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Observations and Misconception about the road to Musical Composition (Self Taught or Academia)

Over the months and years I have been browsing around various composition forums I have noticed various observations and misconceptions made about composers and how they have learned their skills, either self taught or through formal training.
So I ask you these questions;

What are some of the misconception you have heard or have been told about the method of learning you went through on your compositional journey?

Where do you think these misconceptions come from?

What are a few of the truths that contradict these notions?

And if you have an opinion;

What method of learning you do feel is more beneficial?
Or
Do you feel the both methods are equally effective? Why are Why not?

I ask these question mainly to help clear misconceptions about how people learn composition, to help younger and newer composers make a better informed choice in there compositional journey, and mostly, out of curiosity of my fellow composers and musician’s opinions.

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Although I've explained this many times, I'll say it again.

The music written for Mr Average is not always the most popular, but can cover a wide span from the harmonically average to the not so predictable.

It's not just about selling a million copies, but a case of writing something that the intelligent listener to classical music can readily appreciate.

Much of what is written today does not do that.

Paul Jacobs said:
Hmmm, judging a composer's aptitude and quality by sales volume is not always a direct connection. James Joyce and William Faulkner are known to be two of the greatest 20th century novelists, but I don't think their sales volumes are through the roof, or ever will be. Impressing the more refined intellectual circles and overlapping with mass market appeal is a difficult thing to do. When you bring up classical music with most average people, Andre Rieu or Andrea Boccelli immediately will be brouight up. Does that mean they are the greatest classical musicians alive today?
Adrian Allan said:
One misconception that most people have of the academia composer is that universities turn out snobby, over thought-out, and pretentious composer that only a select few will appreciate (mainly professors and other college graduates). That we leave college with no idea of the real world and with no real life skills to make it as a working composer. This, though has some truth behind it, is mostly false now.

If that is false, where is are the modern composers who, having benefited from a degree in composition, are dearly loved by the general public, and whose works sell CDs in their hundreds of thousands ?

How many are making a living out of actually selling their music to the public (sell-out concerts, CDs etc) as opposed to earning a salary in an academic role and making a bit of money from art-council funded commissions ?

Isn't it easier to find those who have supposedly "mastered" the art of composition but can't find a way of reaching out to anything but a select few ?

For that reason, I can't really see the change from the days of excessive modernism and experimentalism in the 1950s.
Wow! Much has been said on this topic, and I agree that some of it is pretty much irrelevant. I think that one problem with "classical" music is that it hasn't been marketed in a way to attract mainstream listeners. Classical music holds the same position in the music industry as indie films once held in the film industry. But something happened to elevate the status of indie films with mainstream audiences: Large theatre chains such as AMC discovered that they could make pretty good money from some of these indie film. So now some of the indie films are available at large multiplexes and as a result are being discovered by mainstream audiences.

I don't think it makes a difference if the composer is formally trained or not. I think he or she will be more likely to turn out good work if he (or she) is passionate about music, a lifetime learner, open-minded, willing to play and experiment, and willing to listen to many genres of music.

I recently discovered a composer that I just love. His name is Nitin Sawhney. According to Wiki he was trained on multiple instruments as a child but went on to study math and accounting. He became an accountant, but he couldn't let the music go. Now he composes film scores, remixes the songs of pop musicians, and composes orchestral and pop music.

Adrian mentioned one mark of a good/great composer being the ability to craft music that evokes an emotional response. Nitin's work definitely moves me and inspires me to create musical works that are this eclectic and this moving. I agree with Ray too. A music LOVER who's a lay person can be quite astute. They (we) might not know the terminology, but they (we) often have well-trained ears and musical sensibilities. I would never knock education of any kind, but it takes more than formal education to be a good or great composer.

Here's the Wiki entry about Nitin Sawhney and links to some of his work (for those of you who haven't heard of him and might be interested:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitin_Sawhney

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj6JiXjErTI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E96kHlBydE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShvMm00B1YY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewI56ZZIJqw

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&vi...
Ray,
I think you (and perhaps a lot of the people who have posted already) have misconstrued the purpose of this topic. This was never meant to completely tear down or bash the other side of the fence or bash their practices. It was to give people the chance clear up any misconceptions one about the method we go about seeking knowledge about our art.
I formed this topic because I, in my early years, have experience first hand and have witnessed the damaging effects that a misconception can have. Assumptions made either by clueless spectators or angry alumni have cause many of my friends to make decisions that have not yet, or will ever, bare fruit for them.
This topic was never ment to pit the two methods of abstaining information (though it has seem that is the case) it was merely to help people who were on the fence about it to make a correctly informed decision and maybe, quill the hostility and bitterness that is present between composers who have identified themselves as self taught, or are going through or have gone through the high education system.

Ray Kemp said:
Tyler,

Please file this discussion somewhere safe and revisit it in say 20 years by which time you should have "experience".
It's not that I don't appreciate your dedication to the study of your art but you just can't lecture me on this subject.
You put down relative lay people as being unable to appreciate totally different genres in music. That is absurd! It is a generalization that you should not be using in this debate. You are describing someone with the same tunnel vision as yourself except, there will usually be more listeners in their tunnel than yours.

Even 10 years may be enough?
Over the years I have come up with an equation about music which still rings true to this day... Music = Cheese.

Do we all like Vieux Boulogne? No it's not a composer, but the Worlds Smelliest Cheese. For those who love smelly cheese, this must be the Rolls Royce of it's type. Expertly made from special ingredients, lovingly matured in a special way over time. Fervently guarded and protected by it's loyal fans. It's a product that many people in the world love, and also many people hate. Skilled workers, over time have learnt how to produce it.

I LOVE cheese, but I'm afraid I can't stomach Vieux Boulogne. Does that mean that it is an inferior cheese? No. Does it mean that the people who made it are poorly skilled in what they do? No. Does it mean that it's any better or worse than a humble cheddar? No.

Whether being an educated skilled cheesemaker, or a self-taught skilled cheesemaker, the end product remains the same. It's all cheese!

"Success" is getting the taste just right so that the vast majority of cheese lovers choose to buy it!


By the way I'm not a cheese expert, I had to look up the facts below, but hey... i've learned something new again today!


A few cheesy facts for you...

What's the best selling cheese in the World? Cheddar The most expensive / rarest? Caciocavallo
This is obviously a misconception. I agree that quarter, eight, sixteenth etc. notes are heads of cheese. But half and whole notes are undoubtedly donuts. Furthermore, I think this is a conspiracy of the beautiful half of humankind to inspire us to write whole notes by donuts (and maybe by the rings they wear on their beautiful fingers), since the whole notes are more stable. Even our ancient predecessors fastened rings to their noses to express their whole-note preferences.
I think one misconception among younger composers who are inspired by Big Hollywood composers is that they are going to enjoy the same experience as a composer as they do as a listener. It's like all the gamers who say they want to make a living designing games. What they really mean is they want to make a living playing games, they just don't realize it. Hearing the marriage of highly orchestrated music prepared and performed by a very large team of professionals is far different than creating the music itself.

Spending hours and hours to get minutes of decent music that you're sick to death of listening to because you've gone over it a hundred times or more, driven by the oppression of the internal artist who knows what still needs to be discovered - well, gee, how can that be any fun?

I think another misconception is that going to school is going to make you a good composer. I once did a spot for somebody who told me my music was superior to a prospect who had been to Berklee and had a degree and all. This does not mean I am a good composer. It means the other guy had to be really bad. The problem with academia is that there doesn't seem to be a process of actually teaching the craft. If that were the case, wouldn't we see a progression of lecture material followed by a lab focused on actually doing what was taught? If you take a programming class, you are expected to write a program, not analyze how somebody else wrote theirs. Composition is about *doing*. Musicology is about *analyzing*. Schools tech musicology, not composition. Now, that is a bit of an oversimplification. Surely, the tools gathered along the way are helpful in that they show you things other folks have already figured out. Counterpoint, Harmony, Orchstration and music history all develop a nice foundation. But they don't really convey a procedure. They convey constructive elements. Honestly, it wouldn't be all that difficult to teach a procedure. And it does not have to be constrictive. Most endeavors begin with a well-accepted basic procedure that is then modified and extended as one masters their craft. Example:

1. Pick a form. This is Rondo, This is Fugue, This is cantus, This is Sonata. Pick one.
2. Pick a rhythmic style. This is Andante. This is Allegro. This is Adagio. Pick one. (Go into syncopation and all that.)
3. Establish a harmonic progression. These are classical. These are romantic. These are modern. Pick one.
4. Create a melody. Start with a one bar motiv, extend it to a phrase and finaly a melodic statement. Modify it to create a respondant. Use elements we talked about like passing tones, approach tones, steps, leaps, preparation of pivots and suspensions.
5. Choose orchestration for each section in your chosen form. Now, this is a very discretionary step because orchestration represents a huge pallete, but you could probably come up with some classifications of orchestration for the purpose of procedural guidance.
6. Choose articulation for each section.
7. Put it all together.
8. Add ornamentation or countermelodies.
9. Don't forget a cadence.

Now, I have no idea whether or not this would be a good way to go about it, but it is a *procedure* that methodically employs the things you learn in class. I think this would be way better than harmonizing chorales and studying orchestrations *alone*. That is, yes, teach these concepts, analyze prior work, but don't stop there. Provide a way to use all that. This, in my mind, would be a useful foundation for a composer who actually wants to practice the craft. The only book I've ever read that does something like this is Fux. He approaches the thing entirely by methodology and accretion. How about that?

From the classes I've attended, I never saw anything close to a structured building of procedural skills and methods. And, honestly, why are you teaching me the Phriggian mode? I'm not going to use it and neither are you. Can I get a refund?

One possible misconception of the self-taught is that their music is somehow unique and pure. It is a thrill to discover certain musical ideas for the first time and it is very tempting to take ownership only to find out later that you just invented the circle of fifths progression. Congratulations. This is a very rewarding learning experience, thus useful, but it is too easy to overestimate its significance.

The other misconception for many would be that you can learn it all from a book. You are probably not disciplined enough. School forces you to do something every day and actually get it done. But you might have more fun because you get to explore things as you discover them.

I dunno, I guess it comes down to the idea that school doesn't do what it should and self-teaching doesn't do what school should, either. In a lot of ways, you're kind of on your own.

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