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For various reasons I never studied composition as my major in undergrad or graduate (it was piano performance). How can one obtain the same knowledge and skill on his own that he would have in such a program? I lack the confidence that I know what I'm doing; sometimes I think I'm a good composer, and sometimes (especially nowadays) I think I have no idea what I'm doing and more knowledgeable composers would have to chuckle at my work.

In my specific case, I've studied basic 20th century harmony such as the 12-tone method, quartal/quintal, secondal, set theory (though I don't know how one would efficiently apply it in the composition process), group theory. I've studied many scores (mostly before 1950, since modern ones are hard to obtain), esp for orchestra, with recordings. I've worked with orchestra and small groups on arrangements of very traditional music. I've tried to compose novel music, but it turns out quite already-done-before (see my very John Adams A Peek into a Boson for example). 

Are there particular texts that are definitive or very helpful on the process of modern composition, and how one applies the theory efficiently? Are there ear training exercises needed before one can be fluent in modern harmonic language? Specific questions currently in my mind are:

1. I'm used to first hearing things in my mind, then composing from there. But how does one compose complex harmonies that are hard to hear? It is easy to compose a 5-minute piece with traditional harmonies in just a few minutes or a few hours. Should a good composer have such a strong ear in 10-pitch-class harmonies for example that he finds it that easy to compose with it? Do you choose a pitch hierarchy (a tonic, a chord, a synthetic scale) around which you can have ornamentation and passing tones?

2. How does a composer choose a specific musical language for a piece, and then stay consistent with it? Do you choose certain intervalic content for the harmony first, and then (say you're writing polyphonically) make sure the vertical interaction of the voices creates those harmonies and not others? How does one quantify the non-harmonic aspects of the language, such as length of phrases, melodic contours, and things that I haven't even thought of consciously considering perhaps?

3. Do the composition process and techniques vary widely from one contemporary composer to the next, so that it can't really be standardized into a text book?

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Here's what I had to learn in college for a music composition degree:

Requirements for each semester:
1.Complete 4 compositions.
2.Have 2 public performances from 2 different works.
3.Keep a contemporary listening log with a minimum of 10 compositions not previously heard.
4.30 minute private lesson once a week with the professor.
5.Attend composition seminar for an hour every Friday which gives you the chance to work with other student composers and talk with professional composers.
6.For your senior year, you must organize a complete hour long senior recital featuring a selection of your compositions.



Works to compose in this order from freshman year to senior year:
1.Compose a hymn for SATB with proper voice leading and chord progressions.
2.Compose a solo piano work and be able to explain how your work has a beginning, middle, and end.
3.Compose a work using one of the church modes (Instrumentation that I chose: TTBB and Strings.)
4.Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)
5.Compose a song for solo voice and accompaniment. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Soprano, Piano, and Cello. Words that I used were William Blake’s “The Garden of Love.”)
6.Compose a song for solo voice and small ensemble. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Tenor, Celesta, Vibraphone, Marimba 1, Marimba 2, and cello. Words that I used were Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”)
7. Compose a work using a twelve-tone technique (3 trumpets.)
8.Compose a work for a small ensemble of percussionists using a duration series of rhythmic patterns (3 percussionists and a duration series of 4, 1, 2, and 3.)
9.Compose a work for small ensemble using set-theory (Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon, Tuba, Congas, and Claves.)
10.Compose a work for large percussion ensemble.
11.Compose a groove piece for large percussion ensemble.
12.Compose a work using an original contemporary technique (Violin and Cello using fully diminished 7ths as my original technique that I came up with.)
13.Compose a work for full band.
14.Composer or arrange a work for marching band.
15.Compose a work which the harmony modulates every measure (Harpsichord.)
16.Compose a work with your own synthetic scale (Piano.)
17.Compose a work for full orchestra.
18.Compose a work for large brass ensemble.
19.Compose a work for programmed music that tells a story (Strings, Piano, and Gong.)
20.Compose a work for choir using a foreign language (SSAATB using Spanish.)
21.Compose a work for electronic music.
22.Compose an exotic work (String Quartet using Celtic style.)
23.Compose a work for found objects.
24.Compose the score for a movie scene that is public domain.
25.Compose a large scaled work longer than 30 minutes (Requiem for Orchestra, Organ, Piano, and SATB.)

Hi Joel-- Can you please be a little more specific by what you mean by "modern composition"? Perhaps 2 or 3 composers who appeal to you and are writing the kind of music youre interested in?

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Thank you Rodney for that detailed list! So do you think your process of composition was guided more by your private instructor than anything else? 

Rodney Carlyle Money said:

Here's what I had to learn in college for a music composition degree:

Requirements for each semester:
1.Complete 4 compositions.
2.Have 2 public performances from 2 different works.
3.Keep a contemporary listening log with a minimum of 10 compositions not previously heard.
4.30 minute private lesson once a week with the professor.
5.Attend composition seminar for an hour every Friday which gives you the chance to work with other student composers and talk with professional composers.
6.For your senior year, you must organize a complete hour long senior recital featuring a selection of your compositions.



Works to compose in this order from freshman year to senior year:
1.Compose a hymn for SATB with proper voice leading and chord progressions.
2.Compose a solo piano work and be able to explain how your work has a beginning, middle, and end.
3.Compose a work using one of the church modes (Instrumentation that I chose: TTBB and Strings.)
4.Compose a work for solo instrument using set-theory (Flugelhorn.)
5.Compose a song for solo voice and accompaniment. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Soprano, Piano, and Cello. Words that I used were William Blake’s “The Garden of Love.”)
6.Compose a song for solo voice and small ensemble. Make sure the words are from a poem that is public domain (Tenor, Celesta, Vibraphone, Marimba 1, Marimba 2, and cello. Words that I used were Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”)
7. Compose a work using a twelve-tone technique (3 trumpets.)
8.Compose a work for a small ensemble of percussionists using a duration series of rhythmic patterns (3 percussionists and a duration series of 4, 1, 2, and 3.)
9.Compose a work for small ensemble using set-theory (Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon, Tuba, Congas, and Claves.)
10.Compose a work for large percussion ensemble.
11.Compose a groove piece for large percussion ensemble.
12.Compose a work using an original contemporary technique (Violin and Cello using fully diminished 7ths as my original technique that I came up with.)
13.Compose a work for full band.
14.Composer or arrange a work for marching band.
15.Compose a work which the harmony modulates every measure (Harpsichord.)
16.Compose a work with your own synthetic scale (Piano.)
17.Compose a work for full orchestra.
18.Compose a work for large brass ensemble.
19.Compose a work for programmed music that tells a story (Strings, Piano, and Gong.)
20.Compose a work for choir using a foreign language (SSAATB using Spanish.)
21.Compose a work for electronic music.
22.Compose an exotic work (String Quartet using Celtic style.)
23.Compose a work for found objects.
24.Compose the score for a movie scene that is public domain.
25.Compose a large scaled work longer than 30 minutes (Requiem for Orchestra, Organ, Piano, and SATB.)

I like Messiaen's Turangelila Symphony, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine". But what I feel I don't understand are the more avant garde pieces, and how to go about composing one (this excerpt for example by professor David Liptak of Eastman School of Music). I'm uncomfortable with not understanding that.

Or maybe a bigger problem for me is I feel my compositions  have neither a consistent nor original musical language; they tend to be in sections, and I'm dissatisfied with the lack of coherency, except when I compose a more minimalist piece, which ends up being unsubstantial, having little musical material ("A Peek into a Boson" again being an example of the sectioned compositions, and "Electromechanical" an example of unsubstantial minimalist). 

Or perhaps the biggest problem of all is that I haven't had the guidance from an accomplished composer saying what I'm doing right and not doing well.


Bob Morabito said:

Hi Joel-- Can you please be a little more specific by what you mean by "modern composition"? Perhaps 2 or 3 composers who appeal to you and are writing the kind of music youre interested in?

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

It was guided by my professor and the standards of the school of music. It apparently worked. Most of my class are now published, writing constantly, commissioned, or going for their PHD.

But what I feel I don't understand are the more avant garde pieces, and how to go about composing one (this excerpt for example by professor David Liptak of Eastman School of Music). I'm uncomfortable with not understanding that. Or maybe a bigger problem for me is I feel my compositions  have neither a consistent nor original musical language;

I listened to a bunch of your pieces on Youtube and while good Id definitely agree--your style seems to be all over the place, and I honestly I wouldnt be able to tell a piece of yours from others.

I can only relate what has worked for me in striving to be original and Im DEFINITELY no expert on the subject :)

1. I stopped listening to ANY older classical music many many years ago, and listened ONLY to dissonant, "out of the box" stuff. I did this to erase and avoid any "dated" musical anything that might have crept or tried to creep into my musical language. (I had never at that time heard of anyone doing this, but lately have read about other composers doing the same). This also helped to define what I liked and didnt in dissonant music.

2. I stopped studying scores, and would only browse at passages I liked to get the gist--"the gesture"- of how to do what was being done, without too many specifics.

3) I would chose a composition model or two and then write something and work at it, until mine was in the same ballpark as theirs. )you might try this with the Liptak example..copy the orchestration, maybe use an oboe for the voice, and just try to get something that embodies what you like about it)

4) I dont use books or rules except for what I observe from my own compositions.

5) Chromatic inversion is a MOST valuable tool in repeating/varying music

6) Invent your OWN techniques, all discovered by trial and error, asking the question "What if I tried this.."

7)Try chords built on major and minor seconds and sevenths, and tritones..forget 3rds and sixths and stacks of all the same quality 4ths or fifths..

Ill stop there..hope something helps.!

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Thanks for taking the time to hear my works! I'm glad to finally have a confirmation from someone else what I have sensed. Insightful to hear what you did for your composing.

On #3, so did you analyze the model piece thoroughly first before imitating its model? Did you usually chose only pieces that you liked, or just models that you didn't understand yet?

#4 so basically you developed your own "theory of music" for your compositions? a palette of techniques, developed from the experimentation of #6

#7 - do you find in your composing that you're experimenting sonically, at the piano perhaps, to find the sounds you want next? Or do you already have a musical language defined for the piece? What all do you define in a musical language? I'm imagining particular contraints with which you bound the harmonies, rhythms, melodic treatment (perhaps fragmented, angular)

I hope that's not too many questions.



Bob Morabito said:

But what I feel I don't understand are the more avant garde pieces, and how to go about composing one (this excerpt for example by professor David Liptak of Eastman School of Music). I'm uncomfortable with not understanding that. Or maybe a bigger problem for me is I feel my compositions  have neither a consistent nor original musical language;

I listened to a bunch of your pieces on Youtube and while good Id definitely agree--your style seems to be all over the place, and I honestly I wouldnt be able to tell a piece of yours from others.

I can only relate what has worked for me in striving to be original and Im DEFINITELY no expert on the subject :)

1. I stopped listening to ANY older classical music many many years ago, and listened ONLY to dissonant, "out of the box" stuff. I did this to erase and avoid any "dated" musical anything that might have crept or tried to creep into my musical language. (I had never at that time heard of anyone doing this, but lately have read about other composers doing the same). This also helped to define what I liked and dint in dissonant music.

2. I stopped studying scores, and would only browse at passages I liked to get the gist--"the gesture"- of how to do what was being done, without too many specifics.

3) I would chose a composition model or two and then write something and work at it, until mine was in the same ballpark as theirs.

4) I dont use books or rules except for what I observe from my own compositions.

5) Chromatic inversion is a MOST valuable tool in repeating/varying music

6) Invent your OWN techniques, all discovered by trial and error, asking the question "What if I tried this.."

7)Try chords built on major and minor seconds and sevenths, and tritones..forget 3rds and sixths and stacks of all the same quality 4ths or fifths..

Ill stop there..hope something helps.!

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Thanks for taking the time to hear my works! I'm glad to finally have a confirmation from someone else what I have sensed. Insightful to hear what you did for your composing.

On #3, so did you analyze the model piece thoroughly first before imitating its model? Did you usually chose only pieces that you liked, or just models that you didn't understand yet?

Youre welcome for my listening to your pieces I enjoyed them:)

As for your question--no I simply listened to the piece or as I say glanced at the instrumentation, amdparticular passages for the gist of what was being done, and tried to do what I felt/thought the model did. And yes i only chose pieces I liked that spoke to me, and had something in them that I might have liked to instill in my own music

#4 so basically you developed your own "theory of music" for your compositions? a palette of techniques, developed from the experimentation of #6

Yes ..and am STILL doing so :)

#7 - do you find in your composing that you're experimenting sonically, at the piano perhaps, to find the sounds you want next? Or do you already have a musical language defined for the piece? What all do you define in a musical language? I'm imagining particular contraints with which you bound the harmonies, rhythms, melodic treatment (perhaps fragmented, angular)

I cant play piano so I compose directly into a notation program. I know the sounds and techniques  I want to work with, trough past discovery, and no constraints really except that it be aimed for the very best professionals, who might hopefully be able and WANT to play them.

After you do this for a little while the obviousness of things you do repeatedly--both right and wrong pop up and it makes things a lot easier.

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

I hope that's not too many questions.

Not at all:)

While I'm still developing, I'm a lot more comfortable than I was with composing a short time ago, and am at the point of being happy and occasionally surprised with what and how I write. I have/had a few specific styles I love and my goal was to be able to write within them, and I now feel I can, and get better at it. So:

My limited personal advice (given we're into differing styles), however valuable formal training and knowledge can be, is foremost to write your heart out. If you have something in your head that doesn't sound right when written down, keep at it. I have no more complex way of putting it. You put time in and get improvement out. Or I did, at least. I've had a piece of music in my head for about four months that was quite good, but no amount of tinkering made it sound as I heard it inside - this weekend I finally got it right. If you have a strong inner voice, that will lead you even when you don't know what the voice is telling you. The resource this forum offers is a part of that; hunting down information online also, as well as asking experienced conductors and musicians on twitter, paying for private tuition, investing in live recordings. You're more ahead then me there, having had your work played by large ensembles.

Balancing confidence and humility is important. Accepting potential flaws and advice from those more experienced (at least in styles important to you) should be combined with confidence in your own work. If you have no confidence in it, it'll show in some way. There is, of course, a difference between flaws and taste. People will always criticise something in your work, especially composers. Fuck 'em, composers are hard to please. Write for composers and you'll never be happy. Even if you want to get better, you have no reason to lack confidence in your knowledge and abilities.

I'm grateful for your input. That does seem to be a repeated theme: compose a lot and keep critiquing and improving yourself. Everything you said makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Dave.


Dave Dexter said:

While I'm still developing, I'm a lot more comfortable than I was with composing a short time ago, and am at the point of being happy and occasionally surprised with what and how I write. I have/had a few specific styles I love and my goal was to be able to write within them, and I now feel I can, and get better at it. So:

My limited personal advice (given we're into differing styles), however valuable formal training and knowledge can be, is foremost to write your heart out. If you have something in your head that doesn't sound right when written down, keep at it. I have no more complex way of putting it. You put time in and get improvement out. Or I did, at least. I've had a piece of music in my head for about four months that was quite good, but no amount of tinkering made it sound as I heard it inside - this weekend I finally got it right. If you have a strong inner voice, that will lead you even when you don't know what the voice is telling you. The resource this forum offers is a part of that; hunting down information online also, as well as asking experienced conductors and musicians on twitter, paying for private tuition, investing in live recordings. You're more ahead then me there, having had your work played by large ensembles.

Balancing confidence and humility is important. Accepting potential flaws and advice from those more experienced (at least in styles important to you) should be combined with confidence in your own work. If you have no confidence in it, it'll show in some way. There is, of course, a difference between flaws and taste. People will always criticise something in your work, especially composers. Fuck 'em, composers are hard to please. Write for composers and you'll never be happy. Even if you want to get better, you have no reason to lack confidence in your knowledge and abilities.

Hi Joel,

I will give the same answer that I have given to similar commentators before. BTW, I started out by listening to your Peek Into Boston piece. I hear with this piece a composer striving, as you said, to master something new. I felt this piece was an exploration, and an interesting one. Ultimately it did not keep my attention, but the fact that you are striving to create something new is to me the best indicator that you have a hope of achieving your goal. A journey undertaken is possible to be successful. A journey never undertaken, of course, is automatically a dead end. I can’t advise you what journey to undertake to find your modern voice, that will be up to you. I can tell you that in my case, I sought out American and British Progressive Rock and movie music and theater music and found a voice (I think) based on these influences (plus many more traditional sources.) I would encourage you to find new music to listen to. If prog-rock and the other types of music I mentioned are not of interest to you, then I would suggest Bela Bartok, who I am also greatly influenced by. He broke all the rules and made something totally new. One more comment on the Boston piece, which I listened to twice. I felt there were good sounds throughout all of it, but that it lacked a memorable melody. This to me is absolutely number one - if you haven’t got this, nothing else matters. This is a critical comment, I understand, but I hope you will take it in the spirit in which I intend it - to be nothing other than helpful to you.

Best to you, and thanks for posting,
Gav

Hi Joel,

Here's my take on your questions, inevitably  subjective and as short as I can possibly make it :-/

You do not need perfect pitch in order to compose complex harmony, but that is no get out clause. You do need to hear what you compose, either via the piano or computer. You also need experience in handling the material as Bob suggests, because manipulating complex sound needs a sure hand and a sound vision in order to create a consistent and satisfying work. Not hearing what you write is against all principles of self expression in my view and to ask players to learn complex music without you knowing what it sounds like is, well down right insulting. (not my words, but the words of a well known player)

I use complex synthetic scales in my work. I derive harmony from them and subject the harmonies intervallic structure to mutations. More normal practice such as scale changes (key!!!!) scale expansion and manipulation then give a motor, a way of moving forward, for the work. These initial choices are made after a lot of thought and improvisation on the m/s and at the piano. Once the choices are made, a structural plan is worked out with possible areas of interest sketched in. By this I mean perhaps a meta plan for gravitational attraction between scales or notes or harmonies, and a developmental plan to manipulate material. 

This sounds very precise, but it's not like that in practice. A motive may be the spark for a whole work, or a chord progression, either way, it is important to set out parameters to make a piece cohesive and to control any material in order to eke out any latent expression. Ideally these parameters will be inferred if the original spark has fertile implications - it's a question of them teasing them out and testing them to see if they appeal.

Most important though is to makes sure you retain the intent to allow free fantasy too in the piece. An small moment as it develops may alter the whole course and original intent of the piece. Some call this inspiration and perhaps it is - just make sure you keep yourself receptive to it, it can still be a part of your overall vision and parameters even if if disregards them for a while, in fact it may be exciting and special because it does go against the grain.

I don't get too hung up about horizontal lines being in accord with vertical structures - the literature is replete with examples of disregard  in this sense, starting with (admittedly tightly controlled) early suspension technique, through passing tones, up to bitonality and beyond.  What is important is the sense of line (Gav says melody, but that is the wrong term in this context for me - thematic is more appropriate) and a sense of prose. This is deeply personal and can only be found in your artistic sensibility and experience. For me, I am constantly aware of how lines flow, how they feel to a player and listener, and how they shape the structure and emotional impact of a piece. Phrase length and harmonic rate are in a constant flux when I compose, I unceasingly vary and avoid a too regular rate of change and structure.

I could go on Joel, but I've already done so far too much. The questions you ask are to the heart of composing and the fact that you are asking them is something for you to be encouraged by in my view.  Listen to any acknowledged masterpiece in the last 100 years or so and you will hear a lot of what I've said above in practice. These thoughts are just my hurried take on what is a complex subject and is in no way exhaustive, but I'll stop here.

Some books you might find illuminating...

Hanson..Harmonic materials of modern music.

Music and Inspiration...Jonathon Harvey

Finding the Key...selected writings of Alexander Goehr.

George Perle..Serial Composition and Atonality

Mike.

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