Letter to a Young Composer

A French version of this letter is available here. There are also pdf versions in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and German.
I often get email from aspiring composers (usually, but not always young) asking advice about how to follow their musical dreams, how to find good training, how to deal with the music world, etc.
Although there are no simple answers to these questions, some things come up repeatedly, and I thought it would be helpful to write a letter with these people in mind. Here are my personal answers to these common questions.

Dear [X],
Your letter gives me a chance to write down some things I have been thinking about for a while, which I hope will be useful to aspiring composers like you.
You are beginning a fascinating adventure, there will be both bad and good moments on the way. I hope you enjoy the good times, and learn from the bad.
My own experience
I should start by telling you that my own experience as a developing composer is no model for anybody. I had some bad luck, and I also made lots of dumb mistakes, which meant that many things took me much longer than they had to. I’ll draw on a few of my mistakes as I continue here, in the hope that you can avoid them.
The first question you ask involves your training as a composer. Here I am going to take a very strong stand, because if you get this part right, everything else will be easier.
The most important thing to realize is that composing is first and foremost a craft. You have to become an artisan before you can be an artist. The sooner you forget the romantic idea of the artist as a divinely inspired madman, the better off you will be. No matter how much talent you have, without a thoroughly professional training, it will go to waste. That means a lot of time spent on exercises, whose goal is not to teach you a bunch of rules you read in some textbook, but rather to allow you to “make friends with the notes”. It is the experience of doing hundreds of little, focused compositions (which is what these exercises should be), which will eventually free you to do what you want. Part of this is learning what others have done before you, part of it is like learning idiomatic expressions in a language, and part of it is simply exploring countless situations, and discovering what works and what does not. The important thing here is that quantity counts. Learning music is not like learning philosophy, where you need to understand some core ideas, but rather like learning to do well in a sport: You simply must put in the necessary hours; there are no shortcuts. Of course, understanding helps, but it is not a substitute for practice, it’s a way to guide your practice. Unfortunately, learning these disciplines at a professional level is not practical without a good teacher; otherwise you will inevitably have big holes in your knowledge.
Here is a short summary of what you need to know in each musical discipline. The fact that you may have taken a harmony course unfortunately does not mean you know harmony. What matters is what you can do. In my opinion, the appropriate order of study is the one listed here. I do not include ear training as a separate discipline, simply because, properly taught, all musical disciplines include intensive ear training.

  1. Tonal harmony: You need to be able to do common, smooth part-writing, and very fast. If you cannot quickly and correctly fill in the parts to a chorale harmonization, fleshing out an orchestral score in a reasonable time will be impossible. Next, you need to be able to write a really solid bass line, which provides harmonic direction, and makes an effective counterpoint to the melody. These things are easy to say, but 90% of the students I meet, including those who have already studied music at university, cannot accomplish these two tasks satisfactorily. Finally, you need familiarity with standard tonal progressions and formulae: You must be able to play them at the keyboard, and sing them with ease. (A harmony course which is limited to writing is liking trying to learn to play the piano just by reading: nonsense.) More advanced work could include some more recent idioms (e.g. polyharmony, cellular harmony, stratified harmony, etc.). Minimum time normally required: 1.5 years.
  2. Counterpoint: Counterpoint can be begun after one solid semester of harmony. Long experience shows that by far the most common problem in counterpoint is a superficial knowledge of harmony. At a minimum, you will need to work through 2, 3, and 4 part species counterpoint, doing multiple versions of each exercise. Again, you must sing and play your own work; otherwise you have not really heard it. Counterpoint is best treated as a form of composition; the real criteria for judging your work are the same as you would apply to composing. Once the basics are mastered, you will need to expand into imitations, canons, invertible counterpoint, and instrumental counterpoint. Finally, a solid course in fugue will put it all into application. Minimum time normally required: 2.5 years.
  3. Orchestration: Orchestration can be begun after at least one semester of harmony and one semester of counterpoint. It cannot be completed until you are totally at ease with four part writing. You will need to absorb a great deal of practical information about instruments, in particular about what is easy, what is difficult, and what is impossible. The “normal”, idiomatic, writing for each instrument is hardest thing to learn. Then you will need to study how to differentiate and combine planes of tone. It is imperative to experiment, both with well done computer simulations and real instrumentalists. Once again, well taught, orchestration must include its own form of ear training. Minimum time normally required: 2 years.

Composition is an area apart. Most young composers do not want to wait for 3 or 4 years to begin composing, while they study the basics outlined above. So it is normal to compose before finishing the “craft” training. That said, it is axiomatic that without thorough training in craft, no composition can really be very refined. However many things can be learned while composing, even if the technique is not completely formed.
Another point: There are very, very, few serious composers who have not spent a lot of time learning to play an instrument. And I don’t mean two years of guitar study; I mean learning an instrument to the point where you can really perform in public, where you understand how performers feel and think, where the reality of musical performance is absolutely visceral for you. No amount of talk or reading will give you this, any more than reading a book will make you a great lover. Almost all the major composers in history have been at least respectable instrumentalists, and it is a real pity that this tradition has very much weakened, principally, it must be said, by the university system in North America. (You can’t learn an instrument seriously in just three or four years.)
A related observation: Most university music schools offer many analysis courses, but seriously underweight the doing side of things. There is a reason for this: It takes much more time, effort and experience to play and write music than to do analysis. There is nothing wrong with some analysis, but it is no substitute for actually making music. Again: a real, well rounded, musician is somebody who can play and write music, not somebody whose stock in trade is mainly words. Again, think sports, or woodworking, not philosophy.
One last word about the nature of this training: The final result should not be to pack you full of a bunch of “recipes”, but to show you what to demand of yourself as an artist. The conventional, known, solutions to common problems are only useful if you know why they work. In fact, this little word, why, is the most important tool in your musical education. A lot of things in music schools have been handed down for generations to the point where they have lost their original meaning. Usually there issomething meaningful behind them, but many texts and teachers don’t mention it. This is one reason for my online books: I spent so much time trying to discover the “why” of many basic things, especially when my first students asked questions I could not answer. Now I want to save others that lengthy search.
You will need to have a positive attitude about your own music, especially while you are a beginner: Your first pieces can’t be perfect. But it is very important to complete them anyway (you can always revise them later, if you want to). There is a kind of experience which comes with completing pieces which is critical to developing a good sense of form. The latter is the last thing which will develop in your craft training, because it requires working in longer spans of time than your first exercises will permit.
Nobody can teach you more than you can teach yourself. And your best tool for learning is listening, active listening. Keep asking questions. Why does this piece fail in a given place? Why does another piece succeed? What elements contribute to creating this mood so strongly? If you had to fix a defective piece, what would you do differently? Listen to everything openly, but once you have given it the benefit of the doubt, don’t be afraid to reject it if you still don’t like it.
By now you will be asking how to find and choose a good teacher. A good question, but not an easy one. Most teachers, by definition, are average. Unfortunately, in a very subjective field like music, “average” is not very good. So what should you look for in a teacher? (And I say “a teacher”, not “teachers”, because everything I have ever seen has shown me that one learns 90% of what one knows from one or two people. The trick is finding the right one or two.)
Here are some pointers:

  • Don’t judge them by how famous they are, or by how famous the school is. Not all good composers are good teachers; we are talking about two very different abilities. Teaching composition is also very personal, and you must have a good rapport with your teacher. Fame does not guarantee that. You have to meet them in person, and see if they make clear, specific, and constructive suggestions about your music. Note those three words: If the teacher is not clear, specific and constructive, at least most of the time, you will not learn much.
  • Listen to their own music. You don’t have to love it, or want to imitate it, but you must respect it. If you don’t respect it, you won’t enjoy working with them. Also, make sure they respect what you want to do. I started a degree in composition at a local university many years ago; the teachers there thought that my ambition to write symphonies was hopelessly out of date. They ended up asking me to leave the composition program, telling me I was not a “real” composer. (When I got accepted to do my doctorate in composition at Juilliard, a much more exclusive school, their faculty had a very different opinion!)
  • Watch out for ideology. While most teachers will say that they want all their students to find their own voice, in fact many will push you, often quite hard, towards certain modern composers they believe in, and will want you to avoid others who they think are on the “wrong” path. If your teacher wants you to accept that Stockhausen was a genius, and nothing by Stockhausen holds any interest for you at all, you are with the wrong teacher. You should listen widely, give everyone a chance, but if after a couple of hearings, the music still does not “speak” to you, you needn’t keep trying. I tried for years to make myself like and respect the European avant-garde of the sixties and seventies (when I was a student), but I never succeeded. I simply never just feel like listening to most of that music; if it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it. The music which is “in” today may be different (depending on the school), but the behavior remains the same in many cases. Be especially aware of some common errors of logic, typically used by ideologues to “prove” their points. For example: “Most great composers’ music was considered difficult in their time”. The incorrect implication here (even assuming the first premise is true, which is already debatable) is that because you find some new music difficult, it must therefore be great. Even surprisingly intelligent people sometimes spout this kind of nonsense. “Difficulty” is not a measure of musical quality. Words like “avant-garde” or “conservative” are clues pointing to ideological attitudes. It means nothing to say that someone is “conservative” without knowing what they are conserving: Some things are worth conserving; others are not.
  • Avoid teachers who spend lots of time talking about style, and have little or nothing to say about technique. A lesson should focus mainly on very specific technical matters, like whether your bass line makes sense, or whether you need two trombones instead of one. If most of the discussions is about aesthetics, or  being “modern”, all too often it just means the teacher has not much to say about specific technical things. In other words, they can’t teach you craft, because they really don’t have it themselves. I once showed a piece to a teacher whose comment was, “Nobody writes like that any more”. A dead giveaway – he was just talking about fashion, not my piece. Even for the advanced student, where occasional discussions about aesthetic matters may be appropriate, specific suggestions for particular passages are almost always more fruitful. It’s better for the teacher to say, “Try to find a more personal solution for this passage, it’s too reminiscent of […]” than “Your music is too conventional”.
  • Beware of teachers who emphasize abstract systems: This, again, usually means that they have nothing practical to say about music. What almost all of these systems have in common is that they are far removed from anything audible. If you spend a lot of time on things which are inaudible, you are wasting time, which should be used to make your music sound better. And no amount of abstract systematizing will make your music sound better, any more than building a boat using a recipe for chocolate cake will guarantee that it will float. In short: Stick to what normal human beings can hear.

Composing today
Contemporary music today is in upheaval; there are more possible choices for medium and style than ever before. Somehow, if you are serious, you will eventually have to find your own voice. What does it mean to “find your own voice”? An important distinction: originality vs. strangeness. It’s a plain fact that the number of composers in any era who are really, profoundly original, in ways which move people,is always going to be very small. Too often, a frantic search for originality ends up being an incentive to just make your music strange. It is not hard to be strange; the problem is that the number of innovations which really have any expressive impact is very, very, small. Your own voice will not emerge from cultivating such random oddness (which may also take the form of those fancy abstract systems which are still, at bottom, random), but rather from the combination of the music you love – your musical preferences, in short – and your acquired craft. If you are honest, you will eventually find a sound which is your own. Not by deliberately being “original”, but simply by writing a lot of music as best you can, and gradually distilling what is most your own. More important than seeking “originality” is simply looking for ways to make your music better, the way a craftsman is always interested in better tools and better methods. By far the most common weakness in poor music is what I call distraction: Various aspects of the music don’t contribute to the emotional effect, in fact, they may even contradict or weaken it. Usually this is because the composer has not really thought through how to use all the available resources, in a coordinated way. (Note that by coordinated I don’t mean linked by some abstract system, but rather things that audibly contribute to the effect on the listener.) To understand the tools in this way is a lifetime’s work. Knowing that a certain combination of instruments will blend in a certain way is one thing; knowing when it is the choice best suited to the musical character is quite another. Most composers are content with “OK”, rather than insisting on perfection. This is understandable, but if you don’t aim for perfection, you will not improve. And perfection at the deepest level comes out as a sort of emotional logic, which gives the music the deepest impact. This is not a matter for beginners, but if you listen attentively to great masters, it is everywhere in evidence. It is worth aiming at.
Such preoccupations – questions of emotional depth – are far more important to the serious artist than matters of style. It is almost impossible to discuss these things in academic contexts, but that does not lessen their importance; because something is not easily measured or systematized does not mean it is not important.
At times, most honest composers of “serious” music, especially if they are not part of whatever clique is “in” wherever they live, ask themselves: Why bother? You are writing music which has no large public, which some of your colleagues may not even respect, and where the rewards are few. There is no easy answer to this one. But I can say that “real composers” write because it is part of them, because they love the music they write themselves. In other words, they love doing it. If you are also a performer, you will have the pleasure of playing music (including your own) all your life. And nobody can take that away from you. Making music should be an activity which enhances your quality of life, and which allows you to share what is best in yourself. It is worth quite a lot of work to make that happen.
Career issues
Composers naturally want to get played. Think about it, though: To get played, you don’t need other composers nearly as much as you need performers. The first performer who wants to play your music should be yourself. If you are a good performer, presumably you will play with other performers. Write for these people; it is much easier to get performers you work with interested in what you compose, than to ask favors from strangers. Take the opportunity to learn from them as well. If they like playing your piece, they will play it again. If they don’t, you need to think hard about why.
Other composers can be helpful, indeed your own contemporaries can be valuable allies for arranging concerts, etc. But remember that they are also likely to see you as “competition”; there is some inevitable conflict of interest involved. This can be dealt with, but it requires a lot of judgment and tact.
A word about critics: Once you are a professional, a really constructive critic is the most valuable resource you can find. But beware! Constructive criticism requires knowledge, sensitivity, and generosity. The vast majority of music critics are far from being knowledgeable enough to be of any use; worse, many have definite axes to grind, and can therefore be downright harmful.
Money is a very legitimate issue: Being a composer of concert music is usually not a lucrative career. This is yet another reason to write only music you love. Possibly at some point, unless you are very lucky, you will have to decide what level of compromise is acceptable to you: Are you willing to write film music? Music for commercials? Would you rather teach, than write music which does not really excite you? It may even be better to earn your living outside of music, rather than spend your life not being able to write the music you love. Of course if your dream is to write, say, film music, then you are, in a sense, one of the lucky ones. It is still not easy, but if you do succeed, at least it can pay reasonably well. (Incidentally, film requires just as much or more “metier”, given that it usually must be produced very quickly.)
It’s also important to realize that success in a musical career is not the same as writing wonderful music. The former requires making contacts, finding ways to promote yourself, being a part of a musical environment. In other words, it is mainly a social skill. Writing wonderful music requires very different abilities; the two may or may not coincide. At least know what the real issues are. I realized this distinction much too late. As a result, I did not do much to promote my career when it would have had the most impact. There is nothing to be ashamed of in honestly promoting your own music, but you will need to learn to be socially adept, and to cultivate a very ambitiously entrepreneurial attitude. But these are big subjects in themselves, and I am not the best person to teach them.
It is probably better to realize right away that being a composer is not a path to wealth, or even to happiness (it’s no accident that so few famous composers were really wonderful, or happy people). To succeed in life requires wisdom. There is no substitute for understanding, in music or anywhere else. The subject of wisdom in life is a fascinating one, and there is lots to say … but it’s getting late. If you want to learn more about this, look up a book called “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”, and start reading!
Good luck!