Before you start your journey into the great world of composition there are two things to always remember;
- Being able to compose isn’t a ‘you have it or you don’t’ kind of deal. It’s a skill and just like any skill you improve the more you do it and the harder you work at it.
- Nobody is gifted.
Once you get these two things into your head your ceiling disappears. Beethoven had two normal hands, a brain and still wiped his arse with his right hand. Beethoven, Bach and Mozart had nothing that you don’t, they were only human.
The thing that they all had was determination and eagerness for composition, people commonly mistake this for natural talent but that’s bullshit, hard work and dedication is the only way.
“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.” – Mozart
Not everybody wants to reach that level of course, the Mozart and Beethoven level. You might want to get a YouTube channel going and get a decent amount of subs and views. I promise if you do what I say in this blog with persistence and determination you will 100% without a doubt achieve that.
I’m self-taught so throughout this I’ll be using my own made up terms but I’m sure you’re going to understand them.
Your Instrument and Getting Familiar With The Piano
For composing and uploading to YouTube, the easiest way is through the piano. So put down that flute, shove that oboe up yo’ ass. It’s time to get familiar with the piano. Your clothes will remain on for this.
You don’t need to become Franz Liszt on the piano, and you’ll find a lot of what you already know on your primary instrument you can transfer to piano. I started as a guitarist and moved over, you have a head start if you play another instrument. If not though don’t worry just head over to the piano.
You at the piano acting as douchey as possible, realising you’re greater than 99% of the population.
Although not completely necessary, I do recommend reaching a certain level of competency on your primary musical instrument. That’s not saying that a competent instrumentalist will make a good composer, or that a good composer needs to be a good instrumentalist. But it will help you, if we think of it like you’re a carpenter, your instrument is your tool belt and the better and more knowledgable you about your instrument the bigger and better the tool belt. Knowing a wide array of scales, keys and chords will help you massively.
Remember it’s not essential, you can play your instrument at just an okay level and still be a good composer. You can put that glock back in the drawer.
Composing and performing are two very different things, you will need to practice composing to get good at it, there’s no way around that.
Piano serves as your orchestra, you have all the registers at your finger tips, all sections.
Which brings me neatly to
The Three Levels of The Composition
There are three core ‘levels’ to a composition.
Base, Bass and Melody.
Back to the ol’ faithful carpentry analogy, similar to building a house you have to lay the foundations first (The Base) then you reinforce it (The Bass) then you give it it’s shape (The Melody) and from these things you build up to create your house
The Bass in the Red
The Base should be played the Yellow area
The Melody in the Green
There are a few more lesser important levels in-between these three but these are the core. Putting these three together a piece can be made, a basic formula that guarantees a working composition. (I’ll elaborate on this below)
You can file every instrument into these three levels.
Here are a few examples
- Cello ///
- Pizzicato Strings /
- Bass (duh) ///
- Double Bass (double duh) ///
- Bass Clarinet/Bassoon/Recorder Etc. /
- Staccato Strings /
- Piano ///
- Piano ///
- Strings ///
- Harpsichord ///
- Organ ///
- Accordion ///
- Guitar ///
- Horns /
- Harp ///
- Xylophone /
- Violin ///
- Piccolo /
- Oboe ///
- Pan Flute ///
- Flute ///
- Trumpet ///
- Saxophone ///
- Piano ///
- Voice ///
- Glockenspiel /
- Celesta /
Some instruments don’t have enough strength to carry a level.
E.g. Horns usually can’t carry the base. A bass clarinet alone can’t usually carry the bass.
/ indicates that the instrument is weak and usually unable to carry a level
/// indicates that it CAN carry a level. So now you know what those are there for scroll yourself back up there and check what’s strong and what isn’t, I’ll wait…
The instruments that are weaker tend to be better for creating harmonies or reinforcing the level by playing the same thing that the strong instruments are playing (doubling).
So applying this, if we were to make a piece that has
Bassoon in the bass, horns for the base and piccolo for the melody the piece would struggle, the levels would have trouble defining and establishing themselves, it would lack strength.
Whereas a cello in the bass, a piano in the base and a violin in the melody would have clear definition, each level would be easy to determine and this would give you a clearer and much stronger piece.
Piano is a strong instrument at all 3 levels, it will work well as a solo instrument with no accompaniment. So you can play piano on all three levels.
You do have some leeway with these levels, you can deviate and move out of them slightly, the melody can go into the base a bit and the bass can go into the base a bit too, some instruments (like the violin) are actually meant to be played in the base level but it more suited to playing the melody.
BASS BASE MELODY
Playing the melody in the base level instead of the melody level can only be done with a strong instrument. If a weaker instrument plays the melody in the base it will get lost or clash with the actual base.
An example of the three levels in the piano roll on Logic Pro X played by a solo piano (simultaneously).
Although this was played with only piano it could be orchestrated by playing each level with an appropriate instrument (this will be elaborated on in the arrangements section)
Putting your piece together
So you know what instruments you’re going to use for each level. The first thing you need to do is the base.
The base is a chord progression. Keep it simple, the more complex you make it the more complex the piece will get as you’re adding the other levels. Before you know it you’ve got something too big.
There are many basic four chord progressions. Some common ones are;
Example 1. Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj (I, V, vi, IV)
Example 2. Cmaj, Amin, Fmaj, Gmaj (I, vi, IV, V)
Example 3. Amin, Fmaj, Cmaj, Gmaj (i, VI, III, VII)
Example 4. Amin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj (i, v, IV, VII)
Mix it up if you want, but keep the start chord and end chord the same (or things may start to get confusing)
Keep it simple, stay in 4/4. Play each chord four times on the beat (count as you play or put a metronome on if you like, the steadier and more accurate you are with timing the easier it will be when you get to the other layers)
I started off playing in bands and I grew familiar with song structure and progressions. I structure my music similar to song. A basic song structure is Verse, Chorus, Verse (ternary form) thinking of pieces like this, in this ‘rock/pop song” way instead of thinking of them as classical pieces will make it easier and less intimidating to compose (and eventually you may start to see classical and other more complex music this way) which will help with learning by ear and if you decide to do arrangements.
The progressions above will work well for the chorus, for the verses you should have something less defined that serves as a build to the chorus. A two chord progression would work.
E.g. (this is for Example 1 above) play C major to Amin in 4/4 for the verse, it will work well as a build to the chorus, your chorus will contain the most memorable part in the melody level, ‘The Hook’.
Captain Hook, Earned his name from frequently dropping incredibly memorable and catchy tunes… and his penchant for hookers.
You don’t have to structure the piece this way, you could just do the four chord progression all the way through which is a lot easier. A lot of minimalist composers do this (Ludovico Einaudi, Yiruma, Yanni, Philip Glass.) But you will have to work harder in the melody level to keep it from being boring.
Don’t worry about originality. Everything has been done in some way or form. You can put an original spin and carry on from the greats and push the boundaries which could eventually turn into something new.
But you can’t just pull things out of your arse, it isn’t possible.
Beethoven based the 2nd movement of the Pathetique sonata on Mozart’s K457. There are identical passages in both pieces.
Look through the history of composition and music and you will see it in every era, the greats take from the previous greats. If Beethoven can do it so can you.
Once you accept that originality is impossible you will be a much more productive composer. You will start to develop your own sound anyway because of your tastes. You will be taking inspiration from a combination of pieces and songs that nobody before you has. Mozart never got to hear Rachmaninoff, Bach never got to hear Beethoven, Rachmaninoff never heard The Beatles. If they did who knows what we would’ve heard from them. You have a combination of influences that nobody else on earth has and that will make your music yours.
Now that you’ve got your base it’s time to move onto the melody or the bass. This isn’t Nazi Germany, you can choose which you want to do next.
Most pieces I will do the melody last. I do recommend doing the bass next though because it reinforces the base and will make it easier for you to play the melody over it.
After I said this isn’t Nazi Germany I’ve made the choice for you and next is the Bass.
What you can generally do for that bass, this will ALWAYS work. Is play the root note of each chord in the bass. The root note is the first note of the chord. So back to those examples. We take the first one Example 1.
Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj, the bass could be C, G, A, F. That would work just fine, just one note using a bass instrument (a strong bass instrument) and that could be it for the bass. A single root note bassline will work well to support the piece, but if you’re only planning on having three instruments (one in each level) it’s a good idea to put a bit more thought into the bass. Even if it’s moving to the next note in semitones, or mixing the rhythm up a little (syncopation) or maybe arpeggiating the notes of the triads in the progression for the bass.
The bass is sometimes called the second melody, having a hook in the bass can have a huge impact on a piece.
Also remember that the more complicated you make the bass the more difficult the piece will be if you decide to add more instruments. You will notice that it will start to clash with other harmonies.
Here’s where you can set your piece aside from others. The melody is the most important part of your composition. This is the part that people will remember, or what you want them to remember. It’s our goal to have people humming this to themselves.
Being observant is crucial to being a good composer. Your melody says a lot about you and your powers of observation. What is it that you like about your favourite music?
Why do you always sing the same songs?
Is there a common element in all of these songs?
There will be, it’s your job to find it. Most likely it’s going to be something to do with the melody.
People like to hum and sing along to melodies, we could guess why that is, probably something to do with a primal part of us. Call and response, babies mimicking their mothers, cavemen sat around copying one another, language. It’s in our genes.
So with this in mind, humans vocal abilities should be taken into account, even if you don’t intend to have this melody sung, the more memorable melodies are singable (May or may not be a word)
Try to avoid drastic leaps, semitones are easiest to sing, so keeping your melody close together and most of the notes only one note away from the previous gives you a good chance of creating a good, memorably melody.
People say to use your ‘inner ear’ for making melodies, but we can’t rely on that witchcraft bullshit because we have a schedule to keep on YouTube, people are demanding to hear your music so you better not be relying on that magical inner ear.
- Stay in the key of the chord progression. If you don’t know much about keys then just use the notes that make up the chords in your chord progression, it’s almost certain that all those notes will be in the key signature.
- Start and end on the first note of the first chord (root note)
- Don’t leap around, try to stay in one octave and make the transition from one note to another smooth by primarily moving in semitones.
If you’re going to do all three levels on the piano then you assign each hand to the levels. The left generally does both the Bass and the Base whilst the right hand does the melody.