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How to learn melodic dictation?

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Most great composers (Bach, Mozart, etc.) could just sit down and commit to paper whatever they "heard" inside their heads. While that kind of mental skill is perhaps a bit too much to ask for lesser mortals, it still seems to me that melodic dictation is a useful thing to learn. But how does one go about this? I have absolutely no idea.

When I "compose", it's basically just trial-and-error: I will just enter notes into my notation software more or less at random, and replay the result endlessly until I like it. A piece of two minutes duration takes me about 1 month to finish. Fortunately, I now know some theory with which to guide my composition process, but it's still horribly inefficient and time-consuming. Any ideas to speed up my composing efforts?

By the way, due to various disabilities and maybe also neglect of my musical education when I was a child, I don't play any instruments, nor am I able to sing. Do you think this is necessarily a problem when trying to become a proper composer? Sometimes i feel that many aspects of music (especially rhythm) just don't come "naturally" to me.

Thanks for reading! I hope you'll be able to give me some advice.

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Let me just make one thing clear: it doesn't take a genius to write down whatever one hears. Neither does it take perfect pitch or the ability to sing.

The first song I took down by ear was a Britney Spears one. I just learned to play it. I returned yesterday from holiday with a sketchbook full of melodies with harmony of musical material I came up with during my time away from music. When I played them at the piano upon my return it sounded exactly as in my head. Not luck because I do it on a regular basis. You have to be able to hear the notes your inner ear hears whether it is your own imagination or external music.

Step by step here is what you can do.

1. learn to play a simple pop song on piano. It doesn't have to be good playing or swing it just has to be the right notes in more or less the right rhythm and definitely the right order! Just play along to the song until you get the hang of it. When you've done this a couple of times and need challenge, proceed.

2. learn to play a simple pop song on piano WITHOUT listening to it whilst playing. Take a familiar one like a Lady Gaga or that TV theme we all hum. Learn to play it. Then check with the audio. Maybe you've selected the wrong key, then figure out how to play it in the right key.

Now these steps doesn't train your inner ear that much. Assuming you know notation you can proceed.

3. WRITE a familiar pop tune. Maybe check for the first note of the song and try to write it out imagining how your fingers might check and choose the keys on the piano. Check and correct as you go.

4. Now take a song you don't know. Write down the first four bars of melody while looping the audio. When you've nailed them proceed to the next four.

Add harmonies as you feel comfortable. Of course YMMV but these are good way to train your ear along with solfege and do-re-mi stuff.

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Any ideas to speed up my composing efforts?

Who cares about speed?

There's no such a thing as an "efficient" composition method, you either write or you don't. It'll take just as long regardless if you learn other things, unless you just want to churn out theory exercises.

Have patience with yourself.

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Who cares about speed?

There's no such a thing as an "efficient" composition method, you either write or you don't. It'll take just as long regardless if you learn other things, unless you just want to churn out theory exercises.

Have patience with yourself.

That would be lovely if practical concerns didn't matter. Unfortunately, they do. Composers have deadlines just like in every other art form. You can't just let the piece compose itself at its own pace, especially if you're getting paid for it.

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That would be lovely if practical concerns didn't matter. Unfortunately, they do. Composers have deadlines just like in every other art form. You can't just let the piece compose itself at its own pace, especially if you're getting paid for it.

1) Rome wasn't built in a day.

2) And if it's about commissions, which I think he didn't mention was the issue, you can just wing whatever if you're short on time as it's often the case. Actual commissions for compositions that I've had and others are always with "as much time as you need for it not to suck." Anything else is garbage since if it's about doing theory exercises why bother?

3) Everyone has their own pacing and sometimes things just take a while because polishing takes time. People should write things they are proud of, not just churn scraggy out because they need to meet a deadline (halfassed much?) I'm talking about actual composers, not people who do soundtracks or other thing where it's more OK to autopilot.

4) Artforms don't automatically have deadlines. Look at Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, or many other examples where it took composers years to write a single work, etc etc. A painter can also take months and months to paint a single painting, specially if they have to start over and over because they aren't getting it "just right," then polishing takes more time.

5) Then there's the whole thing with "open" art, where the movie/piece/painting/etc is NEVER finished, and instead remains a work in progress during the entire life of the composer (Durufle's music was for example revised and polished over and over until he pretty much died.)

So shut the gently caress up, Tokke.

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Oh no, it's not about commissions. I'm just an amateur, a "desk drawer" composer so to speak. It just would be nice, I think, to be able to work more or less mentally, without the need for a computer or an instrument. That's what Bach, to name an example, recommended to his pupils.

Last but not least: many thanks to all for the useful advice! I'll certainly try it out.

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1) Rome wasn't built in a day.

2) And if it's about commissions, which I think he didn't mention was the issue, you can just wing whatever if you're short on time as it's often the case. Actual commissions for compositions that I've had and others are always with "as much time as you need for it not to suck." Anything else is garbage since if it's about doing theory exercises why bother?

3) Everyone has their own pacing and sometimes things just take a while because polishing takes time. People should write things they are proud of, not just churn scraggy out because they need to meet a deadline (halfassed much?) I'm talking about actual composers, not people who do soundtracks or other thing where it's more OK to autopilot.

4) Artforms don't automatically have deadlines. Look at Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, or many other examples where it took composers years to write a single work, etc etc. A painter can also take months and months to paint a single painting, specially if they have to start over and over because they aren't getting it "just right," then polishing takes more time.

5) Then there's the whole thing with "open" art, where the movie/piece/painting/etc is NEVER finished, and instead remains a work in progress during the entire life of the composer (Durufle's music was for example revised and polished over and over until he pretty much died.)

Quoed fr tuth

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Agree with Tokke. It's not about writing theory exercises or winging it, but it's about training yourself to be in the mental position to listen to your inner ear and transcribe it. It's about getting your ear in a curious zone where things pop up.

It's about putting yourself in a zone were you are aware of this and recipient to it.

So kindly close your mouth, SSC

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Agree with Tokke. It's not about writing theory exercises or winging it, but it's about training yourself to be in the mental position to listen to your inner ear and transcribe it. It's about getting your ear in a curious zone where things pop up.

It's about putting yourself in a zone were you are aware of this and recipient to it.

So kindly close your mouth, SSC

Note that I didn't say anything about the above.

At all.

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Most great composers (Bach, Mozart, etc.) could just sit down and commit to paper whatever they "heard" inside their heads. While that kind of mental skill is perhaps a bit too much to ask for lesser mortals, it still seems to me that melodic dictation is a useful thing to learn. But how does one go about this? I have absolutely no idea.

Most? That's different than my understanding of music history to be honest. Mozart, and the small few like him (Mendelssohn), are in the minority in this department. Most of the great composers would regularly listen to their work played back to make sure it is what they wish. Only a small few were able to write what they hear or envisioned in their heads down to paper. Bach, as far as I know, was not on that list. He regularly composed at a keyboard (whether harpsichord or organ). He also would reuse ideas from one work in other works - as other composers have done. Beethoven, who is considered one of the greatest composers, is well known for not being able to just 'write' what he heard in his head. His sketch books even indicate that he would question himself repeatedly over even the shortest motivic material.

When I "compose", it's basically just trial-and-error: I will just enter notes into my notation software more or less at random, and replay the result endlessly until I like it. A piece of two minutes duration takes me about 1 month to finish. Fortunately, I now know some theory with which to guide my composition process, but it's still horribly inefficient and time-consuming. Any ideas to speed up my composing efforts?

My sketchbook, which I am HIGHLY greatful for, is usually where I write down my ideas during the day and week. Sometimes I will have a fully penned theme, but mostly it's just short motivic material or harmonic ideas. I highly recommend everyone have a sketchbook - especially the pocket size - to do this. It also helps me complete works a LOT faster than most.

By the way, due to various disabilities and maybe also neglect of my musical education when I was a child, I don't play any instruments, nor am I able to sing. Do you think this is necessarily a problem when trying to become a proper composer? Sometimes i feel that many aspects of music (especially rhythm) just don't come "naturally" to me.

Thanks for reading! I hope you'll be able to give me some advice.

Playing an instrument is always helpful BUT isn't required at all for music composition. What is important is that you know how instruments work and how to write for them. Somethings come naturally to some, while to others they are hard learned. That's just life really.

My advice, is to just write. Learn your theory. And then force yourself to work. You can sit and work all day long on trying to transcribe the ideas in your head verbatim - which you most likely will fail at. Or you can just write and use your knowledge and experience to aid in completing your work. Choice is yours really.

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I felt composers should pick up as many skills as possible. It could be an ear training session or participating in a choir. It all helps you to enhance your compositional process. we need to embrace life long learning

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Thanks, J.A. Woodruff, for your advice! I'll certainly keep in mind getting myself a notebook.

I don't know much about music history, so you're probably right about Beethoven and other composers. (By the way, how did Ludwig cope when he went deaf?) I do know, however, that Bach explicitly forbade his pupils to compose at the keyboard; see

[ur]http://www.oldandsold.com/articles02/jsbach3.shtml[/url].

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Thanks, J.A. Woodruff, for your advice! I'll certainly keep in mind getting myself a notebook.

I don't know much about music history, so you're probably right about Beethoven and other composers. (By the way, how did Ludwig cope when he went deaf?) I do know, however, that Bach explicitly forbade his pupils to compose at the keyboard; see

[ur]http://www.oldandsol...2/jsbach3.shtml[/url].

That's because he wanted them to master the theory aspects first and foremost, as it states in the article.

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Bach isn't that great of an example as he was a little crazy as well. How he himself learned had a lot more to do with copying other people's music and playing a fuckload of music (and improvising a LOT) than with how he actually taught others, which is interesting. In other words, he wanted to produce copies of himself rather than actually teach people composition, but seeing as this is 1700ish it's easy to see why the backwards mentality.

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Who cares about speed?

There's no such a thing as an "efficient" composition method, you either write or you don't. It'll take just as long regardless if you learn other things, unless you just want to churn out theory exercises.

Have patience with yourself.

Ah yes, isn't that the beauty of composing? You hear a magnificent piece and can break the whole thing apart, and reconstruct it in your mind and out on paper (the computer.)

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Bach isn't that great of an example as he was a little crazy as well. How he himself learned had a lot more to do with copying other people's music and playing a fuckload of music (and improvising a LOT)

Crazy is good, improvising is good.

SSC is good

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Bach isn't that great of an example as he was a little crazy as well. How he himself learned had a lot more to do with copying other people's music and playing a fuckload of music (and improvising a LOT) than with how he actually taught others, which is interesting. In other words, he wanted to produce copies of himself rather than actually teach people composition, but seeing as this is 1700ish it's easy to see why the backwards mentality.

Copies of himself? If that really is the case, which I honestly doubt, then he didn't succeed very well, by any standard. His three most talented pupils, his sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emmanuel and Johann Christian, all wrote very independent music that was completely different from that of their father.

Come to think of it, I believe Bach's way of teaching composition, as I understand it, does make sense even today (with a few minor modifications). Harmonizing chorale melodies in four parts seems excellent practice.

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Copies of himself? If that really is the case, which I honestly doubt, then he didn't succeed very well, by any standard. His three most talented pupils, his sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emmanuel and Johann Christian, all wrote very independent music that was completely different from that of their father.

Don't honestly doubt.

Learn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Ludwig_Krebs

Look up some of his music. This was the "best" of Bach's pupils, probably much better regarded by Bach himself than any of his sons.

Come to think of it, I believe Bach's way of teaching composition, as I understand it, does make sense even today (with a few minor modifications). Harmonizing chorale melodies in four parts seems excellent practice.

Maybe makes sense if you want to write chorales, but if you want to do anything else it won't help you. Writing fugues or other types of instrumental counterpoint has absolutely nothing to do with writing chorales because they work much more linearly than vertically. Sure you may learn some harmony, but not how to handle it with free counterpoint. I remember I didn't write practically a single chorale until my finals when I studied and I pretty much did OK, don't feel like I missed anything at all.

The problem with thinking there's a "one size fits all" type of exercise is that, in reality, students don't often complain about what they're being taught since they don't have any clue if it's helping them or not so you can't possibly know if it's effective. There are millions of exercises you could do to learn any given number of things, it doesn't mean you have to stick to only one.

And, likewise, writing actual music is the best exercise. Music that is from the get-go regarded as an exercise rarely matters since why are you going to bother getting creative with just an exercise? These type of things only matter to train the brain mechanically, drill concepts in, rather than help anything musical. And all this, obviously, if you want/need these concepts to begin with.

How people taught in the 1700s is obviously not relevant today because the average music student knows much more than Bach, Mozart, etc ever knew about history, theory and other styles and musical practices. That's the benefit of living in the modern world, after all. But it also changes entirely the approach to learning music since there's no single tradition anymore that matters "more." It's all up to the composer to decide in what direction they'll go, not their teacher.

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I wish composing was as lassez-faire as you make it out to be SSC.

... ?

Laissez-faire, you mean?

But yeah, anyone can compose. Anyone can write music, without knowing what music is or even having ears. It's not like the person even matters in the end, as machine can compose as well, or you can say that you can't even escape musical thought if you consider everyday sounds aleatory music.

Sadly for you art's kind of hard on the philosophical side for all that it actually means and can possibly mean.

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Where do you get all this historical knowledge from? You almost sound like you were actually there. :) I don't know who Bach's favorite pupil was (if he even had one). Fact is, that while some of Bach's pupils indeed adhered closely to the master's style (like Krebs indeed, or his cousin Johann Bernhard), others diverged from it, such as his three most famous sons - Johann Christian being the youngest and most noticeable example. That doesn't sound like a tyrant trying to press his pupils into the exact same mold. I suppose this is what happened: the lads who were sent to Bach as pupils got a good thorough grounding in keyboard playing, basic theory, improvisation, harmony exercises (chorales etc.), counterpoint, and eventually some free composition for the really talented. Bach never showed any sign of putting his own musical tastes and procedures above that of others, and was quite eager to assimilate all sorts of different styles during his lifetime, and admired many other composers with styles different from his (Handel, Zelenka, etc.).

Of course, didactics were different in the 18th Century from what they are now. I'm not saying that we should try and recreate Bach's teaching model in every detail. What I'm saying is that it makes perfect sense to learn harmony by example and actually doing things (composing chorales) and not by precept. As for myself, some time ago I began elaborating 18th Century basso continuo parts (just as an exercise), and the results are starting to show. Your ideal of just composing and finding your own way sounds very nice, and in a way even romantic, but I think that's just taking too long. I want to learn the trade well, and only after that find my own voice. Why invent the wheel time and time again, when others have already done that for you?

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Well CPE and Christian Bach are pretty much characterized for how modernistic they were in contrast to their father who, at the time, was writing extremely old-hat music for which pretty much nobody cared for. I don't know if Bach Sr was that cool with the idea of ditching counterpoint (and affects) altogether in favor of the emerging galante style or CPE's bizarre mixes.

I want to learn the trade well, and only after that find my own voice. Why invent the wheel time and time again, when others have already done that for you?

Eh, "reinventing the wheel" is a failure as an analogy. Every time kid says this, it's the same'ol answer: If this is the case, then don't bother writing music again, ever, as every possible combination of pitches and rhythms has been used already and you would be wasting time then just rewriting it. Why bother?

I don't see what "trade" is here, it's not like composing is similar to being a fisher or a butcher. There's no "right" way to write music, therefore which wheel are we "reinventing" again? Or are you implying that the spectrum of music is so narrow that it can be compared to the goddamn wheel?

PS: By the by, for COMPOSERS who supposedly CREATE music and are supposed to be CREATIVE types of people, shouldn't the thought of reinventing anything be INTERESTING at the very least?? Maybe you come up with a different type of wheel? A more personal wheel? Who knows?

Don't people have any goddamn creativity anymore?

And the sad part is, the majority of the time I've spent teaching composition was trying to desperately undo the terrible damage "education" in general does. Simple things like how many variations can you do on a single chord? People struggle to do 20, when they should well be able to do hundreds. Nobody cares about this type of skill, but it's sadly the most important one.

Sidenote: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcicJklySgc

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