Becoming a composer all starts with the music, but here are many aspects outside of the music itself that are essential. To become a composer, is to harness and facilitate the creativity within you, through various means of invoking inspiration, and letting it out through writing music. Every composer does it differently, but ultimately it’s about writing constantly and seeking out that inspiration. Many composers are asked, “What comes first when writing music?” The thing is it’s almost always different. But there are a few things to know that can help you work more efficiently when the creativity comes.
Understanding music theory is a valuable tool as a composer. Every type of music has fundamental characteristics that make it what it is. Music theory teaches you how to read, write, and understand music. It gives you the tools you need to hear music and decode the information your ears are taking in. A studio musician once told me, when I asked him how he adapts to the different styles he’s sometimes asked to improvise in during a session, that when he listens to different music he picks up on the little nuances that make that music sound the way it does and stores that information for later use. In other terms, he develops the understanding of what's going on within music because he knows the language, and it helps him to know how to compose for a specific style. Music theory is the foundation of the language we call music.
Understanding the instruments:
It’s important to know what the instrument or instruments you’re composing for are capable of doing. It’s important to know the playable range so you don’t compose outside of the instruments range. Another thing to know is if they are transposing instruments, and if so, what their music clef is. For example, a French Horn plays in the treble clef and sounds a perfect 5th lower than what’s written. So, to play a C note you would want to write the G note above the corresponding C. Having an understanding of the instrument you’re composing for is a skill that can display a sense of refinement as a composer.
Form in music is the organization of the sections of music. One example is ternary form or ABA. An A section is where the theme is heard, then everything changes to a contrasting B section, then comes back to the A section. Music form has a similar concept in more westernized music, like the genres of pop, rock, and folk. Except, its sections are more commonly discussed as verse, chorus, or bridge. Every song has a form. Next time you listen to a piece of music listen for when things change or repeat and see if you can find the form. Even if you're progressive with your writing and fabricating your own form, it’s good to know how other styles use form. Remember Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Think back to the 10,000-hour rule. The more time you spend practicing, writing, and even making mistakes the more you will learn. We all have those days where it’s just not your best day. Write anyway. You never know when down the road you’ll hit a writer's block and some snippet you came up with months ago will spark inspiration. As a composer, the hardest thing to do is keep something you feel is a lost cause. It could be a melody, lyrics, or an instrumental fragment. Never throw away anything. The idea of a composer isn't about a dominating mindset to create a masterpiece, as much as it is to dig deeper into your processes of composition.
These key points have so much depth. As a composer, it’s a continuous discovery and understanding process. These points are important as guidelines, but it’s up to the composer on how these pieces work together. Remember not everything has to be thought of as being a masterpiece. The more you write the more you will learn. To get some hands-on advice, don’t forget about songwriters nights or composition internships. These are valuable, skill-building opportunities, not only to learn more about the craft, but also to hear what others are doing. It’s a great way to cultivate creative influence, and even inspire you to write music.