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Getting started, advice for beginners?

Posted By: Sand Tiger

Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/17/13 04:21 PM

This topic is inspired by a recent exchange on the Adult Beginners Forum. No need to name names, but hopefully all interested parties will at least read this thread.

The question is, if someone came up to you and asked you for advice on how to get started. What would you tell them? What have others told you? What helped? What didn't help?

I know that some here feel like they are still beginners, but imagine someone writes to you and says they admire your latest piece, and then asks the question. How do you respond?

I'll wait a day or two before answering the question to avoid coloring the responses. In the mean time, have at it. What do you tell the beginner that has some basic knowledge of piano, and wants to start writing original music?
Posted By: Nikolas

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/17/13 05:43 PM

In terms of composition I think that in my case it was the fact that I knew music (studying piano) that got me to imitate what I was listening and playing; unsuccessfully of course! wink I think there's not much else one can do at an early time, but to try and sound as professional as possible, thus copying what others do.

Once I reached the age of 16 I realized that I could either be an excellent pianist to be better than the competition, or original. The second choice felt easier and thus I steered towards composition more and more, but I had been composing since the age of 13 or less probably... In fact far earlier, since I got my first keyboard (a Yamaha PSR 4600) at the age of 13, and I was already considering how I was going to fix my 'songs', which occupied a couple of 45er tapes. Wish I could find these...

In any case the idea of being original struck a vein in me and... that's about it. I hardly knew theory, but my ears were working fine.

I caught up with theory around the age of 20 or so actually. I hated every single lesson I took on theory cause it was sterile, silly and with no explanation as to why I was studying harmony. Once I met a great teacher, things changed. I was already at a good enough level at the piano, so I just caught up with harmony and started learning 20th century harmony...
Posted By: Steve Chandler

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/17/13 06:18 PM

This is an interesting question. My response would be a question in return, Why do you want to compose? While there is no wrong answer, their motivation tells me what advice I might give that would be most effective for them. If a guy wants to compose to impress girls then my suggestion would be learn your scales and arpeggios and maybe try to emulate Chopin nocturnes.

If someone has something they want to express then I'd suggest they sing it out. The simplest musical expression is a melody, so work up a melody that expresses what you want to express. Do that a number of times for different situations but also go back and rework existing material. Being your own worst critic is very important, it's very easy to fall in love with your creations and overlook flaws and weaknesses.

Every piece I write has a concept behind it. I may bring decades of knowledge and experience to the task but every piece is a new adventure. It takes practice to get good so my advice would be start practicing composing. Once you have some ideas then get the theoretical knowledge because understanding the nuts and bolts of music will inform your efforts. However, I think it's important to create some ideas first then as you gain the theoretical knowledge you'll understand what you've already done.
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/18/13 01:33 PM

Thank you for the replies. I am going to take a Tabula Rasa approach for those reading and mention some resources.

Yale Classical Music appreciation course with over 20 hours of lectures, but well worth the time for music lovers. This is a music appreciation course, not a composition course. For true beginners, I believe that will be more valuable than jumping into composition without context.

How Music Works (part 1 of many) shorter, more to the point, and again great for music lovers. Again, not composition, but again, for true beginners gives an understanding about why music touches people the way it does.

MuseScore, free composition software, more than enough for most folks. There is an upload area where folks share their compositions. A person can download some and hear them or see what others are doing.

There were a couple of books mentioned in this old thread asking a similar question:

Many years ago I asked a friend, a former concert pianist that also does some composition, for advice on this subject. The advice I got was to listen to music that matters to me, that moves me. Obviously, that answer will tend to be different for each person. At that time, I had very little background, knowledge or exposure, so this was an important step for me, even if it didn't jump start my writing.

I got that advice before Youtube became popular. Today, a beginner can look up almost any famous piece or song and hear a rendition. The audio isn't the best, but a person can get a good idea, and listen to a lot of music in a short time without spending a lot of money.

I hope others chime in. I'll add more later.
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/19/13 05:08 AM

Some more from me. Okay, let's say that that the total novice has taken some first steps. They listen to music that moves them. They may have watched the music appreciation lectures or music history videos. They may have read a book or least a website on music theory. They may have downloaded MuseScore software and looked at and played some scores in the archives.

It helps to be able to play an instrument. This is piano world so I assume, most here play piano. Piano and guitar are the big two instruments for songwriters. Some do arrangements with Garage Band or similar software.

What next? Steve Chandler in the 2nd reply, asks the important question of why does a person want to compose? Is it a hobby, to express feelings of love, or perhaps sadness, or joy? Or is it more than that, to make money? To have orchestral works performed live?

For those that seek to sell their music, or have their music performed by others, personal connections may be at least as important as the quality of the music. I often attend a concert series at a local church. The level of musicianship is high. Most that get invited are big contest winners or have a doctorate degree in performance. Many pieces are old and established from the catalog so to speak. Any new pieces tend to be composed by the musician or friends of the featured musician. Without a personal connection, those pieces would likely not get the exposure.

As a sidebar, I have met a couple of successful pro songwriters in person. They tend to write for pop or country. They can work very fast. Elton John is famous for his stunts of writing music very quickly. Here is one of him writing music set to an oven manual.
Just to be clear, I have not met Elton John.

Okay, back to earth and the hobbyist. Deconstruction is a powerful tool for would-be songwriters and composers and prose and poetry writers as well. This involves taking apart admired pieces and then perhaps using similar elements in your own compositions. It is a powerful way to add familiar elements to your own work.

In this video Torley demonstrates some New Age techniques.
It isn't important whether a person likes or dislikes New Age music. The bigger takeaway is the process of deconstruction and reapplying those building blocks to your own work. A person can do this by listening or by looking at the score.

Enough for this post, I'll add more later.

Readers, even other beginners, feel free to chime in. I find there are very few absolutes when it comes to writing music. There are a lot of different ways to approach the task.
Posted By: Ben Crosland

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/19/13 06:32 AM

My advice would be:

Get your playing skills at least to a point where you can play some scales and arps, with either hand, comfortably and instinctively enough that you can play simple ideas easily.

Play lots of other people's music that inspires you.

Find some alone time to improvise, and be prepared to play a lot of complete crap.

Keep your ears open! The smallest fragments of melody can be gathered up, polished, and developed into something special.

Find a way to document ideas before you forget them

Treat every theme in your piece with as much care and attention as the first. Too many times a great opening theme is killed stone-dead by a terrible theme B or middle-eight section.

Have a purpose and a framework for your music. Random noodlings aren't likely to get you noticed as a composer.

Try to learn at least enough theory to understand your own work.

Play your music to other people in real life, and be prepared for it to sound very different. You'll know if it sucks or not from the vibe in the room, regardless of how nice they are to you.

Be prepared to throw ideas out. Some of them will be much better than others - learning to recognise the difference is crucial.

Try to play your music if at all possible. Listening to music performed by a mouse is almost always a horrible experience.
Posted By: Exalted Wombat

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/19/13 02:23 PM

What does "composing" mean to you? Working in a structured way, producing notation that others may play too? Recording an improvised performance?

Whichever it is, have a routine. Set aside one evening each week (or whatever) on which you will conceive, create and COMPLETE a new work. No matter you don't feel "inspired", just do it. Think of it as a requirement for your composition course - hand in this week's piece or get thrown out of the class.

This is a tool, not a restriction of course. When you have 20 short pieces finished you may feel one has potential for development, or for amalgamation with another... But don't get bogged down. Work on that, but create today's new piece AS WELL.

This does work. I've proved it with several students. It's only really a simple extension of "practice every day, even when you don't feel like it".
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/20/13 03:29 PM

Thanks for the additional replies.

An important topic for beginners is art vs. craft, or inspiration vs. perspiration.

For beginners that seek to be competent songwriters or composers, perspiration is necessary. There might be an occasional rare person that can get by mostly on inspiration, but they aren't likely to ever need advice or be reading my missives on the subject.

There is a craft to songwriting and composing. There is structure and form, and key signatures, and more. My suggestion for novice songwriters is to commit to the task. Commit time every day if at all possible to writing music. A person can watch all the videos and read every book, but unless and until they sit down and write, they won't have done anything.

I promise any beginner reading this, if they commit to an hour a day for one month they will make significant progress. Do that for three months, and you will amaze yourself. This is an hour actually writing new music, not practicing from a method book, or learning theory. If a person still wants to be learning, then split that hour.

There is another thread about how people compose.
There are a lot of roads to Rome. A beginner can try out the various methods mentioned in the thread and see what works best for them. This is a great age for songwriters and composers. Some see it as a blessing, some see the downside. The downside and upside is that virtually anyone can write music.

Every pianist understands the need for practice time, for learning time. Yet, so many would-be composers don't want to commit time to the creative process. There is power in the doing. A person can't learn to play the piano by reading a book or attending a lecture, and a person can't learn to write music that way either. A beginner isn't going to be playing Grade 8 pieces right from the start. A beginner songwriter isn't likely to be writing at that level either. Start where you are and move forward, but start, and keep moving day by day.

After a point, more book learning can start to be detrimental to writing. For me, there is an organic quality to good music. There is head vs. heart, and there is a balance. Music that is over intellectualized can be sterile sounding. Let me clarify that I am talking about people that feel the need to read yet another book, but haven't written a darn thing yet. On the other side, music written by those without any background in fundamentals may be too wild, too unorganized, to find a home.

The question about why a person is writing, is worth mentioning again. If a person is writing for themselves, they can do whatever works for them. If a person is writing for live string quartets, sheet music is a must. If a person is writing for other casual musicians, lead sheets, or chord charts, are a good way to go. If a person is writing popular songs for the commercial audience, eventually a decent quality finished demo MP3 or similar will be necessary for the pitch. If a person is in a class, the instructor will tell you what is expected, whether it be sheet music, recordings, lead sheets, or demos, or a live performance.
Posted By: JoelW

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/21/13 02:47 AM

I'm no expert but if I have any advice to give, it's this:

1) Take theory. Understand it thoroughly.
2) Simplicity is key. Don't over-cluster. Don't let it sound 'forced' either.
3) Listen to many different composers. Aspects of their music will stick around and wind up influencing your music in what will ultimately be your own unique sound, but don't try to copy their styles. No one wants another Chopin. wink I made that mistake when I first started.

And finally, I think one of the secrets to composing good music is to know that you probably won't for a while. Like any craft, it takes a while to get good at. Keep doing it over and over. You will start to figure things out on your own and you will get better.

Posted By: rnaple

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/23/13 03:14 AM

Thank you Sand Tiger, for starting this. I always appreciate learning from others experiences.

I am a beginner. I can't get into all that has led me to wanting to compose. I would write you a book. I don't wish to take over the thread and make it look like Rossy's. smile

I have started. I'm at the point where I come up with original thoughts. I write them down. Keep them. I have tried to write out the lyrics for music. I can easily come up with the words to fill out the story of the original idea. When I think of different styles, country, pop, jazz, etc. I can come up with so many words that will do that fill in. I have give up expanding those thoughts. I'm sticking right now with good original thoughts.

I'm learning piano. Just a beginner. I know I have the right stuff for music. I did at a young age. Didn't pursue it. I won't write a book about me.

I thank you for the suggestions on books. I have several right now I'm reading and or working in. The first was "Tunesmith" by Jimmy Webb. To answer Jimmy...I write because I have to.

The question put up of "Why do you want to compose".
First... I know that...
If a person composes to impress girls....that will show.
If a person composes to make money....that will show.
If a person composes to be great....that will show.
If a person composes to create a truly great song. Where they are not important. It is the music that is important....it will show.

Now why do I want to compose? It is my war. I have lived a life of being crucified over and over in small ways. I wish to write music that will pierce people's hearts. Get them to pull their heads out. Quit being the demonic little destroyers they are for their selfish, self centered interests. To get through to their hearts that a greater love than selfish love is where they can literally find heaven on earth. I do not wish to write religious music. I wish to write to the masses what will get to their hearts.
I have no wish to profit from this. My unreachable star, my impossible dream, is that when I die. My music be released. It be a masterpiece that does what I intended it to do. Nothing in it for me.
My nightmare is that, when I die, my music goes straight in the trash, and never gets looked at.

I have a small lithograph from an artist I admired. He was really good. He told me. This stuff is nothing. A masterpiece is not created overnight. It takes years. An artist obsesses over the masterpiece. Wakes up at night putting little dabs here and there. He thinks about it constantly. His mind is so distracted by thinking about the masterpiece all the time, that he forgets what he went to the grocery store to buy. It has many coats of paint. Has many changes. Works on it for years...until...it is finished.
EDIT: Did want to add. This artist told me he turns out stuff like I bought to make money. He has to make a living. Yet, every artist has at least one masterpiece he is working on.

There was a young man who didn't particularly care for college. He didn't like the tests, time limits, etc.. When he graduated. He got a job. He made physics his hobby. Yes, hobby. That young man's name was: Albert Einstein.

For 25 years. I couldn't listen to rock music without becoming depressed. Too many bad memories. One song in particular really bugged me bad. Until one day I couldn't take it anymore and started singing that song. The more I sang it, the more I changed it. Until, it has become the song it is now. I am no longer depressed by rock. No problem with it at all. This is one of the things that went into making me think maybe I need to write music.

I have much to learn on piano. I think I have the right stuff. The right stuff to compose music. I can sing real good. Even though that was the last thing in my life I wanted to do. Singing is like standing naked in front of people. Exposing one's heart. Moreso that playing an instrument. To cover that heart in the slightest in singing takes away from it's beauty. It shows.

I think Sand Tiger was interested in what went into my comment on the ABF forum. I've tried to answer in a Readers Digest form as best I could.

Again...thank you as I always appreciate more input.
Posted By: Chris Goslow

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/23/13 04:59 PM

Originally Posted by Sand Tiger
What do you tell the beginner that has some basic knowledge of piano, and wants to start writing original music?

Hi, Sand Tiger:

Great question. Personally, I have always been a big proponent of improvisation. In fact, it is one way I write my compositions. Have you ever tried sitting at the piano and just making up music? I highly recommend it, even if your first efforts seem awkward or random. That is normal.

I work with students all the time and have them start to improvise simply by having them put their right hand in C position (thumb on C, pinky on G, each finger on a white key) and have them make up music using just those notes. It's a simple way to get started, and you can expand easily from there. Give it a try.
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/23/13 06:31 PM

Chris Glasgow and JoelW, thanks for the replies.

Rnaple, wow, that is some heavy duty stuff. I won't go into advice for your situation. I will share a couple of stories.

I recently ran into a friend who is another songwriter. He is doing his second CD, self publishing. My friend sees it as a legacy project something that he wants done, in part, so that his original music doesn't die with him. His first CD was when he moved to the Los Angeles some umpteen years ago. At that time, my friend's dream was to make it big in the music industry. To be a star, have a record deal and go on tour.

Like so many, my friend didn't make it. However, he did write some very good, though not so commercially popular music. One thing that he and I shared in our conversation is that music, especially writing and playing original music, got us through some dark times in our lives. My friend said that music saved his life. There is a power in it, even if a person doesn't get a huge audience. My friend will be fortunate to break even on this second CD, but he still wants it done. It is part of his legacy.

I have much less skill in writing, playing and singing than my friend. I can not even think to dream so big as my friend. However, I can still touch people with my music. I know I have. Some of my most rewarding musical experiences have been performing my penny whistle at memorial services. The simple haunting tones can have such emotional power.

There is no real point to my stories, just that my friend says that writing music saved his life, and even a hobbyist amateur musician like myself has found a way to touch people at a deep emotional level with a simple tune at a difficult time in their lives.
Posted By: rnaple

Re: Getting started, advice for beginners? - 02/23/13 09:47 PM

I appreciate the reply, Sand Tiger.
When I was in So. Cal. in November. My brother told me he had a friend at the country club he wanted me to meet. He had written a very successful song in the 60's. I met this guy. Yes, the song was extremely popular. I remember it. It was a great song. This guy stood in front of me and told me that he didn't make diddily off the song. The producer made all the money.

A few years back, my late father told me he had seen the movie; A Beautiful Mind. He said that John Forbes Nash reminded him of me. He said: You're always looking at things from a different point of view than everyone else. Yes, that's true. I have been smart. Also I've been very turned off by society. My father wanted me to become a businessman or lawyer when I was young. Forget music. Personally, I have more respect for a prostitute than either of those professions. At least she is honest with hersef. She has more integrity than either of them. I have gone through life just getting along. Not able to put my heart into anything. Doing a good job for others. Spending my life learning, discovering the answers to the toughest questions mankind has always asked. I am very happy now. I have my answers.
I do know that true intelligence comes from the heart. Original thinking comes from the heart. To memorize and regurgitate facts is not intelligence. That is a parrot mentality. To copy, is a parrot mentality.
When considering song writing. For the first time in 50 years of life I have thought I can do that. I can put my heart into that. Put everything I have into it. I don't have to compromise my own integrity, values, to do it. It's like a light went off in my head for the first time.
Like you talked about what we get out of music. That is the most important. Nobody could ever enjoy a song as much as I enjoy doing it.

Now I hope to keep reading experiences of people on this forum about song writing. I find it fascinating learning from all those people. Their experiences. Their trials, tribulations. I love learning.
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