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Composer’s Corner: Themes of Fireside

Hello, and welcome to Composer’s Corner. Today I present to you the themes of my last YouTube music animation, Fireside, a piece of joy and goodwill that fills every listener with happiness and purity of spirit. Sit thee down and take a listen…

6/8 time, B-flat major, the piece opens with the somewhat playful yet mysterious theme 1 on celesta:

This is repeated immediately with a counter melody in the clarinet:

Theme 2 then begins, with oboe and clarinet exchanging phrases:

In measure 6 of this of the melody, one can see that I have the IV chord descend to the iii chord rather than rising to the V again. I’ve been doing this quite a bit lately, using iii as a substitute for V. I may have only just started doing it last year, especially in Fairytale’s End. Love the sound of it.

After a repeat of theme 2, we come to a melody with a borrowed chord! I had heard film composers use these chords a lot, and if you’re listening for it, you can definitely hear it in quite a lot of scores, to the point that, in my opinion, it’s kind of cheesy and annoying sometimes. Two major chords, a major second apart. Of course, we could stay in key and just use IV-V, but what fun is that? If we start with the tonic I, we can descend to bVII (bah, I can’t figure out how to use a flat symbol with this font, the letter b will have to suffice). B-flat major to A-flat major in our case, like so:

Ah, how nice. The last measure is overlapped with a repeat, and then theme 4 begins:

Rather than changing chords every half measure, we only change them every measure here, providing some contrast to our previous themes. (Well, except in the last two measures. Having the chords progress more rapidly at the end of a theme is a common practice.) Also, notice the use of IV-iii again. Because it’s so good.

This melody is repeated with an overlapping counter melody:

After a repeat of theme 1 and its counter melody, we get a variation of theme 2 on piano (which Overture 4 does not make very pretty notation-wise, but what can you do…):

As dedicated and astute listeners may notice, I often employ triplets of some sort or another into my melodic variations, especially on piano. Because 3 is a magic number.

The orchestra then swells into a repeat of the original theme 2, which serves as the piece’s climax, but not before leaping up a major third in key (my favorite sort of sudden modulation), from B-flat major to D major. After this climax, we settle down again with a repeat of theme 4, but this time with a different counter melody (because the original counter melody broke its leg and had to be put down). This new counter melody goes something like this:

This is played by the piano, celesta, and piccolo, which all go nicely together, and the tune sounds especially nice with the timpani and tambourine accenting the half-beat, in my humble yet biased opinion.

By the way, check out my attempt at voice-leading in the cello and viola at this part:

Actually, I’m not really sure if it’s all that great or not, but as voice-leading is my weakness, I actually spent quite a bit of time on this part, simple as it is, and I’m pleased with how it came out. Of course, I’m sure a professional orchestrator could come up with something better. Here’s how just this harmony sounds:

I think it’s pretty OK… for me…

Anyway… After a repeat of this melody and counter melody (remember: ctrl+c and ctrl+v are among the greatest tools in a composer’s toolkit), we wind down with the oboe, the harmony once again shifting between two major chords a major second apart, I and bVII (in this case D major and C major), before shifting to V and ending on the tonic…

And thus the piece ends, leaving the audience to sit in a stunned and profound silence, having beheld much awe and wonder, before dabbing the tears from their eyes and thanking God they lived to experience such rapture… yes? Right? Yes? Maybe?

And such are the themes of Fireside.

In other news, due to some security setting my webhost must’ve recently changed, I can longer edit my “hanniwiki” mediawiki, where I keep track of my works. So at some point I’m going to try recreating the wiki with WordPress, which is much easier to work with and edit anyway. It’s become more and more powerful over the years.

I also recently uploaded a YouTube video about how to use my open-source MIDI animator:

If anyone out there ever actually uses it, let me know; I’d be interested to see what someone else might use it for.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I recently created a Letterboxd account, where I can keep a “film diary” of the movies I watch throughout the year; my profile is here.

Composer’s Corner: Chord progressions

Hello, and welcome to Composer’s Corner, where I say something about music and/or my composing process. Today I’m answering a question from Michael who writes:

I have a question about your use of chord progressions, from the first exercise you recommend.. [in this post] You said “So that was my method: find chord progressions that sounds good, write melodies for them, and vary the orchestration in different ways, all through trial and error.”

Can you elaborate on this. I’ve been working on this and what’s not clear is does one just repeat the chord progression over and over? or are there other chords mixed in?

I’ve found the hook theory website to be useful for studying chord progressions:

They say the most popular is I V vi IV. Would you give them 1 measure each which would make a total of 4 measures? And just repeat that over and over? When I analyze the chords in some songs I like, sometimes there is two measures of a chord and sometimes it’s just a half measure, etc. But I want to start simple.

I’m not able to “hear” the chord progressions in your songs. I think that’s something I need to work on. If I knew which chords were where, that would make it easier to understand. For most of my favorites on your first album I don’t think you’ve published the music. But if you can just describe a bit about which chord progression you used and how that would be very helpful.

Many thanks for the questions!

To answer the first part:

what’s not clear is does one just repeat the chord progression over and over? or are there other chords mixed in?

Either way. Some songs do indeed feature just the same chords over and over again. One of my first compositions, “The Workshop” (MP3 here), is just vi-vi-IV-V over and over. Another example is of course Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which is I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V over and over again. (Though I think he actually sneaks in an inverted I to replace the iii in some measures.)

Using the same chord progression over and over again may get monotonous, but one can add variety to the melodies and orchestrations. Pachelbel’s Canon manages to stay consistently interesting (in my opinion at least) because of the wealth of variety in the melodies. When I was just starting out composing, my pieces were a bit monotonous. But they helped me learn, and they were still fun to write! (Plus, there’s minimalism, a whole style of music dedicated to monotony! So it’s a subjective thing anyway.)

That said, my guess is that most songs feature multiple chord progressions to help spice things up. Maybe a chord progression for the verses, another chord progression for the chorus, and yet another for the bridge. They may be still be quite similar; maybe a few chords are just substituted for other chords, or they’re mixed around. After all, usually the style of music doesn’t change drastically between verses and chorus.

One common way to add variety is to start a new chord progression on a chord other than the tonic, commonly the V or vi, sometimes the IV. For instance, if you’ve been using I-iii-IV-V for a while, suddenly starting a new melody on vi with something like vi-V-IV-V may be quite interesting.

But, like I said, my first pieces featured chord progressions repeated over and over. It made things simple. I was practicing writing melodies to fit chords, so it was good practice. I wasn’t able to let chords and melodies inform the creation of each other until perhaps after a year or so of composing, after I got a feel for what sort of patterns I preferred.

They say the most popular is I V vi IV. Would you give them 1 measure each which would make a total of 4 measures?

Firstly, if you click on the examples on that website, you’ll see that that progression is often used as part of longer progressions rather than just by itself. But we can certainly use it by itself if we want to…

Anyway, to answer the question: Yep, one bar for each chord would work! Really, you can do anything you’d like, but one chord per measure or two chords per measure is very common, at least for the style of music I write. (Mozart, on the other hand, may go on the I chord for eight measures, IV for four measures, back to I for another four measures, then V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I on eighth notes squished into one measure; very different style!) As you observed in the examples, there can be a variety of squashing and stretching of the chords, but sticking to one or two chords per measure works fine for starting out. In fact, just one or two chords per measure is mostly what I still do.

Also, I typically write 8-bar melodies (which is probably the most common in modern songs). If I wanted to use just I-V-vi-IV, I’d probably double it, so it’s I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi-IV. Of course it also depends on tempo and time signature and what rhythm you’re using; Pachelbel’s Canon melodies sound like 8-bar melodies to me, yet the scores I typically see have them all squished up into two bars.

I also pretty much never end melodies on the IV chord; it sounds very weak and pop-music-ish to me. I typically go for I or V, and sometimes iii or iv. So I was actually curious to try this out and so I just tried writing two melodies for I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi-IV:

Ooh, that was fun! I might have to work that into a full piece, it seems kinda catchy to me…

So the first melody is a repeated 4-bar phrase:


And then to try it out with an 8-bar melody:


Just by trying that out, I found that in the last bar, it sounds (to me at least) pretty bad to end the melody on the root of the IV chord; sounds much better to end on the fifth of that chord (which is the tonic of the key) as I do in the first melody, or the third, as I do in the second melody (though that sounds a bit weaker to me). Anyway, just my opinion from some brief trial and error. (I could postulate some music theory reasons for why this might be so, but all that really matters in the end is how it sounds to me.)

So it definitely seems possible to write a short piece with just I-V-vi-IV repeated over and over… you’d probably just have to add in a V-I at the very end if you want to end on a strong cadence.

I’m not able to “hear” the chord progressions in your songs. I think that’s something I need to work on. If I knew which chords were where, that would make it easier to understand.

Yes, I think that can develop with experience and practice as you get familiar with how different chord progressions sound. Honestly, when listening to other people’s music, I often can’t hear the chords either, depending on what they are. I can usually hear when it changes, and if it’s major or minor (I reckon everyone can at least subconsciously, as it’s one of the driving forces of music), but to know exactly what it is in music theory terms, I need go look it up, or try playing it on a keyboard (and I’m not much of a keyboard player, so I’m usually too lazy for that). However, sometimes I can catch popular chord progressions, such as Pachelbel’s chords. And after I’ve been composing for a while, my ears will be a bit more sensitive to chords, but then my sense of them will fade away again. It would definitely be convenient to have perfect pitch for harmonic analysis! But, alas…

But if you can just describe a bit about which chord progression you used and how that would be very helpful.

An easy piece of mine to see the chord changes in is “Across the Kingdom”:

In this piece, all the chords are in root position, doubled in octaves in the cello and double basses. They’re just playing staccato notes throughout the entire piece, so basically anytime those two bottom lines move, it indicates a chord change.

So we start with the I chord, which changes at 0:20 to V (going down a fourth). Then up to vi, down to IV for a half measure, back to V for the second half of that measure. (Hey, lookey there, we got a I-V-vi-IV progression right there, hahaha, a nice coincidence!) The second half of the melody starts again with I, down to V, up to vi for a half measure, down to V for a half measure, and back up to I to end the melody on the tonic.

So (if I group half-measure chords into parentheses) the whole chord progression for that first melody is I-V-vi-(IV-V)-I-V-(vi-V)-I. And then it repeats along with the melody.

At 1:12, we have a new melody with a new chord progression, this time (I-IV)-V-(I-IV)-V-(I-IV)-V-I-I.

At 1:39, yet a new melody with yet a new chord progression. This chord progression is one of my favorites. (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V) This repeats with various 4-bar melodies, until…

At 2:34, rather than repeat the chord progression, we get a slight variation of: (vi-iii)-(IV-V)-(vi-iii)-(IV-V).

After that variation, at 2:47, we’re back to what we had before, (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V), until…

At 3:01 we go back to our minor variation, (vi-iii)-(IV-V)-(vi-iii)-(IV-V). This repeats until…

At 3:29, we’re back to (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V)… at 3:43, the key itself jumps up a major third, but the chord progression itself is the same, just in the new key. And we pretty much stick with this very same chord progression, until ending the piece on the I. (On a side note, I love shifting the key up a major third in between melodies. It always seems exciting to me.)

So that whole piece only has 4 chord progressions, the great bulk of it being that (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V) repeated over and over. I could write melodies for that chord progression forever.

As to how exactly I came up with those particular chord progressions, I couldn’t say off the top of my head. There’s always quite a bit of trial and error for me, and after you’ve been composing for a while, you start to get a “feel” for where your subconscious wants the music to go. I probably composed the first melody on the keyboard, then found chords for it that I liked, then sort of let my subconscious guide me from there. Sometimes it seems to flow from the subconsciously rather nicely; other times, I can be experimenting for hours and hours before I get something that I like. Many times, if you can come up with a melody in your head or on a keyboard, you’ll find that it naturally fits multiple common chord patterns, then it’s just a matter of what you prefer, how fancy you want to get, and how much time you want to spend exploring the possibilities. Just I, IV, and V cover all the tones of a particular key, so you could possibly harmonize any diatonic melody with just those chords. (Though that might get boring pretty fast, but you could. Mozart did it sometimes!)

When I was just starting to compose, I’d go searching on the internet for chord progressions to try from guitar tab sites and such. I also bought a couple “fake books” just for the chord progressions; those can be handy. And I like the website you linked to, Hooktheory. I hadn’t visited that site in a while; they’ve expanded quite a bit since I last visited. I still go scrounging around on the internet for chord progression ideas now and then. I’m trying to use more chords borrowed from other keys and more seventh chords, for instance. It’s always fun to find the chords to a song you like, particularly a specific part that you enjoy, and find out what exactly is going on there, and then try to use something similar in your own work.

OK, I hope that wasn’t too long-winded! Hope this helps!

(Composer’s Corner is sponsored by… Storybook Overture, a great album. Buy it today!)


Chromaticism in ‘Secrets of the Ancient Seas’

I recently posted my latest composition, “Secrets of the Ancient Seas”! Check it out:

I write in the description:

This began as another track inspired by my novel, but the rapid string arpeggios and spirit of the melodies quickly began to remind me of an adventurer braving the seas, so I continued down that path instead. I even threw in some wind machine for some atmosphere, a percussion instrument in Garritan Personal Orchestra I’ve been wanting to try using but never really had the occasion for. I think it works well in this piece.

My favorite part of this piece comes at the 4:22 mark. At first I meant simply to contrast all the melodic material with some more atmospheric material, perhaps only wandering arpeggios, but I couldn’t resist adding some melodic phrases along with them in the form of descending minor thirds. With the minor chords forming the harmony, these descending minor thirds sound, to me, very haunting and creepy. Almost the way a child calls out “Where are you?” to taunt hiding prey. The sound of being lost at sea on a foggy night, perhaps? Vaguely hearing the call of the deadly sirens in the distance? Anyway, I love how it sounds.

I also like what’s happening harmonically, as it’s more chromatic than my usual fare:


We start in the tonic of B minor, then continually progress through the circle of fifths, to F-sharp minor, C-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, and finally to D-sharp minor. From here, we go back and forth between D-sharp minor and D major (the relative major of B minor), a transformation Neo-Riemannian triadic theory calls an S transformation for slide, as the chord slides between major and minor keeping the third of the chord as a common tone (in this case an F sharp). I think the major chord sounds particularly refreshing there, as so many minor chords precede it. Finally we get C-sharp major seventh for the final three measures, which serves as a secondary dominant in B minor (as it implies a resolution to F-sharp major, the dominant of B minor). But first the passage repeats, and the C-sharp major seventh is just as capable of resolving to B minor (although this resolution perhaps does not sound as strong, but that’s OK, the stronger resolution comes after the repeat).

When we do resolve to the dominant, F-sharp major, the opening phrase of the piece’s main melody is echoed, but it sounds rather exotic and dissonant being accompanied with the dominant chord rather than the tonic, and the clash propels the piece forward to the main melody’s final statements.

Although this little sequence is hardly revolutionary at all (and so may not stand out to any listener), it’s certainly not the sort of thing I’d usually compose, so I’m rather pleased with it.

Also, at long last I managed to upload a truly 60 fps animation thanks to Shotcut, a nice free video editor that will now replace my need for the annoying Windows Movie Maker. It’s not a super-advanced editor, but it does what I need (sync audio and add titles), it’s free, and it doesn’t come with annoying limitations to try to entice me to buy some deluxe version.

My approach to music composition

A couple times a year, I’m asked something about my approach to composing music, such as how I learned or what books or websites I might suggest.

So what follows is a somewhat unorganized info-dump about my approach to composing music. I certainly don’t claim to be a musical expert or composing professional, or even very experienced. I know I have much to learn. But since people have asked, I know there’s at least a few people out there interested…

How I started composing

If you think about it, music, like talking, is something the human brain just starts “doing” naturally. When I was five or six years old, I enjoyed hauling around a tape recorder and improvising really awful annoying-sounding songs. A lot of children will improvise songs naturally. Of course, the structure of these improvised songs and melodies are sloppy and unrefined, but the point is that the seed of musical composition is an automatic subconscious process. It may be that some brains have more of a natural tendency to improvise music and rhythms than others, but I think the ability is there for all, as everyone has the natural ability to perceive music in the first place. The ability to improvise, then, is just the formation of a feedback loop. Anyway, I reckon if you remain in tune with that part of your brain (or perhaps try and develop it), you’ll have a sort of “musical engine” from which to work and gather inspiration from. With this, you can hear a melodic phrase and automatically “hear” in your head a possible way it might continue.

Even with this ability, which is really no more profound than being able to creatively construct a coherent sentence without thinking, getting that music out of the head and onto paper (or a computer, in my case), can still be very difficult, as it’s an entirely different process that usually requires much more thinking. But everyone is naturally musical, whether or not they develop the skill of composing, because music is a natural human phenomenon.

In fifth grade, some very basic music-reading lessons were part of the music curriculum. I remember the music teacher explaining whole notes and half notes and quarter notes, etc., using the example of an apple that continually gets cut in half. I was good at math, so this felt intuitive to me. And then of course there were the rhymes, like: “If you want to know the lines, just remember Every Good Boy Does Fine. If you want to know the space, just remember it spells FACE.” I never actually use these rhymes, though, because when I’m composing I really don’t care about the letter of a note. Anyway, a foundation for being able to read music was thus built. (On a side note, it was around this time that I decided I’d like to learn to play the keyboard proficiently. The idea of being able to simply play whatever music I wanted, to be in control of the music, really appealed to me. But after realizing how much practice it took, I didn’t care that much, and I still can’t do much more than pluck out a melody with a few fingers. Maybe someday… but probably not. I’m too interested in other things.)

When I was eleven or twelve years old, we got a digital keyboard that you could connect to a computer and record MIDI. I was interested in writing music for video games I would never finish programming (another long-standing hobby of mine). I had no experience playing the keyboard, save for those very basic music-reading lessons, but I didn’t care about that. So I improvised several horrible pieces, recording each instrument in turn, having no clue what I was doing. Here’s one of those awful pieces: The Toy. (1997) Wow, so beautiful.

I remember listening to music and thinking that the key to great-sounding music was that more than one note at a time were playing. “Harmony” was still a vague musical notion to me, and I had no clue what chords were, but just by fooling around on a keyboard, I began to tease out the basics of triads. So around the time I was in high school, I would write music by first coming up with a chord progression (though I didn’t know that terminology at the time) through trial and error, and then writing a melody for it. I kept everything to white keys only (everything in C major!) and found three notes that sounded good together (which will naturally result in all C major triads… except the diminished one… because that’s ugly… you will not find it in any of my early pieces). What made a melody sound good was simple: At any given time, it has notes that are also in the chord. Beyond that, you need only to listen to that natural improviser in your head and use trial and error. Where does it feel like the melody should go? Can’t decide? Well, how about this? How about that? Ah, I’m sensing it should go here… Rather than recording my keyboard performances, I began clicking notes into a MIDI sequencer, Microsoft’s DirectMusic Producer (which was for creating interactive music for video games and such; it was pretty cool, though I only used it for its MIDI sequencing capabilities). My earliest piece from those days: The Workshop. (2002)

So that was my method: find chord progressions that sounds good, write melodies for them, and vary the orchestration in different ways, all through trial and error.

A little later, I had a friend in the high school chess club who, in addition to always beating me in chess, was a genius prodigy piano player and a composer in his own right. Amazingly, he just happened to know what triads were. I showed him some of my work on the way to a chess tournament. He pointed out that in my piece Flight of the Dragon (2003) I used the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon. (At about the 2-minute mark. Gah, listen to that stupid stereo effect. Why did I find that interesting?) So just through trial and error, I had teased out Pachelbel’s popular chords! Although at the time, my response was something like, “Chords? What is this ‘chords’ you speak of? What arcane mystic secret is this?” And for the rest of the ride to the tournament, I got a personal lesson on the basics of triads: the difference between major and minor triads, writing them as roman numerals, the basic flow chart of what chords tend to lead to what chords, what inversions were, etc. While it took a bit of time to digest the new names for things (that diminished chord in particular baffled me), it all made sense, as it gave context to everything I had already been doing through trial and error! Woohoo! And thus my journey into exploring music theory began.

So that’s my long-winded little history of my composing origins. I’m not sure that little lesson on the basics of triads would have meant so much to me if I did not already have actual experience with them. So my biggest piece of advise for anyone who wants to try composing is this:

There is no substitute for practice and experimentation. You will learn the most by doing, by trying.

At least, that’s my opinion from my experience, for what it’s worth. And I think it applies to any creative act. I once asked a musician friend in college whether he was interested in composing his own works. He said something like: “I’m waiting until I learn how.” To which I thought: Then you will never learn. (Of course, I think the answer was really just ‘no’, but he didn’t want to say that.)

I’ve heard a similar anecdote about Mozart. It’s just a story, but it goes like this: A young composer asked Mozart, “Herr Mozart, I’d like to write a symphony. How shall I go about it?” Mozart smiled and said, “A symphony is a pretty big undertaking. Might I suggest starting with something small, like a sonatina?” “But,” the young composer replied, “you were writing symphonies when you were a child!” To which Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t ask anyone how.”

Anyway, my approach to composing hasn’t actually changed much since those early days; I still think in terms of chord progressions and melodies, and my style is very song-like. My musical “vocabulary” has expanded a bit, and my overall structures are less repetitive (I still haven’t tackled anything as large in scope as a symphony), but it’s still just chords and melodies. This can work fine, as all music can ultimately be understood in terms of chords and melodies, presented and orchestrated in different ways. (Digression: Some might argue that atonal music does not employ the use of chords and melodies. But of course atonal music is not music at all. It’s just crap. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. If someone plays atonal music in the forest and nobody hears it, does it sound good?)

Random composing exercises to try

About a year ago, someone on YouTube asked for advice about how to expand his composing skills, and among other things I suggested these exercises which have helped me, based on my basic chord-and-melody approach:

1) Compose a chord progression first, then compose several different melodies on top of it.

2) Take the chord progression from a popular song and compose new melodies for it.

3) (In case you haven’t already) Study music theory, learn the “lingo” and study how classical composers did things (this is of course an ongoing process… I’m only now beginning to understand how classical composers used augmented 6th chords, for example; just a few years ago it seemed like magic) (more on this in a bit)

4) Write multiple possible chord progressions for a single melody and try to figure why one sounds better (or at least different) than another.

5) Take a classical score (or MIDI) and just try changing things around. Change a melody here, shift some chords there, mute some instruments here, and just listen to the affect your changes create.

6) With a classical MIDI piece, listen to various instruments muted, and then on their own, and see how they contribute to the whole. And then try doing something similar in a piece of your own.

I saw the movie Amadeus for the first time as a freshman in high school which introduced me to Mozart. I was already interested in orchestras because of film scores (John Williams, woooo!), but Amadeus introduced me to classical music (and how similar to film scores it is). Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, there’s a scene near the end of Amadeus when Mozart dictates a composition from his death bed, and as he does we can hear each instrument individually, and then altogether. That scene had a profound influence on me because it broke the music down into parts, and while I had no idea what stuff like “tonic and dominant” were at the time, I remember thinking, “oh, I could do that!” (Not right away obviously, but I mean, I realized I could learn to do it by breaking things down into understandable pieces.)

Studying music theory

(This is all just my point of view from my experience.) In terms of the art of composing, I have found music theory books to be of no practical direct help at all. That is, they are not instruction manuals on how to compose, or even how to get started. They provide no framework for the actual craft. That’s not to say that they’re useless; they can certainly help. But they only help indirectly. They can help you to analyse and understand music in ways that you can then apply to your own compositions, but they’re not going to guide you through that process; you kind of have to figure that out yourself, for better or worse.

In this sense, there are no “rules.” You might say there are “guidelines”, but I’m not sure I’d even say that. Rather, there’s an analysis of common elements we tend to find again and again in the wide landscape of music, and music theory books survey the landscape, attempting to organize and give names to these elements and attempting to make sense of how they relate to one another and how they affect a composition. (For example, it’s not that parallel fifths are necessarily bad, it’s that notes that are a perfect fifth apart will tend to blend together, so if they move in parallel you’ll lose sense of their independence. Whether or not that’s bad depends on whether or not you care about keeping the voices independent.) Music theorists will sometimes disagree with each other. (Though probably not about the basics.) Really, I think music theory is an art in and of itself. It’s sort of an open subject, and you’re free to have your own opinions about why something works or doesn’t, or whether or not a particular way of analyzing something makes sense. It’s not like math, in which statements can be proven or unproven. After all, at the end of the day, all that matters is whether or not you’re pleased with the sound of your music. “If it sounds good, it is good.”

(For instance, a lot of music theory books will differentiate between a major key and its relative minor. I prefer to just keep my analysis in major mode with an understanding that the vi chord can act as a tonic.)

So, while I certainly recommend studying music theory, I’d also recommend not thinking of it as a substitute to actually getting your hands dirty and doing some exercises and experiments on your own. Without some actual experience with composing, music theory will lack any useful context anyway. You can become a brilliant theorist, but a lousy composer, and vice-versa. Music theory and music composition are certainly intertwined, but they’re ultimately two different disciplines.

What music theory should you study? Well, whatever you’re interested in, really.

(By the way, as you’ll see from my history, aside from plucking out notes on a keyboard, my musical foundation includes no instrument playing at all. I use the computer for my musical needs. So I don’t know what sort of music theory comes standard in an instrumentalist’s lessons beyond scales and reading sheet music (and chords for instruments that can play them), as that’s simply not my experience.)

You’d probably want to start with the basics, as reading a chapter about diminished seventh chords is going to confuse you if you don’t know what diminished and seventh chords are. So an intro to music theory will do; you just have to find the resources that explain things in a way you’re comfortable with. An “Idiot’s Guide” or a “For Dummies” book might work. (I don’t mean for that to sound insulting; I think those are actually quite good series.) Nowadays a simple Google search will serve you plenty of results, and there are plenty of YouTube lessons out there. My aforementioned friend in high school taught me a lot of the basics, but I also remember browsing websites and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory from the local library. I would say the basics would include:

  • How to read sheet music
  • Musical scales and keys (what notes are in, say, F major?)
  • Chord basics
    • Constructing chords (major, minor, diminished, augmented, sevenths, etc.)
    • Notating chords
    • Inverting chords
  • Tonic and dominant (and scale degrees in general for that matter, but tonic and dominant are special)
  • Cadences (authentic, plagal, deceptive, etc.)
  • The film Amadeus… just because it’s the best movie ever

Really, Googling the subject or reading a book on the subject will present you with the basics; they’re well established.

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to be proficient in even the basics to begin composing; I certainly wasn’t at all. I’ll say it again: I think it’s a lot easier to learn the basics when you have some experience, however simple it may be, to apply it to. Compose a bit first, get your hands dirty, then explore theory.

Beyond the basics, it’s really up to you what to study, if you even want to continue studying music theory at all. Personally, I think I have most of the basics down. (Though I’ll admit I don’t have everything necessarily memorized… quick, what key has four flats? I’d have to go look it up, or visualize a keyboard for a moment. An instrumentalist might have that memorized, but composing-wise, it really doesn’t matter. The answer is, ah… A-flat major.) I usually study harmony nowadays; I’d like to get better at voice-leading and counterpoint, and using chromatic chords, and using more inverted chords to spice up my bass lines, which are a bit boring at the moment.

Some books I’ve found useful

I have read none of these books cover to cover, or even studied any of them religiously; rather, I review a chapter now and then, pondering what it has to offer, and perhaps trying a few new things out in a composition or sketch. As I said before, I don’t claim to be an expert in any of this. Heck, that’s why I open these books in the first place! So here are some books I’ve found useful and/or am continuing to study.

Tchaikovsky actually wrote a nice succinct book on harmony called Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony. It won’t help you compose like Tchaikovsky, though, so don’t expect that. I was hoping he might have some insights into voice-leading, but he actually writes: “Theory can supply but a very general insight into the nature of the voices. It is for the students–provided he is sufficiently talented–gradually to learn and appreciate by diligent application all the finer points and peculiarities of free-voice leading — matters which cannot be laid down in formula.” Gah! Thanks a lot, Tchaikovsky! Still, I find it a surprisingly well-written guide, and I still have more to learn from its pages.

Tonal Harmony is a standard textbook on the subject. I bought an older edition used for far cheaper than the list price. I still refer to it now and then.

I don’t mind admitting that I think Arnold Schoenberg was a lousy composer with silly composing goals, but I have found his music theory books to be very interesting. He can get wordy though, with lengthy paragraphs that sometimes seem to digress into philosophy and such. Which can be interesting, but not necessarily directly practical. He’s got his Theory of Harmony, a beast of book, with long paragraphs aplenty. His Fundamentals of Musical Composition provides more examples and much less writing, and may be the closest book to a practical guide to composing that I’ve come across, as he actually talks about constructing phrases and themes and putting them together for a structured composition. Finally, his Structural Functions of Harmony provides… actually, I’m still slowly studying this book, but I think it provides some insights into the structural functions of harmony or something like that. The first few chapters alone I find to be interesting. For example, he differentiates between a succession and a progression of chords. I think he was onto something that a lot of books on harmony ignore or take for granted: chords do not exist in a vacuum; they indeed serve structural functions that it helps to be aware of.

Audacious Euphony: Chromatic Harmony and the Triad’s Second Nature is a pretty fascinating book. I’ll admit some of it is a bit advanced for me, but basically it’s about chord relations, and how it may make more sense to analyze some progressions not from a “tonal function” point of view, but rather from a… chromatic voice-leading point of view? I’m not even sure how to describe it. (See Neo-Riemannian theory, eg.) I actually did read this one cover to cover, though like I said, some of it was too advanced for me. But it did help me understand and think about chords and their relationships in new ways I hadn’t considered, and I love its various geometric diagrams that map out chordal relations (which you can see examples of on the cover). Quite a fascinating book.

The Study of Counterpoint is considered a classic, but beyond “avoid parallel fifths” I haven’t found much practical application for species counterpoint in general. I’m just not sure how to apply it to the melody-driven style of music I write. I’d love to know exactly how Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who supposedly studied the book, used what they learned from it.

Books on orchestration don’t help me much as I don’t compose for real orchestras; if I was ever hired to work on a film and they planned on recording a real orchestra, we’d have to hire an orchestrator. That said, my favorite book on orchestration is Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic Principles of Orchestration. His practical examples from his own compositions work just fine for digital orchestras as well. I spent time listening to each and every example he offered. (Partly because I was involved in a project in which I animated each and every example with a red line going across the score. What fun!)

A book on a theory of voice-leading would be nice to have, but alas, I have not found one.

Quick digression: I have not studied any books on melody for two reasons: Firstly, melody has always come pretty naturally to me (as it probably does to a lot of composers), so I rarely desired one. Secondly, when I was interested in the subject, I came up with my own theory, which I hope to write a book on myself someday, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog before. For now, I’d like to expand it into a theory of harmony so that I can write a computer program that will generate Mozartean symphonies. It can be done and it will be done, whether I do it myself or someone else beats me to it. Unless I die, slip into a coma, or remain as broke as I am now (which is a possibility (give me money)), we’ll have it in the next five years, ten at the most.

Another resource: I recorded a few episodes of a podcast on composing music called The Compose Pile. I wanted to make it a regular thing, but it was too much work for no real reward, but might be interesting for anyone who wants to hear me blather on and on about my composing process.

When it comes to actually studying musical scores, I would recommend diving in with a preconceived plan to study something in particular (after familiarizing yourself with some theory) rather than just reviewing the notes another composer chose. Maybe you want to study structure, or harmony, or voice-leading and counterpoint, or orchestration, or melody, etc. Just reviewing the notes without any plans or context might otherwise be a bit useless. (Maybe not; maybe something interesting will pop out at you, but it doesn’t happen often for me.) Unfortunately scores are really designed for easy reading by performers on instruments, not really for composers looking for patterns, so it can take practice and experience. It always takes me way too long to analyze harmonies, and I particularly loathe transposing instruments. Still, it can be good practice. There are plenty of orchestral scores of symphonies and such to buy, which you can find by Googling. The International Music Score Library Project has many public domain scores available for free, and the Digital Mozart Edition offers the scores to most of Mozart’s work. (Because Mozart is awesome.)

Another short digression, but some good books related to the meta-subject of teaching oneself something include: The Genius in All Of Us, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar, The Little Book of Talent, and Mastery. Awesome books, especially if you ever have any self-doubt about learning any art. It’s all a process and it all takes practice. There’s really no such thing as “genius.” (Or, at the very least, it’s a label we use to praise others rather than some life-long self-condemnation of forever lacking a skill when what you really lack is motivation. I’m always bit annoyed when people claim to lack a natural talent for something, as if that’s all it ever takes. No, you’re not un-gifted, you’re lazy. Get to work. It’s like that stupid line from Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s cursed with awesome character claims that Beethoven and Mozart looked at a piano and “could just play.” It’s a stupid childish romantic view of intelligence. It’s complete nonsense and does a horrible disservice to anyone who wants to learn something new. (Sorry, I really enjoy ranting about this subject.))

Music theory classes?

Should you study music theory in school? Like I said, it’s really a different discipline than composing. Anyway, it’s up to you. I never did and I’d never want to. I don’t learn well in that sort of environment. I loathe tests and quizzes and assignments. Some people like that sort of structure, but personally it just makes me stressed, and turns the subject to be studied into a chore. I much prefer to guide myself. (That said, if I could afford a personal tutor, I wouldn’t mind that, but I would probably fail miserably in a classroom setting.) At the very least, I would say it’s definitely not something you need. You can certainly learn to compose without ever studying music “formally.” After all, in the end, composing is a skill you develop, not a set of formulas from a textbook, and that development is going to happen outside of the classroom and over many years anyway. Even if you take a “formal” class, there’s really is no such thing as studying any art “formally”, because you will have to develop the skill on your own, through your own efforts.

Collecting melodies

Sometimes melodies flow from my subconscious more easily than other times. Usually after I’ve been composing for a couple of hours, I’ll be able to hear that subconscious improviser more easily than when I first begin. So to help me get started writing new pieces, I usually begin with a melody that I already have written. (Not always; with a bit fooling around, I can always compose a new melody from scratch, thank you very much, but a melody already stashed away can save time at the start.) So when I’m not composing, I stash away melodies that either pop into my head randomly or that I pluck out on my keyboard with a bit of fooling around. I have a keyboard beside my computer desk (yeah, I’m not professional enough to have a keyboard actually on my desk, as I click in my notes), which helps establish the habit of fooling around with melodies now and then. To save melodies, I usually use my smartphone, a super handy device for this sort of thing. I either record a video of my hand playing the melody, or I use an Android app called Musical Pro to record a little MIDI file. (Unfortunately I don’t see the app available anymore… gah, who does that, releases an Android app and then removes it? *cough*)

So if you have a quick and easy way to record melodies or phrases that pop into your head at random times, and/or make it habit to sit down and play around on an instrument for ten minutes a day, I think it’s a great habit to get into and can give you something to work with when you sit down to compose.

(By the way, though I mention melodies “flowing from my subconscious”, I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that they flow out fully-formed and perfect. Sometimes they actually do, but many times I will continually tweak a melody over and over again to get it just right, to find something that not only sounds pleasing and natural, but something that really elicits an emotion from me. Sometimes I’ll have to take a break and walk away from it for an hour or so and come back to it with fresh ears. Sometimes I’ll even scrap the whole melody and try something completely different. It’s very easy to write a dull melody, one that technically works but just doesn’t pull me in. (Though what makes a melody sound ‘dull’ is of course subjective.) I try never to settle for dull. I want something that will really evoke a feeling from my gut, even if no one else will really hear it but me, something that I will want to listen to again and again, even if I don’t have the ability to breathe the life into it using my computer that a live performer would. So this can mean a lot of tweaking and trial and error, over and over. There’s no substitute for it. It’s part of the process.)

Digital orchestration

Software that I use:

I still use Overture 4 for composing and rendering my pieces. Looks like Overture 5 is out now, but I haven’t bought it yet. Can’t afford it at the moment, but it looks nice. Anyway, I’ve found Overture 4 to be fantastic at combining the ability to compose using notation, yet retaining the ability to edit lots of MIDI data. I love it.

I don’t use that many sample libraries; they’re just way too expensive for me, and I’m too pure of heart for pirating. (By the way, if you hope to make lots of money, composing digital orchestra music is not a great source of income. At all. (Give me money.)) For sounds, I’ve been using Garritan Personal Orchestra since 2004. Again, it looks like a version 5 is out, while I’m still using version 4… anyway, for it’s price, it’s most certainly the best orchestral sample library out there, in my opinion. I use some of Garritan’s other libraries for other instruments. I also use Anthology: Celtic Wind from time to time for its beautiful whistles.

I tried EastWest’s ComposerCloud for a month and really liked it, but can’t afford it at the moment.

Reaper may also be worth looking into. Looks very nice for its price.

Finally, I think RapidComposer is pretty neat. It’s a bit too expensive, and was a bit too buggy for me when I tried it, but I like the concepts behind it.

I think that’s all… for now…

That’s enough blathering from me for today, isn’t it? I hope this is helpful or interesting to some people out there! I guess for me it mainly comes down to three things: Chords, melodies, experiment. Lots of other little things to consider, but those are the main elements of my approach to the craft. Find some chord progressions, write some melodies, and continually practice and experiment with orchestrating them.

Good luck!

Let us end with a prayer… “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music, and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote…” Wait… I don’t think things went so well for that last person who prayed like that… let us not be so vain.

Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!