Composing Language

Every time I see my composer son, he raves about and demonstrates some new tool in his repertoire: something about counterpoint, some chord he picked up from another composer, some skill understood in theory but finally mastered. And almost as frequently, he reports what he said to that day’s would-be composer who wants to get there without studying composition, or even basic music theory.

Recently he compared it to learning a spoken language. Some musicians learn by immersion; they might not be able to teach it or explain what they’re doing, but they are fluent. And the great composers thoroughly understand theory. Those who revise new versions understand the traditions especially well.

So I asked him, “How long do you think it takes to become fluent in composing language? Is the basic four or five-year Bachelor’s program enough? Does it take a Master’s?”

Drew said, “It depends on what you bring to the program and these two things.” He immediately revised that to three:

1) The frequency of getting your music performed by real musicians. Crucial.

2) The amount of music you expose yourself to.

3) Writing above that which ye are able. Being willing to stretch beyond what you already know will sound good.

You know what I’m going to say. It sounds strange to say there’s a writing language, a meta-language behind the language you think you already know because you’ve been speaking a form of it all your life. But to become a fluent writer, try his advice:

1) Get your work read by real readers. Blogging, writing groups, mentors, classes, editors, publishing!

2) Read great writers. Read their work and what they say about their work. (You don’t even have to like them both at the same time.) Subscribe to journals and magazines to join the tribe.

3) Stretch. Dare to flop.

As I write this, Drew is at the piano, playing with chord patterns. He forgot one:

4) Practice privately. (Journal! And that’s really number 1.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.


    1. Love it!

      Drew even exemplifies that one, teaching piano improv and explaining music theory to friends who don’t love it as he does.

      I find I’m asked to teach whatever I need to learn. It works!


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