Music Composition For Dummies book cover

Music Composition For Dummies

By: Scott Jarrett and Holly Day Published: 01-18-2008

Music Composition For Dummies demystifies the process of composing music and writing songs. It guides you through every step of writing your own music, from choosing the right rhythm and tempo to creating melodies and chord progressions and working with instruments and voices. In this fun and practical guide, youll learn how to match keys and chords to the mood you want to convey, work a form without limiting your creativity, and hammer out a musical idea, even when your mind is drawing a blank

Articles From Music Composition For Dummies

10 results
10 results
Spurring Musical Creativity for Composing

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

You can't overestimate the value of a good musical imagination. It's the single most powerful source for composing music — if you can tap into it. The imagination is so powerful, in fact, that it was long ago personified as the Muse. Because it's inside your head, though, your imagination is also the hardest source to put your finger on. Its timing is sometimes off, for one thing. The Muse can feed you melodies when you least expect them and are least prepared to do anything about them. But you can do a few things to help your Muse produce new music. Here are some tips for encouraging your Muse: The Muse needs space to work in. Turn off the TV, log off the Internet, turn off your cell phone, and tell your family that you are indisposed for the next hour or two. The Muse likes to be nourished. Every day, expose yourself to a variety of musical influences — not just the few favorites you keep cycling through. For your Muse to get real exposure to different music, listen with full attention. The Muse likes quiet. Music as a background often silences or distracts the Muse. It's hard to focus on what you're hearing in the mind's ear when you're hearing things in your physical ear. The Muse needs you to follow where she leads. The Muse can't do it all; you have to do your part. Once the Muse gives you something, run with it. Work it, play with it — above all, write it down! No matter how impressive your melody seems at the moment, it will slip out of your head just as magically as it slipped in. Your Muse needs you to remember what she says. Keep a pencil and paper or a simple recording device next to your bed. The first few seconds after you wake up provide the best opportunity to clearly recall your dreams. Discipline yourself to write them down, even if there is no music in them. And when you do wake up with a strangely unfamiliar and uncharacteristic Beatles song in your head, get it down on paper or tape. It's possible that it wasn't a Beatles song at all, but your Muse playing hide-and-seek with you. (Of course, make sure it wasn't an actual Beatles song before you try to publish it!) The Muse works for you. If you sit at your keyboard, piano, guitar, computer, or pad and paper long enough in a patient, receptive state, your Muse will show up more often than not. The Muse lives in your subconscious, waiting for only one thing: your impassioned receptivity. Once you figure out how to turn that on, you will be on another level entirely as a composer. If you defend a routine time and place to work quietly, your Muse will become trained to know when and where to make an appearance. The Muse is fickle. Of course, even if you do all of this, it won't always work.

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Concert Pitch and Transposition

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The piano is a well-loved music composition tool for a reason. Not only do the piano's 88 keys contain virtually all the notes you'll ever need to create a solid foundation for a full orchestral composition, but the entire piano is tuned to concert pitch. Concert pitch simply means that when you hit a C on the piano, you are actually playing a C. However, if you play a C on a transposing instrument, you get another note entirely, and this is where it can get confusing. For example, if you were playing a B-flat clarinet, and the sheet music showed a written C, you would actually be playing a B flat concert pitch. If you were to play a written C on an E-flat alto sax, you would actually be playing an E flat concert pitch. The easy answer for why transposing instruments are the way they are has as much to do with convenience as with historical tradition. Most instruments are too small to contain the 88 notes of a piano, so most instruments have only a fraction of the piano's tones available for use. Brass and woodwind instruments are built so that by pressing and releasing sequential valves or keys, the musician either moves up or down to the next note of the scale. The key is that these valves and keys are used in a particular sequence. All instruments in both woodwind and brass families are designed this way, and because of this, a clarinetist can theoretically pick up a saxophone for the first time and soon play a song he is familiar with on the clarinet. This same musician can pick up an oboe or a flute and make just as easy a transition — theoretically, at least. Depending on the instrument, there may be one or two extra or fewer buttons on the instrument's body, but the main notes — A, B, C, D, E, F, and G — will be there. The usefulness of transposing instruments is most obvious when you look at the basic saxophone family. If you pick up any saxophone and play a C, you'll hold down exactly the same buttons for each instrument. However, you'll hear a different tone depending on what type of saxophone you have: soprano and tenor saxes are pitched in B flat, and alto and baritone saxes are pitched in E flat. Because saxes are transposing instruments, you can learn one set of fingerings and play all of the instruments in the saxophone family. In the old days, back when staff paper and especially sheet music were expensive, the members of an ensemble would all read the same piece of music, and the musicians had to make the necessary transpositions in their heads. These days, however, the burden of transposition is now carried solely by the composer/arranger, who writes out individual pieces for each musician/instrument in the corresponding pitch and key.

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Constructing Music Concrête

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Music concrête is a type of music that sprang directly out of the evolution of music technology. As a throwback to classical music being inspired by poetic forms, music concrête has its roots in the 1920s Surrealist literary practice of cut-up and fold-in composition. In cut-up, writers would physically cut up existing pieces of literature and rearrange the order of the phrases and words, whereas in fold-in compositions, a group of writers would write random phrases, one at a time, on a piece of paper, folding the paper over after each turn so that the next writer couldn't see what the previous writer had written. In the 1930s, French composer Pierre Schaeffer began experimenting with splicing bits of analog tape together to create music completely different from the source material. Music concrête basically means that you make music out of existing sounds. This can range from human voices (as in Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out"), spinning around on a radio dial (Ben Azarm's "Neoapplictana"), static (Apollon and Muslimgauze's "Year Zero"), or a combination of power tools and bird songs (such as in the music of Japanese noise rocker Rhizome). A list of significant pioneers of the music concrête movement must include Swiss musician Christian Marclay, whose most notorious composition, 1988's "Footsteps," was created by having thousands of people walk across many copies of the same slab of vinyl and then playing the damaged records on a turntable, recording the best bits for an album under the same title. Throughout the 1980s, rap artists used the ideas behind music concrête to completely change the way contemporary pop musicians would create music. Through their use of samples and loops of existing music and dialog, artists such as Del Tha Funky Homo Sapien and Ice T brought music concrête from art galleries and other experimental music forums into the forefront of popular music.

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Minimalist and Avant Garde Music in the 20th Century

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The most interesting periods of music are those at the turning point from one accepted musical style to the next, such as the break from Baroque music to Classical music. These turning points are generally not recognized during the period itself; in fact, they're often dismissed as fads. With hindsight, it's much easier to tell which composers and what periods of music ended up making the greatest impact on the course of Western music. The beginning of the 20th century was one of these turning points, when composers began rethinking the tonality, structure, rhythm, form, purpose, and even audience of their music. Avant garde (1910–1950) The period from 1910 to 1950 is the true bridge between classical music and what became known as the avant garde. In Austria, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) experimented by using the 12-tone scale in his music (as opposed to the 8-tone system considered "normal"), creating some truly disturbing and dark pieces perfectly fit for future horror films. In Hungary, Béla Bartók (1881–1945) drew heavily on the dying folk music of his countrymen to create beautifully foreboding pieces for both orchestra and solo piano. Meanwhile, in the United States, Charles Ives (1874–1954) mixed complex harmonies, rhythms, and tonalities with early American hymns and folk music, leading to his eventual winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Symphony No. 3. His countryman John Cage (1912–1992) laid some of the groundwork for future minimalists, requiring audiences to listen to his recorded works via dozens of radios and record players playing simultaneously — almost overnight making the United States the birthplace of experimental music. This period of music is especially notable for the desperation of composers to really speak to audiences in a time of worldwide turbulence (the two World Wars). Much of the music of this time was drawn directly from native traditional music in an attempt to connect with the "common man," as opposed to previous generations of composers, who admittedly tried to attract the attention of the well-heeled genteel classes. Minimalism (1950–present) Much to the chagrin of composer Steve Reich (b. 1936), his work has been lumped together with that of Philip Glass (b. 1937), Terry Riley (b. 1935), John Adams (b. 1947), and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) as minimalism. Minimalist music springs from the exploratory work started by John Cage and is a genre concerned with finding the absolute right note or rhythm for a piece of music. Philip Glass's work is built around complex rhythms and early use of the synthesizer. In the 1970s, Arvo Pärt put Estonia on the musical map by introducing a new style of composition he called tintinnabuli, based on a two-part homophonic texture that is breathtaking in its incredible sparseness. In the 1960s, Steve Reich was one of the first to work tape loops into his rhythm-oriented compositions. John Adams, well-known for his minimalist opera Nixon in China, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 for On the Transmigration of Souls, a complex piece begun soon after the terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001.

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Bending an Ear to Atonal Music

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Atonality is a condition of music in which the constructs of the music do not "live" within the confines of a particular key signature, scale, or mode. To the uninitiated listener, atonal music can sound like chaotic, random noise. However, atonality is one of the most important movements in 20th century music. After you realize the amount of knowledge, skill, and technical expertise required to compose or perform it, your tune may change, so to speak. In tonal music, one tone functions as a sort of center of gravity, and the other tones in the chromatic scale are "attracted" to it in varying degrees of strength. But in atonal music, there is no gravity. You're allowed to use any of the 12 tones in the chromatic scale any way you like. But how do you wrap a sense of form around that amount of freedom? Atonality and form In 1908, pianist Arnold Schoenberg became the first known composer to write a purely atonal composition. "You lean against a silver-willow" was the 13th song in his musical collection entitled The Book of the Hanging Gardens, op. 15. It was during this time that he first defined a 12-tone system of composition to replace tonality as an organizational tool. In this 12-tone system, Schoenberg believed that no tone should be more important than another in a musical composition. All 12 tones were to be introduced in an order chosen by the composer. Throughout the composition, these same tones must recur in the same order in notes or chords. No tone can recur until all eleven other tones in the series (or tone row) have recurred. There were a few accepted modifications to this rule. For example, you could move all the tones up or down by a certain interval, retaining the interval relationships of the original series. You could even go in reverse (retrograde). You don't have to use Schoenberg's 12-tone system to compose atonal music, and you don't have to write serial music either, but it may be useful to have some framework other than a key center to help you out. Listening for atonality Some composers can hear atonal melodies in their heads just as easily as they can hear tonal ones. This kind of musical imagination is somewhat rare, but if you have it, great! Don't be afraid to get it down somehow. Write it, record it, seal it in a jar. If you think it sounds good and you can communicate it so that others can eventually hear it, it may have a place in the world — no matter how weird it may seem to your relatives. To hear some atonal music, we suggest listening to any of Béla Bartók 's string quartets or Charles Ives's Symphony No. 4, for starters. These pieces have some tonal and some atonal moments in them. Don't be afraid to try mixing a little atonality with your tonal compositions to add a little spice.

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Composing Music and the Circle of Fifths

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you're into music composition, you need to know the Circle of Fifths because it shows the relationships between major keys and their relative minors. In the following image, the major keys are indicated with capital letters, and their relative minors are in lowercase. Also shown are the number of sharps or flats that you put in the key signature for each key.

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Musical Forms for Music Composition

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

In composing music, you follow certain rhythm forms. These musical forms outline placement for accented and unaccented beats that form a pattern for a passage or for a whole piece. The following list offers a handy guide to the different parts in different types of compositions: One part form: A, AA, AAA, and so on Binary form: AB, AABB Ternary/tertiary form: ABA, AABA Arch form: ABCBA Sonata: ABA Rondo: ABACADAEAF 8-bar blues: I, IV, I, VI, ii, V, I, V/I (turnaround) 12-bar blues: I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, I, V/I (turnaround) 16-bar blues: I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, V, IV, V, IV, I, V/I (turnaround) 24-bar blues: 8xI, 4xIV, Ix4, V, V, IV, IV, I, I, I, V/I (turnaround) Verse-chorus form (pop music): Intro ABACBCB

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Rules of Transposition for Music Composition

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you're composing music for more than one instrument, you know that writing for transposing instruments can get confusing. The following list offers some easy ways to approach each kind: E flat instruments: Find the relative minor, make it major, and then write in that key. Notes are therefore moved up a sixth, or down a minor third. F instruments: Just add one sharp or subtract a flat from the key signature and write the music in the resulting key. Therefore, notation is moved up one perfect fifth from where originally written. B flat instruments: Move everything up one whole tone. E flat becomes F, F becomes G, and so on.

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Major and Minor Chord Progressions for Music Composition

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

As you compose music, you quickly realize that some chords just sound right together, and some don't. The following is a list of the tried-and-true major chord sequences that always sound good when played together: I chords can appear anywhere in a progression ii chords lead to I, V, or vii° chords iii chords lead to I, ii, IV, or vi chords IV chords lead to I, ii, iii, V, or vii° chords V chords lead to I or vi chords vi chords lead to I, ii, iii, IV, or V chords vii° chords lead to I or iii chords The minor chords that form good-sounding progressions echo those of the major chords, as shown in the following list: i chords can appear anywhere in a progression ii° or ii chords lead to i, iii, V, v, vii°, or VII chords III or III+ chords lead to i, iv, IV, VI, #vi°, vii°, or VI chords iv or IV chords lead to i, V, v, vii°, or VII chords V or v chords lead to i, VI or #vi° chords VI or #vi° chords lead to i, III, III+, iv, IV, V, v, vii°, or VII chords vii° or VII chords lead to i chord

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Seven Greek Modes for Music Composition

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you're composing music, you generally use one of the seven main types of musical scales, or modes, generally referred to as Greek scales. Each one consists of eight notes, combining whole and half steps in slightly different combinations to produce different feelings in the listener. The following list shows these Greek scales: Ionian (the major scale): W(hole step), W, H(alf step), W, W, W, H Dorian: W, H, W, W, W, H, W Phrygian: H, W, W, W, H, W, W Lydian: W, W, W, H, W, W, H Mixolydian: W, W, H, W, W, H, W Aeolian (the minor scale): W, H, W, W, H, W, W Locrian: H, W, W, H, W, W, W

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