Writing music isn’t easy for most people. Most of us have never studied composition formally, nor do we have the innate talent of a Mozart or a Justin Bieber. However, if you are interested in writing music, that shouldn’t stop you! Here are five tips that you may want to keep in mind as you write the next Great American Song:
1. Know your style
From Pop to Contemporary Christian to Opera, there are literally hundreds of different musical styles and genres. It can be fun to think about writing a showtune using techniques borrowed from Motown, Jazz, and Renaissance music. However, it’s helpful to take a step back and ask yourself a few questions. What style or genre would best suit the material I’ve created? What emotions will this song evoke? Will the “sound” match the mood?
Sometimes juxtaposing incongruous things – say, disco, flying monkeys, and Gregorian chant – can be so weird that it’s good. Most of the time, though, that won’t be true. Instead, have a clear understanding of your “controlling idea” and identify the musical style or genre that reinforces or complements it. There’s nothing wrong with a little creative license or whimsy, but recognize when you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
2. Emulate, but don’t plagiarize
This is the second most important tip. We all have favorite songs and composers, and there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by them. Johann Sebastian Bach and many other great composers learned their craft by literally copying out music written by the masters of their day. That said, don’t take shortcuts and steal ideas. Not only is it dishonest to pass off other people’s work as your own, it can get you in trouble. You also risk losing credibility with your fans and colleagues alike.
3. Know your material
There are two parts to this. The first is best expressed by the great composer Chaim Rubinov: “When an idea comes to mind, write it down before you lose it! If you don't have pencil and manuscript, record it. Easiest way is to use the memo function on a smart phone and sing the idea to record it for later retrieval.”
Now that you have your idea, spend some time figuring out what you can do with it. Being economical with your material makes your music more cohesive and coherent since many or all ideas will be derived from the same source. There are many compositional tools that can help you achieve this: rhythmic augmentation and diminution, canon, inversion, retrograde, and so on – and these can all be used in combination. You can use fragments of bigger ideas to bridge different sections of your music. Many composers don’t fully appreciate the power of these compositional devices … by using them, you will be head and shoulders above many of your peers.
4. Don’t get bogged down in details
This is the most important tip. It’s very easy to get stuck as you compose. The harmonic progression doesn’t sound right or satisfactory, the melody seems contrived, the lyrics don’t quite work. Sometimes you can get so frustrated that you feel like abandoning the piece altogether.
Don’t let this happen!! Don’t let one aberrant chord halt all progress. If you get stuck at one part of your work, try focusing on a different part. You might find a solution in doing so. Try rewriting a troublesome part using some of the material generated from tip number 3. Vary things by changing modality or modulating. Don’t be afraid to erase and start over.
If the piece itself just isn’t working out, don’t bang your head against a brick wall. Go back to tip number 3 and see what else you can do with your material.
5. Know what your goal is
Writing music is a craft (and for many composers, it’s work). Most of your time will be spent on writing, revising, rewriting, and re-revising. It is important, however, to be mindful of what your goal is. In the music, certainly; use a structure or form that makes sense for the material, whether it’s ABA, rondo, sonata, or something more complex. But maintain a “bigger picture” as well. Who is your audience? Does this music have a special function (film score, music for worship)?
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to success. Composition is not easy, but, hopefully, at least one of these tips will make this arduous task a little bit easier.