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atrombonist

How to "practice" composition?

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This is a question I was thinking about the other day. When you're learning an instrument, you don't start by playing a Telemann concerto, you start by playing notes, and then scales, then arpeggios and scale patterns and etudes and such, because those make up the fundamentals of all music. How exactly does one "practice" composition? How do you do the composition equivalent of playing scales and scale patterns? An instrumentalist wouldn't only play fancy concert solo pieces, but that's essentially what we do in composition. Am I making sense?

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I think most good textbooks used for composition classes have exercises in them that can be practiced the same way pianists practice scales.  If you aren't in a formal class, that doesn't mean you can't go buy a textbook and do the exercises on your own.  What you need to practice most depends on your current musical skill set. 

That said, one option is to take the melody line or the bass line of an existing piece and re-harmonize it, without looking at the original.  Give yourself whatever set of constraints you want, to practice a certain skill:  adhere strictly to the rules of voice leading, only use the chords dictated by the chord progression chart for minor or major, only use root position chords and think about your doublings, write it in close position, practice using 7 chords, 9 chords, 1st inversion, rewrite the parts that cadence in the original piece using every different kind of cadence you can think of, etc.  Whatever concept you are studying, make yourself some short, throw-away exercises to put that into practice.  

Option two is reading and ear-training homework.  Photocopy a piece you already own, or something from the library, so that you can scribble all over it, or print a free score off the internet, and go through and label all the bits that you correspond to what you are currently studying.  Circle all the non-chord tones, and label them as to type.  Mark chords as I, iv, V, or as tonic, leading tone, dominant, or as Major, Minor, Sus, b7.  Whatever it is that you are reading about in theory, find examples in scores of composers handling them in practice, and mark them.  Then listen to recordings of the piece with your marked score in hand and see what the composer's treatment of them really feels like in context.  

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This is what I do. When I learn something, whatever (a scale, a mode, a rhythm, added chords, chords by fiftsh, etc.........) I write short things to aprehend those elements and to feel how they work and sound. These are not compositions, only exercises. I don't care if they are good or not.

With time, I try to combine what I have been learning. This is, perhaps, more difficult, but it is the essence of composition: taking many tools you know, and pick those that fit in you idea.

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This is a good question because it comes down how serious you are about actually "getting better." The key thing is to remember that "practice" when composing means a lot more than doing exercises or copying things, it means actually pushing yourself constantly out of your comfort zone. For that, you need to first find out where your limitations are and that's when exercises can be useful.

 

Let's say, for example, that I give you an exercise as follows: Compose a bridge between piece A by famous composer to piece B by another famous composer. Let's say you do some Beethoven Sonata to some small piece by Satie. You have 20 measures to do it (and you can't cut or add measures) and the rest is up to you. This kind of exercise is a way to check your skills in many different areas and to see where you are lacking. Maybe your analysis technique is lacking, maybe you can't keep your ideas within a set limit, maybe your ideas are too short, and so on.  Once you do this kind of exercise 4 or 5 times, bridging different kinds of pieces, you'll be much better equipped to see what you need to work on.

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Posted (edited)
On 8/7/2018 at 8:55 PM, atrombonist said:

This is a question I was thinking about the other day. When you're learning an instrument, you don't start by playing a Telemann concerto, you start by playing notes, and then scales, then arpeggios and scale patterns and etudes and such, because those make up the fundamentals of all music. 

I'll take flak for this, but I don't care and have seen enough to no longer hear arguments otherwise:

I think your comparison is apples to oranges.

Playing an instrument, drawing, etc. is more a matter of motor function, muscle memory, etc. than anything else and every individual does actually have an upper limit and you have to keep practicing to stay sharp. Through repetition and proper form, one gets better at playing any particular piece although certain exercises and advanced techniques will likely remain out of reach for some. No, I don't think everyone can play guitar like Michael Romeo, even with ridiculously-good practice. 

Composition, however, as in "putting all the notes together" as a crude description, is something that requires execution of techniques and (cue outrage) formulas that have been boiled down to a science over hundreds of years; how you apply these is where the art and individuality comes in. You can do this with just a pen and paper and no further skill. So if you're failing to achieve something, it's because you don't have a strong enough understanding of some concept to execute it rather than technical ability.

So how do you practice? By writing more pieces that utilize what you just learned, refining and comparing it against the source until you have it right and have memorized how it works. For some things, like creating chord progressions or simple harmony, a person can often effectively put that knowledge into practice after simply reading about it once. For others, like counterpoint, it can take longer to master because there is a lot more to remember and keep track of at once. But once you do get it, you don't tend to forget it, and the possibilities in your music are forever expanded by your learning of it.

It really is more like learning basic math than learning how to juggle.

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw

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