How Get Started Composing Music

Lately I’ve been doing more composing and more improvising. I haven’t done a lot of composing in the past, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. There is one thing that’s been holding me back, and is that I’ve been afraid I might write music that sucks.

I used to tell myself things like “no, it won’t suck. You’re just being too hard on yourself.” But I am trying a new attitude, which is “yes, your music might suck, but that’s okay.” It’s a small but important change. I have noodled around on the piano my whole life and often I think “this would make a nice piece,” but that’s usually as far as it goes. Once in a while I’ve written things down, but rarely. But I’m starting to do it more.

Why you should try composing:

If you haven’t composed or improvised much and you’re used to playing notated music, there is a whole side of music making that you are missing, which is creating your own music. I know a lot of pianists who have spent most of their time learning pieces and technical studies, but when it comes to creating anything at the keyboard, they are paralyzed with fear. I know this feeling.

In the classical tradition we “interpret” the works of other composers, which means we take the composer’s notation and reveal the musical idea it represents. For us to really understand how this process works, we should have at least a little bit of experience going the other direction–translating musical ideas to notation. It will give you a whole new perspective. Plus it will get you thinking about structure, phrasing, variation, contrast, and the overall shape of a piece. The more you can think like a composer, the better you will be at interpreting the work of another composer.

So with that, here are my tips on getting started with composing. (If you haven’t noticed, I really like lists.)

Ten Tips to Help You Get Started Composing Music:

  1. Practice improvising and noodling, and listen for ideas that you like. When you come up with an idea you like, play around with it for a while.
  2. Record your ideas so you can come back to them later. It’s easier than writing them down.
  3. When you find something that you continue to like, turn it into a short composition. You can either record it or write it down at first, but eventually write it down.
  4. Make getting things done your main goal.
  5. Don’t feel that everything you write has to be earth shattering or epic. Just try to write things that sound like they qualify as music. Keep the bar low.
  6. As you compose, try to find where the piece “wants to go.” If that sounds weird to you, just try it. Imagine that you’re not composing the piece, but that God is speaking to you and you’re just a vehicle. (If you don’t believe in God, who cares? I don’t want to hear it. Just put something else in there that makes sense to you.)
  7. If you start to think your piece sounds too strange, or too cheesy, or too much like someone else…don’t worry about that. Forget about it. Who cares? Write a strange piece, or a cheesy piece, or a piece that sounds like Richard Clayderman, or whatever. Just get it down on paper, and move on.
  8. Compose a lot of short pieces. You can write long pieces later.
  9. It’s okay to compose pieces that may never be performed, or heard by anyone. Lots of composers have done that. It’s part of the process.
  10. Learn to compose music, before worrying about composing good music. But to start off, it just has to be music. That’s it.

Sounds pretty easy? It kind of is, as long as you can stay out of your own way. Give it a try and see what you come up with! I’d love to hear how it goes.

Did I miss anything? Is this good advice? Is it bad advice? Let me know what you think.