Hello. I'm a video game composer for small games, usually for kids. My compositions are mainly easy melodies and not a lot of harmonies, counterpoint, and instrumentation involved. I've never been in a college level music class before. I can create these compositions because I'm a guitar improviser. But I want to up my game. I have sheet music of John Williams' compositions on various films. However, I don't know how to study them. I don't know what I should be looking at to understand the composition more. If hypothetically I have 5 hours a day for music what should I do to improve, understand another composer's music, and hopefully be able to create my own music incorporating bits of what I learned from other composers?

Thank you for reading this. I appreciate all the help.

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  • First you should probably start with Music Theory as a foundation. When it comes to modern and living composers music theory might not help to much in the understanding, but theory is the beginnings of learning how to analyze and understand music (Much like learning basic grammar to build a foundation to understand more complex books and poetry). http://www.musictheory.net is a great place to get some basic free music theory. 

    Additionally, begin doing some ear training as well. 

    Second begin studying music history because a lot of what happens in music reflects the time it was written in. 

    Lastly, if you don't already, compose straight to score as oppose to using DAW or improvisation. Writing directly to score will slow you down and force you to think about the notes on the page more. 

    Those are just a few tips that I can think of off the top of my head. 

  • I think listening helps composition while studying scores is mostly an orchestration / instrumentation thing. That being said, if your target goal is big, effective orchestral scores, mastering instrumentation is as crucial as understanding tension, form and other elements that make a piece work as a whole.

    If you aren't familiar with score reading / analysis, picking up John Williams right off the bat won't do any good. It's just too overwhelming. I recommend starting low. A string quartet from Mozart is a good thing to try. There isn't much material, and only a single group of instruments, so you can easily focus on the relations between them - things like: who leads the melody / melodies, how are they spaced (far from the accompaniament? close? within? under?), how many layers there are, what kinds of rhythm / harmony build the background etc. etc. Then you can try an early Haydn symphony, for instance (which is basically a string quartet with 2-4 extra winds and 2 horns). Always pay attention to the capabilities of every instrument - what registers it covers, what dynamics it plays in every register, what leaps it can / cannot do etc. With early Haydn you can start looking at the relations between groups of instruments - sometimes the background will be done with only strings, sometimes it will be a mix between low strings and horns, for instance. Or a very quick, intense fragment with lots of movement in the violins that's "glued" together by long, standing notes in the horns. Listen to all, pay special attention to the fragments you like and try to remember how they're constructed.

    It may seem a slow start, but you'll really appreciate the learned skills once you get past some Beethoven overture, through a Schubert symphony, maybe Schumann, down to Dvorak, Wagner and huge Mahler's scores. Debussy is a must, I think, as well. The ensembles get bigger and bigger, but with careful analysis you can easily keep up the pace. Then you pick up a John Williams score and you see at a glance, that, for example, a particular fragment has a total of 3 layers: strong rhytmic base done with contrabasses, doubled an octave higher by cellos, fattened by a tuba and bassoons and timpani hits, then there's the extremely energetic background based on quickly moving strings, which are in the middle register so as not to stand out too much, and clarinets and flutes double the movement to balance the heavy bass; and finally there's the main, powerful melody, in slow notes but it remains very intense because of the background, and it consists of trombones doubled by horns and trumpets, with piccolo flute to give extra edge. Of course, I invented this description on the spot, I'm not looking at any particular score right now. But you can eventually look at a page and see it as a whole, like this. This is when score studying gets fun and useful - you hear a passage you like, you check the score and you understand immediately how and why it works the way it does. Incorporate in the music you write at your own discretion :)

  • Hello Juls, In stream of consciousness order.

    The best advice I can offer you is listen to everything. Listen to every game you can, listen to music online at Pandora where you can select bands you like, Pandora will then play music by other bands in the same genre. Listen to the music of TV shows, movies, online videos. Listen to the music of TV commercials, which is sometimes astoundingly good. Listen to the music of cartoons. Listen to music here. Any time you listen to music which has a video component, listen especially how the music is matched to what you are seeing. As warriors charge up a hill, does the music swell? When a character dies, how does the music reflect that? If you see a movie or TV show you like the music of, go on IMDB and find out who the composer is, and go to their page to see what other movies they've composed for, and go see those movies (I will give you one name to start with who I bet you've never heard of: Leonard Rosenman). Listen to phone ringtones when you hear them around you. Some of these are very sophisticated. Listen to pop music, some of it is very energetic and delightful, plus you will hear sounds and chord progressions you'll hear in a lot of game music. The more you listen, the more you will gravitate towards some sounds and away from others. This is the first part of developing a style: deciding what you like. As far as John Williams, the scores are less important to me than watching the movies. His music is integral to the movie and is often matched to what's on screen. I remember particularly one composition he did for Star Wars called "Here They Come!" - it plays when the Millenium Falcon has escaped the Death Star and is then pursued by 4 tie fighters. Watch how the tension builds as they sight the pursuers, prepare for battle, and then have the battle. The music perfectly matches each visual and has a satisfying end. But don't stop at John Williams! There are many great film composers! Have a good journey!

  • Wow! Thank you so much Tyler, Greg, Michael, and Gav! You all gave great advice and I've learned so much just by knowing your thoughts on this. I've read lots of books regarding theories, instrumentation, and composition but I guess I never came across an answer to the question "How can you analyze and study the work of a composer?" When I look at a composition, I just see some patterns and a an idea of the structure. But I just didn't get how they could come up with those imagination and then write it down. And sometimes after all those theories I've read, I'll see a Mozart composition having parallel fifths and it's "okay". Stuffs like that confuse me when I look at sheet music. It's like a composer's mind is so colorful and it blasts in different directions. I guess I'll start listening a lot and maybe try to copy the style of different composers? Is that a good start?

    Anyway, I try what you all said. If you have anything more to say, please don't hesitate to say it. Thank you so much for the advice. I greatly appreciate it.

  • I hope this helps....its a student guideline to counterpoint that was given to us as college level composers. Its kind of hard to understand at first because the examples are on page 9 of the PDF (7 on the print), the exercises are on the last page. The exercise on page 9 is an exercise to understand intervals. Counterpoint has NOTHING to do with chords, don't get hung up on chords. Its ALL about each individual interval between the voices (lines of music). The last page has given musical lines that you are supposed to practice counterpoint against by writing another line above or below, based on the rules of counterpoint. You MUST understand the difference between harmonic motion and melodic motion for these rules to make sense.

    Type your "homework" into Sibelius or the free Musescore, to hear how it sounds......Also remember that the whole point of counterpoint is to separate the individual lines (voices) musically so that each line sounds good by itself but separate from the others.....Bach is the epitome of counterpoint.

    The other pdf is a guideline for modulating to different keys.

    Don't under-estimate the power of these PDFs, there is a HUGE amount of information in these, study each species (I,II,III,VI,and V), thoroughly and the doors of music will begin to open.

    Even if you never use counterpoint, it will greatly increase your understanding of baroque and classical music.

    Counterpoint guidelines.pdf

    Modulation guidelines.pdf

  • Hi composerrogue!

    Thank you so much for these files! I've been doing some counterpoint for quite some time and I think I definitely want to master it and use it for the rest of my life. And you're right. Bach really is amazing with counterpoint. I've actually studied some Bach chorales and you could just see the mastery of his skills. I've also done some SATB and voice leading stuffs. I think the PDFs you shared are amazing and I'll definitely use it. If you have more advanced stuffs that you'd like to share, please feel free.

  • Glad you like it! Personally I love counterpoint. I use it to some degree in all of my writing, even if only to break the rules of counterpoint. The idea of keeping each line independent applies no matter if I am writing a fugue or a shredding metal song. As a teacher, I will see if I have any more prints for you.......happy composing yo!

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