ęd.

e) Lastly there is the color, manipulation method. This is different from the first in the fact that it’s usually more about manipulating sounds and grooves. Here the writer doesn’t have any idea what they’re looking for and are just ‘throwing things together’ to see what fits. There are two categories like this because there is basic difference in the methodology here. The writer isn’t looking for preconceived methods and progressions and looking for something unknown.

All of The Above

We’re going to look into each of these different approached and methods one at a time and see what each has to offer and the problems inherent in each. If you are serious about writing you should take a look at each of the styles and see how they work for you. Most of the time you’re going to use the one approach to writing. This is good most of the time but the other methods may be useful to either get you out of a rut, stir your creative juices or to simply go somewhere you’ve never gone before.