I made a profile in wikihow.com, and by chance, I saw this article:

How to Compose Music

The people who have written it out have really done a lot of effort, including pedagogical graphics like this one:

She looks friendly
YOUR composition teacher

Unfortunately, the text is a tour de force through all the typical misconceptions you would meet in any presentation about music and composition in education. It seems futile to start and edit the article, – after all it is conform to the most widespread ideas about the subject, so my only reasonable option was to give this comment in the discussion:

“This article is a brilliant example of how to confuse people and block their musical creativity. It stems from the misunderstanding that the analysis of existing music, underlying what we call music theory, IS in fact music

However, music does not come from nowhere, it is embedded in a CONTEXT.
Explaining people how to compose by showing them scales, chords and instruments is like explaining someone how to communicate with another human being by giving them an alphabet and asking them to know the sequence of the letters by heart.

This musical autism is lamentably very widespread, and it is reproduced in education all the way to the conservatories. Being at a higher level of studies does not bring clarification but simply adds complexity to the same confusion.

Using sound as a means of expression MIGHT involve instruments, chords, scales, tones etc, but basically the capacity of composing is rooted in our everyday lives. Composing is something that we humans do all the time. As a collective we build a common world, an assemblage, and one of the most fundamental means we possess to that end is our ability to use language.

In language, we are capable of expressing and perceiving the most minuscule nuances in our interactions through sound.

THIS should be the message to someone asking how to compose music, that you are doing it already, and you can depart from this activity and prolong and extend it into sequences of sound. Use all kinds of existing music and sounds around you, choose according to your intuition, be a whole human being, use your voice and body as impulse giver. Remix, reuse, hack your way into existing technologies – digital as well as acoustic instruments, and build forms in sound inspired by everyday life events, social scripts and narratives.”

5 thoughts on “How (not) to compose music

  1. Interesting post but, although I agree with much of what is said and share your reserves about the article in question, I don’t agree with your final conclusion. We all acquire a set of complexes and cliches (can’t get the accent on the ‘e’ here) which we permutate and re-present to the listener as ‘original’ and, if we proceed on the basis that what we create must emerge from some blind, unthinking process that is linked in some mysterious way to our subconscious then we will, I promise you, impede our creativity (I’m a composer/arranger with over 45 years of experience/learning from my mistakes). Nevertheless, if I understand you correctly, you are correct, in my opinion, to place emphasis on the direct link between the process of composition and the physical world we inhabit, a world that existed before mankind and his notions even existed. Thanks again, John Morton.

  2. @John Morton. Thanks for your comment! I really appreciate your participation.

    I’m not sure how this happened but it seems you disagree with something, I haven’t written (or meant at least), and you agree with something I didn’t write (or mean)!!

    I agree 100% that idea of music as something emerging from our subconscious some kind of transcendence. Actually, I would add that this idea is a reminiscence of music as something embedded in religion.

    The idea of a link with Nature, that you mention, is in my opinion not much different from an idea of the subconscious or transcendence.

    What I’m trying to say is that composition is something that is embedded in human practice, and that we are doing it all the time, that is a fundamental part of our building of collectives.

    In that way composition is related to basic human interaction, it is embedded in the collective, and it can make use of sounds, and this is of course a link with our physical environment, – but what’s important is not the way the sounds sound in themselves, so to speak, but the way that we form them, that we humanize them.

    The problem with the way musical composition is being depicted in mainstream accounts is that they completely ignore the link to everyday human expression while ‘spamming’ the reader with a (pseudo)technical language, that seemingly explains what music is.

    Hope I made myself clearer!

  3. I always approach discussions in the spirit of throwing something in the common pool. It sparks off an idea in someone else and so it goes on.

    Religion does play an important part in the debate, hence the idea of creativity as being in some way God-given. My favourite idea is that Big G might be looking over me but the professional approach to ideas is the one I think we both agree on.

    I particularly agree with your inference that intellectual snobbery plays a damaging role. As I say in the book, people in a position of influence often surround themselves with a barrier of esoteric terms desiged to protect their privileged status and to keep rivals at bay. (It’s not unknown for lecturers to resent talented youngsters.) The ‘Plain English’ brigade have a lot of scope in music.

    In my opinion, there is a close link between musical forces and the workings of everyday physics in our daily lives; a melodic line resembling the motion of a sine wave, for example, creates a feeling of calm and inactivity and a melody possesses definable kinetic properties, also exibiting inertial forces at work. This phenomenon does not occur to the same extent, if at all, in other art forms.

    Thanks for your response.

    1. I like your comment about esoteric terms, and i am convinced that there is an inherent logic of self preservation to any system, including a system called musicology, or an organisation for a specific musical genre, and that their invention of an ideosyncratic lingo is part of the defence strategy keeping out intruders..

  4. Some idea of the difficulties we all face lies in the opening para in my last response where I refer to ‘sparking off ideas’. I then go on to question where ideas come from! Oh well, I’m just a musician.

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