Monday, October 10, 2011

Why You Should Compose

When I started out teaching music I did the usual things: I taught people how to play the instrument at a level appropriate to their skills and prior experience. As time went on I started to incorporate other elements. Along with the usual technique, etudes and repertoire, I started to teach ear skills like interval and chord recognition. Most of my teaching was in a conservatory or university setting so I could depend on the other courses to teach general theory, ear-training and history. But in the last few years I have been teaching privately and have had the opportunity to think about music education without too many preconceptions.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the missing element in music education is composition. I have been predisposed toward composing as long as I have been a musician, but I think it has enormous benefits for everyone who makes music. I have an adult student that I have been working with for a few years and in the last couple of years we have worked through a college text on counterpoint and are currently nearly finished the bible of harmony, Aldwell and Schachter. Along the way, I have encouraged my student to do some composition. One assignment was to parody a Mozart minuet; another was to write a song in the style of John Lennon c. 1965. As his musical understanding grew, he started to come up with his own ideas. Here is a rough sketch for a piece for guitar solo he is working on:

Click to enlarge
Sure, it's not Mozart, but it is a very promising theme. And here is the surprising part: it is a better piece than quite a few I have seen published. Is he a composer born? No. But that really isn't the point. He is creating music from scratch! And not bad stuff at that. I am more and more convinced that composition is the missing component in music education. I really think that nearly everyone can learn to compose and that they can do it at whatever level of proficiency they are at. Apart from the indisputable benefits of having a whole avenue of expression open to you, there are all sorts of less direct benefits. When you do a little composing yourself, you start to see music differently. You look at a piece of music and see what the composer was up to. You see it from an active point of view. Composing activates your mind to look at things a little differently. You develop critical faculties that you wouldn't otherwise. For example, as you study harmony and try writing your own harmony you become much more sensitive to how other composers handle harmony. In the case of some composers, you are awestruck at what amazing harmonic structures they created (*cough* Bach! *cough*). In the case of others you might think, "hmmm, now that doesn't really work, does it?"

You don't have to spend years studying counterpoint and harmony either (though I would recommend it). You can start right where you are. You can write a piece with one chord and a few lyrics. After all, that is the foundation of the Lennon song "Tomorrow Never Knows". You can write a song with three chords. You can write an instrumental piece with nothing but a rhythm and clapping.

Composition doesn't have to be complex! And after you create your first piece and ask yourself, "now how can I do my next one better?" --that is when it gets interesting...


Anonymous said...

Excellent point. Music should be taught like a foreign language, where practice means not only reciting set pieces but creating one's own sentences.

But today's kids are taught music mostly in a passive way: learn the rules, master the classics, and focus on performance. Having spent my life navigating back and forth between jazz and classical music, I am still struck by how uneducated musically classical performers often are (of course not all of them!) I've known brilliant classical pianists who were incapable of improvising on a random pop tune or even figuring out the chords by ear. They knew their keyboard perfectly but had no musical fluency -- in the sense of language fluency. They knew piano but not music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I'm troubled by this myself. I started out as a pop musician and did a lot of improvising, mostly in a blues context. But when I switched to being a classical musician that ability seemed to fade away. I have done some improvising with other classical musicians, but few can really do it. Including me! I wonder if it has to do with the relative complexity of classical music?

Sebastian said...

You are totally right!
Another reason why musicians should compose is that so many composers today aren't musicians anymore. As a result their music doesn't work at all (think about all the noisy, terribly complicated contemporary music).
In the past all the major composers were musicians too.

Bryan Townsend said...

I hadn't thought of that. Most composers are separated off in university. They are not required to do any performing and usually don't. I suppose this is another aspect of overspecialization.

Yes, all the great composers up to and including Shostakovich were also performers. But the real avant-garde were not.

Rickard Dahl said...

I agree, a musician should improvise and compose music, not just play it and maybe learn some theory and do ear training. I've been improvising on piano for some time now and I've recently started to compose (actually just one finished composition and many unfinished ones for now but it's something at least) based on my improvising (I explore things when improvising and use some of the things for composing so it's far from any kind of performance type improvisation). I do sometimes get musical ideas in my head but as my ear isn't good enough I can't write them down yet. Either way, I typically center my improvising and composing around the western (church) modes instead of what most seem to be doing which is to stick to the major/minor system. I try to avoid learning more theory than I already know for now and instead of theory I rely more on what I find to sound nice (which is a tip Nathan Shirley gave me along with many other useful ones). Either way there's an interesting theory book about modes (especially covering the harmony aspect) called "Modal Music Composition" by Stephen M. Cormier. What do you think about the modes in general? Do you think they can prove to be a valid option to the major/minor system (of course much has changed, especially in harmony since the middle ages and reneissance)?