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Educational resources for composers
Posted on September 23, 2012 at 22:12

Old blog (Show)

So, you want to do music for a living? My advice to you is this; Don't. Unless you can't live without music, unless you feel that there's absolutely nothing else in the world you'd rather do, unless you need several hours of your favorite composer/artist every day simply to live, just don't bother. If you can be happy just pursuing this as a hobby, content yourself with that and find another line of work.

Sorry to be a spoilsport, but composition is a very unrewarding, very difficult, very lonely, and often very unfulfilling line of work. If you wish to become a composer, you are in for years and years of unavoidably tortuous, monotonous, soul-crushing mental training, failed compositions, feelings of inadequacy, utter indifference to your work (even from your closest friends), and after all of this, there is still absolutely no guarantee of success. 99.9% of people in this field die unfulfilled in obscurity.

Are you still willing to go through with this?

Go to the keyboard now and improvise a fugue in the style of Bach on whatever theme you like. Can't do that? Go to the keyboard and play a whole tone scale in the bass starting on E-flat, and harmonize it in the treble with minor seventh chords (according to the rules of voice leading, of course), and we'll see what it sounds like. No? Go to the keyboard and play the first prelude of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier transposed to A-flat major. Can you not do that? If I play you an aria from a Mozart opera, will you be able to transcribe it after one hearing? No? Can you realize a simple figured bass? Can you even play a C major scale with the proper fingering? Do you even have a keyboard?

You might think that some of this sounds very unnecessary and that I'm expecting you to perform miracles, but unfortunately these sorts of things are the minimum that's expected of you. To be effective as a musician and a composer, music should be as fluent to you as language is to everyone else. Would you not expect an author to do the equivalent of these things with language? Most people think of these things as something only a genius or a very talented person can do (and of course we don't mind that), but in reality, it should be perceived as basic competence. After all, if you're not willing to attain the highest levels of achievement in your field, why bother? There are plenty of other people in the world willing to do that, and settling for being average will not get you anywhere.

Do you still want to become a composer? If you do, read on, and don't make too many plans for the rest of your life. Good luck... ;)

I'd recommend at minimum dedicating at least 15 to 30 minutes to this every day (at most an hour or two). Get yourself into a schedule that you can keep up for the next few years, and be sure to continue composing outside of your education.

Start out with these to get your feet wet, and to become familiar and comfortable with how music is discussed:

Yale lecture series to start you off
Leonard Bernstein's Young Peoples concerts
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, by Robert Greenberg
Understanding the fundamentals of music, by Robert Greenberg
More Robert Greenberg lectures
Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus series
Leonard Bernstein's Harvard Lecture Series

Now the real fun begins. You need to start by training your ears (you should be able to identify types of chords by sight/ear, identify pitches by sight/ear, keys etc. etc.) and becoming competent at playing the keyboard. With regards to playing the keyboard, there's really no way around this. You can try training yourself on something like the guitar (as Berlioz and many popular musicians did) if you really want to, but you're sort of shooting yourself in the foot. Buy a cheap MIDI controller and plug it into FL studio and you're off. (The MIDI controller I use is an Oxygen 88, if you're interested). If you're questioning whether or not you need to be able to play at all, imagine an author who's unable to speak.

I entrust you with this software:
And this book:,_Paul)

I would also recommend that you learn to play some basic keyboard repertoire, such as Bach's Well Tempered Clavier or Mozart Piano Sonatas. Anything that you enjoy will do.

Once you feel your ears and fingers have reached a certain level of competence, you may begin getting your feet wet with studies in Species Counterpoint. Species Counterpoint is a method of internalizing the rules of strict 16th-century counterpoint in the style of Palestrina. According to the theories of Heinrich Schenker, Species Counterpoint is the foundation of most tonal music. If you strip away the embellishments and the polish from the music of JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. you almost always get perfect Species Counterpoint.

The goal here is not to train you to write in the style of Palestrina (though that is a side effect), it is rather to train your subconscious mind to treat each line as an independent living voice, and in order to get each voice to interact in such a way that the music is always pure and interesting to the ears. Music written with this foundation will flow through the listener's mind with ease and fluency. It is a strong, invisible and transparent foundation upon which you can express yourself with absolute fluency no matter what style you're writing in, and it's been this way (in the Western world) for the past 500 years.

I entrust you with this software:
And this book as a guideline (which was used by JS Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms etc.):
And an alternative:

In addition to studying counterpoint, you must also study harmony. The tried and true method is by learning how to realize figured basses (at sight on the keyboard, and on paper in both open and closed score, which you can do in the Counterpointer software), which JS Bach himself explains here:

His son, CPE Bach goes into much more detail in his Versuch:

Handel also wrote a very good tutorial and series of exercises:

And some more exercises to keep you busy:,_James)

As you're working at this, it's also worth reading a modern harmony textbook to supplement your knowledge, such as Aldwell and Schacter's "Harmony and Voice Leading" or Tchaikovsky's book on harmony.

Also, memorize every page of this:

Once you are reasonably confident in your contrapuntal and harmonic abilities, you can begin to attempt harmonizing Bach's chorales (in Counterpointer).

I'd also recommend taking some compositions by your favorite composers, removing the melodies and trying to substitute a few of your own.

If you are interested in writing for acoustic instruments, it is vital that you become competent in the science and art of orchestration:

Samuel Adler's "Orchestration" - An excellent book that comes with a CD with MANY audio and video examples of what he's talking about. This is an invaluable resource.
Thomas Goss' OrchestrationOnline Youtube channel

In addition to all of this, the rest of your life should be dedicated to studying the music of other composers (it really doesn't matter who), and figuring out what makes their music tick, and how you can use their tricks in your own music. I can't really be too specific on how to go about this, but I have some recommendations on where to start so that you can begin to learn how to analyse music yourself:

Classical Form by William Caplin.
Followed by The Classical Style by Charles Rosen

Use whatever academic resources you can get your hands on, absorb any lectures you find. Read every biography on your favorite composers and figure out their methods of working. Join classical music forums and mailing lists and discuss the issues facing music today with your peers.

Random Useful Things

The pianist Andras Schiff going through Beethoven's 32 sonatas

Nadia Boulanger was a music theory teacher in the twentieth century, who is known for teaching a huge number of recognizable names in music, including; Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Daniel Barenboim. She was also close friends with composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky, who would often present new works to her for her feedback.

This video is an insight into one of her classes

Robert Levin discussing how he goes about completing Mozart fragments


Robert Levin discussing how he improvises in the style of Mozart

Look up this and Google around about Topical Theory in music.

Lecture exploring the relationship between neurology and music

Radio 3's discovering music series

(I'll update this further over time)

Above all else, listen and compose.

This is awesome. I've just messed around a bit with harmony after downloading and reading the book by Tchaikovsky, and just knowing a bit about harmonic thirds and sixths... it's revolutioned my writing already! I can't believe you don't have dozens of positive comments already on such an useful resource collection.
Posted by Yaru June 16, 2014 15:38 - 3.2 years ago
| [#1]

This is awesome. I've just messed around a bit with harmony after downloading and reading the book by Tchaikovsky, and just knowing a bit about harmonic thirds and sixths... it's revolutioned my writing already! I can't believe you don't have dozens of positive comments already on such an useful resource collection.

Holy bump-age. But thank you, I'm glad you're finding it useful.

I really need to update this (if only I had more time). My views on music education have changed a bit in the past two years.
Posted by StevenOBrien June 16, 2014 15:49 - 3.2 years ago
| [#2]

Gosh, I didn't realize you posted this in 2012. Never reads the fine print properly. =P
Posted by Yaru June 16, 2014 16:04 - 3.2 years ago
| [#3]

Posted by hel  This comment was marked as irrelevant by hel. Show
| [#4]

Quote: hel
i've been wanting to study the history of music as well. if you know of any good videos, movies, documentaries, etc on that subject, that'd also be enlightening.

Quote: The Blog

If you want something about specific eras/composers/styles, I'll need more specific questions.
Posted by StevenOBrien June 16, 2014 16:53 - 3.2 years ago
| [#5]

Halfway through the Yale beginners lectures. :=)
Posted by Nopykon November 20, 2014 8:20 - 2.8 years ago
| [#6]

I've finally gotten around to updating this a little.
Posted by StevenOBrien November 20, 2014 11:17 - 2.8 years ago
| [#7]

This is a beautiful blog you have here, Steven.
Posted by Acid November 21, 2014 4:58 - 2.8 years ago
| [#8]

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